Winter struck again and again this year. Like Freddy Krueger. Surviving the horror show makes signs of spring that much sweeter to see.
I noticed something on University Avenue that was even more remarkable than the receding snowline. A hitchhiker. At first I thought he was just another student caught in the no-space between construction fences and potholes. I looked again. He was thumbing a ride! Old school!
All at once the pleasure I took in seeing a dude hitchhiking was run down like roadkill. He ain't gettin' a ride, I thought. I'd bet a paycheck on it.
Of course, for all I know he was headed to Iowa City, and he's there now. Not friggin' likely, though. Hitchhiking is dead. It's hard to say which came first, drivers who no longer pick up hitchhikers or people who no longer hitchhike. But I bet you couldn't fill a booth at the Rathskeller with college students who have even once thumbed a ride.
It is what it is, but it's too bad. A whole generation and, it seems, generations to come will miss out on one of the defining legs of the American journey.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, hitching for me was an aerobics course in expectations. It began with an act of sheer positive thinking, a belief cast in blind faith that complete strangers, traveling in their own arc, would enter my life and take me further on.
There were therapeutic benefits to hitchhiking. Mental-health strategies that people actually pay professionals to learn. Hitching required patience. It demanded you slow down your pace, accept that you're not in control of the universe and be okay with that. It asked you to hope for the best and accept disappointment.
While the limit of my patience was tested waiting for rides, I can't say I was ever disappointed by my encounters with the people who picked me up. Frightened by them, yup. Intimidated, bored, maybe. Offended, amused, encouraged, and inspired, too.
On the scary end of the spectrum comes a ride I snagged on the Pacific Coast Highway in Dana Point, Calif. I was hitching with my friend Todd, trying to get to Huntington Beach to borrow a friend's car for the day. It takes longer for two guys to get picked up than one, so we were surprised 10 minutes in when a faded green, two-door Chevy Nova, the victim of a half-ass chop job, cut hard into the shoulder and crunched to a stop on the white gravel 50 yards up the interstate.
Never open the door to a ride until you steal a look into the eyes of the driver. I hadn't learned that yet. Todd was halfway into the back seat when we realized there was no back seat. The space where the seat used to be was filled with a foot-deep spread of beer cans and baby toys.
Todd stopped halfway in, but I already had one foot in behind him and the Nova was rolling. I pulled the big passenger-side door closed, and with a loud clang we fell into the sad, stinky mess.
Behind the wheel, beer-drinking baby-lover spoke no English. "El Monte!" he barked at us. We thought he was demanding money so we asked him again where he was headed. "El Monte!" he screamed, salting his rage with a swift, hard pull on the wheel to make us slam against the sides in the back.
Oh, this was not going to end well, we thought. Whether he was headed to the beer depot or Toys "R" Us, one thing was certain: He was in a King Hell hurry.
When he blazed past the Huntington Beach exit, despite our frantic calls to stop, I slowly got up into a crouch for a peek up front. El Monte shouted at me to get back down, but before I complied I saw something that made my heart rise. He was out of fuel - or at least the needle was buried.
Sure enough, he peeled off at the next exit and screeched to a stop at a gas station. He yelled, demanding things in Spanish at us as he pumped, staring at us through the back glass, but as soon as his ass disappeared into the office to pay, we climbed out of the Nova and ran as fast as we could toward a shopping center, never looking back.
On the inspirational end of the spectrum, I thank the person who picked me up one summer night in Indiana. I was on my way from Madison to Louisville to visit my parents, and I had had it with the stop-at-every-town snail's pace of the Greyhound bus I was riding. I stepped off in Indianapolis, walked the short distance from the station to the southbound I-65 ramp, and put out my thumb.
She was driving a clean Ford LTD. A conservatively dressed black woman, she had been downtown visiting a relative in the hospital and was now headed home to Louisville. It was the first ride I'd ever gotten from a woman, much less an old one, and I couldn't help but talk to her about that.
"Seems pretty risky for a woman to pick up a hitchhiker these days," I said. "Why'd you help me out?"
"You looked too cute to hurt me," she laughed. Then she offered me a chicken sandwich.
Over my roughly decade-long hitchhiking career, I encountered drivers of all flavors. There were talkers and silent types. Farters, wheezers and hackers. Weepers, wailers, singers, jailbirds and Jesus freaks. And then there were all the people I picked up myself because, as all hitchhikers knew, it was the ultimate bad karma to not pick up another.
Maybe times do change. I'd be pretty freaked out if my 20-year-old son was out on the shoulder thumbing rides back and forth from La Crosse, where he lives, to Madison. Yet my own parents, who were as protective as they come, didn't seem to think anything of it.
Of course, if they were against it, I wouldn't have stopped. And that brings us full circle, to the curb if you will, to a moment of silence for the rebellious, all-American, risk-taking adventure called hitchhiking - which is no more.