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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


People you meet from a hitchhiking trip

Steven Spooner
Uddyalok Banerjee photographs the Grand Canyon at sunset on March 13, 2017. Uddyalok is a hobby photographer.

Sunday morning began with two eggs, a cup of coffee and an empty 90-liter backpack. Supplies sat around the pack while I looked over a map of Arizona. The loosely made plan for spring break was to hitchhike up through Show Low, Arizona to St. George, Utah and circle around to Kingman, Arizona, then back to Tucson. The catch was I’d have to do all of that by Friday, when I had to work.

I packed up, jumped in my car and parked it at the Linda Vista Trailhead, where it would sit until I returned, whenever that would be. I walked out to Oracle Road, threw a thumb up at around 2 p.m., and the trip began.

To my surprise, it only took about 10 minutes to get my first ride. A pickup truck with a camper on the back pulled off the road. After running over to talk to the driver, I was greeted by a medium-sized dog barking in my face.

The driver said she could take me out just past Biosphere 2. After opening the back of her truck, I threw my pack in, avoiding the bits of cholla back there, and jumped in the passenger seat, dog still barking at me, and we were off.

After a brief introduction, the driver, Deborah Oslik, began asking me questions, no doubt trying to feel out the stranger she had just let into her car. After explaining that I was a university student on spring break, her tension eased, and I got my chance to ask her about why she was willing to pick me up.

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“We’re just so busy, focused on ourselves,” Oslik said. “It’s nice to prioritize someone else without planning it.”

She explained that she used to hitchhike a little, mostly around national parks where she felt safer doing so. She said she doesn’t pick up every hitchhiker she sees, describing it as “contextual.” She said I looked like a college student doing some kind of trip, which made her more comfortable about picking me up.

About 20 minutes later, she dropped me off at the outskirts of Oracle, Arizona. Not too much later, I got a ride from a white Toyota Tacoma. It was an older model, sitting low to the ground, with a camper on the back. An old man with a hearing aid and a couple cuts on his cleanly bald head offered to take me to the other end of Oracle, where I might better be able to get a ride.

Peter, 74, started talking right when I got in the car. He lived alone in Oracle in a small house with a big yard where he had a shop to work on the half dozen or so cars parked there. I know this because he invited me there for a beer, an offer I would normally never take a stranger up on, but I had a good feeling about Peter, so I did.

The house had a nice interior, small and comfortable, a pretty nice audio set up in front of the couch. I watched him carefully as he took out and opened a couple beers. Good feeling or not, this was new territory. He told me that he used to hitchhike a little when he was younger. He said he isn’t afraid of picking up hitchhikers seeing as he hasn’t had problems before. He was really excited to have someone to talk to. He talked my ear off for the next half hour all about old friends he used to have, including his best friend Danny.

“Now don’t freak out, I’m an openly gay man,” Peter said.

He told his dad about it when he was a teenager, and his dad responded, “Oh.” Years later Peter lived with his friend Danny, another openly gay man. They were always only friends, although Danny wanted more from it, according to Peter. Years later, when Peter was in his 60s, he received a call from Danny’s business partner. Danny contracted AIDs. After flying out to see him on his death bed, he told Danny how much he fucked up by not returning his affection. Danny responded by saying thanks. That was the last time Peter ever saw Danny.

“I wish I would have loved that man more intimately,” Peter said.

When we got back into Peter’s car, he offered to take me all the way out to Mammoth, Arizona. I of course took him up on that offer. We got to talk for about another half hour before he dropped me off on the far side of Mammoth. He gave me his number in case I was ever in Oracle and left for home. I had about two hours before the sun went down, which made me nervous because I wanted to make it to Holbrook that night. My confidence was shrinking when car after car passed without stopping.

Finally, a white Chevy truck pulled over about an hour later and let me in. This was how I got a ride all the way up to Snowflake, a little town just out of Show Low and 28 miles from Holbrook.

The driver told me his name was Matt Smith. His dash was covered with packs of Pyramid cigarettes, various books and loose papers and an empty bag of Fritos.

Smith said he lives in Snowflake but his fiancé was in Oro Valley, so he was driving back from seeing her. I asked him why he picked me up.

“Long drive and no one to talk to,” Smith said. “You don’t look like a tweaker.”

Smith said he did electrical and radio contracting for a living. He spends much of his free time brewing his own beer and building his own airplane. I asked if he had a pilot’s license. He said he doesn’t.

It was dark when we got to Snowflake. He let me off in the city, but close to the edge on the 77, leading up to Holbrook. I started walking out along the highway. I put on a headlamp and tried to hitch a ride but didn’t expect to get one so late.

After walking about five miles, a car finally pulled over right in front of me. My excitement quickly faded when I made out the lights on the top of the car. Another car pulled off behind that car and two cops came out to talk to me.

The first officer was polite, asked me to step further away from the shoulder and to show him my ID. Apparently most of the cars I tried to hitch a ride from couldn’t see my thumb, but could only see my headlamp, which led someone to report it to the police.

While the one officer ran my ID, I explained to the other that I was traveling and trying to hitch a ride. He asked if I knew that hitchhiking was illegal. I responded by saying it wasn’t so long as I was off the shoulder and not obstructing the highway. After that, they gave me my ID back, told me not to blind any more cars and then left.

I was not thrilled about being on the highway at night now, since I needed the headlamp to keep from getting hit by a car. So I walked probably another mile until I got past the ranches on the outskirts of Snowflake.

I got to the last building and saw a good place to hop the barbed wire fence. I was more tired than I was nervous about cowboy-camping on private land, so I crawled with my pack into a bundle of juniper trees and fell asleep.

