Steven Axelrod shares his experiences hitchhiking, from the first time he stuck his thumb out to the stories and discoveries that followed.
I’ve been hitch-hiking for the last week. I live at one end of my little island and most of my work happens at the other end, so I’m usually on the road a lot. But with one car off-island and the other in the shop – and taxis costing twenty dollars a trip – I decided to stick my thumb out and take my chances.
It was frustrating at first, but it woke me up, the way re-arranging your routines always does. Just waiting for a ride was instructive, watching all the fat SUVs full of fat people with their faces pulled tight against any eye contact with the beggar at the side of the road. I was amazed at how many of them didn’t pick me up. I’m not an axe-murderer and I live in a small island; the news would get around if we had a mad hitch-hiking killer-rapist in town.
But as car after car blew past me, metaphors seemed to coalesce around the experience. It reminded me of so many other moments in my life when I had left some small portion of my fate in other hands. In the ocean, waiting for a wave; or sending out stories and waiting for the response. Normally you get the form letter rejection slip, but once in a while the letter comes back without your own handwriting on the stamped-self-addressed envelope and you know you made contact with a stranger, and that stranger wants to introduce your work to a wider world.
Eventually a car picks you up as well.
I said to old time Nantucket home builder Neils Van Vorst, when he pulled over, “You’re one in … let me see – two hundred and eleven.” He was a little shocked by the number, but there’s an upside to the ordeal. Hitchhiking filters the world for you: all the annoying jerks drive right by and invariably the people who actually pick you up are interesting, generous, smart, funny – and cool. Neils had to stop by a house he’d just finished building on the water; I stayed in the car and petted his terriers, reading the scatter of literary magazines on the rubber mat at my feet. On the way out to Polpis we talked about politics and the Conservation Commission and Vladimir Nabokov; I showed him around the old cow shed where Annie and I live, when he dropped me off. I knew he’d appreciate it.
A high school poet picked me up; a local actor and piano tuner gave me a ride. So did a new Dad who had to move his child seat into the bed of his pick-up to make room. Old money Nantucket rich people gave me rides and we bemoaned the island’s decline; new arrivals picked me up and we rhapsodized its glory. A real estate agent offered me painting work; a local newspaper editor asked me to write an editorial about my vagabond status.
It was an extraordinary week, and I thought to myself – to hell with the car! I have too big a carbon footprint anyway. I’ll hitch all the time now – unless I’m moving ladders or clearing out a job site, or something. I was asleep before in the soft futon of my old routines, and I was missing everything! Now I’m awake. Hooray for me!
But of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. I have my car back and I’m driving it happily, air-conditioning on, big-footing my carbon trail all over Nantucket, just the same as ever. Never has anyone been so eager to get back to sleep.
But I have to say … it was fun being awake, while it lasted.
Originally appeared at Open Salon.