Why jumping into cars with strangers restored my trust in people and why other women should do it too

by Tracy Sangillo

Columbus, Ohio, 2013: The first “big” city I hitch from. Likely one of my least favorite places in the US. I refer to it as the “pancake city.” Boring and barren, it’s not a good or safe place to hitchhike in or out of. I’m fearing the worst, but hell, I’ve gone this far. Besides…

 

What would life be like if we allowed our lives to be determined by worst case scenarios?

(What Patricia gave me…err forced upon me)

So I head to the nearest gas station and approach a woman who later becomes my touchstone for my hitchhiking adventure.

I walk up to her and ask if she’s headed in my direction. Feeling her unease, I start talking about the trip I’m taking across the country and she changes her mind, orders me to “get in” and takes me to the bus station I want to get to. What’s more, we have an instant connection and talk for over an hour, sitting in front of the Greyhound station. Patricia goes on about her college sweetheart who lured her to the southern beaches of California and her favorite place in the world, Sedona AZ. “Promise me, you’ll visit!” She says.

When I go to get out of the car she tells me to wait, fingers through a notepad filled with papers and hands me 2 gift cards. A Giant Eagle gas card and $100 visa gift card. But no, Patricia’s not done. She LITERALLY empties her wallet for me and gives me another $67.

I wish I had more to give. I’ve got window cleaner in the back!

This woman became the reason why I hitchhike.
In time, you will meet your own ‘Patricia.’

 

 

I’ve seen over 30 US states, 17 countries and traveled 25,500 kilometers. And through most of this I was traveling solo, a woman hitchhiking from the streets of New Orleans to the Romanian countryside.

I was not about to be governed by other people’s fears. I wanted to redefine “reckless.” In fact, I learned:

This collective fear of hitchhiking has largely been a campaign on the part of the FBI, during the late 60’s.

While male hitchhikers became an object of aversion, women were told that they would be “asking for it” by thumbing for a ride. Current crime statistics FAIL to show that hitchhiking increases the murder rate and can’t demonstrate that it’s more reckless for women than for men. Yet to assume hitchhiking isn’t dangerous at all would be facile. This takes me to my next point:

But where to start!? How is hitchhiking different for women?

(Kreuzberg Pride in Berlin)

 

Less IS more

Travel blurs gender binaries. You wear less makeup, dress more casual and start to act in a more amorphous manner. Less like an amoeba and more like a tom-boy. Typical girl/ guy items are less necessary. In fact, it’s wise to dress down and wear more masculine clothing.

 

The one object that helped me more than anything was my smartphone:

Holy sheep balls, this was probably the most helpful item I carried. I had an app that listed different amenities and gas stations at nearby exits, my Google Maps and my Couchsurfing.com app. I used these often. Don’t underestimate the power of digital technology!

If you’re hitching with truckers a lot, use the “Truckerpath” app, which lists all the truck stops and exit numbers and The Pocket Truck Stop Guide – essentially the same thing in paper form. Take note: This only applies to truck stops in the US.

Don’t be afraid of truckers. They usually buy you food on the road (at least in the US) and they are some of the most wonderful and colorful people on the road: For instance, In New Mexico I found a ride at a Love’s with a trucker and his girlfriend…

 

I just want you to know we live a 24/7 BDSM slave/master lifestyle. I hope you’re OK with that, she admits

 

Not only did I get a single 600 mile ride to Oklahoma City, I got to share it with more awesome interesting people. And the stories! The stories!

 

(My very first hosts, ever)

I don’t worry too much about sleeping arrangements. The fun is in the uncertainty.

But a few free options are:

Couchsurfing.org

– Guerilla camping & boondocking

– Getting accommodations from rides – I haven’t tried this much, Couchsurfing was way too much fun.

 

 

 

KNOW YOUR LINES

  • They are there for a reason! I can generally get a good read on someone within a minute of talking to them. Have a conversation with the driver before you get a ride.
  • Ask him where he’s going before you say where you’re headed to.
  • Get a feel for his demeanor: Is he leering at you? Does he call you ‘baby’ or ‘sweetie?’ Do you feel uneasy?

 

I wouldn’t always advise accepting rides from two or more men. Truthfully, though, I’ve done it many times and often with good experiences

The first time I was stranded in central California at an empty truck stop and got a ride with a “gun rights activist” and his sons…

 

They all wore “We don’t call 911” t-shirts with an AK-47 plastered on the front

It ended uneventfully, thank god! And I discovered even the most terrifying people can be genuine.