The next morning, I packed up quickly and got my thumb back up. It wasn’t too long until a gray Ford Focus pulled over to give me a ride.

A middle-aged woman offered me a ride to Holbrook. The inside of her car was clean with a breathalyzer attached to the ignition. She told me her name was Ida, a single mother with four kids.

Right when I got in the car she made a joke about the breathalyzer, saying that at least I know she’s sober. According to her, she received a DUI when she drove from a bar to keep her friend from killing himself.

“It was irresponsible, but I would do it again,” Ida said.

She dropped me off at the on-ramp to the I-40 toward Flagstaff. I waited there for about an hour with no luck. Later, a clean yellow truck with veteran stickers on the back window pulled over.

Danny “Jeremie” Washburn, 69, offered me a ride to Flagstaff; he was headed through on his way to Las Vegas.

He is currently on disability and used to be a trucker. He said he used to hitchhike back in 1969 when he was in the army and didn’t have a car.

Washburn said he didn’t mind picking me up since he was driving by himself. If he had his family with him, he said it would have been a different story. I also asked him if he ever got nervous picking up hitchhikers.

“No, I have a gun,” he said.

He spent a decent amount of time talking about war and his time in the army.

“If anyone says there’s glory in war, they’re either fucking insane or don’t understand it,” Washburn said.

He dropped me off in downtown Flagstaff. The new plan was to head up to the Grand Canyon and camp there before heading back to Tucson. I didn’t want to risk going all the way to Utah since I couldn’t miss work on Friday.

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After two rides and more waiting, a white four-door sedan pulled over and let me in.

William was the driver, a man in his late 40s wearing a bandanna with a blond braided tail coming down from the back. The car had a variety of tools and miscellaneous objects lying around. A green tea can sat in the cup holder.

William said he picks up hitchhikers on this route all the time, saying he figured I worked at the Grand Canyon. He offered to take me to Valle, a small town less than 30 miles south of the Grand Canyon. William hitchhiked all over the country when he was young.

“It was a little different back then,” William said, mentioning how tuckers usually picked up hitchhikers for the company to keep them awake. Nowadays, it’s against company policy. He spoke with a tone of nostalgia, as though reminiscing on a dying age.

He dropped me off in Valle, where I waited about half an hour for a ride. This time, an orange Range Rover pulled off the highway.

Kelly was a 58-year-old “hippy” who currently lives and works in the national park. She also assumed I worked at the Grand Canyon or was at least looking for work.

She seemed very comfortable picking me up.

“I don’t feel threatened, this is my neighborhood,” Kelly said.

Kelly ended up being a real stroke of luck. Since she was a resident, we took a resident entrance into the park where we didn’t have to pay to enter.

After being dropped off, I had enough sunlight to hike the along the South Rim and get to a viewing point for sunset. After the sun went down, I took a shuttle out that Kelly mentioned to Tusayan, the town bordering the Grand Canyon.

I camped on a ranger forest service road, and the next morning, I was back looking for a ride. This time, a white pickup truck offered to get me back down to Flagstaff.

I asked John, the driver, to drop me off on the exit to the 89A to Sedona. My thinking was that I might get a ride from someone going all the way to Tucson from Sedona. It was not a good decision.

It was beautiful riding through Sedona, although it was very hot. I ended up getting three different rides just to the end of Sedona. I got one more ride from an Ecuadorian man named Claudia in a gray station wagon, who came to Arizona over 20 years ago without knowing a lick of English. He gave me a ride out to the I-17 despite it being out of his way. I couldn’t thank him enough.

Later, once I got to the interstate, it took me 20 or so minutes to get a ride. Two guys, covered in tattoos, open beer in the driver’s hand, picked me up and took me to Camp Verde.

They gave me a cold beer and let me out at the gas station next to the ramp for the I-17.

It was almost sunset, and I was very nervous hitchhiking on the Interstate. I had to walk down for a bit until I found a place that a car could pull out safely.

Just before the sun disappeared over the mountains to my south, a brown truck with various Arizona-themed bumper stickers on the back pulled over. That was how I got down to Phoenix.

Mike, a 20-year-old trip guide, was coming back from kayaking rapids trip. Mike was the youngest person to ever pick me up, in fact the only person in my age demographic ever to do so. He dropped me off somewhere in Phoenix, leaving me a business card in case I ever wanted to hire him for a trip.

I wasn’t very comfortable hitchhiking in Phoenix at night or sleeping on the streets, so I called a friend of mine who gave me a place to stay and in the morning she dropped me off at Apache Junction on the US 60. I got two rides that took me just past the Arizona Renaissance Festival.

It took me over an hour to finally get my last ride. A small red truck pulled over. The driver said he was going to Tucson. I couldn’t be more excited, mostly because I was worried about getting stuck in Florence with the prison.

After throwing my pack in the bed and jumping in the passenger seat, my excitement snapped to caution when I saw a handgun sitting in his lap. Maybe I should have gotten out, but before I could make a decision the car was already moving.

The car was covered in Star Wars stickers.

After a quick introduction, the driver grabbed the gun, told me not to worry and put it in the side pocket of the driver side door.

Ryan Churchhill, he said his name was, spent a decent amount of time in Europe living out of a backpack and hitchhiking. He also talked a lot about his 7-year-old daughter and how she reads at a ninth-grade level.

He gave me a ride all the way back to my car parked at Linda Vista. Just like that I was back at my car at 3 p.m. on Wednesday.

Follow Steven Spooner on Twitter.

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