It's sad that the state of America
n society has descended to a level where no prudent person would consider either hitchhiking
or picking up someone who is. The simple human kindness of transporting a stranded soul may be lost forever to the ravages of our mutual fear and mistrust. If my sister told me that she was planning to hitchhike cross-country I would consider her suicidal or worse.
In a simpler time it was a common means of transportation and one would think nothing of crisscrossing the whole of the country with nothing but a thumb. The sleepy truck driver who needed a conversation to stay awake was the most reliable ride but any car with an open seat or pickup truck with an empty bed was fair game.
I'm not old enough to tell you about a time when it was an entirely safe and sane means of locomotion. I routinely thumbed the three hundred miles between college and my hometown more than two decades ago but even then it was getting a little dicey. An ample supply of degenerate weirdness has changed the landscape considerably in twenty years. I wouldn't pick up a hitchhiker now on a dare and I wouldn't hitchhike myself unless my life depended on it.
Most of my trips were between Minneapolis and Grand Forks, North Dakota where the weather is often unkind and the pity ride was my stock in trade. Minnesota Nice is merely a survival technique developed by the natives to cope with the harsh climate. It could be you stuck on the highway the next time so you think twice before leaving someone else stranded. I'd curse the cars that drove by without stopping, "How could those heartless bastards leave me out here to freeze? They've got room for three more people in there."
As often as not I'd make the trip with a buddy and it was much tougher for two to catch a ride than one. What we gained in companionship and security we'd pay for with more time on the pavement and more cautious cars whizzing by. On several occasions we gave up completely for the lack of traffic and spent the night in a culvert or under an overpass.
Dave and I were heading home for the long Thanksgiving
weekend and our last ride dropped us off at the Fergus Falls exit, just about the halfway point to Minneapolis. We wasted a couple of hours in Fargo
detouring on foot around a massive construction zone and by the time we made Fergus it was getting cold and dark. The traffic was dwindling to nil and we had to face the reality that we would probably be spending the night outdoors.
Late November is a bad time to sleep in a ditch in Minnesota so we decided to trek into town and try to find a place to crash. We didn't have a dollar between us but my buddy Dave told me that he heard that in small towns the police would let you sleep in a cell before they'd allow you to freeze to death. We waved down the first cop we saw and he made it clear that what we were describing to him sounded a lot like vagrancy and that he could arrange for us to spend the entire holiday weekend in a cell. We thanked him but declined his generous offer of incarceration in the Fergus Falls lockup.
We were able to pass a couple of hours in the lobby of a Motel Six by convincing the desk clerk we were waiting for friends to arrive. At about midnight he noticed we were both fast asleep on the chairs in the lobby and he gave us the bum's rush. We slouched, tired and cold, through the November sleet back to the dubious shelter of the highway overpass. The wet sleet dampened any hope of finding dry wood for a fire so we burned my Psych 101 notes in an empty coffee can we found in the ditch.
Our original plan had us arriving home in time for dinner so we hadn't thought it necessary to bring money for food. Our hunger pangs were fast becoming a more pressing issue than the fight to stay warm. We were haunted by the glow of the massive Perkin's Restaurant sign next to the freeway and the horn of plenty it symbolized. Perkin's was open twenty-four hours a day and it taunted us that night with its warm booths and bottomless cups of coffee. Our cold concrete and steel crevice was close enough that we could see the happy late night diners and the perky waitresses and actually smell the Granny's Country Omelets in the steam that wafted from the building.
The Perkin's restaurant chain has an established custom of flying a massive floodlit American flag over each restaurant. As we shivered over our little coffee can fire with the huge American banner flapping in the background, our patriotic fervor for life in the land of plenty was wafer thin. I noticed that it was after midnight and technically Thanksgiving Day so I pulled the scarf away from my mouth and wished Dave an ironic and inappropriately cheerful "Happy Thanksgiving!"
"Yeah, Happy F**kin' Thanksgiving to you too!"
Dave had taken on a distressing thousand yard stare, eyes glazed, in the direction of that huge American flag. By the glow of our pathetic little fire, barely shielded from the cutting sleet, I watched his facial expression change from depressed endurance to righteous indignation. He smothered the coffee can fire with the back of his Elements of Physics textbook and stood hunched under the bridge.
"This is America, dammit, let's go get breakfast!"
We walked back across the bridge and headed into town, me following about five paces behind Dave's inspired gait. He led us straight back toward the Motel Six from which we had been evicted so I questioned him.
"Nah, we're not going back to the motel, that desk clerk was wound pretty tight."
There was a small Greyhound Bus terminal next door to the Motel Six and Dave made a beeline for the ticket counter. The nice lady in the cashier's window was startled by the sudden appearance of two desperate strangers at one in the morning. She tore her crossword puzzle where the pencil point had been, then fumbled the pencil itself until it fell to the floor.
"Cccan I...hhelp you?"
Dave sounded more like an eager salesman than a scoundrel who meant her harm, so she gradually relaxed her guard.
"Hi there, We're college students hitchhiking home for Thanksgiving break and our last ride dropped us at the Fergus Falls exit. We haven't eaten since noon and didn't bring money for food. If you loan us twenty dollars we'll mail it back to you tomorrow when we get home."
The nice lady reached for her purse without hesitation, extracted a twenty-dollar bill and handed it to Dave. She tore the bottom off of a bus schedule and wrote "attn: Betty" above the address printed on the bottom of the brochure.
"If you send it to that address I'll get it. There's only the three of us who work here and I'm the only Betty."
We thanked her thoroughly, a little surprised at the success of Dave's simple ploy and she minimized the gesture.
"When you two came up to the window I was sure you were here to rob me. I'll ask God to forgive me for being quick to judgement and buy you breakfast in the meantime. You boys have a nice Thanksgiving."
Dave and I were both a little misty over the kindness of a stranger as we exited the Greyhound terminal but we were laughing our asses off in a celebratory gallop by the time we made Perkin's.
We could see our spot under the overpass from the warm booth at Perkin's and life was good. Twenty bucks covered two Granny's Country Omelets, two bottomless cups of coffee and a five-dollar tip for a hottie named Kim. We had enough change left over to buy a copy of the local newspaper and enough time on our hands to scour it from cover to cover.
The Fergus Falls paper had a story on the front page about an animal shelter run by a local resident. When the cages at the Humane Society were full, the recently widowed woman devoted her husband's humble estate to an overflow facility to forestall euthanasia. The heartwarming article compared her to Mother Theresa and intimated that she was not a wealthy woman and that she might be missing meals herself to feed the strays.
She was, after all, still working the graveyard shift at the Greyhound depot.