"A Road for Traveling Souls . . ."
Foreword to CROSSING THE EXPRESSWAY: Poems from the Open Road

by Stephen Wing

 

Hitchhiking is one of the paths I have taken in life to learn that all of life’s paths are spiritual.

Hitchhiking the interstate highways of the U.S.A. I met with so much kindness and courage that I had to give up the theory of Luck, and begin to weigh the evidence for Grace.

Hitchhiking became both my intoxication and therapy of choice. Just walking up a freeway ramp with my burdens reduced to a backpack has never failed to bring a rush of joy that sweeps loneliness and despair away.

Hitchhiking taught me to believe in miracles— at least the miracle I need— provided I have done as much as I can to prepare the way. There are no free rides; it never happened without effort on my part, sometimes as much as I could stand and more. I endured more than one initiation by ordeal. But the miracle always (almost always) came. Quite often it came with a free lunch.

It seems like a paradoxical way to travel: write your destination on a sign, turn to face the way you came and look the passing drivers in the eye, waiting for one whose heart is open enough to give a stranger a ride. Those are the best teachers. Usually they are working-class people, driving patched old cars and offering whatever they have. I owe them much of what I am.

Hitchhiking teaches patience and humility, adaptability and resourcefulness. You don’t get far without a sense of humor. But consider that each encounter with another human being is a window into another universe, with local peculiarities of custom, dialect, worldview. He (occasionally she) is someone I’m unlikely to run into in my own small world.

Since I am the guest I must respond to any and all conversation, if only to keep my host awake. But more than a few drivers are genuinely lonesome for someone to just listen. If we happen to disagree, I am noticeably polite. Each of us is enriched by the encounter. Neither has to win. If I have anything at all to offer, from just listening to a turn at the wheel, both of us can.

Interstate foot-travel is not a path for everyone. There are risks. It is, however, a free way to transport yourself wherever you want to go, adding only minutely to the environmental impact of highways and cars, costing only time.

People tell me it isn't as safe now as it used to be. But people told me the same thing then. Over 16 years on the road, from 1974 to 1990, my thumb never (almost never) failed to get me where I was trying to go, usually when I needed to be there. I have never been injured, neither in the one hold-up attempt nor in the one highway accident I experienced on the road.

I can honestly say I never met anyone out there who intended me harm— just a few too intoxicated to drive safely. I learned to sniff for alcohol before climbing in. The handful who were overinsistent in their sexual advances I eventually understood were not dangerous, just desperate. I tried to give them the kind of love I had, rather than the kind they wanted. It seemed to help.

Active gratitude, before, during and after each ride, does pay off. So does a clear, colorful sign. Eye contact is essential, no matter how fleeting. Whenever possible I preferred to hike past the "No Hitchhiking" sign and down the ramp to where the traffic is, though it’s illegal almost everywhere, and find a safe stretch of shoulder. State troopers sometimes stopped to give me an ID check and once in a while a written warning. But most simply ordered me back up the ramp. I collected only one or two payable tickets, and never went to jail.

My essential equipment was a sleeping bag and groundcloth, a candle and a book. I kept expenses low by carrying my own food or checking the dumpsters behind supermarkets and restaurants. I never carried a tent; without one I found it possible to sleep out undetected anywhere along the interstate, urban or rural. If it looked like rain, I would head for the high ledge (concrete, gravel or dirt) under the nearest overpass.

I avoided the missions, bypassing cities altogether unless I was visiting someone. I preferred not to notify anyone in advance of my visit, in case the rides were slow— or took me somewhere else instead. "The sign of God is that you will be led where you did not plan to go" (Levely). Once I started paying attention, I saw clearly that nothing happened by accident. Everything had a purpose.

When I met my wife Dawn and settled down— in a place I had sworn never to live, the South's largest city— my journey didn't come to an end. Staying in one place carries responsibilities from which the nomad is exempt. But the lessons of my years on the road will always be with me, reinforcing my faith in the good hearts of people everywhere and in the Universal Intelligence (a.k.a. the Universal Sense of Humor). The pilgrimage continues; the mystery deepens; the evidence for Grace continues to mount.

Hitchhiking is one of the last great adventures: a voyage, not a cruise, without schedules or reservations, across an unpredictable sea of human hospitality. It is a living oracle, a shamanic passage, a surrender to destiny, an open invitation to the Cosmos. So forget your lawsuit. I take no responsibility for anyone foolish enough to follow my example.

Every now and then, on my way to work, I have the privilege of plucking from the freewayside some foot-traveler unlucky enough to be dropped off in downtown Atlanta, and carrying him (occasionally her) out past the bypass. I can't be held responsible for people who follow this example either— but please get a clear look at any hitchhiker's face before stopping, and look him straight in the eye before unlocking your door. Baggage is a sign of serious long-distance travel. A sign means experience and a destination. Most important, trust your intuition.

Thanks and praise to Whomever it is that Provides!

 

“Of the progress of the souls of men and women
along the grand roads of the universe,
all other progress is the needed emblem and substance.”

Walt Whitman, "Song of the Open Road"