I had heard that in US, especially in the east coast hitchhiking was not easy but I did not expect it to be so difficult. I literally had never seen such a paranoid people in any country, either developed or developing. Wait, it’s a bit exaggerated, since in Colombia people were also very paranoid but they had an armed conflict and drug war in their country and there were not many Asians there either.
I started my journey in Rockville, Maryland and the biggest difficulty there was to find a place where cars could easily pull over. No, such a place almost did not exist at all and eventually I had to make do with a very short ramp just before the entrance of the highway.
About 5 meters from me, there was an old homeless guy begging cars for money in front of traffic lights. To be honest, I had never seen so many beggars in any other industrialized country. Now let me give you the complete statistics of homeless population in each OECD country. Alphabetically, first Australia……
Just kidding. 😀
Two hours later finally somebody stopped! Guess what? He was going to the opposite direction, to Washington DC instead of going north to Pennsylvania. Then another car stopped, guess what? Again he was going to the other direction. At last a young lady stopped and told me:’I am actually going somewhere near DC to pick up my son from kindergarten, but when I come back if I see you are still here, I will take you to your direction for like 20 miles.’
Such lovely people! 🙂 All these 3 people who stopped to try to help me were of African blood. Love them!
Luckily enough, before the young lady came back, a middle-aged Caucasian woman going to work took me. She was just going north along the highway for about 20 miles… Yes, after 3 hours of waiting, I only got a ride of 20 miles. I guess that was ‘welcome to US’.
No doubt, there are kind people in every country and she was one of them. She always picked up hitchhikers and tried her best to help people in need. Many Americans have this pure kindness which I love. She told me once she and her mother saw a Mexican at the same spot where I was standing. He obviously crossed the border illegally and had nothing with him. It was already a miracle that he made it this far. She and her mother gave him a ride as far as they could and gave him money to buy clothes and food. He did not speak much English, but when he spoke, he complained so much how unkind the white people were in US. The kind woman replied: ‘Look, two white women just picked you up and now were giving you money, don’t you think your judgement is not solid?’
I was properly clothed and I had many things with me.
She had to drive only 15 miles to work and she had a schedule to keep, so she dropped me at a big shopping mall, where many cars were parked.
She:’You should have better luck here!’
I:’Thanks so much!’
She:’Wait, I wanted to give you something, but I could not find it. Wait a minute…’
I was already outside the car and she was foraging through her hill of bags on the backseat for 5 minutes and eventually ‘ah!’, produced a small plastic bag, filled with various coins.
As you can imagine, there was no way that I could refuse it. Inside the bag there were some American dollar coins, mostly 5 cents and dimes, neatly wrapped in plastic and there was also an Argentinian Peso which curiously made its way there.
Weren’t people lovely?
I felt reborn and full of faith in humanity again! 🙂 Now let ‘s ask some nice people in the parking lot for a ride. As you can imagine, I tried to be as polite as possible and most people refused me politely, sometimes even with a big smile. That was not hard to take.
No, not much luck asking in the parking lot. I decided to just wait with my sign at the exit of the shopping mall.
Two minutes after I appeared, two security guys showed up. One of them was a young fellow and he suddenly remembered:’Oh yes! You are the guy hitchhiking in Rockville! I saw you this morning!’ (and guess what, now it’s afternoon and I was still in the neighborhood)
NO, no hitchhiking was allowed in the vicinity of the shopping mall! I was also not allowed to ask people in the parking lot.
Now I will try to narrate as calmly as possible and try not to get emotional. Seriously, I have never seen a country so paranoid and with so many inhumane regulations, not just for hitchhikers, for everybody with limited resources. The logic seemed to be ‘you are poor? You deserve it! and we will make sure you stay poor!’
I was glad I was just passing through this country for a journey. Even if I had been a middle-class in US, I would not want my children to grow up in such an environment where FEAR in the people is the biggest asset of the politicians. Without the instigation of fear many of the laws/acts of US would not have passed. Yes, the politicians capitalize on this FEAR as much as they could to pass the laws which now more and more just serve the super rich elite class.
