Hitchhiking Etiquette (Years Ago)

Updated: Apr 9


An attempt to provide some interesting stories and events from my days of sometimes engaging in reckless behavior.

Etiquette can be defined as a set of rules or customs that control accepted behavior in particular social groups. The social group that I'm including here involves a behavior perhaps somewhat socially acceptable 40 years ago but now is quite uncommon. Even though it's not something I think about that often, it's quite remarkable how many times I'm reminded of hitchhiking which then gets my mind thinking of yesteryear. To serious hitchhikers back then, there were various acceptable behaviors you tried to follow, in and out of the car.


A little background, I started using my thumb primarily on Minnesota and Wisconsin Interstate highways (I-94, I-90, I-35) while enrolled at UW-Eau Claire University in the late '70s. The Interstate was designed to be the quickest vehicle travel route between states -- hence the name, Interstate. If you want to travel fast and a longer distance, ultimately letting you out of the car in one of those larger urban areas in Wisconsin (Madison and Milwaukee). While at college, I made friends with several fellow hitchhikers as we shared stories of our adventures. Indeed, we also talked about the dos and don'ts of engaging in this activity. More senior hitchhikers in some of our discussions emphasized the importance of anyone who does travel this way is encouraged to engage in acceptable behavior. It was useful to say, not all those involved in the chat realized there's etiquette involved in using your thumb to bum rides.


With This Narrow Highway (Without A Shoulder), Hitchhiking Here Becomes Quite Challenging.

With some of these dorm basement interactions, a group of 5 would jump around from sports, politics, dating, but invariably ended up talking about hitchhiking -- especially once the weather changed to spring. What's the attraction? What works or doesn't work? Close calls? What are the critical things you need to always keep in mind while out there?

If you want to take a long way home and meet some of the locals, one could opt for state and county highways. Some rides on county highways can be as short as 1 mile (anomaly) and if lucky, you could travel 50 miles (anomaly) smoothly. In terms of length, highways between towns are the best gauge of how far a ride will take you on county roads. If it's your birthday or lucky day, the ride takes you through 3 or 4 smaller in-between villages. If you're in a hurry, and over 150 miles from your destination, trying to quickly catch a ride is not for the faint of heart and can be nerve-racking.


I remember the first few times I hitchhiked, I just piled in my stuff, and away we went. I wasn’t always talkative during the ride, I just wasn’t aware of the responsibility of a passenger. There were several earlier trips where I got into the car and didn’t try to sincerely engage with the driver. After several trips and conversing with veteran hitchhikers, I realized as a good guest in someone else’s car, if they are talkative, you need to help determine the direction of the conversation. I had a responsibility too, whether, in a car, truck, or semi, he (90% of rides given by men) needed not to have any regrets picking me up. Better yet, if we connected and our conversations lasted a few hours, that interesting dialogue may resonate with you for a long time.


Of course, hitchhikers should be able to carry on a dialogue, regardless of the circumstances. If carrying on a conversation was too challenging, plan B was to start asking general questions of the driver. What do they do for a living? Where did they grow up? How do you stay focused on being on the road for the majority of your day? Not too personal, provide a general question and allow the driver to do the driving, so to speak. Sometimes drivers like to talk, especially salesmen. Many in sales are extroverts which leads me to say they may be completely energized after the ride – me, not too much. Sometimes, after being dropped off and being an introvert, I may need to recharge my batteries by taking a walk and taking part in some deep breathing motions.


There are times when it appears a dialogue may not be forthcoming. I’ve had several incidents where a pickup truck stopped and I asked him for a lift. Before I proceed, it is not uncommon to end up in the bed of a pickup truck – sometimes wrestling for space with a spare tire, tools, and heavy rope. Hitchhikers know this alternative as do all pickup drivers, whether they provide a lift or just drive by. In both of these incidents, the driver stopped ahead of me and as I walked toward the truck, all I could see on the passenger side was a dog. As I got near, the driver motioned me to get into the bed and hold on. I realized he either didn’t want to talk or felt much more comfortable talking to his dog. He seemed like a friendly fellow but very quiet. It can be embarrassing but with limited funds, you just go with the flow. I must point out that riding in a back of a pickup truck only works for about 6 months in the Northwoods. Otherwise, it would be brutally cold and unprotected by the wind.


