“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD,
plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and
a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to
me, and I will hear you.” (Jer 29:11-12 ESV)
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
During spring break in March, 1973, I visited my parents driving a Volvo owned by a wealthy graduate student from Bloomington, Indiana to in Lanham, Maryland. As this student was not returning to Bloomington, I accepted an invitation from several friends and decided to return to school by way of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So I got up early, wrote on a sign—BOSTON—with a magic marker, I threw my clothes and a sleeping bag into my backpack, and I walked past Riverdale shopping center to stand on the north-bound ramp to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
As I reached the ramp, it was already seven in the morning. By quarter to eight, I secured a ride from one of many drivers creeping past me going up the hill to the Parkway. As I learned, the Parkway runs parallel with Interstate 95 and they both lead to Baltimore where they eventually come together and Interstate 95 continues all the way to Boston, a car trip optimistically to be driven in about ten hours.
During that long day, I remember thumbing my way through the 95 business district in Philadelphia, but the trip from Phily to NYC took all afternoon. Later that night, a couple graciously picked me up and drove me to the other side of New York City. After standing around for a couple hours in the dark, after midnight I left the interstate, walked over to an apartment building, and slept the night in a heated stairwell. People walking up the stairs would occasionally wake me, but no one gave me a hard time and I ate breakfast in a nearby restaurant early in the morning.
Later that morning I made good progress until I reached Bridgeport, Connecticut. There, I quickly found a ride, but driver drove me across town, stopped in a lonely place, and parked the car. For the next several hours, this older man sipped coffee, cried, and talked about a strained relationship with his son. The strains became obvious because when I spoke about my relationship with my own father, he became irritated and defensive. My anxiety about our conversation grew, not only because I was anxious to reach Cambridge, but because it soon became obvious that the man was drinking coffee to cover up his alcoholism. Eventually, the man tired of our conversation and dropped me off on the other side of Bridgeport. From there, I traveled to Cambridge and found my way to Harvard University.
At Harvard University, I stayed at Adams House, where my best friend lived in a coop with three other guys. During the several days at Adams House, I visited the Fox Club, attended two classes, and took part in a youth program at my friend’s church. In one class, we heard a history lecture which featured parliamentary events during colonial times that took place in the building where we were sitting. In the second class, we heard a guest presentation by the producers of Sesame Street, a popular educational television program for young kids. At the church, we participated in a youth program where I was uncomfortably the only one in the room struggling with disbelief. All things considered, Harvard impressed me as a serious school and the prospect of returning to Indiana University where I actually studied bothered me greatly.
Also bothering was the weather. As I prepared to leave Cambridge, the hot spring days turned to bitter cold and the cold weather left the yellow wind-breaker I had worn in my trip up from Maryland totally insufficient. To keep warm (and to the amusement of passers by), I found myself dancing in the cold alongside of the road.
The road trip west from Cambridge was uneventful until I got picked up in Connecticut by a couple of long-hair, hippy bartenders in a Volkswagen bus on their way to Pittsburgh. Getting a ride to Pittsburgh was a dream come true after so many short rides and so much energetic dancing. Even better, they knew a woman in Pittsburgh who could put us all up for the night.
When we arrived in Pittsburgh late that afternoon, it seemed odd that my bartending hosts were in no hurry to call their friend; in fact, they did not know her telephone number. Instead, they found a bar and started knocking down shot glasses of hard liquor. Worse, when we piled back into the bus, they drove up an exit ramp and we found ourselves dodging cars driving down the wrong side of the highway. It was after midnight when they finally stopped to ask for directions and another drunk—a lawyer and former Maryland University basketball player—invited us to his house for the night. After the lawyer fixed us breakfast at around 2 a.m., I was given a room with a bed and I went to sleep.
At about 7:30 a.m. that morning, I woke with a child pulling on my foot. “Daddy, daddy,” she said: “some strange men are sleeping on the couch.” I rolled over and responded: “I am so sorry. Your father is in the other room.” Then, I got the bartenders up and said: ”We need to go. This guy is going to wake up; not remember anything; and call the cops.” So we left. The bartenders drove me to the west side of Pittsburgh and let me out.
The roads west of Pittsburgh were neither direct nor busy. I spent most of the day getting short rides out of Pennsylvania and by evening had only reached Cambridge, Ohio. However, the ride that dropped me off in Cambridge left me at a truck stop and advised me to hitch rides with truckers whose trips were typically longer—it was good advice.
At the truck stop, one trucker made sure that I found a ride going west. After some welcome dinner that evening, I found myself bound for Indianapolis with a trucker. The trucker’s cab had only a driver’s seat so I slept uncomfortably on a pile of junk that night. But, in the morning I woke up and ate breakfast with the trucker in Indianapolis.
In Indianapolis, I met a black student from school who was also hitch hiking and we teamed up to travel together south on route 37 to Bloomington. We quickly found a ride with a local man who began telling us stories as we traveled. However, the story he told us we passed through Martinsville, Indiana gave us pause. It seems that a few years earlier —1968—a 21-year old black woman named Carol Jenkins who sold encyclopedias door-to-door had been found dead on the street in Martinville and that the crime had never been solved. The rumor was that she had murdered by the Klu Klux Klan as a warning to other blacks to stay out of Martinsville. That may be so. . .it was at least a conversation killer. . .we never so happy to return to school.
Needless to say, that was my last experiment with hitch hiking.