Trusting Strangers

Hitchhiking had developed an ugly reputation by the time I was in college. Both drivers and prospective hitchhikers were warned, by that time, of the dangers of allowing strangers into one’s car or entering the cars of strangers. Bad things—robbery, kidnapping, murder, assault, and various other unsavory stuff—were not only possible but likely, according to the rumor mills of the day. I accepted the warnings; they were legitimate, verified by the very occasional report of actual ugliness occurring. Television dramas and big screen films reinforced the dangers of hitchhiking. Still, I did a little hitchhiking and I picked up more hitchhikers than a person with good sense should have done. My risky behavior extended even beyond my college years, as I will relate in a moment. But first, I’ll document my recollections as a hitchhiker and as a giver of rides.

The longest trip I made by hitchhiking was from Austin, Texas to Corpus Christi, Texas while I was attending the University of Texas at Austin. I don’t recall why I decided to hitchhike; I owned a Blue 1971 stick-shift Ford Pinto at the time and could have driven myself (I made the trip many times in that car). For whatever reason, though, I decided to hitchhike. I made a cardboard sign that read “Corpus Christi,” slung my backpack over my shoulder, and carried my sign as I walked to Interstate 35 that runs through Austin. When I reached the Interstate, I walked along the side of the road, toward San Antonio, and held the sign out so drivers coming my way could read it. Soon after I started walking, a young guy stopped and told me he was going to Corpus. I got in the car and we headed south. During the course of our initial conversation, I told him I frequently made the trip and he asked which route I preferred. I remember saying I usually went through Kennedy and Karnes City, but sometimes I would take a route through Lockhart and Luling, but only if the drive would get me to the barbeque spots in those town in time for lunch. He opted to take the road through Kennedy and Karnes City, Highway 181, I think. I don’t recall much more about the drive. I suspect I drifted off, at least part of the way, while he drove. I remember giving him some money for gas when he dropped me off in Corpus after we went over the Harbor Bridge into the downtown area. I think I walked the seven or eight miles to my parents’ home, but I’m not sure. I don’t know whether I told my folks I had hitchhiked; I probably lied and said a friend gave me a ride. They would have been upset with me had I told them I hitchhiked. And I don’t recall how I got back to Austin. I don’t remember hitchhiking; I may have taken the bus. Memories fade over the years. But I do recall getting the ride all the way to Corpus.

While attending school in Austin, I lived near campus most of the time. But I lived several miles away for a few semesters (I moved almost every semester, for one reason or another). During one of the periods when I lived far from campus, I hitchhiked, or tried to, quite a bit.  I remember one time, after I finished my classes for the day, I was walking toward home, on West 24th Street, when I neared Lamar Boulevard. I decided I did not want to walk the four or five miles to the house I lived in at the time, so I turned around, facing traffic coming my way, and stuck out my thumb. I walked backward, very slowly, as I watched the cars go by. Finally, a car slowed down and came to a stop just past me. I turned and ran to the car and tried to open the passenger side door. The guy inside shook his head, “no,” and pointed in front of his car. I turned and realized he had stopped because he was nearing the intersection with Lamar; his car was two or three cars back from the intersection. I remember feeling incredibly embarrassed and saying “I’m sorry” several times. I don’t recall the rest of the trip home, but I suspect I decided to just walk, despite being tired. Embarrassment can be a motivator, I suppose. Or a demotivator.

I picked up hitchhikers fairly regularly during that period of my life. I gave people rides to or toward Corpus when I drove home. I gave people rides in and around Austin. One summer, when I had a summer job in San Antonio, I gave people rides even when I didn’t know much about the layout of the city. I have a vague recollection of stopping at a gas station for directions so I could get a hitchhiker where he wanted to go.

