by Micah Wilkins, Editor
Before last weekend, I had usually stuck to what I’ve been told all my life: never get in a car with a stranger.
But before last weekend, I had never hitchhiked.
When a car stops on the side of the road and the driver waves for me to get in, my response probably would have been to run in the opposite direction. But not last weekend. I felt elated every time a car or truck would pull over onto the shoulder of the highway and beckon us over. It meant that we were that much closer to reaching our destination: Boone, North Carolina.
The morning of my first hitchhiking experience I had no idea what the weekend would hold. I woke up Saturday morning, made some coffee, cleaned the room, and was then presented with the invitation: “Last chance, do you want to go to Boone?”
I had no homework. The obvious answer was yes. Had I been alone, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
We got a ride to I-40 from a friendly Warren Wilson librarian, and then we stood on the shoulder of the scary four-lane highway. And for the first time, I stuck my thumb out in search of a ride.
The first to pick us up was Jim, a talkative and friendly dad who moved to Boone with his family a couple years ago for a job with the NC Cooperative Extension Service (at one point during the ride he gave me his business card). He was heading home after teaching an intro to forestry class at Haywood Community College.
“Warren Wilson?” he asked us as we got into his SUV. After he made that connection, he knew he could trust us.
He took us all the way to Boone, and in the nearly two hours that we spent with him, we learned a lot about Jim. After college, he worked in Paraguay with the Peace Corps for a year. That night, he was going to take his young son camping for the second time. We also learned that he used to play music, back when he didn’t have a family, but now he mostly just plays a “mean steering wheel,” he said as he thumped his fingers on the wheel to some bluegrass music. His wife is from Argentina, and she would yell if she found out her husband had picked up hitchhikers.
Our trip back to Asheville the following afternoon was not as smooth. We only managed to make it back to Wilson after a handful of different cars picked us up, dropping us off as far as they could.
Alongside the highway, we held out our “ASHEVILLE” sign that we hastily made that morning with a fading sharpie and construction paper. We were brought a couple miles up the road by a man and his wife, and then we were picked up by Nate, a thirty-year-old man who worked for the Charlotte symphony. You quickly began to realize that, with Nate, everything is divided into two categories: “A good time” or “Not a good time.” The Orange Peel: A good time. Camping around Boone: A good time. Bikers biking up a very steep hill alongside the highway: Not a good time. My carsickness that I developed during the ride: Not a good time.
Our last ride was by far the most memorable, and perhaps one of the scarier things I’ve done in my life. We were less than 40 miles from Asheville, and desperately wanted to get back. We had been waiting at a weird intersection just off of I-40 for about half an hour when an old white pickup truck stopped abruptly. We hesitated for a minute. There was a person in the driver seat and a person in the passenger seat. Where were we going to fit, I wondered.
The answer was, of course, the bed of the truck. We hopped in, set our stuff down and sat cross-legged. Then the car started accelerating as it got back onto the ramp to get onto the highway. “Oh shit,” I thought. “I’m going to get flung out of this thing.”
I held onto the sides of the truck at first, but after getting onto the highway and being jostled around a bit in the truck, decided it was a far better idea to lay down. On the floor of the bed of the truck I laid like a plank, clinging to my backpack and the edge of the truck. All I could see was the blue sky above me and the tops of trees that quickly passed. All I could hear was the sound of the truck’s engine and the passing cars. All I could feel was the strong wind on my body, giving me goosebumps. And, after what felt like an eternity of cold wind, dry lips and tense muscles, all I could think was I’ll be lucky if I’m able to get through this alive.