75% of car rides in the United States are single passenger rides. Focusing on this fact, one may assume it is easy to catch a lift in these empty cars across the United States.

I returned 2 months ago from hitchhiking across the United States. Strangely it feels like it was yesterday I was begging for gas money with a beat up cardboard sign in front of a WalMart in Texas to help my new found ride, who always fills their tank this way.

People went out of their way to help me. Many even burdening themselves to help me along my journey. As I sat in cars and stood on corners of various intersections and onramps, I slowly caught onto the most common denominator between my rides. Most of the people who helped me along my way sat on the lower rungs of the financial ladder, some without jobs and one couple even begged for money to get by.

These observations piled upon me while I hitched and walked across the United States, from the familiar deserts of southern California to the lush never ending forests of the east coast.

My First Ride

This journey started with the closure of another, my last day of work in the USA. My boss dropped me off on the side of the road on the outskirts of San Diego. Being a virgin hitchhiker, envisioning the other side of America, I kept telling myself that all will be fine, as I had planned as much as possible, even writing a guide on how to design your modern hitchhiking experience.

Standing on the side of the road with my sign in hand and smile across my face. It felt surreal. No one hitchhikes. My parents, friends (who don’t know me well enough), and people who I spoke to all talked about how unsafe and unwise this journey was.

Standing with a sign with a direction printed on it, hoping a fellow human will understand, empathize and give me a ride is hard to believe when you haven’t successfully hitched yet.

40 minutes after settling in on an on ramp heading east, a couple in a late model civic with no working A/C and barley able to get up hills pulls up and asks if I would like a ride to El Centro. I quickly jump in with my bags, beaming with energy like a cast away dog just picked up from the pound.

We exchange greetings and I find out the struggling young couple has never picked up a hitchhiker. They tell me they picked me up because I didn’t look like an axe murderer, just a normal guy in need of a ride. I found this to be a typical response from most of my rides who never picked up a hitchhiker. Never a discrete reason, just wanted to help someone out. It seemed they could see themselves in a similiar situation with a short notice firing or an unexpected large bill.

Why I Got a Ride

I started on the outskirts of the city, away from the local traffic and focused on people going long distances in the direction I was going. Many people never had a chance to pick up a hitchhiker in the USA because it is a dying breed with less people willing to take a chance on the generosity of others. Most people I encountered have never picked a hitchhiker up.

First Failure

After my first successful ride I expected to get to my first planned stop at my CouchSurfing host in Phoenix that night. Well as I found out earlier than I would have liked, hitchhiking has no agreements with the world at large and your expectations.

I waited in the baking sun of El Centro’s dusty and unwelcoming on ramp for 5 hours before I decided to take an overnight Greyhound bus to the destination i was ‘supposed’ to be at the next day.

Why I Didn’t Get a Ride

Arriving in El Centro I was worried. No one looked me in the eye when I had my sign up, some even looked on in disgust. After meeting fellow hitchhikers, they told me they had been there for a couple days without a ride. Not a good sign.

After talking to other hitchhikers further into my journey I realized that El Centro, being a border town with a large presence of mexican drug cartel, is filled with the fear of the unknown person in town. Also most people heading in the direction I was heading were going toward the Arizona border, which has the highest security of any state border I have seen, bar none.  Who would want to risk picking up a hitchhiker, mexican looking on top of that, in a cartel influenced city heading to the highest security border in the USA.

I learned to be conscious of the context of the cities feeling toward the unkown travelers and areas of FUD (fear uncertainty and doubt).

My Longest Ride

After I was dropped off at a truck stop in Santa Rosa, New Mexico I was waiting for 40 minutes when I saw the car I ‘knew’ was going to pick me up.  An old Suzuki Sidekick, a micro SUV, being held together by bright green duct tape with two young kids in it, rambled in to the parking lot.  As the girl exited the car to walk her cat on a leash the boy came over and we discussed how far they they could take me.

It turned out they could take me on a very different path I initially planned on going. This brief interaction was the start of a 2 day trip covering 600 miles with a rambunctious cat, and a new puppy in route to Austin, Texas.

Giving Back

After I entered the car I wanted to see if we could connect on a musical level, see what kind of music we could flow with on our 2 day commitment.  He prompted, soon after we departed the parking lot, that the radio hasn’t worked since they started their trip 5 months ago.

We were to be tuneless for the entire trip.

10 minutes after this announcement, still not convinced of the reality of being in a car for 2 days without music, I asked if they could pull the radio out while we were driving and found 2 wires obviously not connected. As soon as we reunited these long lost friends, music poured out of the speakers, lighting up everyone’s faces. The neon green duct tape barely held on with the wimpy bass rattling the car and the wind whipping the cover violently.

We immediately proceeded to have a dance party and the longest ride of my trip began.

I wanted to share music with everyone I met while hitchhiking. Exposing people to music they may have never heard and never knew they loved. On this occasion I gave the best gift of them all, the ability to hear music.

After I played an Of Montreal tune and we danced in the car for an hour, the mood drifted to a more languid pace matching our long haul ahead of us.

Spanging at Walmart and Adopting Puppies

Seeing my backpack without the grime and creases earned by long rides and a light wallet, I informed my rides to Austin about my motivations to hitch. Upon hearing I hitchhike for the experience, not for the free ride, my rides explained they have been traveling for over 5 months with no job, no source of income, only relying on spanging.

Spanging – Spare Changing, formerly known as Panhandling. It is a common practice amidst North American Homeless. Usually accomplished by “flyin’ a sign” another common tactic beyond directly requesting financial assistance.

They taught me about the term spange which comes from “spare any change”. After repeatedly refusing my money for gas to get to Austin they told me they were going to teach me how to spange for money in front of a Walmart, their ideal location.

Standing in front of Walmart with a sign reading ‘Need Gas Money to Get Home’ we were greeted by one car full of elderly ladies who gave us $20 and another man who filled our tank up and gave us $20.  We managed over $75 in under 30 minutes. I was floored at first by the amount of money we got. I then realized that having hitchhiked this far and now spanging for money, I was free.

My thoughts about my upcoming move overseas to Australia, then failing, were now met with possibilities of traveling the world and just getting by, maybe even with a cat on a leash.

The idea of failure seemingly faded away. After tasting a sample of my worst fears, being broke and having to survive on the kindness of others my perspective slowly shifted.

On a side note the couple got into a fight in a Walmart parking lot and it ended with us making 15 phone calls and a quick drive to pick up a new puppy to add to the now packed micro SUV, with a now vomiting cat.

Thoughts On Collaborative Consumption

Before I started my trip, Will Brown, a CouchSurfer that I hosted had traveled across America using only collaborative consumption services.  These include RideJoy, Airbnb and CouchSurfing among others which use social networks and reputation management techniques to organize and connect people looking to travel and meet like minded people along the way.

He brought my attention from something I was always interested in for a couple years, CouchSurfing, and reframed it in the as sharing resources that are being unused. I met him right before I left on my hitchhiking trip and I thought I would use these services instead, since they are easier, faster, safer and more reliable.

I thought about it for a while and I wanted the experience of using the old school collaborative consumption way.  Putting my thumb out on the side of the road.  I don’t regret my decision and will most likely do this again especially in other countries where it is easier.  I will however be looking toward the future when more people share their resources with people in need.  With the advent of social networks it will be easier and more enjoyable for all parties involved.

I met some interesting people along the way, but I want to see more timid people join in with the rise of reputation systems, interest compatibility algorithms and large scale adoption.  I am excited for more people to travel with a random person who is on the same path as them with the possibility of a new friend.