Ok, enough social-economical bullshit! Eh… I had to move on, I crossed a bridge which had no pedestrian lanes and ended up near a construction side on the road leading to the highway entrance. There was ample space to pull over. It seemed like a good spot for hitchhiking.
I alternated with using my sign ‘Need A Ride’ and just thumbing up. No cars stopped. There were some construction workers nearby but they did not pay attention to me.
Then a police car on the opposite lane suddenly stopped. I put down my thumb and my sign and awaited with anxiety what was going to happen. First the policeman shouted at his highest voice and I just could not hear him. Then he turned on his loud speaker and shouted:’It is illegal to hitchhike here! Leave the site immediately!’
I looked around again. Was I on the highway? Nope, I was on the ramp before the highway and now I had to leave, again. So I went for the last option, which was ON THE HIGHWAY.
Cars darted away like rockets just beside me and nobody even made any attempt of stopping. There was one thing I did not like about hitchhiking, the ample time of waiting. Sometimes I feel that this time was wasted. Therefore, I always try to use this time as efficient as possible, such as contemplating about life, food, sleeping place and cultural shocks. I felt like a lonesome island among those flowing cars, so lonesome that I started to question if I was even visible.
Two hours later, an African American dude drove right towards me from a distance where he even could not have seen my sign. I was amazed and ready to grab all my bags and welcome him with my sweetest smiles.
He:’Where do you want to go, man?’
I:’To Pittsburgh and then Cleveland! Anywhere in that direction would be good, as long as not here! How about you man?’
He:’How much do you want to pay? I mean man, I do Uber so I don’t mind. Maybe it will cost a few hundred bucks but it’s cheaper than taxi.’
I:’No, man. I don’t have that amount of money. I am trying to hitchhike. Some people going that direction would not mind taking me along for free.’
He:’Oh, seriously? There are such things? Ok, but man, really, Uber is not that expensive.’
I had less than 200 USD in my pocket and that was my whole budget for one month trip in North America.
He drove away after 5 minutes of waiting.
I had stood there so long that I even appreciated that he stopped to ask, even if he was just after some business.
Finally a car pulled over about 10 meters in front of me and a girl in it said to me:’where do you want to go? I used to hitchhike also. Come on in!’
Although she was only going about 10 miles that direction, I was almost in tears to meet a fellow hitchhiker!
As I wrote before in my blog, there are mainly 3 types of people who would pick up hitchhikers, kind people, cool people and former hitchhikers. When the first two types do not appear a lot in certain regions of our world, the 3rd type would be the only hope.
She:’How did you end up here? Seriously man, this is a BLACK HOLE for hitchhiking!’
I:’Seriously? What do you mean? Eh… supernova collapses here?’ 😛 😀
She laughed:’No man. West coast is so much easier! Anywhere! Anywhere else is easier than here to hitchhike! I and my hitchhiker friends got stuck so many times in this neighborhood! It’s a black hole! It sucks you in and you never get out of it!’
15 miles was not a long ride and we even did not have time to properly introduce ourselves when she pulled over in a gas station with a fast food store in the beginning of Frederick.
‘Ask in the gas station! I once saw a hitchhiker asking around here so I think it’s allowed.’
Really? That would be wonderful! As I am a tall male, my advantage in hitchhiking lies in the fact that I am a sociable guy with a good sense of humor and a certain degree of decency. If I could ask around, I would get a ride more easily.
I went to ask the staff if it was ok to ask around in the gas station.
That was a big mistake because obviously it was not allowed and I was told straightaway that I could not do that. I guess the hitchhiker asking around here was doing that before he was told to stop.
I had to go to the bathroom to cool down my head a bit and think about some way to work around the situation. When I got out of the bathroom, I saw this sunburnt middle-aged dude eating a huge hamburger with both hands and watching TV in the small fast food store. I went up.
