Thumbs Up, Hearts Open: A Skeptic’s Lessons from Trailhead Hitchhiking

It was early one Friday night in June when I exited the Pacific Crest Trail to arrive at a remote road in the Sierra Nevada, hoping to catch a ride into the nearest town to resupply my dwindling food stock. As soon as I touched pavement, however, I became keenly aware of my own smell—something less than rotting eggs, but significantly more than unwashed gym socks.

My chances for a ride were already slim; most folks were heading into the mountains, not away from them, so I decided to increase my odds at a pickup by toning down the ferality a notch. I slipped on my “cleanest” shirt, braided my matted hair, and rubbed a bit of lavender-scented Dr. Bronner’s into my ripe armpits. Then I waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Finally, a pair of headlights swung around the bend. I flipped up my thumb and pasted a dopey grin on my face, hoping I looked less like a person who’d accumulated three different rashes over the past month and more like a nice, harmless hiker who deserved a ride down the hill for her efforts. I also hoped that my potential benefactor was not, say, an axe murderer. When I caught the seemingly axe-less driver’s attention, I broadened my smile and waved; she waved back, then drove right past.

A few defeated tears slid from my eyes, but I regained composure when a spotless gold SUV came into view. Another lifted thumb, another delirious grin—and this time, a ride. Dave and Yolanda had never picked up a hitchhiker before and weren’t really sure why they decided on me, although their rationale trended toward pity. I thanked them profusely, dutifully answered all of their questions about trail life, and tried not to suffocate either with my offensive body odor. We hugged when they dropped me off in town (such brave souls!), and the world was thus a few strangers lighter. I had survived my first solo hitch.

I wasn’t always so open to thumbing a ride, but the trail has a way of testing your boundaries. My first hitchhiking experience came in the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles maybe five years back. Desperate to escape the city, which had become something of a smog-ceilinged sauna on that particular summer day, I joined some friends for a day of peakbagging. Unfortunately, the heat trailed us uphill. While a semi-bionic duo in our group forged ahead to the next highpoint, the more wilted among us decided to make tracks to a nearby lodge for some A/C and cold drinks.

The collective energy dwindled as we reached the trailhead some time later, and no one wanted to trudge an additional two miles up the road, having left the car keys with our friends up high. As I sucked down the last of my water, I heard my friend Jay mutter the word “hitchhike.” As a proud graduate of an extensive mom-led study in Stranger Danger, my stomach instinctively knotted. Before I could protest, our friend Diane walked over to a guy shoving things in the back of his SUV and asked for a ride. He looked at our bedraggled group, mumbled some sort of gruff affirmative, and we all piled in.

The short drive flew by with a bit of small talk, and my anxiety eased. As it turns out, he was also a hiker, and there’s an unwritten code that (most) hikers help their brethren when needed. Upon arriving at the lodge, we invited our savior to join for a round, but he waved us off and continued down the road. Once inside, we clinked glasses in his honor, anyway.

About a month later, Jay and I were offered an opportunity to repay the karmic favor after a Mount Whitney excursion. While packing up the car, we noticed an older gentleman wobbling down the road with a very large pack. He was one of us – a Hiker, a Lover of Mountains; it was our turn to help out. We looked at each other in unison and communicated in silence: Of course we’ll pick him up.

His name was Mickey, he was in his 70s, and he was working his way along the John Muir Trail in bits and bursts, a guy enjoying his twilight years with a bit of pine-scented joy. In our short ride down to the valley floor, he regaled us with trail tales, shared his advice on staying active, and encouraged us to follow our dreams, whether on trail or otherwise. After we dropped him off in town, Jay and I talked about our new pal for much of the long drive back to Los Angeles. Maybe Mickey felt lucky for snagging a ride down the hill, but we felt lucky for meeting Mickey.

We had only spent about twenty minutes together, but I thought of Mickey frequently in years to follow, especially when it was time to extend my own thumb. He informed my willingness to practice trust in the general kindness of strangers and accept the ride from Dave and Yolanda, then one later down the trail from a true angel named Mr. Burns, who offered my companions fruit juice, frozen Snickers bars, and deliciously cold oranges.

Mr. Burns explained that he, too, was hiking the PCT that summer, but that he was meeting his wife in different locations along the way so that they could attend church together and stay connected during his long adventure. At each stop, he’d rent a vehicle and drive to the nearest trailhead or road crossing, offering “trail magic” to fellow hikers in the form of rides and treats. When he dropped me off—20 minutes opposite the direction he was traveling—I offered him some cash to cover gas and goodies, but he waved me off: “Just please pay it forward to another hiker when you have the chance.” I promised that I would.

During other long hikes, I grew bolder and accepted rides from beyond the hiking community, trusting my gut and head to keep me safe. In turn, I met a guy named Liam who spent his days at 11,000 feet in the Rockies, mitigating the environmental impacts of mining. I met a woman named Ginny who hustled my companion and me up a rutted mountain road and told us about the similar drives she hoped to share one day with her elderly father. Then there were two amazing women from Minnesota—Jen and Sally—who bravely commandeered a 16-passenger van full of teenage boys, many of whom peppered us with their burning questions about pooping in the woods.

The Hollidays and their dogs shared meaningful discussion, a bit of CBD cream for sore muscles, and a laughter-filled ride nearly an hour out of their way. Chip, headed home to his wife after knocking off his umpteenth fourteener, offered bad intel on local Mexican food, but a great perspective on squeezing the most out of retirement. Cathy had recently returned to her hometown after three decades away to help take care of her mother, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer, and lamented at how touristy it had become after all the mines closed down. Mike, driving home from a week of communion with various waterways, encouraged me to try fly fishing, a sport that he said touched his soul—and hoped would one day touch mine.

In many regards, our country feels as divisive as ever, the gulf between ideologies split wider every single day. Of course, these divisions, both real and perceived, have always existed; the multiplying power of social media coupled with the 24-hour news cycle simply casts them in sharper relief.

It’s relatively easy to look upon strangers with fear, especially if you’ve ever experienced real or implied violence at one’s hands. When I stuck out my thumb at forested trailheads and rural intersections, I didn’t know if the person behind the wheel resented women, if they’d bristle as I let slip a liberal point of view, or if they’d drive off when I approached the car, my features in more clear definition, suddenly appearing less white than I had at a distance. I had to be on full alert. And at the same time, I had to trust.

I have been lucky, for sure. But that luck isn’t simply defined by the fact that I’m still alive; it’s defined by the fact that my life has actually been enhanced by the strangers I’ve met, some of whom I still communicate with today. Each of them faced uncertainty when unlocking their door, trusting in that moment that the choice to help a stranger was the right one. And maybe some of them even hoped, as I now do, that sharing their journey with another human being, no matter how brief the connection, would be worth the risk.

Photos by Shawnté Salabert



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