Our society, at least in this country, has allowed the disintegration of trust in our fellow citizens. We are afraid of other people (often, rightfully so), so we avoid allowing them into our space. Our comfort zones have shrunk to the size of our own skulls; sometimes even smaller. That shrinkage was happening when I was in college. It continued and has accelerated since then. Helping strangers is dangerous business. Genuine hospitality is limited to people we have extensively vetted or who have been vetted for us. I think it’s a shame that we feel threatened by people for no overt reason; our fears are manifestations of the fact that we do not know them or their motives, so we assume their motives are ugly, dangerous, dark. I wish I could simply shed that fear and behave the way I think we all should behave. But I cannot. So it would be hypocritical of me to judge others who behave the way I behave. Except I do. And I judge myself for the same reason. We all should be ashamed of our mostly illogical fear. We should be more willing to take risks, knowing that risks are very small. But we’ve been taught that the risks are bigger than they are. Media attention is partly responsible. Our willingness to extrapolate from single instances, in which the worst side of humanity is exhibited by strangers, to the rest of the population, bears most of the responsibility, though.

I doubt there ever was a time when we were a gentler, more loving, more giving society. But there was a time when we did not let the deviance of the few guide our responses to the rest, who are decent people. Or maybe not. I know not whereof I write. I write wistfully of a time that, for me, never was.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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6 Responses to Trusting Strangers

  1. Robin, I wish I could argue against your point, but I’m afraid I cannot. Perhaps the best humankind can hope for is to learn from that terrible scar, letting it serve as a reminder of a tragic mistake that must never be made again.

  2. robin andrea says:

    John, I have learned since then that there are life experiences that are trajectories that send you in a direction not considered before, but from which there is no turning back. On a less personal scale, I have thought about the Supreme Court decision of Bush v Gore that way. Imagine that trajectory had it gone the other way? And now this nightmare Trump trajectory. I’m not sure there will be a way to undo some of the damage. It may be permanent, like a terrible scar.

  3. John says:

    Robin, I knew of that awful experience of yours. With that in mind, should never even think about the relative “safety” of hitchhiking. That trauma must still haunt you.

  4. robinandrea says:

    In 1970 when my family from New Jersey to California I was 18 years old and ready to start that summer with my new sense of freedom. I hitchhiked up Highway 1 to Berkeley (450 miles). I hitchhiked north from there to Bolinas on the coast. I hitchhiked back. That was my mode of transportation back then. I got a job in the fall up in Topanga Canyon at a little hippie store. It was a short trip maybe eight miles from my home to the job. My dad would drop me off at the corner where a pile of people stood with their thumbs out. On September 17th of that year a man stopped to pick me up. I had a bad feeling about it, but I got in his car anyway so I could get to work on time. Well, I never made it to work that day or ever again to that job. That man raped me on the winding canyon road between the San Fernando Valley and the beautiful Pacific Ocean. I never hitchhiked again. I saw that monster in a LA County Courthouse months later and it was a hung jury. Some strangers really are violent. Lesson learned.

  5. Aging Longhorn, your hitchhiking days are over only if that is what you wish. You can still hitchhike, though I would recommend waiting until the current season of pestilence is behind us. Your experience picking up a hitchhiker on a cold Christmas Day has the makings of a story that could tug at the heart-strings. Write it!

    My reasons for moving so frequently varied from a house being condemned to rent increases to attempts to be closer to campus to gratefully losing a roommate to near-eviction after a run-in with the college-aged woman who managed the apartment complex in which I lived (she got mad at me for getting mad at her for practicing (along with her band) in her apartment above mine during finals.

  6. Aging Longhorn says:

    While I have never hitchhiked myself, I have picked up a few hitchhikers in my time. The most recent was on a Christmas Day drive from Dallas to Oklahoma City, probably a decade ago. It was cold and I assumed that the person was on his way to family that was waiting for them… Who knows? I wish I had hitchhiked at least once in my days…

    Also, like you, when I was at UT, I moved every year or more. In the five years I was there (don’t judge me), I lived in six different places… I wonder what it is about us that made us decide to do that…

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