In 1979, the summer after I graduated from college, I moved temporarily back to Illinois from Iowa before starting work that fall as an Admissions department counselor for the college from which I’d graduated. My girlfriend was staying on campus that summer working a local job before starting her senior year.
I hated being apart from her for even a week. So, lovestruck and determined to close the mid-summer gap, I begged a ride from a friend headed the general direction of Iowa. He dropped me on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin in a town called Verona. I stuck out my thumb to begin hitching rides across the western part of the state and hopefully, the last forty-mile stretch from Prairie du Chien up to Decorah, Iowa.
As journeys like this typically begin, I quickly caught a ride from Verona to the next town, Mt. Horeb. Then I stood by the road for a long time sweating in the sun. No one would pick me up.
Finally a farm truck pulled over to the side of the road. I climbed into the cab and the farmer gave me a second once-over. I was dressed in a running tee-shirt from the Drake Relays and some really raggedy blue-jean shorts cut off high up on the thigh. He did not seem to approve.
Stretch of highway
Those were the “fashions” of the time, but the farmer wasn’t buying it. He shoved the truck back into gear and we trundled along Highway 18 heading toward Barneveld and points west. The truck struggled to climb the long hills and decades later, I would relate to that sensation while cycling in the Driftless region of western Wisconsin. But that day, I was just glad to have a ride.
I’d traveled that same highway many times during four years of commuting to college. There were bright summer days in August traveling with my parents on the way to begin college each fall. Dank November days coming back for Thanksgiving. Snowy December trips on the journey home for Christmas. Frigid January road trips crammed together with college friends from the Chicago area. Heading back and forth to school. Back then it took nearly six hours to drive.
So I thought I knew the road well, and the towns conjoined by the highway. But when you’re hitching a ride things seem very much longer and definitely more confusing the farther you go. It’s easy to forget which town comes after the next, and how far you actually have left to travel. The sun stares blankly at you. This is your problem, it seems to say.
The farmer dropped me off where the road to his property crossed the main highway. I was officially standing in the middle of nowhere. The only thing I carried with me was a silver Frank Shorter running bag with that logo of the famous runner printed on its side.
As a distance runner I admired Frank Shorter on several levels. I’d drawn his picture many times by copying photos from Track and Field News during my high school study halls. He’d raced against the likes of Steve Prefontaine and even won the Olympic marathon in 1972 and was second in 1976. A genuine hero. Thus it was my wishful thinking that somehow my own running career connected me to the likes Frank Shorter, the rail-thin runner from Florida and then Colorado.
Yet somehow standing on the side of the road in the middle of southwestern Wisconsin, none of that seemed to really matter. I was tired from standing on my feet so long and hoping (wishing) for another ride. At least to get to the next town. Hitching.
Finally a van pulled over and I hopped in, thanked the driver and suddenly we were moving again. The air conditioner wasn’t working so the ride was hot and windy. I put my hand out the window to direct some breeze into my face. He drove to the next down, pulled the van to a stop and just motioned me to get out.
This time I wound up on the west side of Barneveld, a town that would later get flattened by a violent tornado. For years following that incident the trees on the south side of town stood ragged and torn. But just like the oceanside town in the story by Pearl S. Buck The Big Wave about a Japanese fishing village, the town rebuilt itself in defiance of yet another storm. That is the perverse miracle of human nature, yet some recognize its dangers, as captured in this excerpt from the book:
“Since Kino enjoyed looking at the waves, he often wondered why the village people did not, but he never knew until – he came to know Jiya, whose father was a fisherman. Jiya’s house did not have a window toward the sea either. “Why not?” Kino asked him. “”The sea is beautiful.”
“The sea is our enemy,” Jiya replied.
“How can you say that?” Kino asked. “Your father catches fish from the sea and sells them, and that is how you live.” Jiya shook his head. “The sea is our enemy,” he repeated.
I was starting to feel bedraggled myself, and my own worst enemy. True to form in the last 1970s, I wasn’t really drinking many fluids. None of us runners ever drank much water back then. We’d run twenty miles at 6:00 pace with hardly a sip.
But hitching was hard work too. And finally I had to drink something. So I purchased a Coke at a gas station and stood there by the side of the road sucking on that bottle with my thumb sticking out. An icon for the ages.
My next ride was a truck heading out to Ridgeway, a mere patch of a town perched high on a hill with view far to the south and north. The summer heat had turned the distant knolls a faded gray. Yet looking back toward the glacial kame of Blue Mounds State Park the 2000-foot mogul looked cerulean in the summer light.
Home turf of a sorts
Finally I reached the city of Dodgeville, which is also the site of Governor Dodge State Park and Bethel Horizons camp. That was where I’d met my girlfriend the year before during a Luther College Resident Assistant (RA) retreat. It seemed we felt a spark right away. Then I fell in ‘love at first sight’ when she laid her head on my knee during a campfire meeting. The light of an August moon illuminated her bright green eyes. I was smitten.
Thus I felt wistful and sentimental riding through the Dodgeville area, but that passage happened fast as my ride cheerfully offered to take me a little farther. We zoomed through town with green lights all the way as I’d shared my tale of my first real love. The driver liked the story and offered to bring me all the way through to the west side of town. “I hope you make it to her before dark,” he offered.
That was the first time I actually realized the risks of the day. By then, the afternoon was mostly gone. The sun was turning yellow in the western sky, and what if it did go down, and the skies grew dark? Would I ever catch another ride then?
I kept hitching and made it towns named Edmund and Cobb and Montfort. Bought a candy bar and another Coke. Stood by the road with my thumb out and as patient a look as I could muster. People kept stopping and I kept smiling and thanking them.
It made me wonder (even back then) what it might be like to try to hitchhike as a woman. The risks were so much greater. The rape factor alone would be terrifying. Yet I’d seen a few gals with “Don’t mess with me” looks on their faces hitching rides. That took something like courage. Not sure what I’d call it. But it definitely never happens any more.
Time running out
All I knew was that time was running out for me. It was 6:00 in the afternoon and I was genuinely getting tired, hungry and a bit fearful of the sun going down. I got dropped by the side of the road on a hill west of Fennimore, Wisconsin. The guy seemed guilty about it. “Sorry!” he shrugged as he turned his car around and crunched his wheels onto the gravel shoulder on the opposite side of the road. “I have to get back to my place for supper.”
That made me homesick as I stood there all alone again. To make matters worse, there was a dark rim of clouds building to the west. It filled me with dread to think that I might get caught out in a thunderstorm with no raincoat and no place to hide.
I was getting a touch frantic. Several rides back, I’d been so eager to catch a ride I almost left my Frank Shorter bag back on the roadside. I had to tell the driver to stop. “Wait! I left my bag.” Then I ran back to grab the bag and arrived back at his car covered in sweat.
There is nothing like a spell of near silence to create tension in the mind of a lonesome journeyman. The roads definitely got quieter as the evening traffic ebbed. Crickets were joined in their songs of seeming solidarity when in fact it is the dirge of competitive fury and the right to breed. Large crickets will catch and kill smaller specimens, biting off their heads territorial defense. I’d seen it in firsthand in field biology and learned that nature in many other ways is the most unkind host in all the universe.
I was exposed to the elements, and feeling much like a bug in some weird scientific experiment involving human territorialism . Trucks and cars would ease up as they approached. The driver would give a long glance, sizing me up, then take off with acceleration as they decided to drive on past. I began to worry that my face was giving off some sort of dire reflection of my mood. Perhaps my ugly shorts and worn out running shoes sent some signal that I might be a danger.
And through it all, the crickets kept on singing.
The entire mood of the day was changing quickly. The sun slid behind the big swath of clouds forming to the west. As the light drained away the landscape turned dour. Trees seemed to change from green to black. The road itself shifted from a silver sliver heading west to a dull grey that now seemed interminable and threatening. Even the street signs seemed to blink out as the sun’s rays vanished behind the clouds.
Then I truly felt alone.
Yet I’d learned from many situations in life that you have to be most determined when you get tired. Certainly that was one of the lessons I’d learned from distance running. So I shifted my shoes in the gravel, stood tall as I could, and stuck out my thumb with a bit more urgency. Which was wise, because as I glanced to the west, the first flash of lightning emanated from the heap of clouds gathered near the horizon. So despite my renewed focus, I felt a genuine surge of fear pulse through my brain and body.
As luck would have it
Then a small red sedan pulled over to the side of the road and before it reached me, flashed its lights to garner my attention. I grabbed my bag and trotted back to meet the vehicle by the road. To my surprise the driver was a woman in her late 20s. She reached over to roll down the window and said. “Where are you going?”
“To Iowa,” I said.
“Well….” she smiled…”The reason I’ve stopped is that I’ve seen you several times today as I was visiting friends. I figure if you’re still out here hitching rides you must not be dangerous. Where in Iowa?”
“Decorah,” I told her.
“Get in,” she replied. “I’ll take you there.”
I opened the door, placed my Frank Shorter bag in the back seat and turned to her. “Seriously?” I asked. “Isn’t it out of your way?”
(Look at it on the map. Decorah is out of everyone’s way.
“I’m going up into northeast Iowa anyway,” she responded. “You can keep me awake.”
Relief and gratitude
Off we went. I sank down into the seat relieved that good luck had come my way. We talked a little but she seemed to sense that I was exhausted. As we crossed into Iowa I recovered a little and started a conversation without getting too familiar in the topics. I certainly didn’t want to frighten off the driver. Night was coming on and we were headed up the hill from the Mississippi River to the upper plains of Iowa.
It took forty minutes to arrive, and as pulled into Decorah she drove me straight to the college campus. I thanked her and we shook hands. She seemed to know I had no money to offer for gas, so she waved and said, “Give your girlfriend a hug!!”
Her gracious help was a lesson that I would carry with me for a very long time. Later in life, while serving as caregiver to a long line of relatives and friends facing illness and death, I recalled the significance of that help along the way in my journey.
Sometimes all people need is to be picked up for a while and carried to the next town. At other times times it really helps if you’re willing to go the extra mile and complete the journey with them. And always be prepared to expect nothing in return. Offering help should be sufficient reward, for it often pays more back than what you need to give.
That’s what the woman did for me that day on my hitchhiking journey from Madison to Decorah. Helped me complete my journey.
Tears for fears
Once I was inside the dorm where my girlfriend was living, I walked to her door and stood there letting a few tears of relief roll down m face. It had been a long, emotional day in many respects.
Then I knocked on the door and she let me with a large hug. She knew I was headed her way but there were no cell phones in those days, and pay phones were often hard to find in small towns. It had been a journey of faith in some respects, and determination in other ways. Sticking out your thumb and trusting the kindness of strangers is not so common these days. But it sure taught some lessons in its day.