Hitchhiking Changed My Life
Traveling with strangers helped me heal my combat PTSD and learn what freedom's really about.
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It takes a certain amount of faith to pick up a hitchhiker. You don’t know who you’re inviting into your vehicle, if they’re dangerous or kind or a little bit off. There’s no way of knowing if they’ve got a weapon or criminal tendencies. You can’t tell at a glance whether they’re good or bad. And yet still you pull over and invite them into your car.
Does that sound scary to any of you? It’s just as intimidating from the other side.
Hitchhiking is a contract you make with people you’ve just met. From the traveler’s perspective, I agree to offer entertaining conversation in exchange for mileage, with the mutual agreement that all parties keep their hands to themselves. The driver gets company, the traveler gets that much closer to their destination, and each does their best to make sure the experience is worthwhile and enjoyable for the other.
Never once was this unspoken pact violated.
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Hitchhiking Was a Happy Accident
The decision to travel with my thumb in the air was, like most of my life decisions, made with little thought but total commitment—a rash policy that’s given me just as many scars as happy endings. I’ve got trauma from the military, nightmares from Afghanistan and guilt over dead friends. But I’ve also got a passport with stamps, pictures of friends that make me smile and people in nearly every state in the country who’d help if I asked. This may not seem like much to some, but it’s all I’ve ever wanted. How many others can say they have the world? Give me scars. I’ll take those too if that’s what it takes to be free.
Freedom is something everyone demands but nobody knows what to do with. I think most people—Americans especially—prefer the idea of being free rather than freedom itself and all the responsibility it entails. It’s why we’re captivated by celebrities, clergy, social media and all the other big-money mouthpieces telling us how to think and live. Give me freedom, yes, but someone else, please, tell me how to use it. Fear stops us from living our best lives. It holds us back from committing to adventures and self-growth. It stops us from picking up hitchhikers, helping strangers. Fear is the enemy of freedom. To quote motivational speaker George Addair, “Everything you’ve ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear.”
That’s what attracted me to hitchhiking in the first place. It seemed like a crazy, exciting adventure, even though the idea scared the hell out of me. But once you’re committed, you’re committed. You climb into the first stranger’s car and close the door. What happens next is largely out of your hands.
During my time traveling, it helped to remind me it takes a special sort of person to help a stranger on the side of the road. I know it’s naive to think every person who pulls over is a kindhearted soul, but I personally never experienced anything bad while traveling. If anything, some of my faith in humanity was even restored.
My Rides Taught Me to Value All People
I was helped by people across a broad spectrum of backgrounds and social standing. There was Julio, a Cuban immigrant and truck driver, whose broken-English speech about keeping happy in the head being just as important as feeling happy in the heart sticks with me to this day. The Campbells, an older couple, took me in for the night, gave me food and a place to sleep, and the next morning took me down the highway to a better spot to pick up rides. Mama G, the woman whose husband died and house burned down within a few weeks, made room for me and another traveler in her cramped little Nissan. She got us to Kansas, plus three nights in a hotel.
In Colorado, I stayed with friends I hadn’t seen in years and was so happy, I literally cried. An old man who built tiny houses let me stay in one on his property at the foot of a mountain; the next morning, we had coffee over a campfire, and he bought me breakfast at a greasy spoon down the road. He left me at a crossroads in the flatlands.
The next person who picked me up was already drunk and getting drunker. He was a concealed carry instructor who’d killed a man breaking into his home a few months prior. His wife had recently left him. We made it to New Mexico before we got pulled over and he was arrested. The state trooper who pulled us over told me to fuck off, and I did exactly that for two miles down a busy highway. After that, it was hard to get rides, and I was stranded in the next town for two days until a trucker from Mexico picked me up on his way to El Paso.
There were so many more. How many strangers came into my life, changed it forever and left as quickly as they’d come? People from all over the world—of all ages, races, creeds and orientations—saw a stranger and chose to help. Not quite what the social narrative would lead one to believe would happen, no?
I Found Freedom From Old Trauma
Autonomy means risks. When we completely control how we live our lives, there’s no safety net to catch you if you fall. That stability is reserved for those who play within the rules of social norms. In exchange for freedom, you get something like stability and peace of mind. Still, if you forsake those in lieu of control, you gain experience, confidence and the overwhelming suspicion that maybe life isn’t so bad. Maybe everyone else isn’t a villain after all. That’s not to say there aren’t any villains at all—you’d be foolish to think otherwise—but they’re not as common as the news or social media make them out to be.
I live with PTSD, my souvenir from Afghanistan. I’ve learned to manage and mitigate it over the years. PTSD means anxiety, and anxiety leads to fear, leading to more anxiety and an increase in other post-traumatic symptoms. Travel, especially hitchhiking, helped cure me of much of my anxiety. It helped me manage my trauma. It forced me to live in the moment and make peace with the fact that some things are just out of my hands and not worth getting angry over. Who cares if you don’t get picked up for hours on end? What does it matter what others think of you on the side of the road? They have their lives to live, and I have mine, and I wouldn’t trade places with them for the world. I have travel, freedom, experience. I have adventure. I have fulfillment.
Sometimes, I look at the world and get bitter; is this really a place that was ever worth fighting for? Then, I remember my journeys and all the people I’ve met. I remind myself they’re only a small representation of the total goodness that exists and that they’ve been there the entire time. I remind myself that fear is the ultimate enemy of freedom.
Then, I look at my life and how I have all I need, and I realize freedom is what made it possible. I have exactly what I need, and nothing more. I have friends, and I have stories. There are people I love in this world and places that have made me who I am.
And that is something worth fighting for.