Once used strictly as a last resort, hitchhiking has become a ticket to adventure for some college students.
On the tail end of a fall weekend, University of Oregon students Ryan Dingler and Daniel Beltramo found themselves stranded in Redding, California. Eager to make it back home to Eugene, Oregon, they hastily added the words “class is on Monday” to their dog-eared cardboard sign requesting a ride north. For two hours, they stood on the shoulder of a busy road with their thumbs thrust in the air, praying that one of the blurred vehicles zooming past might pull over. Although some may see this as a desperate situation, Dingler and Beltramo had anticipated it; they had even hoped for it.
Finally, a 1980s van rolled to a stop a few hundred feet in front of them. “Hey get in!” yelled its sole occupant. The boys were hesitant; the ride was questionable. They approached the passenger side of the van with caution. If anything went wrong, they could still run away. But the driver was clean-shaven and wore a nice jacket. The hitchers introduced themselves, asked where the driver was headed, and got in the car.
“When you first get a ride, you’re ecstatic!” says Dingler of the hitching process. For these adventure-hungry students, hitchhiking is not a last resort but a daring pastime, a way to break free from routine. Getting somewhere is not its purpose. Some don’t even choose a specific destination before hitting the road. The purpose, Dingler says, is in the journey.
Dingler discovered his new hobby during a bout of restlessness. “I was feeling bored and stuck,” he says, “I didn’t have anything to do.” Always eager for a new experience, Dingler and a few pals tried biking to Corvallis, Oregon, but bad weather on the return trip forced them to hitchhike instead. “Not ten minutes after we stuck out our thumbs, a truck came by and took us all the way to Eugene.” Dingler knew right away he had stumbled onto something great: recreational hitchhiking. “I knew that adventure was only a thumb away,” he jokes.
Hitchhiking as a pastime has since caught on to Dingler’s group of friends. But, although there are several online resources for hitchhikers (digihitch.com is the most popular), a community has yet to emerge for hitchhiking purely for fun.
Soon after that first experience, Dingler and Beltramo planned a longer hitchhiking trip: a quest for an In-N-Out Burger. Before leaving, they researched Oregon and California highway laws to make sure their new pastime was legal—which they discovered it was. In California, however, hitchers must avoid interstates and stay near on-ramps to find long-distance rides.
Anticipating the risk involved, the pair also devised a safety phrase to use in a bad situation They decided to use “I threw it on the ground,” a joke from a Digital Short on Saturday Night Live. Dingler used the term once on a ride back from Portland when he noticed their driver drinking alcohol. He’s also found himself riding with a self-professed bank robber and a drug dealer with a trunk full of marijuana. In situations such as these, the safety phrase comes in handy. When the time is right, they excuse themselves and hop off at the first possible stop.
Despite these and other “creepy” experiences, Dingler and Beltramo say the best part of the experience is swapping stories with their drivers. Their favorite encounters involve other wayfaring travelers such as Johan, the driver of the 1980s van that drove them out of Redding. During the long ride back to Eugene, Dingler and Beltramo took turns resting and talking with Johan, a bartender, traveler, and urban climber of buildings and structures in Seattle. According to the two hitchers, most of the people who take a chance and pick them up are adventurers themselves and can easily be persuaded to talk about their experiences. “Sometimes people completely open up to you because they know they probably will never see you again,” says Dingler. “They want someone in the world to know the struggles they went through.”
But before they can hear the stories, they have to catch a ride. If hitchhiking is the game, then attracting a car is scoring a point. Earning that score is literally the work of a moment. “[Drivers] judge you and your character as they drive past on the freeway,” says Beltramo. “If you look like a nice person, they’re more likely to pick you up.” To win over a passerby, he and Dingler often dance by the side of the road or do “the wave.” Another tip from Dingler: “Make it personal.” When a vehicle approaches, the hitchers do their best to make eye contact with the driver. “Even if you can’t see them,” he says, “focus on the spot where they should be.” Once the vehicle passes, Dingler says, prolong the effect by staring at it until it disappears from view.
When the hitchhikers finally reel in a ride, they rely on etiquette they’ve compiled to make sure the ride is good. “You always approach the passenger side of the car to avoid scaring the driver,” says Dingler. “Ask where they are going, and decide if it is far enough.” And don’t forget to “shake their hand before you get in.” Dingler also takes note of the license plate number before he gets into the car, texting it to a friend, just in case. According to the travelers, the size of the group is also important. Dingler has always gone in groups of two. “Three is too big,” he says. “I want to try one, but not yet.” He recently accompanied his friend Claire Seger on her first attempt, a ride back to Eugene form Portland. “She wants to go again,” he says with a grin.
Although much of this know-how comes from online tips, Dingler says the best sources are found on the road. Tricks of the trade include learning where not to hitchhike, such as less-urban towns like Medford and Albany, Oregon, and what to wear. The ideal outfit makes one look as friendly and harmless as possible without detracting from the idea that the ride is needed. On a recent hitching trip, a homeless man asked Dingler for money. “Obviously I didn’t dress down enough,” he says.
As Johan drove his decades-old van closer to Dingler and Beltramo’s destination, the guys realized what a good time they were having. Johan pointed out a sign signaling the exit to Eugene. But Dingler and Beltramo weren’t ready to leave. Johan was headed to Seattle. In the spur of a moment, the two decided to let their destination fly by. The adventure wasn’t over yet.