The inside of Chicago’s Greyhound bus station is like Ellis Island. The air is flush with humanity grinding against itself to get somewhere, anywhere. Photographs are taken. Tricolor beads crackle from lush black braids. Eastern European women dangle on their lovers and Midwestern girls chirp on cell phones.
But this story isn’t about what I found when I arrived at my Spring Break destination. It’s about how I got there.
If you too feel the American need for blind freedom, a tattered leather satchel and superstition, hitchhiking is easy enough. It’s a way to save the environment, save money and save your tired, yearning soul. The ingredients are simple and few.
3) A map
4) A Sharpie and cardboard for making signs
5) One of the 6 million cars that are being driven with empty seats in them this very moment.
I had a knife too. Just a little one, just in case those urban myths about hitchhiking were true. I only used it to cut the blocks of cheese I brought.
I’m a man of average height with a skinny build, and I was safe the whole time. I’ve talked to plenty of seasoned hitchhikers and nobody has ever had a problem. You don’t have to take any ride you’re not comfortable with. There are awkward situations, sure, but I believe the rhetoric you hear in liberal arts classes that human nature is generally good. Hitchhiking is a good way to put your money where your heart is.
It’s important to choose a starting location where you will be visible and drivers will have a chance to slow down and take a look at you. It’s dangerous to hitchhike on the interstate and also illegal. The on-ramp is less illegal. I stood, thumb out, by the on-ramp to I94 on State Street.
It took me about three hours to get a ride. My sign initially said “spring break Chicago,” because I thought it was cute. Nobody bit. Hippies would honk and give the thumbs up, kids waved and one woman screamed through her glass windows “Holy shit, a fucking hitchhiker!”
Then a guy in a silver Taurus stopped. I grabbed my bag.
“I’m only going about 10 minutes down the road. You want a ride?”
“No thanks, homey.”
When a car stops it’s like seeing a snake in the forest. You’re scared of the snake, but she’s more scared of you. You may be scared of a driver, but the driver is just as hesitant toward the “crazy” guy thumbing a ride like Woody Guthrie, Tom Joad or your parents when they used to do acid.
More cars passed. Blondes in luxury cars looked me in the eye as if to say, “Are you kidding me?” I wondered if they still loved their husbands. Raggedy kids with Technicolor hair slowed down but didn’t stop. I folded my sign to read just “CHICAGO” and a red truck pulled up.
“We’re not going to Chicago, but we can take you to Indiana, down ’69,” a burly man said across his bored wife.
“Are you going through Kalamazoo?”
It’s seemingly innocent dialogue, but when there’s an invitation on the table to get into a steel box from someone you never met, you’re sizing each other up a bit. It’s a vile fact but every social prejudice imaginable is amplified while standing on the side of the road with your thumb out.
“No sorry, not going through Kalamazoo. Elaine, give him 20 bucks.”
“Oh, I couldn’t take that.”
“Time’s are hard everywhere and we’re not doing to well ourselves. You look like you could use it.”
“You are gracious people, but I have enough to get where I’m going.”
More cars. One man held his fingers an inch apart to signal he wasn’t going far enough. Far too many people talked on cell phones to decapitated voices miles away when they could have been telling me their stories. I would have listened.
I started to think. What am I doing out here? An hour passed and the passing cars started to wear down my excitement. Humanity sucks. Screw you for not stopping. Then I had to laugh at myself. It was crazy. But it was the hopeful, beautiful crazy that has always driven men to see the world for what it is. To see it without the intervening cow-eyed glaze of a textbook, to see it with their own eyes.
Those Technicolor-haired kids drove by again, and this time they stopped.
“We’re going to Chicago, hop in!”
Between that point and my return to Ann Arbor, one black felt coat was traded for a green corduroy one, the guitarist for the nationally touring punk band tried to hold my hand and a woman named Delores told me about the time her boyfriend tried to murder her. But I won’t tell you about that. You’ll have to find out for yourself.
Oh, and don’t forget your harmonica.
–Drew Philp is a senior in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts