How to Ride the Magic Ribbon One Hitchhikers Guide to Thumbing It

The author, Michael Sean Comerford , and his backpack along a road


Hitchhiking in the new age of wanderlust comes with cell phones, social media and adventure blogs.

It’s different than other decades because hitchhikers and drivers are different. What hasn’t changed is that it is still the getaway for poets, artists and dreamers hungry for inspiration on the open road. Runaways and the restless go to the highways, often not knowing where they are going or what compels them. Not always lost but driven. The hitchhiking world is still a subculture onto itself and it’s time for you to join. It’s a free ride that will blow your mind.

Another side that hasn’t changed: hitchhiking is dangerous and people do pick you up. Every statistical, computer generated model says the chances of violence on the road are infinitesimal, but not impossible. Danger adds a sting to every ride. You and the driver will think about it every time. As for getting rides in the 2010s, I’m versed on the subject.

In the past I hitchhiked all the US states but Hawaii. Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa have all seen my thumb. In 2013, I decided to write a book about traveling carnivals and hitchhiked to ten, working games and rides from California to New Jersey, Alaska to Florida. I worked a freak show, though I didn’t get on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in me.

I lived on carnival wages so I hitchhiked between gigs, racking up more than 15,000 miles. That many miles in North America is unusual. I checked on the internet and I believe that made me the #1 hitchhiker in America that year. Last year I hitched Washington D.C. to southwest Florida, about 1,100 miles.

I wrote a personal blog and had another on Huffington Post. My Facebook posts were fast and furious. In that way, I was a hitchhiker of the 2010s, keeping the social media up on my hitchhiking. I now read other hitchhiking blogs for fun, unsure how much more hitchhiking I’ll be doing at age 56.

Yet I didn’t take full advantage of the technology. People search for places to stay the night at and Craigslist operates a ride sharing site. Counterculture gatherings, communities and hitchhiking races are all over the Web.

Word of mouth is still the best way to find gatherings and places to party. You won’t be alone. The #1 hitchhiking site on the Web is Hitchwiki, which says it gets 3,000 visitors a day and is growing by 20 percent a year. Hitchwiki’s top users come from Germany, USA, France, Poland and the UK. So if you’re thinking about hitchhiking in Europe for your vacation, it is even more common on that continent.

Nevertheless, hitchhiking changes with the decades. In the 40s, fewer people had cars and WWII veterans needed rides too. It was a patriotic duty (in Israel, a man in uniform, armed or not, will get a ride before you still). In the 50s, beatniks and writer Jack Kerouac romanticized the experience. The anti-­war and hippie cultures of the 60s did the same. I started hitchhiking in the 70s and predicted at the time, people in the future will say it was easier back in the 70s. Except for the tech, it’s similar.

I relied on a Rand McNally atlas to show me towns and national parks. For sleeping, I reverted to my old ways, sleeping outside, shelters and hostels. I slept under bridges, in a baseball park’s scorer’s box and in an outdoor horse palladium. When evening light faded I searched the horizon for a bank of trees or bushes to call home for the night.

Hitchhiking isn’t easy. Expect long waits but have faith they will come. On my 2013 trip, I spent more than two days beside the road rideless in New Mexico, Texas and Canada. Even those days were cool. I met other hitchhikers and when a ride finally came, the clouds opened up, angels began singing and I was baptized in glory. Hallelujah.

A hitchhiker spirit inhabits American roads and it changes with the generations because the young own the road. Older people like myself are like former ­pro athletes who still play but are not at that level. Still, hitchhiking is for everybody. British comedian Tony Hawks a few years ago hitchhiked around Ireland with a refrigerator. In Canada, a driver told me about his blind cousin who hitches all around Canada with his cane. A New Mexico driver told me of picking wheelchair hitchhikers in the deserts of the Southwest. Nothing should stop you, not fear, not change, not anything.

You must get a ride to the nearest interstate and feel a truck’s tailwind blow back your hair. Be fearless. Be adventurous. Create a new life or don’t, many hitchhikers do it on vacations or work breaks. Return home with a backpack of road stories then go online. Live a bold life for a while on the open road.

You don’t need dat

When packing your backpack, light is right. Shed things as you go. A water bottle is perhaps the most important item on the trip along with a map and sleeping bag. A GPS on your phone is great for spotting the next exit but maps anticipate upcoming junctions. My cheap phone in 2013 didn’t even have GPS. I don’t leave home without a Rand McNally atlas.

