Hitchhiking is one of those aspects of trail life that non-hikers tend to find shocking. The first question people ask when they hear about the trail ("You walked how far?!") is often followed by "How did you get food and supplies?" My explanation to is that we hitch into the small towns near the trail to buy food. This invariably elicits interestings reactions.
"What do you mean hitching? Like hitchhiking?" they say, wide eyed.
The logistics of getting a hitch are pretty much the same as they've always been. Stand on the side of a road with your thumb out and hope that some kind soul will stop to pick you up. This is the most common form of soliciting a hitch, at least. Getting a hitch can be about much more than simply sticking your thumb out. When I talk about hitchhiking I am referring to the general act of getting a ride from a stranger. This can happen in so many more ways than my pre-trail self could have imagined: sometimes you find yourself in a parking lot, and you just have to approach a stranger or two and ask for a ride. Other times you have to divide and conquer; there are too many hikers to fit in one normal-sized vehicle. There are even times where you have to do, well, nothing. On these rare occasions rides were solicited to us, which is an incredible experience.
From the day we landed in Southern California until we returned to our hometown of St. Louis, I hitched 43 rides. They varied greatly in quality and novelty, but every one of them was a blessing. Of those 43 times, only once did I ever feel remotely unsafe, and it was due to the driver's carelessness, not because I ever felt I would be harmed.
Before the PCT I had never hitched a ride. I had never ridden in the back of a pickup truck. I had never done a lot of things that I have now done. Sure, I was a little nervous. Mostly, I think the nerves were caused by fear of continual rejection by passing cars. I never really worried about my personal safety or uncomfortable situations. Or at least I accepted it as an inherent risk. Then again, I'm a 6' tall white male who tends to be a bit callous with things like safety, so that might have something to do with it. As for my nerves, they were immediately put to rest after our very first hitch came completely without solicitation. A nice couple saw us walking through San Diego and stopped to see if we needed a ride. HOW CRAZY IS THAT? I would soon find out that this was only the tip of the iceberg.
In case you are still worried, let's see if perspective and clarity don’t put you more at ease. When you go through towns on or near the trail, most people know about the Pacific Crest Trail. When those people see us with our dirty clothes and backpacks, they usually know we're hikers. There really is a community around this trail that looks out for hikers. We are all strangers, but we are strangers within a hiking community.
Beyond that, you have to be willing to let the unexpected happen. You have to let go of absolute control, go with the flow and leave some things up to chance. You are always going to hear stories on the news that someone was found dead in a ditch because some evil monster picked them up. But what about all the times where humans rise to the occasion and help each other out in little ways? These aren't news stories, they are random acts of human kindness. I bet if you look around you will find lots more of those acts than you do big scary stuff. I saw it happen day in and day out on trail; it was a beautiful thing.
Here are a few examples of what hitching on the PCT was like.
Best hitch: We got a hitch out of Bishop, CA from a 70 year old woman in her RV. She came into the cafe where we were sitting and offered my crew a ride. She even offered us some cold Bud Light Limes for the ride back to trail. This woman embodied the spirit of adventure.
We sometimes joked about the most epic hitches imaginable. Firetruck hitch was always at the top of our list. We never got one, but a few hiker trash friends of ours did get a hitch in the bucket of a front loading tractor. We were jealous, to say the least.
Worst hitch: Being shoved three-deep in the back of a car with all our gear and a dog on our laps, winding down mountain roads with a driver who was less than concerned about staying on the right side of the road. The guys that gave us a ride were quite kind, but their driving was less than stellar. As noted earlier, this was the one and only time I ever felt the least bit uncomfortable in a stranger's car.
Weirdest character who gave us a hitch: This super right-wing guy who told us the national economy was on the brink of collapse explained that precious metals were the only thing that were going to be worth a damn. He then preceded to show us a minted silver coin that he happened to carry around in his pocket.
A word of politeness to those who choose solicit their own hitches: if possible, it's best to offer a few dollars in gas money to those that give you a hitch. Ya know, because paying it forward, being a good person and all that jazz. Screw karma, it's just the right thing to do.
One last detail that eluded me before the trail: Oftentimes when someone gives you a hitch, they load you up, drive off, start chatting and roll up the windows. Make sure they don't do this last part! This kind, unassuming person obviously doesn't realize you smell TERRIBLE and should be warned before enclosing themselves in a small, mostly airtight capsule with filthy hiker trash. I didn’t even want to be enclosed in a vehicle with my own smell. I can't imagine how bad it must be for 'normal folk' to have to smell us.