I:’Excuse me sir, are you going to north or west direction? I am trying to hitch a ride to get to Pittsburgh.’
I:’May I come along?’
That simple? While waiting on the roadside could take you literally hours, asking people face to face just took seconds! It was bizarre.
He drove me for about 2 hours right from Maryland State to Pennsylvania State. That was the longest ride I got so far in US.
This dude did some mechanic work on the road and was rather simple-minded. He was trying every bit to save money. His dream was to become a millionaire before turning 50. He knew a guy who also traveled in my manner a few years back. This traveler always tried to pick up works everywhere he went and tried to save money on food and accommodation. He did not go too far, just in different states in the US. When this traveler became 30, he almost amassed 300 000 USD. WOWO!
I:’Why did you agree to give me a ride?’
He:’Oh man, my car broke down a few days ago and I was trying to get a ride to get back home. Guess what? TWO HOURS! Nobody stopped! I understand that people were scared but still it shocked me. I never realized how indifferent and paranoid people here are until that happened to me. That scared me! If I died of hear attack on the roadside, perhaps nobody would come to help.’
I looked at him, unruly hair, unruly beard, big built body, port belly with a lousy T-shirt, I surely believe that people did not stop for him. I do not like this superficial thing. Most people base their judgement of the quality of a person simply on their looks. I have so many friends who look aggressive or indecent but actually are such sweet people. It is totally unfair that they are treated worse than others.
Maryland is still a more liberal state and Pennsylvania should be worse for hitchhikers. At least that was what I heard from them.
I had never seen such big areas of countryside in any other country. Once you are out of Washington DC metropolitan area, it is endless countryside. In China people tend to have this fantasy about US that everywhere looks like New York City in US and people are rich and fashionable. They basically associate everything advanced with US but once they move to US they find out that besides the two coasts and Chicago area it was basically endless corn fields. The vastness of the countryside drives you mad. I did my bachelor in Tsinghua University, Beijing, China. According to most if not all Chinese it is the top university in China. In our Biological Sciences studies most of my classmates went abroad for masters or more often PhDs after graduation, normally with full scholarships. At that time we were young, like 21-23 years old, did not know much about the outside world. I was among the very few who actually went to Europe while most of us went to US.
When they come back to China from US for a visit their friends and family would gather around them with curious and eager eyes, asking:’so, how is the wonderful life in advanced US?’ and my classmates would answer with indignation as if they have been scammed:’What wonderful life? It’s fucking big corn fields!’
BTW, in China, we also have big corn fields. They do not look that appealing, no matter on which side of the Pacific. 🙂
In my bachelor years (eh… does not mean when I was single), I had 3 roommates in my dorm and one of them studied in Ohio State University for his PhD. Right, that is a uni in Cleveland, right in the middle of …… nowhere! no that’s not true, in the middle of…corn fields! This roommate warned me:’Do not go to Cleveland, unless it is totally necessary! There is nothing there and you do not want to end up there!’ This just made me even more curious. How terrible could it be? Also I had good reason to go there. The cousin of my dad moved to US about 15 years ago and I only saw him once on his wedding when I was a teenager. I would be the first family member to visit him ever since he moved to US!
One thing you do get if you drive through endless woods and corn fields is the repeating signs of deer on the roadside.
I:’So, man, have you ever encountered those deer while driving?’
He:’Oh man! You have no idea!’
He:’Once I was just driving and this big male deer jumped out the woods on my right side. I guess it thought it could just jump over my car but nope! It ended up half body inside my car, smashing the car window (pointing to the window just beside me, which have been replaced already.) It tried so hard to get out of the car that the antlers were knocking the roof of the car endlessly and totally destroyed the roof within two minutes.’
He:’I was fucking scared and called the police immediately! The cop came and looked around, tried several times to pull the deer out of the car but the front half of its body was simply so stuck that it could not get out. It was struggling and struggling, destroying more and more parts of my poor car. The cop immediately called all his colleagues and more than ten cops showed up, not to rescue my car, but simply to look at a deer stuck in a car! Obviously they had never seen that before.’
