Whatever happened to hitchhiking?

The question popped into my head late last week on my way home from a speaking engagement in Machias.

As I basked in the foliage and marveled at how much they’ve improved the Airline – that perfectly remote stretch of Route 9 between Brewer and Baring, just southwest of Calais – it suddenly occurred to me that 45 years ago almost to the day, I’d passed this way before …

“Here, take these,” my mother said, blinking back tears, as she pulled over just before an exit on Interstate 95 somewhere north of Boston. “I don’t care if you use them. Just keep them with you.”

Her rosary beads.

I was barely 18. I’d just finished my first semester at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst – a member of the “swing shift” class that started in the summer, took the fall off and would resume school in January.

I’d found an interim job in a warehouse, shipping cartons of new shoes all over creation. But as I punched in the UPS postal zones and slapped the labels on the boxes, my own feet felt restless.

I yearned for adventure.

So, I came up with a plan: Six weeks on the open road, just me, my backpack, my trusty guitar and a copy of James Michener’s “The Drifters,” of whom I so keenly desired to be one.

My destination: Nova Scotia.

“I’ll be OK,” I assured my parents, their brows deeply furrowed. “I’ll call home every chance I get. I promise!”

“You’ll call home at least once a week,” replied my dad.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph – and that’s a prayer,” fretted my mother.

And off I went.

Thumb outstretched, shoulders back, facial expression locked on “trustworthy,” I’d long ago learned that passing motorists had two or three seconds to decide whether to welcome me into their world.

Sure, I had long hair – but who didn’t?

Sure, there was always that remote chance that I was a psychopath – but with a guitar?

Sure, I might be stuck out there awhile – or not!

Less than five minutes after Mom blew me a farewell kiss, the first car pulled over. The jovial, wise-cracking driver, a retired state trooper, took me all the way to Bangor.

At the core of hitchhiking, back in those days, lay trust.

Two perfect strangers crossed paths and, without a clue beyond outward appearance, embarked on a journey together. Each trusted in the other’s inherent goodness and, more often than not, each emerged the better person for it.

Of course there were risks – more for some than for others. The thought of young women hitchhiking alone gave me chills back then and still does to this day.

But for a guy my age, to be out there, tethered only to what I could carry, was the essence of the adventure. A procession of good Samaritans bestowing their generosity on me, while I in return chatted if they wanted to chat, sat quietly if they preferred that, whatever worked for them.

After the old trooper wished me luck and drove off into downtown Bangor, I headed down the Airline for Calais, charmed my way past Canadian immigration, continued on to Saint John, New Brunswick, hopped the ferry to Digby and conquered Nova Scotia in a large figure eight.

I can still trace the towns and villages: Wolfville … Truro … Antigonish … Sydney … Margaree Harbor … Inverness … Liscomb … Halifax … and finally down to Yarmouth for another ferry ride back to Bar Harbor.

Why I chose Nova Scotia in October and November, I’ll never know. My down snorkel jacket protected me from the raw winds and, to be honest, I never spent all that much time out there on the roadside.

I remember the gray-haired grandparents who picked me up somewhere on Cape Breton Island.

As I sat in the back and recited the address for the boardinghouse I’d circled in my travel guide, their eyes met and the woman, shaking her head, said “No, no, dear. You come for dinner and we’ll put you in the upstairs bedroom.”

Another time, in Sherbrooke, I hopped out of my last ride and couldn’t find the house with a bedroom to rent.

So, I found a pay phone and called. The owner pulled up minutes later, with his wife and their young son in tow. Over my objections, they insisted on carrying my gear into the house.

Together we all sang late into that evening, crowded into the tiny living room while I pounded out tune after tune on my 12-string.

I still quake at the memory of the trucker who drove me the entire, spellbinding length of the Cabot Trail. He couldn’t have been more hospitable – it was looking straight down the seaside cliffs from the cab of a semi that gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Now, even as I lament the lost art of hitchhiking and all its unspoken courtesies – never jump in front of someone already hitching, always run to the car no matter how heavy your load – I’m not advocating its resurgence.

For one thing, the prohibitions are tougher.

You’re now on the wrong side of Maine law if you “endeavor by words, gestures or otherwise to beg, invite or secure transportation in a motor vehicle not engaged in carrying passengers for hire.” (Translation: Goodbye, tractor-trailer death challenges. Hello, Uber.)

At the same time, people have grown less trusting.

Maybe it’s with good reason or maybe we’ve grown to fear danger far more than we actually witness it.

Either way, for would-be hitchhikers, it’s hard enough to make eye contact these days. Good luck getting someone to actually stop and pick you up.

And if you’re a driver, cocooned inside your tinted windows and lost in your digital surround-sound, the occasional hitchhiker now blends in with the more ubiquitous panhandler and, well, best give them all a wide berth.

Still, as I chugged along last week – alone – in my pickup and reflected nostalgically on my first-ever sojourn across Maine, I felt a sense of loss.

Gone are the days when we define adventure not by those panoramas we capture on our phone cameras, but by those people who reflexively flipped on their blinker, unlocked the passenger door and hollered, “Hop in!”

Nearly half a century later, I no longer can remember the faces, let alone the names.

But I do know this: On a chilly October morning in 1972, on a highway headed north out of Boston, I waved goodbye to Mom, stuffed her rosary beads into my jacket pocket and turned toward the traffic with my thumb held high.

And a retired cop, of all people, came upon a teenage hippie with a ponytail and thought, “Oh, what the hell …”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

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