The hum from the engine in the big 18-wheeler dropped from a grumble to a rattle and in my peripheral vision I saw the huge thing slow, its right red blinker winking. I had to squint. The sky was so bright blue it made sunlight ricochet off white snow that stretched out like a coroner’s sheet from both sides of the interstate.
For two hours I’d stood on the shoulder of I-90 near Livingston with my thumb in the air. I’d gone to Yellowstone on a January break from journalism classes at the University of Montana and simmered my body in a hot spring. I loved the contrast of a winter soak. Steam, like dry ice smoke, rose from a freezing river where scalding runoff poured in from a geyser. I sat in that perfect junction, dunked my head, opened my eyes and watched a 16-inch cutthroat trout fin next to me. How cool.
Now, watching this massive truck come to a stop, I felt like a hunter who just felled a buffalo. I had hitchhiked in the relative safety of Yellowstone, once carrying a sign that read, “Friendly Park Employee,” but never before on an interstate. I never rode in a semi, either. I jogged toward the big rig and considered the obvious: Is this dangerous? Then the trucker pushed open the passenger door, threw down a hand and pulled me up into his cab. He was a wiry guy with yellow teeth, gray hair and eyelids peeled a little wide. He served in Vietnam, and boy did he like to talk about it. I convinced myself he was harmless. Then he pulled a knife.
“Has anybody ever taught you,” he asked, “the right way to hold a knife in a knife-fight?”
I had one thought: This is awesome.
Hitchhiking to hot springs was my favorite thing to do in the winter in Montana. I didn’t ski, I never rode a snowboard and I never hammered a pick into a wall of ice so I could dangle. Spring and fall were for fishing, summer was for internships. Winter was for soaking and hitchhiking.
Hitchhiking turned soaks into adventures. Who knew what characters I’d meet if I cocked my thumb southward on Highway 93 toward Goldbug, westward on Highway 12 toward Jerry Johnson or east toward Yellowstone? I was a knucklehead undergrad, a band nerd, a newspaper dweeb. But on hitchhikes I rode with lion hunters, speedboat racers and a one-eyed man who told me he had to wear his pirate’s patch ever since a barroom brawl in Butte.
I did learn the right way to hold a knife in a fight (blade backward, facing away from your forearm). I also learned about paranormalist broadcaster Art Bell. And to never take a ride with seven dogs if only six are housebroken. Once, a beautiful woman who introduced herself to me stark naked offered me pink wine and a three-hour ride back to Missoula. Another time, at night, a little four-door sedan filled with five folks who lived on the Flathead Indian Reservation stopped and told me, “Hey brother, sure, we have room.”
This was back when I had intense talks with guys from my English 101 class. We discussed writer Jack Kerouac, folksinger Woody Guthrie, doomed nature-lover Chris McCandless and country-rocker Steve Earle—all vagabonds. We were just like them, we said. I hitchhiked to prove it. Once, I got picked up by a carload of Helena High grads who poured gasoline all over dark roads and lit them on fire. I wrote a song about it later. Because wasn’t I like Steve Earle?
Controlled drama, like hitchhiking to a pool as warm as a bubble bath and then back in time for English class, was fun. And surprising.
One year, I tried to interject the journalism school into the decades-long rivalry between the law school and the forestry school. Traditionally, law students steal from the forestry school a stuffed moose head named “Bertha.” I thought it would be funny if a band of student reporters went to the law school and stole Bertha ourselves. We showed up one night with bolt cutters, but the moose was gone. Days later, hitchhiking in a sleet storm near Lolo, I got a ride from a law student in a giant pickup with a topper.
“You know that moose, Bertha? She’s in the back,” the driver said. “I’m taking her someplace safe, because people are trying to steal her.”
“I can’t imagine,” I said, “who would do something like that.”
Nowadays, at my home in New York City, I get nostalgic. You bet I miss basks in natural baths, but I also miss the hitchhiking. (Hitchhiking, by the way, is still legal in Montana as long as you’re not soliciting a ride from the roadway, as opposed to the shoulder or berm, but I called a highway patrolman who told me he writes hitchhikers tickets.)
Sometimes I think I ought to do it again. Maybe start by paying it forward, give somebody a ride. Then I’ll see a shady-looking dude thumbing two blocks from a New Jersey prison, and I’ll keep driving. Alas, I am not Kerouac. That 2012 hoax, where a West Virginia man shot himself while hitchhiking in Montana and blamed it on somebody else, made the country laugh, but it made me sad. It just proved that hitchhiking is the province of dangerous nut-jobs.
Every winter, though, when the sink piles high with dishes and the litter box overflows and my car needs oil, I’ll put on an old Steve Earle live album. Between songs, he says there was a time in his life when he thought, despite a heroin addiction, that the only thing really wrong was that he wasn’t doing enough hitchhiking.
“Hey brother,” I’ll think, “I know what you mean.”