Hitchhiking across the American South

Hitchhiking is not dangerous

Despite widespread belief, hitchhiking has historically been a safe means of transportation that has gotten a bad rap due to a few isolated incidents. As it turns out, most drivers who pick up "thumbers" aren't axe-wielding murderers. Hitchhiking is widely popular in Europe, South America, and other parts of the world. Even here in the United States, a form of hitchhiking, dubbed "slugging", is a popular form of "instant carpooling" for professionals and government workers around Washington DC. It just makes sense for empty cars to pick up pedestrians (including both travelers and locals) who are going the same direction. It's a very efficient use of space and far more environmentally friendly than hailing a cab.

The first ride I ever hitched was in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2009. I was traveling with a German girl and we hitched a ride from the beach back to town with two friendly local surfers, who were surprised (and excited) to pick up foreign women. In spring of 2016, a female Mexican friend and I hitchhiked during a whale watching road trip in Mexico along the Baja California peninsula. We turned down rides from groups of men (who very well may have been harmless), and happily accepted rides from young Mexican couples on vacation and retired Canadians who had plenty of room in spacious RVs. This spring, I hitchhiked across Cuba, hitching rides on trucks, farm tractors, and horse-drawn carts. I was even snuck onto workers-only buses to exclusive beaches and hotels a few times.

 The Navy vets who picked me up in Louisville because "I must have a lot of balls to be out here on my own"

The Navy vets who picked me up in Louisville because "I must have a lot of balls to be out here on my own"

 One of many white guys that picked me up in Kentucky and Tennessee

One of many white guys that picked me up in Kentucky and Tennessee

Hitchhiking in Kentucky

This summer, I finally had the courage to hitchhike in my own country. I found myself in Lousiville, Kentucky wanting to get downtown to visit the Muhammad Ali Center. It was 3 miles away along a main road that I happened to be standing on. I was quite sure that many of the cars speeding past me were heading the same way and despite being a bit embarrassed, I held out my thumb. I had successfully hitchhiked in Cuba dozens of times a few months previously and I saw no reason why these empty cars couldn't spend 10 seconds to pick me up and drop me off somewhere along the route they were already driving anyway.

Some people ignored me completely but most looked at me in disbelief. They had probably never seen a hitchhiker, certainly not one in the middle of the city. A few people smiled and gave me the thumbs up sign and one guy shouted at me to get a job. Why did he assume I didn't have a job? In fact, how do I even know that he had a job? Fifteen minutes later, a large truck with a Navy veteran license plate pulled up and two friendly Navy vets offered me a ride downtown. Apparently they picked me up because I "must have a lot of balls to be out there on my own". The guys served in the Navy together and had reunited that weekend for the first time in 17 years. They were funny, interesting, and had loved hearing my travel stories. We exchanged numbers and they text me over the weekend to see how my adventure was going. Later that night, I hitched a ride just over a mile to attend an outdoor play. The driver, a young Indian man, turned out to be an Uber driver. I wonder if he thought I was hailing a cab.

Hitchhiking to Tennessee

Not only is hitchhiking unpopular in the United States, it's especially uncommon on main streets within major cities. Louisville residents looked at me like I was crazy (and perhaps I was!) On Monday morning, needing to get to Memphis, Tennessee. I visited the Greyhound bus station, which was charging just over $100 for a very indirect trip that would somehow take over 10 hours to go 379 miles. This seemed absurd and knew that I could get there faster for much less money.

I walked less than a mile to the interstate and half an hour later, a black woman in her late 30s picked me up. She had an infant in a car seat and yelled out the window "Girl, get in!". She drove me about 15 miles, led us in a prayer to ask Jesus to look over me during my travels, and dropped me off at a busy on-ramp. Fifteen minutes later, a white male trucker in his 50s picked me up and dropped me off at a truck stop. I walked from truck to truck but everyone seemed to be heading north and east. I needed to head south and west. I sat down in the shade at the entrance to the truck stop and a half hour later, a white guy in his 40s rolled down his window and called "What on earth are you doing? Do you need a ride?" Though he planned to take me 30 miles, I had him drop me off sooner, as we passed a large rest stop and information center that I thought would be a good place to snag another ride.

 The Chinese family of 5 that picked me up at a Tennessee rest stop

The Chinese family of 5 that picked me up at a Tennessee rest stop

 "You're my first hitchhiker! Here's some sunblock!" in Tennessee

"You're my first hitchhiker! Here's some sunblock!" in Tennessee

My Hitchhiking Strategy

I thought hitching a ride at a rest area would be easy because so many cars are already stopped, thus don't need to slow down and pull over. Given the sheer number of travelers passing through on their way to major destinations (like Memphis!), I as surprised how hard it was to get a ride. All the couples and families I approached looked at me with doubtful eyes and after an elderly man agreed to give me a ride, his wife scowled and informed me they would not be giving me a ride. I was initially avoiding families with children, as I would never pick up a hitchhiker if I had my niece and nephew with me. After a half hour of no luck, I approach a Chinese family of five on vacation who surprisingly welcomed me into their van and took me to Nashville. I wondered about the relation to the white male driver in his 50s but I didn't ask.