————–

But more often than not, I have a blast: Whilst shooting blanks in bad hitchhiking spots in Chiasso, Switzerland, two twenty-something men with a car packed full of camping gear pull over near me. “You’re going to Basel? We’re going to Berne. Get in!”

Despite my protests about space, they made me fit and convinced me to go with them to Berne instead of Basel for the night. There, they offered me a bed, dinner, wine and after discovering that one of the boys and I shared a recent birthday, a bunt cake with a beer in the center. What more could a girl ask for?

 

What would I be doing if I took a bus, stayed in a hostel and avoided strangers? Not eating a cake with a beer sitting inside it, that’s what.

 

(My birthday cake)

The number of good times for me have vastly outweighed the bad, making the risks worth it. That being said, KNOW YOUR LINES. Ask the driver where he’s going first, if you feel uncomfortable tell him you want a car going farther than that or that you left something in the last town. Men don’t like being told they make you uneasy.

 

Text out their license plate number

This is what I’ve found to be the most important thing to do before getting into a vehicle. Text or take a photo of the car’s license plate number and the state. Send it to a friend, or better yet, two. This actually helps drivers feel more comfortable around you and provides an immediate way to relate to you as a person.

With commercial trucks the license plate is useless. Take down the DOT and truck numbers found on the side of the cab. However, this only applies to trucks in the US, Europe and other countries have differing regulations.

It’s important to ASK them if you can send out their numbers, thus ensuring them that you have their personal information if anything happens to you.

 

Defusing dangerous situations

Even after traveling solo for thousands of miles, I’ve yet to find myself in a situation hitchhiking where I feel legitimately threatened. However, it can happen. The most important thing to do in these situations is to first try to defuse them verbally. I was only once propositioned by a driver:

He asked me, “Do you like hugging’ and kissin’?” “Do you like to hug and kiss men?”

Awkward right? He seemed to think that I’d do this as payment for a ride. I asserted that I wouldn’t and told him to drop me off at the next truck stop. It all transpired without incident. Although he wanted something I wasn’t willing to give, at no time did I feel threatened, so I remained calm and removed myself from the situation.

If you can, keep the driver calm and at ease, thus allowing you to get out of the car without incident.

(Messing around in Pamplona with a new hitchhiking friend)

If you’re still nervous about going it alone travel partners are great, but the more people you are already hitching with, the less room there is for new friends to interject into your life.

 

Traveling solo and avoiding the typical circle-of-friends-tour-group experience allowed me to meet other travelers on the road, many of which I’ve hitchhiked with. Not only have I traveled 5,000 km with two Danish boys I met on the road, but I wouldn’t have become a part of the TravelMakers project if I hadn’t been hitchhiking alone.

During a long discussion about sustainability, activism and avoiding looking like a tourist, my couchsurfing host in Amsterdam mentioned the project to me. I checked out the website, watched the documentary and found that my travel dates were flexible enough to line up with the proposed hitchhiking route. Ecstatic and energized I jumped on board. Thus, here I am, writing to you about how spontaneity and expanding one’s comfort zone – traveling alone – can lead you to uncovering the most invaluable life experiences. And oh, the places you will go and the people you will meet….

 

(4 Bosnian boys I hitched a ride from and subsequently had a blast with)

 

I have made friends with people from all walks of life:

 

  • I’ve met an ex-Mexican drug smuggler who has admitted to seeing people killed, bought me lunch and showed me photos of his 10 year-old son, the reason he got out of “the business.”

 

  • After walking a mile down the interstate I got a ride with possibly the friendliest guy in West Virginia. He trusted me enough to leave his keys in the ignition when he stopped to run an errand.

 

  • I’ve talked with a homeless man in San Diego for 4 hours who’s a yogi, knows Ram Dass and has a house in India where he’s lived for the past 40 years. He taught me to speak a little Italian and I now have a place to stay in India for as long as I like!

 

  • I’ve gotten a terrifying and awesome ride in a drift car in Spain by a man who’d just started learning to drive it. Possibly the most dangerous and thrilling car ride I’ve taken.

 

  • I’ve partied with 4 Bosnian boys, shared beer, coffee and explored small towns whilst blasting Black Eyed Peas on the car stereo.

 

This has all happened because I put myself out there, snubbing the naysayers and challenging what was defined as ‘reckless’. For me, hitchhiking is a radically humanistic way of reconnecting with people.

 

 

 

 

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One comment

  • technology news October 15, 2014   Reply →

    Very good info. Lucky me I came across your blog by chance (stumbleupon).
    I’ve saved it for later!

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