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Adventures Hitchhiking From Athens to Colorado

Stock photo by Kamaji Ogino

It was summertime, I was young, and the open road beckoned. Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1973, I hitchhiked from Athens to Colorado with 20 bucks in my pocket, a knapsack on my back and hope in my heart for adventure on the American road. I was not disappointed. My “road scholar” sabbatical brought me sights and experiences that I still treasure.

With my thumb in the air and a smile on my face, I was soon picked up by a long-haul truck driver who gave me a ride to North Carolina. My luck continued as I got rides through Tennessee, then into Kentucky’s tiny and charming capital, Frankfort. From there I got a ride into Indiana with a man who had been a hobo riding freight trains during the Depression. He handed me a crisp $5 bill and wished me luck when we parted ways. I picked up Interstate 70 in Indianapolis and got a long ride with a family leaving church. They were good Samaritans to me.

Continuing westward I caught rides through Illinois farm country, then into St. Louis, where the gleaming metal Gateway Arch was dazzling in the midday sun. Across Missouri and into Kansas I got rides easily. Outside Topeka, I thought my good luck had run out when I was let out near a toll-road station where several Kansas cop cars were parked. I was worried, but not for long. A sporty little Saab automobile with a Massachusetts license tag stopped to pick me up.

“Where you going?” asked the driver. “Colorado,” I said. “You’re in luck. So am I,” he replied. He turned out to be a likable disc jockey and music magazine writer from Boston. His copious collection of audiotapes proved to be the perfect soundtrack for our ride past the oceanic wheat fields of Kansas and onward toward craggy, colorful Colorado. 

We saw storied towns like Denver and Cripple Creek and stunning scenery like Estes Park, Bear Lake and Hayden Creek. High atop 14,000-foot Pike’s Peak, we were delighted to find enough snow on the ground to have a snowball fight on July 4. It was the view from Pike’s Peak that inspired educator and activist Katharine Lee Bates to write “America the Beautiful” in 1893. Seeing that view for myself 50 years ago, it truly was “beautiful for spacious skies/ For amber waves of grain,/ For purple mountain majesties/ Above the fruited plain.”  

My good luck held out on my return trip to Athens, and my thumb soon got me back home. During a round trip of about 3,000 miles, I never waited more than about 15 minutes for a ride. Hitchhiking from Athens to Colorado took me about 24 hours, thanks to kind people along the way. When I left Athens, I had $20 in my wallet. When I got back to town, I had 35 cents and memories to last a lifetime.

When I was a kid back in the 1950s, my dad would pick up hitchhikers, much to my mom’s chagrin. Once we picked up a young guy here in Georgia who said he was hitching to California. A few days later my folks and I were amazed to see the same hitchhiker in the audience for the popular TV show, “Art Linkletter’s House Party.” The host mentioned that the man had thumbed all the way to the show’s studio in Los Angeles as the cameras showed him waving to the audience and to viewers across the nation.

Hitchhikers have long been subjects of song and story. Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac told tales of thumbing in his 1957 novel On the Road. Marvin Gaye sang a song called “Hitchhike” in 1962. A 1953 movie and a 1960 episode of “The Twilight Zone”—both titled “The Hitch-Hiker”—were scary fare, while 1971’s “Hit the Road Comix” and 2014’s “Carsick” by John Waters showed the humorous side of hitching a ride.

Today hitchhikers are rare and hitchhiking is difficult. Fifty years ago I got lucky rides like those described by the band Country Joe & the Fish in their ode to hitchhikers:  “ …and I went flying high all the way.”