The Other Side

I had an experience last weekend that gave me perspective on a lot of peoples' fear of hitchhikers.

Yes we were stupid. It was a dark, rainy night on a coastal highway (HW-1 in California). Our headlights flew past a figure on the side of the road. We only saw him for a split second - just enough to see him gesturing frantically with his thumb.

My companion in the passenger's seat twisted his neck around to try to get another glimpse, but it was too dark. "Oh that poor guy! We're miles from anywhere and it's freezing cold! We should pick him up!"

I began to slow down. A car behind us swerved around and continued barreling along into the night. I hesitated, and then pulled over.

My friend craned his neck out into the rain and yelled to the figure - "Come on man! It's cool! Get in the car!"

The figure approached, yelling something. As he got closer, we started to make out what he was saying: "Slow down! Slow down god dammit! You're going to fast".

We were, in fact, stopped on the side of the road. We looked at each other, wondering what to make of it, but before I thought to lock the door it swung open, and there was a man in the back seat.

"GO!" He yelled (I think? this part is a little hazy). I put the car in gear and pulled back into the road.

My companion turned around and introduced himself:

"Hey man, I'm Liam and this is Bobby. What's your name?"
"Nuh uh. Not giving my name."
"uh, ok. suit yourself?"
"You smokers? I need a cigarette."
"Sorry, we're not smokers."
"Then gimme them cigarettes!"
"No, we said we're not smokers."

He sighed, muttered something, and fell silent.

As we drove on, it became clear that the man in the back seat was either mentally ill or under the influence, and that he was paranoid about being apprehended by authorities. He alternated between picking maniacally at his hair, demanding that we find him cigarettes, claiming that he was "riding with [us] until the end" (whatever that meant), snoring, and yelling short bursts of gibberish.

As time went on, he became more and more aggressive, and I became more and more fearful of what he might do, all the while trying to act unphased and keep up a nonchalant conversation. My companion is a mixed martial arts / muay thai fighter, so I tried to steer the conversation towards his prowess in hand-to-hand combat. Our passenger didn't seem to notice.

And honestly, it didn't make me feel all that much safer. Having a crazed man in the back seat of a civic makes you realize how incredibly intimate the interior of a car can be. He was behind us. We were strapped to our seats for fucks' sake. If he pulled out a knife we were sitting ducks.

We drove for about 40 minutes. 5 minutes from the town where my companion was going to spend the night with his brother, he took out his cell phone to tell his brother that we were almost there. The man in the back seat snapped out of his doze and addressed us with a hostile voice:

"Turn off that phone, you ain't callin' nobody. TURN OFF THAT PHONE DAMMIT!"

My fingers tightened around the wheel. Was this it? Was this the point where the power dynamic was going to shift? Was he commandeering the car? Were we his prisoners?

My friend, braver than I, turned towards the back seat, shrugged, and smiled. "Sorry man, but I've got to call my bro." He proceeded with the call.

I began to run scenarios through my head of how to get this guy out of the car. Before I got far though, we arrived at the outskirts of town and a corner store appeared on the right.

"Here's good. I need cigarettes." The man said. He threw open the door, jumped out in the middle of the highway, and ran off into the night.

I think hitchhiking is a beautiful thing. But I think it's also worth learning from experiences like this. For me, there are two lessons to learn here:

1 - Be adventurous, but be smart. The world is a dangerous place. That doesn't mean that the answer is to make only conservative choices - hitchiking, hospitality exchange, dumpster diving, etc are all wonderful things. The unlived life isn't worth safeguarding. But within each of those activities, there's huge spectrum of smart and stupid choices. We were stupid to leave the door unlocked let this guy in the car without having a conversation with him first. We made other mistakes too. We should learn from them.

2 - Don't belittle the fear of others. It's not all that helpful to dismiss drivers who don't pick up hitchhikers as irrational squares. A better approach is to help them understand the types of dangers and the techniques they can use to make things safer.

Life is a never-ending series of learning experiences, and I'm glad that I got to learn from this one. What are your thoughts?



robino's picture

Take Pride In Your Fears

There is this saying on a postcard in the casa that says: take pride in your fears.

Thanks for writing this story down. I love every detail of it (as a story) !

I think that writing this so full of honesty about your own feelings and perceptions does take some 'guts', that many people couldn't because of their fears.

You know me, I think you did a great thing helping this guy getting further. Picking him up also made you write this story and moreover you've learned a great thing about fear, like your fear of being out of control, and fear of being killed. And you shared those feelings! And you grew stronger, and you made more people think further.

Fear is not to be belittled, I agree. But I do think that any time we face fear or any other type of emotions, you can observe this fear, instead of letting yourself led by it. How many times I have been in a car with also those fears. The guy is drunk for example, or I see him looking at me with desire in his eyes. And Eva is right, they just love it when I show fear !! It gives them a kick, and makes the guy who's speeding even go faster.

But also when I have got no reason to be fearful, sometimes fear just pops up in my head. It comes to play with me and take me at the balls, roll me around the ground, to see if it can get me down my knees for it. You know, these are games that the mind likes to play with you.

But I am not those fears. These are projections of my surroundings playing its recurrent games that come into my head as fear. Which make me loose the sense of the self, like a big smoke-screen, making it impossible for me to have an overview of the situation without the dust particles, and equally making it impossible for me to go further than where I have been before.

Thanks for bringing this up Bobby.

evaaa's picture


i am sorry that this happend to you. it seems to have affected you very much. this means at the same time that there are lessons to learn and that is a good thing. and you are alright.

how to handle such persons is a valuable skill. they are everywhere and you often bump into them when you do not expect them. i myself call them "energy vampires". consciously or not they nurture somehow on this weird energy flow that you have felt, fear and control is a feast for them. the trick is to brake the cycle and not let them have what they try to get, to brake the dynamic. they go somewhere else then. they often make a violent impression but are harmless. they just bark and do not bite. the one that bites is another kind.

i think you are right regarding your lessons. i myself like to sit by the road at a gas station or a restaurant. it gives the drivers the possibility to look at me/us, have a chat, and see if we want to give it a try. it makes it more likely that i get a ride and, on the other side, to build trust from my side. i have time to see if this is my ride. as a women this is particularly important for me.

take care and beware of vampires! :-)


Curious George J.'s picture

offering rides

That reminds me of one of my favorite rides. At the beginning, the driver seemed pretty untrusting. He pulled way over to the side, almost into a ditch. He got out, locking all the doors (to protect his girlfriend/wife?) and walked back toward me. We chatted for a couple minutes, and when he decided I was OK, he almost instantly flip-flopped from tough, cold, distant guy to puppy-dog friendly, eager-to-please, helpful friend mode. So maybe he wasn't "untrusting," but careful. He said he had never had any "bad" experiences with hitchhikers that prompted his carefulness, but that only confirmed his opinion that careful was the way to be.

To play devil's advocate, who else is going to give the mentally-ill or under-the-influence man a ride? And who better than two intelligent, young men to offer such a ride (except maybe a burly trucker or two...)? Unless a cop passed by (and maybe even then, if he'd put down his thumb and hide), he'd likely have spent a significant portion of the night in the rain. Maybe caught hypothermia. Maybe even died. So perhaps you were just being "care"ful in the different way.