He:’The deer finally pulled out and immediately ran away, leaving my poor ravaged car on the roadside.’
I was envisaging his broken car with big holes on the roof and window beside some endless corn fields.
We were approaching the border of Pennsylvania State and Maryland State. I was glad that I actually made it this far but on the other hand I was disheartened by the gloomier prospect lying ahead……
The driver dropped me in a small run-down gas station near the highway. That was a small place called Warfordsburg, where the only noticeable thing was a big firework factory called Phantom Fireworks.
I went to ask the madame in the shop of the gas station if I could use the bathroom in the shop. Before I started my sentence, she shouted, with her cigarette in her right hand:’No backpacks inside!’
For small shops big backpacks were indeed inconvenient to move around. Moreover, I have to tell you another thing about backpacking in US. Eh… in US backpackers are seen more as homeless people, in same category as beggars, rather than travelers, so, be prepared dear traveler. 🙂
I was shocked, but said hesitatingly:’eh… ok….’ I put my backpack outside and used the bathroom, filling in my water bottles also.
That was a small place, really small and totally rundown. It looked almost deserted, with all the fallen paints on the wall and dirty ground, so after waiting for 10 minutes when the first car actually showed up to fill its tank I was genuinely surprised.
This kind of surprises happened a few times but none of them were going my way.
Then a bigger surprise (actually not so surprising) came, the madame came out again with her cigarette and pointed at a hand-written sign somewhere hidden among all the old advertisements on the wall. It said’no loitering allowed in the gas station’. Ok, I had to go again.
As there was no place for cars to pull over on the ramp and the traffic flow there was minimal, I had to go on the HIGHWAY again…
Although hitchhiking in US is really horrible, there are of course still some positive points there. Free wifi and bathrooms are easy to find and the tap water is drinkable. Before I set foot on the highway, I sent a message with a photo of the small gas station to my friends living in Bethesda, just in case I got hit by some deer they would know where to find my ravaged body. 😉
Yes, totally! Pennsylvania was even more difficult to hitchhike. Literally at least 900 vehicles passed by me and they were all going to my direction, far or near, but none stopped. With one hand holding my awesome sign and the other hand thumbing up, I stood for hours. I know I looked totally cool and sexy in this pose 😛 😀 , but eh… I did get tired after 3 hours. I took my backpack to a piece of grass near the highway, took out my Peruvian towel, with those colorful Incan stripes and my ear plugs and dozed off.
Two days later when I woke up I found this giant alien animal sitting beside me……
Just kidding. 😀 I woke up after about 1.5 hours and it was almost sunset. I prayed to the Goddess of Hitchhiking for the last try of the day, after which I would find a place to camp.
20 minutes later a car stopped in front of me!! WOWO! I was so excited (Long live the Goddess of Hitchhiking who answered my prayer! 😉 😀 )!!! until I saw the colorful blinking lights…. It’s a police car….
Two big policemen came out of the car and the one obviously in charge said:’You are not allowed to hitchhike here sir! There are two options for you. One is to walk off the highway right now by yourself and the other is have a ride with us to the next town.’
I:’Great! I am going wherever you guys are going!’
For a moment it seemed that the Goddess indeed answered my prayers! 😀
Policeman:’ The thing with getting a ride with us is that…eh… you have to be handcuffed. It‘s just standard procedure. Everybody in our car who is NOT a policeman has to be handcuffed.’
They looked quite relaxed and friendly the whole time, so I believed them and said:’all right……’.
Policeman:’Ok, do you have any guns, grenades or bazookas with you?’
Policeman:’Now turn back and put your hands on your back.’
Policeman:’Also we have to search your backpack.’
The other policeman who seemed to be a junior officer opened the bag while the one in charge was handcuffing me.
The junior officer took out my dried mushroom picked in the Amazon jungle in Ecuador and with a curious face asked:’So… is this a mushroom?’