Less than 5 minutes after the Chinese family dropped me off at a supremely terrible location (an on ramp on an empty street - no stores, no gas stations, no restaurants), a friendly white guy in his 30s picked me up. "I can only take you a few exits but I can drop you at a better location." Brilliant! It was his first time picking up a hitchhiker. He asked where I wanted to be dropped off, and given the 100 degree temperature and hot sun, I requested anywhere in the shade. When we stopped to let me out, he pulled a bottle of sunblock out of the trunk and handed it to me. Score! Five minutes later, another white guy in his 20s exhibiting a solid hippie vibe, pulled over and jumped out screaming "Come on! I've got you!" He was heading to Memphis and had benefited from so many hitched rides in the past that he was happy to pick me up to "up his hitch karma." He was the only person I offered money to but he refused to accept it. In fact, instead of dropping me off next to the off-ramp, he drove me downtown and dropped me at my final destination. Instead of spending $100 for a 10-hour trip, I made it to Memphis in just over 6 hours without spending a penny.

Hitchhiking from Memphis to Nashville

Catching a ride from Memphis back to Nashville proved to be a bit harder and I will admit to having slightly hurt feelings when a man yelled out "freeloader!" in a nasty voice. Two men said they could give me a ride to Nashville the following day if I hadn't yet found a ride so we exchanged numbers. Both would go on to call me that evening, asking if they could take me out to dinner in Nashville or requesting I visit them next time I was in Memphis. The friend I was visiting in Memphis dropped me at an on-ramp and looked after me for half an hour before having to leave. After an hour, a young white woman in her early 30s picked me up on her way from Oklahoma to North Carolina. She first took me to the home where I would be staying and after dropping off my bags, she drove me downtown before heading back on the road. She also gave me a small bottle of sunblock and we exchanged information to keep in touch.

 "Get in! I got you!" he screamed, attempting to "up his hitch karma" outside Nashville

"Get in! I got you!" he screamed, attempting to "up his hitch karma" outside Nashville

 This girl picked me up in Memphis on her way from Oaklahoma to North Carolina

This girl picked me up in Memphis on her way from Oaklahoma to North Carolina

Why People Picked Me Up

Men are typically perceived as being more dangerous than women - and for good reason! - so only offering/taking rides to/from women can reduce risk but also seems unfair. Most rides I was given in the South were from single white men and several of them told me they had never picked up a hitchhiker and only picked me up because I was female and it seemed safer. Nobody told me they picked me up because I am white but I am quite sure that my black and Latino friends would have had much more difficulty hitching a ride. In fact, several of them bluntly told me that they don't think they would get picked up.

As someone who primarily travels by bicycle and public transportation, I haven't had too many opportunities to pick up hitchhikers. The two times that I did, was on a road trip with a German guy from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, California. Both men proved harmless but less-than-ideal travel companions so in the sake of fairness, I will also describe those experiences. After dropping off one at a gas station (where he would hitch another ride), he asked for money to buy food. We gave him a few bucks because he seemed down on his luck (we think he may have just gotten out of jail). The second guy seemed legitimately crazy and began talking nonsense and inventing wild conspiracy theories. Both my German friend and I were a bit alarmed but didn't know if kicking him out early would set him off. As such, we dropped him off where he requested.

Upping Your Hitch Karma

I'm not going to tell you that hitchhiking has no risk. There's equal risk on both sides. The hitchhiker could be robbed, abducted, or assaulted. So could the driver! I try to look for the good in people and I'm truly saddened that we're often too afraid to help the people around us. In New York City, we don't even stop when someone says they want to ask a question because we're afraid they'll ask for food or money or "try to preach" to us. I have taken so many risks in my life in the 18 years that I've been traveling alone as a woman, usually with just a backpack, through Mexico, Guatemala, Egypt, Turkey, Cuba, Jordan, Colombia, Peru, Malaysia, and a handful of other countries. I'll admit that I've run into a few problems (usually with entitled, overly aggressive men) but I've also faced that at home in the United States. And for every bad situation I've encountered through my risk taking, I've benefited from 10 amazing interactions with generous, kind people who opened their cars and homes to me and took the risk to help a stranger. I truly believe it's made me a better person and it's given me the courage and the desire to return that kindness in the world. So why not up your hitch karma and give a ride to someone or even consider opening a Couchsurfing profile to host travelers in your home!

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