Photojournalist explores the myth and reality of modern day hitchhiking

Editor’s note:

Photojournalist Todd Wetherington posed the idea of giving our readers a perspective of summer travel that is rarely practiced these days. Hitchhiking has slowly vanished as transportation became cheaper and readily available and the stories of the violence and danger increase. With the potential risks in mind, Todd planned his trip with the hope of offering you, our readers, a unique story and a bit of insight into life on the road. He began his trip in New Bern with the idea of making his way back to Roanoke Rapids. Circumstance unrelated to the story brought an early end to his journey. Hitchhiking is not a recommended means of travel but it is part of America’s lore and history.

Distance is a terrible thing to behold. Due to the appalling ease of travel which most Americans accept as their birthright, few if any of us ever contemplate the subject. Recently, in the midst of a self-imposed battle with that ancient form of travel known as hitchhiking, I had the opportunity to do just that.

My loosely plotted intention was to begin hitchhiking from my hometown of New Bern, working my way back to my place of residence in Roanoke Rapids via N.C. Highway 43. I wanted to know if, with the vast changes that have taken place in society over the last 20 to 30 years, there was still any life left in the vital American myth of the open road.

The journey

You find yourself sitting on a gravestone, the one dry spot in the middle of a dew-saturated cornfield, miles from your intended destination, trying to place a call to let someone know you’re still alive. While doing this, you attempt to cover the phone with a hat so the terrible blue light doesn’t bring the neighbors running with a shotgun or send pedestrians flying into ditches screaming at the sight of your ragged, ghostly presence.

But that comes later. It starts as you walk away from the car. A strange mix of abject fear and excitement. It continues as you watch yourself on the side of the road, strangely humiliated as you stick out your thumb for the first time.

The sheer monotony of traveling a mere several miles per hour begins to weigh on you. Anger builds at each motorist who passes without acknowledging your presence. So you walk, no longer mindful of weeds, broken glass, snakes.

You walk the barely visible strip of weed-strewn roadside between ditch and blacktop in total darkness, all but blind, hoping the cars bearing down on you from behind spot you at the last minute. You try to avoid the ditch. Your pants legs and shoes are soaked through with dew — one more thing you didn’t count on.

Resting beside a church at midday, the only shade available, you know the locals won’t care for your presence here. You rest anyway. A few minutes down the road, your assumption plays out. The police arrive.

Officer T.M. Bersch of the Craven County Sheriff’s Office: “Someone saw you beside the church and thought you were breaking in.”

You explain you’re a journalist, show your business card. The official attitude disappears and is replaced with “how ’bout that” and a smile.

After a ride to the county line and a morbid observation — “I see plenty of them (hitchhikers), but it doesn’t seem like no one wants to pick ’em up. Too many murders, I guess.” — the officer gives this advice, “You know the trick now, just walk around a church looking suspicious and wait for a cop to come.”

Strangers are engaged here and there. An unsmiling gnome of a man flops his hands at you upon approaching his front porch. “No, no,” he squeals, radiating lazy menace, as if he’s played this scene through a thousand times before.

You come through a shower of towering orange sparks and find S.A. Taylor, “I’m just sitting out here grinding down gears for my old truck,” he says, setting aside his file, the grinding wheel gone silent. “Been here 30 years and working on old trucks is pretty much my life now.”

Four hours of walking and the pack containing as little as you can carry begins gnashing into your shoulder blades. No more rides. You begin to feel like a ghost, a spectral shade stalking the landscape. But the bugs still recognize you; the red ants and God-knows-what other creatures whose sole desire is to make you itch in unmentionable places.

You start avoiding distance signs the way you might avoid looking into the eyes of Satan. No good can possibly come of it. Two miles or 10, you’re going to walk as far as you have to. Period.

Anger and approaching darkness bring a new boldness. You walk toward a man in dirt gray overhauls securing a gate beside a small, roadside garbage dump to ask for a ride. “Yeah, I don’t mind, but I’m only going as far as that store up the road.”

And then this, “I spent the better part of the afternoon filling out forms to buy that new rifle sitting in back. It’s getting so you need an act of congress just to buy a gun. I was so damn mad I didn’t even buy any bullets.”

Pulling to the curb of the crossroads adjacent the store he grows thoughtful, “My wife needs to get another job. She gets $5 an hour for sitting back there at the dump and that ain’t enough, not with the fools she has to put up with.”

No photos this time. No name. Walking again, you admit to a certain grudging fascination with the various roadside bric-a-brac: Fourth of July streamers, discarded underwear, the ubiquitous fast food containers; a cornucopia of cigarette stubs, rotted fruit and CD cases.

The fear of actual death comes only once — crossing a short, narrow bridge with barely enough room for small vehicles to pass much less the log trucks that threaten to remove your already off balance form into the shallows below or simply crush you against the concrete railing. You keep your head down. Move fast.

The sun is nearly gone now. You stop more frequently, somewhere beyond exhaustion, sticking out your thumb at anything that moves; families pulling out of driveways, wild-eyed bikers, stray dogs … they all have their own concerns, their own destinations that don’t include you.

And now a church, much like the last, nine miles (or 50, or 100) outside of the first night’s destination of Greenville. Deputy G.N. Watson of the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office: “Somebody saw you sitting beside the church and thought you might be trying to break in.”

More explanations. Darkness tempers the smiles and willingness to dig deep for the colorful quotes.

A few sharp items are confiscated. Information is checked as you lean palms down against the patrol car, a humiliation you endure by telling yourself how wonderful this is for the story you’ve already begun composing.

And then the offer, “Where are you trying to go? … I can take you that far, no problem.”

Sitting in the back of the patrol car, the sliding plastic partition open so the officer can tell stories from his Army days; you’re not listening, thinking only about the recently sharpened knife stuffed into your sock, forgotten until this moment. I could be anyone, you think, capable of anything. Boredom, and trust, can be deadly out here.

But, being only a weary, grateful journalist, you accept the ride in mute peace. You accept the officer’s handshake as he pulls away from the reasonably cheap, clean motel inside the Greenville city limits.

And you accept, with childlike forbearance, the night manager’s outraged, maternal advice, “Sweetheart, if they offer you another assignment like this, good lord, turn it down. Like Nancy Reagan said, ‘Just Say No!'”

The end of the road

Due to personal circumstances beyond my control, my experiment in alternative travel ended here.

It would be a stretch to say I gained any real wisdom or insight from the experience, other than the knowledge that I’m capable of walking without food or rest in 90-plus degree weather for the approximately 25 miles I was forced to trod in one day.

It proved to be, of course, a profoundly economic way to travel in this age of ever-fluctuating fuel prices and ever increasing vehicle size.

But that wasn’t what I set out to find. Freedom: The myth of the road, a way to roam that allows for something more than fleeting eye contact with strangers, a way to view the passing landscape as something more than a momentary blur on the way to somewhere else — that’s what I set out to explore.

And of this particular pot-holed stretch of freedom I can offer only one conclusion:

When the most reliable means of sustaining what was once an essentially outlawed, anti-establishment form of travel is with the willing collusion of very bored, photo-friendly local law enforcement authorities, it’s time to pitch in the last shovel of dirt and fill in the final expiration date on the soiled, white tombstone. Hitchhiking: Yet another sad, romantic orphan of the 20th century that failed to make the millennial leap. Long live its restless spirit.

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