He:’You said you lived in the Netherlands?……’
I sensed suspicion coming up and had to clarify:’It is a type medicine which is also used as cooking spice, nothing hallucinating.’
Now I was handcuffed, first time in my life. Even when I was hitchhiking in Taliban controlled area in Pakistan, even when I was crossing border illegally from Uganda to Congo I was never handcuffed. Now I was in the peaceful US countryside and I got handcuffed. WOWO!
Policeman in charge:’so I guess you don’t have a lot of experiences with being handcuffed in a vehicle. When you sit there, it’s gonna hurt your wrists. You can push your body more in the front and create a cove between your back and the seat back. Put your hands there. That’s how we transport criminals for long distance.’
Great tip! It turned out to be very useful.
The junior officer opened the back door and I stepped in. Then the car started. I saw a fully loaded shotgun anchored between the two front seats, within the reach of my arm.
Officer in charge:’so, again, according to our regulation, everything happening inside the car has to be recorded, sound and image.’
I:’OK…’ They turned on the two video cameras and a voice recorder in the car. More and more I had the feeling that I was actually being arrested and they tricked me into that. I would end up in a police station and then maybe jailed for a while if not extradited. No hitchhiking anymore!
Officer in charge:’eh, also for standard procedure, we have to register your information.’ Then he opened a laptop and started to ask for my full name, DOB and place of birth and so on. I became more and more certain that I was being arrested.
It is not uncommon for me to get into tricky situations while hitchhiking and normally there is always a way to get out of it. In African countries it was bribing but here surely that would not work. I normally just use what I am good at — talking! Even in Africa, I talked my way out of troubles several times, befriending, bluffing or simply telling the truth. No matter they were going to take me to the police station or not, I was going to try talking to them to find out.
I:’So do you actually see many hitchhikers around here?’
Officer in charge:’A few, every week perhaps two hitchhikers.’
I:’Seriously? I never saw one yet in US. Do they give any troubles?’
Officer in charge:’No, not really, they are pretty ok generally. Mostly they just don’t know the laws around here. It’s illegal to hitchhike on the highway.’
That sounded good! I started to casually tell them about my more than 3 years travel on the road and made some jokes about it, such as being robbed by monkeys in Nepal and Cambodia and could not report that to the police. They laughed. That was another good sign.
I:’Sir, I am just wondering if I encounter any danger, what should I do?’
Officer in charge:’Eh, first just try to avoid it. Then if people are really looking for trouble, try to fake a epilepsy attack, like twitching on the ground, spitting some foam. Normally that would scare people away.’
What a nice idea! 😀
Officer in charge:’If then they still trouble you, then you have to contact us and we deal with that.’
They warned me of bears and deer around the area in case I would go camping.
Ok, now I was almost certain that they were friendly and would not take me to the police station. I was quite relieved and started chatting with them. They turned out to be quite cool. That was the thing about people in US. They are very paranoid in general to strangers, but once you talk to them nicely and make jokes, they are very easy to get along.
They started to discuss where to drop me as we were approaching the next town. The next town was called Breezewood, said to be a quite big place, which featured about 3 streets. WOWO! 😀
They dropped me at a gas station where there was also a Dunkin Donuts, indeed a very good spot for hitchhiking, as long as I was allowed to ask around.
The back door was locked and I could not open it myself. The junior officer laughed and opened the door from outside for me. Obviously for keeping the prisoners the back doors were designed to be only opened from outside.
Before unlocking my handcuff, I asked the officer in charge to take a photo for me with my mobile phone. He smiled and did just that. I said thanks to them and they drove away.
I asked the first person I saw there, a middle-aged woman and she said she had to discuss it with her husband, who came out of Dunkin Donuts a couple of minutes later. I waited patiently and they agreed to take me.
Again, waiting on the road took endless time but asking around just took minutes……
I:’Are you going to Pittsburgh?’
Man:’Actually we would pass Cleveland and go all the way to Michigan.’
Seriously, you never know what surprises the road will bring you and that’s the BEAUTY of it. 🙂
To be continued.