Don’t be a stinker. Bring toilet paper. Yes, you might have to shit in the woods like those notorious bears people talk about. Truck stops have showers and cheap cologne or perfume is easy to find. “Hobo showers” are a good way to stay clean, washing your hair and pits in a truck stop, visitor center or fast food restaurant bathroom.

My gear was stolen in Amarillo, Texas when I went to sleep under a tree for an ­afternoon nap. The pack was too far from my sleeping spot and a car drove up and whisked it away. When I woke I cursed my stupidity and was forced to buy a red airline luggage bag at a local Target. I carried that bag in my arms from Texas to New Jersey. On my back was my laptop, which I used to blog about the carnivals and at Wifi hotspots along the way. So you don’t even need a backpack. Nevertheless, a good backpack is by far the best option because hitchhiking requires lots of walking between spots and to the edge of towns where the rides are the best.

My tent was stolen too by that Texas scoundrel so I reverted to my urban and wilderness camping skills. I looked for banks of trees and bushes away from walkers and cops. I must have been pretty good too because I often found large, flattened cardboard boxes where previous travelers had made their bed. When it was rainy or cold, I spent the night in truck stops or in diners like Denny’s with their $4 all-­you-­can-­eat pancake specials. I spent the time typing notes and stories from recent days. When that wasn’t available, I searched for dark areas with overhangs of stores or bridges. Longtime hitchhikers reduce the weight of their packs by carrying a tarp; it protects against the rain but not the bugs.

Don’t forget a marker or pen for your hitchhiking sign. A can opener and a spoon are handy for cheap eats. I still remember the hot Texas sun beating me like a stray dog one afternoon when I pulled out a can of mixed fruit in its juices. Nothing makes drink so good as thirst, or mixed fruit so good as hunger.

Still, many people pack for every circumstance and my packs were too heavy too. I carried a laptop and notebooks. An atlas, water, sleeping bag, change of clothes, poncho, cell phone and guile are the basics.

Most times, you don’t need dat. Just pack a golden thumb.

Anticipate then Participate

My first long hitchhike, similar to other early hitchhikes, came after an argument with someone close to me. I was so angry. I had to split. The best way to hitchhike is to plan and then improvise. Once, I started out for New Orleans and ended in Dallas, started for Paris and ended in Rome. Last summer, I hitched 1,100 miles and the last ride dropped me off on my door step. Hitchhiking will surprise you every time.

It’s still about walking to a good spot with a long sight line so drivers can see you. Dress so you don’t scare them. Smile like you’re a friendly chum not the Joker’s smile from Batman. A big cardboard sign should say the name of the next big city or the next junction.

Joke signs are highly effective. In Florida last summer, a transgender woman named April Summers picked me up and told me about having spent 15 years hitchhiking. She guessed she hitched more than a million miles (on the road, enjoy the story, most are as true as people can tell them). April’s favorite signs were, “Twilight Zone,” and “Normal.” When picked up and asked about her “Normal” sign, she’d say, “Do you know where normal is? Take me there.”

I saw a hitchhiker online with a sign, “Freshly Showered.” A traveler by the name of the Expert Vagabond uses, “Rabies Free (since June),” “Free Cookies,” and “I won’t kill you.”

Every hitchhiker is a bit neurotic about the way they appear beside the road. I change my stance once in a while so people see movement on the horizon. Some people move their sign a bit. I’ve seen sites suggesting bright clothes, no hats and no bizarre haircuts. That’s all bullshit to me, make eye contact and smile.

However, don’t be like me and go hitchhiking in a huff. Plan. Be what hitchhikers and hobos call a, “Summer Bunny.” Leave during good weather. Winter in Key West or play house and stay inside. Visit people you like. See places you’ve always wanted to see. Remember, hitchhiking is international and free. You can go anywhere.

The cops can be hassles or give you a ride to the next exit. You can’t walk across borders, you need a ride and border guards often make it harder on hitchhikers. And all hitchhikers know about “rocking,” which is a hobo term for kids throwing rocks. I’ve never seen rocks but I’ve had near misses with soda cans, fruit, trash and firecrackers flying out of speeding cars full of teenagers.

