A Hitchhiker's Guide to America

Author Elijah Wald at work.

Author Elijah Wald at work. Sandrine Sheon hide caption

itoggle caption Sandrine Sheon

When he was 16, Elijah Wald found himself stuck in Reno after the bus he was taking to San Francisco broke down. He decided to hitchhike the rest of the way.

Three decades later, he has crossed the United States at least a dozen times on a smile and an outstretched thumb. He's found rides on three other continents and has accumulated enough stories and experience to write a book called Riding with Strangers: A Hitchhiker's Journey.

Wald discusses his hitchhiker's guide to highways, rest stops and the adventure of travel by thumb.

Excerpt: 'Riding with Strangers'

Cover of 'Riding with Strangers'

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It is one of the oddities of hitchhiking, how many drivers seem to admire or envy you for being out on the road, by yourself, with no visible ties to anything. It is the other American dream, the flip side of the good job, the house in the suburbs, the spouse and 2.4 kids. And it has the added allure of being within reach, something they might grab hold of if things were just a little different. I once had a millionaire pick me up and spend our whole drive talking about how much he wished he could get out on the road like I was doing. He only interrupted the fantasy to draw my attention to a cherry red sports car: "I've got three other cars, and that Porsche that just passed us, did you see the girl inside? That's my mistress, she's a modern dancer. I have a factory making directional systems for guided missiles, I could give you a job tomorrow — but you wouldn't want that, would you? You have a better life than I have. I wish I could just pack it all in and join you."

I used to think those wistful monologues were pure bulls—-. I would listen politely, but I felt like saying, "No, you don't really want to get out here on the road. Because if you did, you'd do it." I was wrong, though, or at least unfair. Because I was lucky from the beginning. I didn't have parents who needed me to support them, I never had kids, and the first woman I proposed to turned me down flat. I don't need a stable income, and what I do need I can make as a musician and a writer. So it's easy for me to pull up stakes and hit the road when the mood strikes me. And yes, other people can too, almost any of them if they want it badly enough, but it is not always such an easy decision. I have met guys on the road who have abandoned families — a couple of women, too, but mostly men — or whose parents haven't spoken to them in twenty years and may be alive or dead. And they don't talk about the freedom as lightly. They talk about how they were trapped, how they really had no choice, and they may have a fierce joy about them, but also the sense that if they were better men they might have stuck it out and fulfilled their responsibilities.

For most people, though, the responsibilities are beside the point. If they think about it seriously for even a minute, they are perfectly conscious that they would not want this life. They like knowing where they will wake up tomorrow, and have no real desire to sleep in backyards and be rousted by cops at four in the morning. You have to be a little strange to enjoy that. But I'm glad that they at least like to toy with the idea. It is a kind of reassurance for me, implying that I am not completely and inexplicably nuts. And of course, the vicarious sense of freedom they get from picking up a roadside wanderer gives them another good reason to pull over.

My current driver told me he had once hitched home from North Dakota with his ex-wife. They'd gone up there to deliver a pickup truck, and were going to take a bus back, but they were having breakfast in a diner full of truck drivers, and he decided to ask around. He found a guy heading south, and after that they were passed from truck to truck, the drivers arranging the rides over the CB. He shook his head, smiling at the memory. "That woman was a lot of fun. She was game for anything. And I really enjoyed that trip. Now, I got diabetes and heart trouble, and I need a cane just to get from the front door to my car. I'm all old and beat to sh—."

He had planned to turn off earlier, heading west to the small town where he lived, but took me another ten miles up to Wayland, just a few miles from the state border. He said that would be a good place for me, because the truckers would all be taking a little branch road due north from there, the shortcut into Iowa.

Reprinted with permission from Riding with Strangers by Elijah Wald. Text copyright 2006 Elijah Wald. Published by Chicago Review Press (distributed by IPG).

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Riding With Strangers

A Hitchhiker's Journey

by Elijah Wald

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