Some purest hitchhikers would never use a sign; they just basically stuck out their thumb and beg for a ride. For others, a sign is not a panacea; it just lets the prospective drivers where your travel intentions lie. If I am going to Milwaukee from Northern Wisconsin, I first had to get to Madison before I could set my sights on the Cream City. If my “Milwaukee” sign was not effective even though it’s Wisconsin’s largest city, I could flip it over and begin to use “Madison” as the next destination. It was important to experiment with different approaches to secure a ride, an invaluable tip I learned early on was to smile – you’re more attractive and inviting if you smile while looking for a lift. After all of my travels, I realized that hitchhiking is both an art and a science. After smiling, looking somewhat presentable is a must. Would you like to allow a stranger who’s dirty and unkempt to spend the next 3 hours in your automobile? From a dynamics perspective, one man was better than two but a man and a woman were sometimes ideal.


Finding a safe location where you’re seen and at the same time, the driver has room and time to pullover. A great spot is close to the Interstate onramp as drivers are turning onto the onramp. As they turn with a reduced speed, they had a chance to evaluate whether they want to stop. Roughly 90% of all drivers just speed on by – those are not my target driving audience. I’m after that 10%, so as I begin, I’m always evaluating my performance. Yes, it is…you sometimes yell friendly words or you may dance a bit to attract attention.


To be successful or in the attempt to be successful, an open mind is necessary to have Plan B or even C if A isn’t effective. You have enough money to catch a taxi back into town or spring for a necessary meal, but you want to get home. If you don’t want to spend the night at your hitchhiking spot, you experiment with different strategies and experiments until you’re successful.


If your luck has been zilch, you take chances. On several occasions, I walked up the entrance ramp onto Interstate 94 and begged for a ride. Desperate times require desperate measures, I was desperate although illegal; I was willing to chance it. It worked every time, but the challenge was getting connected to the drivers. Many are traveling 66-70 mph and as a prospective driver see me and decide to stop and then brakes means he might be a few hundred yards down the road. Your first instinct is to run toward your prospective driver, if you're carrying heavy items, can't provide any advice except grin and bear it.


Asch's Place (Formerly Lake Park Tavern), Just Across From The Case Factory (Since It's Been Demolished.)

Why did I hitchhike? I think I wanted to do something different after high school when I would have much more control over my life. It was happenstance because before I got into this mode of travel during college, it never dawned on me how interesting and educational it could be. People you’d never meet otherwise shed their interesting stories and perspectives about the environment, jobs, politics, energy, and religion. Your beliefs or opinions may be challenged, not in a negative way, but you may hear a completely new point of view. Or you may hear a different outlook that you've never heard before. It makes you think and reason, which is not a bad thing. Not to belabor the point, but during college students have a tremendous opportunity to learn in class, hanging out with friends, or taking in many cultural events offered by the university.


So, why did I hitchhike in college? Let me provide some perspective on where I spent my formative years. For the first 18 years, I lived in the Lake Park subdivision, just south of Racine. Racine is an industrial town in Southeastern Wisconsin where the key industries were factories and foundries. We lived a half-mile from the Case Factory/Foundry. My older brother used to tease me when I didn’t do my homework, he’d say, “Ping, Pong, Pang, Ping, Pong, Pang, Ping, Pong, Pang.” I got the message, awful place to work, if you spend over 10 or 20 years at such a place, your soul gradually disappears. It's no coincidence that no more than 100 feet from the entrance to the Case Factory, a bar, the Lake Park Tavern (now Asch's Place). My point is that many of my neighbors and friends were accepting of that type of work – some lacked ambition, some provincial, and some lacking skills to find meaningful work. I didn’t want to end up like that. Never in a million years would I even consider working there, except for a summer job to help pay for university. Not surprisingly, I still didn’t want to do my homework.


Ultimately, I hitchhiked because it was fun and cheap, and challenging. You had to focus on that one vehicle that may be willing to provide a lift. If you were being shut out with no prospects, you experiment but all the while you maintain your hitchhiking etiquette. One trick, you hold your university backpack and actual books in your arms, conveying to those entering the Interstate that you’re a student and just want to get home. (Besides, it's a good bicep exercise.) There are times you could grab your black marker and legal pad from your school backpack to create a makeshift sign, especially if you’ve had no luck without one. Sometimes, a change of where you stand is warranted, and sometimes a wave might do the trick too (Believe it or not, but sometimes a wave got me a ride too). As I mentioned before, it’s an art and a science, and my goal was to efficiently get a lift all the while engaging in the acceptable behavior of this social group of hitchhiking. In my view, that’s the key to hitchhiking etiquette.