Lastly, your driver is the wild card. I’ve ridden with mentally unstable people and my dodge is always to listen politely and then tell them I have to go to the rest room at the next exit. Then I say I think I’ll stay a while. Another is the drunk or high driver. That car door opens up and a blast of Budweiser breath overwhelms you. Or the door opens up and pot smoke comes pouring out and surrounds you like a London fog. You have to choose. I got in every time and have never regretted it. Once I got in and the beer guzzling driver was a nuclear safety engineer. Another driver smoking pot from a deer antler talked all night about the counterculture scene. I took chances and I’m here to tell the tale.

For safety, I’ve read some people bring pepper spray and reflective gear for night hitchhiking. I never hitched at night unless at a truck stop. I brought a pocket knife with me in the 80’s but it takes too long to open, so in this decade I decided to “go naked,” without a weapon.

On that note, solo hitchhiking for women is also safe as far as I can tell. I’ve never heard of a hitchhiking woman being raped. Most women hitch with their men but I’ve seen solo female hitchhikers too. The adage on the road is that the fastest way to get a ride is to “bring your vagina.”

Four hitchhikers pose for a photo, including the author
Rainbow Eric, right, Apocalypse Julie and the Electric Leprechaun saying goodbye to me at a McDonald’s in Butte, Montana. From Burlington, Vermont, they were sharing their expenses on their way to a Rainbow Gathering in Big Sky country. In the 1,451 miles from Chicago, we dumpster dove together, slept outside and counterculture kvetched.

Best and Worst States

I was setting up rides for a carnival in Jefferson Valley, New York on a Tuesday when I received a call from a Chicago carnival owner saying if I showed up by Friday I had a job. I’d also be in time for my 8 year ­old daughter’s birthday in Chicago. I quit that minute.

This violates a hitchhiker maxim to never hitch with a deadline, but I’ve yet to see any “hitchhiking cops”, so…

I was worried about real cops, this time rightly. The Taconic Parkway was my only option, it has the high volume of traffic hitchhikers seek but being a parkway it had no place for cars to pull over safely to pick me up. I hitched anyway.

Soon, a New York State trooper pulled up and she lit into me.

“Don’t you know hitchhiking is dangerous,” she said. “Don’t you know you could get killed. I ought to run you in.”

I could have told her I’ve been hitchhiking for three decades and thousands of miles that year but another hitchhiker rule is to be extra deferential to law enforcement. All hell can break loose. Freakonomics used their best computer hacks to calculate the risks of hitchhiking and found a .0000089 percent chance of you getting raped or killed while hitching.

As she checked out my license, she backed up traffic and a driver honked. She went back to yell at the driver, too. Another patrolman stopped to help, concerned about the 6’5″ inch vagabond. She told me to get in the back of her squad, behind the steel gate separating the officer from the passenger. She drove me to the next exit and yelled at me again.

“Stop looking out the window, I know you’re looking at another spot,” she said. “Hitchhiking is illegal in New York. If I catch you again I’m arresting you.”

I unloaded my airline luggage from the squad car, walked to the back of a local gas station, ripped a cardboard lip off a box and wrote “To I-­84.”

It was about 10 miles down the road.

Soon, a local cop came up and told me the same thing. I showed him my Hitchwiki map that claimed New York as a hitchhiker friendly state. He said he was young enough to remember the code number that outlaws hitchhiking. Then I said I would back up and hitch from the gas station private property. He said he was going to recommend the owner not allow me to loiter. He left and I walked to a side street and started hitchhiking again.

Soon, three squad cars pulled up and surrounded me, cherry lights spinning.

“What am I boys,” I said, “public enemy #1?”

I told them about Hitchwiki and said local side streets are under local ordinances so I’m okay. They said my lawyer skills were full of crap.

When I told them I couldn’t afford a train to New York or a bus to Chicago, I asked how far to the Pennsylvania border. They said 50 miles or more. I said I’ll walk. The rookie in the group drove me to the next city and I promptly put my sign on the back of my laptop backpack, picked up my luggage and started walking.

After several miles of walking, without my thumb out, just the sign on my back, a pick­up truck pulled up. A father, his son and the family dog were in the cab. To the son, I was a work of fiction, or history. He appeared more confused than the dog. Dad said I could hop back in the flatbed. They peeled away from the curb and we whorled down the road passing commuter after stunned commuter. The wind, the noise, the feeling isn’t matched by anything.

And I’ve been skydiving.

After six cops in two hours I was headed toward the America’s Rhine, the Hudson River. Here’s what I wrote for my blog.

I wanted to scream, whoop and sing ‘Good morning America how are ya? Don’t you know me? I’m your native son.’ Light up the sky, kiss the girls, jig till I trip and laugh. It was swear­-at-­the-sky happiness.

