Why we pick up hitchhikers

April 30, 2013 in Inspiration, New Zealand, Oceania, Travelogue

Family Travel New Zealand

I’ve heard that one shouldn’t pick up hitchhikers…

I’ve heard that it can be dangerous.

I suppose that’s true, in the same way that one shouldn’t visit NYC because it’s dangerous too. I wonder what the statistics are… I’ll bet money visiting NYC is far more dangerous than picking up hitchhikers… but that’s just my guess, having done a liberal amount of both.

I was raised picking up hitchhikers and strays.

It’s my Dad’s fault. He often brought young people home for dinner that he’d collected on the ferry boat. Or driving long distances in the middle of nowhere. There was this one time that he picked up some “kids” that were with us for three days in our camper. He gave them my bed. I had to sleep with Josh. I didn’t love this. Her name was Becky. She made chocolate pudding with me one afternoon while we were parked in a junk yard in Utah somewhere.

Someone asked recently what our “rule of thumb” was for picking up hitchhikers.

My first response was… “Um… if they’re walking, pick them up?!”

Then I asked the kids and it just got funny. Here are their responses for criteria to measure a hitcher’s pick-up-appeal:

  • Do they look like they have real backpacking bag and are going somewhere?
  • Do they have instruments? How many? Do they look well loved? Are they playing them roadside? (guess who’s criteria this one is?!)
  • Do they look hungry? (we love to trade a meal for stories!)
  • Can you smell them before you stop? (Ezra says this is a reason to take a pass. He also suggests a “scratch and sniff” test before letting them in.)
  • Are they signaling to ten friends in the bushes (We’ve picked up four at a time, but that’s pretty much our max)
  • Do they have a good hats? A good hat is a plus. A well traveled hat guarantees a ride.
Our “rule of thumb” is to trust our guts.
There are people we don’t pick up. People who look “shifty.” Folks who don’t look like “real travelers,” takes one to know one, I suppose. People who have a certain “look” that says something other than “I’m on an adventure!”
But here’s the thing: almost all people are interesting folks, doing their best to get by who have some fantastic stories to tell. We choose to bet on the overwhelming odds in favour of humanity and extend kindness at every opportunity, even to hitchhikers… especially to hitchhikers!
We haven’t hitchhiked on purpose with our kids (6 is a lot of people to try to get picked up!) but we’ve had people stop and collect us anyway. We’ve thrown kids and bags into the backs of more than a couple of vans over the years and I’ve ridden my share of pickup truck backs around the mountains around our lago in Guatemala. We know what it’s like to have someone pull over and lighten the load for the afternoon. It’s a good feeling.
Of course someone is going to quibble and remind us that one person got slashed by a hitchhiker on some remote road in Montana twenty years ago and how would we feel if that happened to us?? Pretty bad. We’d hate that forever. But we’re not going to pin one great evil on the chest of the entire human race. That just doesn’t make sense. Besides, there are six of us, there’s safety in numbers.

Snapshots of some of our hitchhikers:

  • German kid who had been camping in the woods for 42 days walking the North Island of NZ. He figured if he got ticketed for camping illegally it would work out to about $5 a night, completely worth it.
  • Four kids within 300m on the same road, not traveling together, but they piled in nonetheless and played cards with the kids, from Belgium, France and Germany, collectively.
  • Richard Decal, molecular biologist on a long brain reboot before diving into his PhD. I interviewed him for Boots-N-All… stay tuned for his fantastic story.
  • A kid from Texas with a Tilley Hat. A Tilley is always a good sign.
  • A couple from Germany, we talked about cycling in Europe and their plans to take a sabbatical and travel one year out of every four.
  • A guy who reminded us of “Chris in the morning” from our old favourite TV show, Northern Exposure… arrogant cuss, he’d been traveling 15 months and thought he should get some sort of award for that.
  • A cyclist from Spain. Lois and I picked him up on our road trip across America a couple of years ago. He gamely climbed into the bus with 11 kids under 15 and helped us sling PBJ sandwiches like a champion all over Yellowstone National Park. Cyclists are always good people! 😉
  • Four kids standing at an intersection in New Mexico. There weren’t enough seats in the van for them, besides that, they did NOT pass the scratch and sniff test, but they were playing music and laughing together, so we went and bought them a big lunch and dropped it off; the next best thing to a ride.
  • An Irish girl Tony picked up on the boat (by accident, he thought she was someone else) who hung around for weeks, taught music and became a good friend.
  • A whole whack of mennonite kids who became chosen family because they got off of a bus and looked lost so we invited them to eat with us and then took them on our boat.
We’ve met some fantastic people standing roadside with a cardboard sign. It takes a certain amount of moxy and faith in humanity to be on the other side of that sign too. After all, we could be axe murderers just waiting for a tasty morsel of traveler flesh to dismember in the back woods.
But then we’re not, are we? …And neither are they. They’re just travelers on a path that serendipitously crosses ours on a given afternoon.