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LARRY PENKAVA COLUMN: Hitching a ride

Larry Penkava

I was doing something 50 years ago that today would be considered dangerous and foolhardy.
Back then it was popular with college students and soldier boys. It was a way to be transported, mind and body, to another place.
It was freeing, and it was free.
If you’re old enough, you know what I’m talking about. You may have done it yourself.
It’s known as hitchhiking, but we called it thumbing a ride.
When you wanted to get from point A to point B but didn’t have wheels, you stood beside the road and stuck out your thumb. Eventually, a kind-hearted driver would pull over and ask, “Where you headed, buddy?”
My first recollection of hitchhiking was as an early teen, thumbing a ride to town, along with one or two other boys. We’d hang out, maybe watch a movie, then catch a ride back home.
But my life as a hitchhiker was lived mainly as a college student. My habit was to thumb a ride home every weekend, then be driven back to campus by my parents or those of another student.
I think the most trepidation I had as a hitchhiker wasn’t a fear of assault or robbery. It was doubting in my benefactor’s driving skills.
A couple of older guys come to mind. One was noticeably feeble and wove from one side of his lane to the other.
The other codger was a neighborly sort with a good sense of humor. Problem was, he’d say something funny then look at me with his toothy grin. Meanwhile, I was thinking, “Don’t look at me, pay attention to the road.”
What I recall about him the most, though, was when a couple of cars passed our slow-moving vehicle. “Ya’ll go on,” he said with that big smile. “We’ll be there directly.”
Another memorable ride came when I was thumbing with my friend Billy. A woman and two teenage girls, all in the front seat, stopped to pick us up. I remember they were from Polk County in the southwestern part of the state.
Even back in the ‘60s it seemed unusual for female drivers to pick up guy hitchhikers. But I guess they felt that college students could be trusted.
I once hitchhiked during spring break with Gary, a fellow student, to his home in Henderson County, south of Asheville. Much of the ride was with some young, er, rednecks who confided, in their crude vernacular, mostly about their love lives.
That summer I was on campus taking a couple of classes and decided to visit Gary at his home. I hit the road after my last class before the long weekend and was soon traveling on the interstate toward Asheville and Henderson County.
What was amazing was how quickly I arrived at Gary’s home. Hitchhiking can be a relatively fast way to get where you’re going, depending on the benevolence of drivers.
Riding with strangers, who were willing to allow you inside their private space for a period of time, could be eye-opening and rewarding.
I rode with a fellow student once who said his father knew a guy who predicted that the highways around our college town would one day be four-lane expressways. As I look back, I find that most of that came true.
Once a man picked me up in a station wagon equipped with the latest stereo speakers. Back then FM stations carried only classical and easy listening music. But regardless of the genre, to hear the stereo sound wrap around the station wagon was new to me.
Perhaps my favorite ride was with a fellow student. He picked me up in his bright red GTO convertible.
It was a sunny day and the top was down. Not much was said between the two of us, maybe because he had his eight-track turned up.
What I remember about that ride was rolling down the highway with the wind blowing through our hair. On his stereo, the Dave Brubeck Trio’s “Time Out” was queued up.
As we continued down the road, I sat back to enjoy the sunshine as the mellow notes of “Take Five” wafted into my ears.
It was the weekend, I had a ride and I was going home.

Larry Penkava, who has written Now and Then since 1994, enjoyed the freedom of life on the road.