You have to Smile and Wave

It’s part of the deal. “You don’t catch a ride with your thumb,” says Juan Villarino, who has hitched more than 100,000 miles, “You catch it with a smile.”

Villarino was profiled in this New York Times story earlier this year

World’s Greatest Hitch Hiker

and while I agree with his notion of the importance of smiling, I disagree with the Times’ headline – his girlfriend Laura Lazzarino seems to me much more deserving of that title. You can catch her adventures on her blog


So much in this journey is out of my control. When I spent two days stuck on the side of the road in Omaha, I faced a constant internal debate about what was keeping me from catching that one big ride. Maybe it was the Memorial Day weekend, when people were headed to barbecues and parades and family gatherings? Could it have been the nearly 100 degree heat, which made them expect that a hitchhiker might be smelling a bit foul? I thought I detected an unusually high percentage of women driving pickup trucks, and for a moment thought that the rapture, run by a God who had not been paying much attention to the news, took all the men to heaven and left their wives to drive the truck.

I don’t know. Like I said, it was hot out there.

All I can control is how I present myself. I keep as clean as I can. I don’t sit down.  I hold the sign in one hand and poke my thumb out. And I smile. As the car passes, I move the sign to follow them, thinking that perhaps a passenger is checking the hashtag, and I wave. The last thing I want to do is to make any driver think that I resent them for not stopping. That’s a  practical thing (the next driver is always watching!) and a reflection of how I feel. There are so many reasons not to stop for a hitchhiker. I know because I’ve passed hitchhikers myself.  Because you don’t think I’m going to want a ride for the short distance you are traveling. You have kids in the car, too much stuff in the front seat, maybe you’re listening to something important and don’t want to be interrupted. Perhaps you have a body in the trunk. Maybe it’s not your car.

Who knows? There are people who are never going to stop. A few road dogs will stop for anyone. Most of us inhabit the middle ground, making what could be a life altering decision in a few seconds, balancing a lifetime of impressions, prejudices, concerns, hopes and fears all in one moment leading to a decision to hit the brakes. Or not.

Knowing how complicated that decision can be, I’m not judging those who pass by. All I can do is to make sure that the few elements in my control are all working in my favor. I can’t make the on ramp any longer, giving you more braking time. I can’t change the pitch of the road (in Omaha there was a downhill slope feeding into an uphill ramp, which is bad news – nobody likes to lose momentum.) I can’t keep the guy behind you from tailgating making you afraid that you might be about to get rear ended.

Of the total of 38 hours on the roadside in Omaha, I estimate that I spent 20 of them standing there trying to smile. The rest of the time I was in and out of the shade, which either meant the nearby woods, the McDonald’s, or the Motel 6 where I spent the night.

A few of those hours I spent with Johnny, or “I go by Johnny,” which is what he said when I asked his name. Johnny

I had seen him on the other side of the highway yesterday. He spent a few hours baking in the sun, holding a sign, and then, sometime mid afternoon, I came out of McDonalds and he was gone. I presumed he had gotten a ride. I was wrong. The next morning a cardboard box was stretched out behind a cinder block wall that surrounded an electrical unit on the grounds of the McDonalds. Next to it was a plastic bag with some socks and a shirt. It was a grassy spot, one that I might have considered for lodging if there wasn’t a hotel for 50 bucks available across the street.

That piece of cardboard was Johnny’s bed. The man knew his trade. But his trade was not hitching. I went over and spent an hour or so listening to Johnny’s contradictory tales of growing up in California, his days in the Army, his three kids spread around the country, and how he was working his way back to Lincoln, Nebraska, just an hour away, to see his mother. Johnny was already drunk, and it was barely 10 in the morning. He was an honest guy, who told me he had to drink in order to get out on a corner and beg. He had a lot of bluster to him but you didn’t have to look too deep to see the sadness.

A car stopped. It was with a young couple. The man in driver’s seat knew Johnny, asked him how California was, and, before the light turned green, handed him a lit joint. Johnny says the guy had come by a few days back and gave him twenty dollars. Johnny warns me that this is a terrible place to hitch. It’s  a rich neighborhood and no one will stop. That did line up with my observations – lots of new, high end cars, and that is never a good sign.

Johnny followed me back across the street to McDonald’s. This time when I walked in the reception was very different. It’s cool to have an idiosyncratic old guy with a story about hitchhiking, but a homeless drunk – the Golden Arches were a bit uptight this time around. I bought Johnny an Egg McMuffin and hoped he would soon go away. He had ceded his corner to a man with one leg who leaned on crutches as he begged the passing drivers for cash. Johnny had a code – he wasn’t going to take that spot away from a one-legged man. Still I hoped he wouldn’t try to team up with me. Omaha was giving me enough challenges without Johnny’s baggage.

Still, I told myself, it was important to smile.


Massage Therapist and writer from Syracuse, NY, hitchhiking across the US.

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