The cops of New York were inhospitable but not terribly abusive. I hitched 36 states in 2013 and another five last year. Long-­time hitchhikers I met in Arkansas, Bear and Ru, told me they never could get through New Jersey. The Hitchwiki map says it’s clearly outlawed in Delaware, Idaho, Nevada and Utah. I caught my best rides in the Western states and some of my craziest rides in Florida.

Road Booty

Money, meals and sex await the hitchhiker these days.

Many drivers will stop to buy themselves and you a meal. A Chinese cook in New Mexico pulled off for an all-­you-­can­eat Golden Coral dinner for me. Many will end their ride by offering you a $10 or a $20. Hitchhiker etiquette says you must take anything offered, needed or not.

I’ve had a trucker throw a one dollar bill out his window for me. People in cars filled with all their life’s possessions came up to me at gas stations and gave me as little as 50 cents.

A veteran of hitchhiking for the last eight months, Eli Steinberg, 20, of Rome, New York, said he hitchhikes with almost no money and relies on money from drivers and dumpster diving.

“I dumpster ­dived for most of my food on the road,” says Eli, claiming he’s hitched 10,000 miles.

“It is by far the easiest, cheapest method of getting a bite.”

Ways to make money are busking and odd jobs. Having no musical skills, I sought hostels to tell me where day labor work could be found. Nevertheless, Eli is right, you don’t need money to hitchhike. You need money to stay put.

When I was younger, I was hit on many times but everyone was respectful when I declined. During my ride in Florida, April Summers talked at length about her 15 years of hitchhiking sexploits.

On my trip through the Yukon Territory, a pretty, French-­speaking outpost nurse pulled over and offered me a meal at her home. I stayed the night. She gave me a lift to Destruction Bay in the morning, with a long kiss goodbye. Differently I still think of the Yukon Territory.

Before I exaggerate too much, this hetero didn’t experience much sex on the road. Just lots of fantasies. It may be different for women.

In the state where I tend to get the most exotic rides, Florida, I was picked up by a tree trimmer. All was going normally as he talked about his girlfriend, his kids, his love of tree trimming because he felt like an artist shaping trees. Then I noticed he was driving his shaking wreck at more than 80 mph and he mentioned he had a few beers after work. He looked over and blurted out, “How about if I give you a hand job?”

That moment has to rank among the top awkward moments in my life of changing topics.

Write Like the Wind

Jack Kerouac famously wrote a fictional hitchhiking account in, On the Road and so did John Steinbeck in, Grapes of Wrath. Real lives resonate deeper.

Bring a small notebook to carry in your back pocket. Write the best jokes. Use your smart phone to film their best story. Take pictures, you’ll forget the color of their eyes or their expressions.

I love asking people their best horror or ghost story. Mostly, I ask about their youth. Keep away from expressing your own religious or political beliefs. You don’t want to argue with the person giving you a free ride.

MacArthur Fellowship-­winning writer Colson Whitehead wrote a “How to Write” essay a couple years back with 11 rules, that didn’t include hitchhiking but should have.

Rule #9 ­Have adventures … Keep ahead of the curve. Get out and see the world. It’s not going to kill you to butch it up a tad. Book passage on a tramp steamer. Rustle up some dysentery; it’s worth it for the fever dreams alone. Lose a kidney in a knife fight. You’ll be glad you did.

You’re damn right hitchhiking increases the number of adventures in your life and yet you don’t have to write a book about it all. I recommend writing because it makes you aware of life. You pay attention closer if you are writing something. Who gives a damn if the writing sees the light of day, you’ll know. It will intensify your experience.

Best Time of Your Life

Elijah Wald’s book, “Riding with Strangers: A Hitchhiker’s Journey,” is full of great quotes and reminiscences of famous people who hitchhiked in their youth, from Ronald Reagan to Eminem.

Most of them neglected to mention the wind and rain, you’d think every hitchhiking day was a sunny day. Yet that is what they remember, the exceptional days on the open road.

If you want to go on a long trip, lose yourself. Find yourself. Remake yourself. Beat a path.

Hitch to Burning Man or the Grand Canyon. If time is short, hitchhike to a friend’s place on the coast and surprise her.

The prime directive is to travel and experience life, hitchhiking ups the ante fast. So get off your ass and go see the world. Conquer. Fail. Win. Lose. Live. The road is calling.