By the side of the road...Observer readers recount hitchhiking stories 2012.07.18

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

hitchhikerWhen Stair Public Library assistant director Sheri Frost mentioned a hitchhiking story from her younger days, we knew there was a story there.

We collected hitching stories a few weeks ago and we’ll start off with Sheri’s from 1972.

“I was living in Adrian at the time and I was hitching a ride north of Adrian back to my apartment. The car that stopped turned out to be my parents.”

It was a surprise to Sheri because she didn’t recognize the car—her parents had bought a new one since she had last visited.

“They gave me the ride,” Sheri said, “ and the ‘parental look’.”

She said her hitching was mostly limited to the Adrian area when she needed to get to work and back home. However, there was a time when she joined a couple of friends and hitched to Ypsilanti.

“We turned down a ride because the guys were creepy,” she said. “I carried a paring knife from my kitchen in my sock for bravery (or stupidity).”

 

Ron Price of Fayette learned some interesting facts from the man he once picked up.

By Ron Price

I was crossing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, driving a 1969 red Corvette, returning from a vacation in Montana in the summer of 1973. I had the top down and was enjoying the August sunshine when I saw a hitchhiker with a backpack going my way. He appeared to be about my age, and being a police officer myself I felt safe offering him a ride. He gladly accepted.

He said he was from Wisconsin and was going to visit his fiancée at a summer camp in the Ludington area. We began talking and telling stories.

I stopped to gas up and when I tried to start the car again, the battery was dead. My passenger said that I had boiled the battery dry. This was when batteries had removable caps. I pulled the cap and he was right, the battery was dry. We added some water, rolled the car down an incline and popped the clutch (it was a four-speed transmission) and the Vette started right up. When we got to the Mackinac Bridge my traveler paid for our passage.

Of the stories he told, two of them stood out. One was that he had driven trucks in Iowa, delivering John Deere farm tractors. He claimed that when it rained, the red Iowa soil became the thickest and stickiest anywhere.

The second story was about how to prepare octopus for cooking. He claimed the octopus had to be pounded until it turned white, as he had observed this while he was in Europe.

When we got to Clare, he thanked me for the ride, we said our good-byes. He headed west, and I continued south, pondering what he had told me.

I felt that his stories were somewhat on the “tall side” until I had the chance to experience the Iowa mud. It is every bit as red, thick and sticky as he said it was.

Years later, while watching one of the many TV cooking programs that are now on, a chef was explaining the preparation for cooking octopus, and one of the steps was to pound it until it turns white.

I often wonder whatever happened to this interesting hitchhiker. I do not remember his name, just the great tales he told.

 

Fayette resident John Winzeler 

By John Winzeler

In the early 1950s it was easy to hitchhike and I used this mode of transportation many times.

When I returned from Korea in 1953 I had enough money for a ticket from Los Angeles to Chicago. From O’Hare in Chicago, I hitchhiked to my farm home.

I had eight different rides. Most notable were a lady who said she knew she shouldn’t pitch up hitchers; a minister who offered an extended sermon on the evils confronting young people; and finally a man who picked me up in Angola, Ind., and insisted on driving me to the door of my home.

The offer was generous, but the man had been drinking a significant amount while driving. He also said he wanted to meet my mother to see her response upon my arrival. My mother had zero tolerance for drinking, but I could think of no way to deny my driver his wish. 

We drove in the driveway, stopped, and the only welcome greeting came from the dog. My stepfather was still at work and my mother had gone shopping. I unloaded my two duffle bags, thanked the driver and never told my mother the complete story.

In 1954 I was in the Air Force, stationed at West Palm Beach, Fla. Rio Grande College was scheduled to play the University of Miami. This would ordinarily be a colossal mismatch, but little Rio Grande College had a strong team led by Bevo Francis who scored about 40 points per game.

I left my base early in the afternoon and hitchhiked to Miami where I saw “The Great Bevo” shine, as they defeated Miami and Bevo scored over 40 points.

It was usually quite easy to get a ride, but on this Saturday night, no one seemed willing to stop. After waiting nearly an hour, a man in a very used car finally stopped and I hopped in.

As soon as I closed the door a most powerful aroma surrounded me. I was hesitant to mention the odor, since the man had stopped when many others hadn’t.

Deciding to ride it out, I leaned back and quickly felt a strange sensation on my right ear. Seconds later it occurred again. I looked in the back seat and the largest dog I had ever seen was poised for another lick of my ear. By leaning forward I was out of reach of the canine.

The driver and I chatted about many things, but neither of us mentioned the odor or the dog.

 

When former Morenci resident Victor Kutzley was in the service, hitching proved to be a good way to see the sights.

By Victor Kutzley, former Morenci resident (Class of 1942)

My hitchhiking experience was in the 1940s while at Camp Randall Air Force Base radio school in Madison, Wis. There were no classes on the weekend, and unless I was assigned to kitchen patrol, I was able to view all of the Wisconsin attractions including the Dells and other points of interest by hitching. With a farm background, it was sure a pleasure to be able to view the Dairy State on a private’s base pay.

I was also able to sightsee in several other states using my thumb, as I was assigned to other Air Force bases in Illinois, Florida, California and Alabama.

People would drop you off at a corner and later offer to take you farther or take you to a better intersection if you hadn’t gotten a ride.

 

Peter Fallot of Morenci encountered a shocking sight on a trip down the Oregon Coast Highway in 1972.

By Peter Fallot

I was past the mid-point in the longest ride on my thumb yet taken. I’d left Seattle over a week before and hitched up past Fort St. John, British Columbia, to the beginning of the Alcan Highway. It was late fall, just above freezing at noon. The road stretched out straight, with my competition in groups of two to four people scattered ahead of me.

In those years I carried no pack or money, just an extra shirt and a toothbrush. A brother gave me 50¢ for a bowl of soup at a restaurant, and the next morning I started south.

A few days later on the Oregon Coast Highway I got a good ride—a surveyor’s assistant stopped for me just before dark and we talked our way south into the thickest fog I had ever seen.

The fog slowed us to 25 mph. We drove leaning forward, eyes straining. There was no wind at all and the timber was dense on both sides, meeting overhead.

We were still alert and conversing around midnight, when a shape loomed out of the fog near the center of the road. We slowed to a crawl, stopping to see better.

It was the rear axle tires of a truck, smoking. A few yards away was a grease covered engine transmission, then the orange body of an old logging crummy. On closer inspection I could see it had rolled a few times.

We moved slowly, searching without a light for bodies. By now it was swampy on both sides of the road. Quietly we were joined by others in the fog.

The surveyor found a pair of large white flat feet just visible in a culvert under the road. Two other faceless people helped us pull the body of a big man out into the shallow pool we were all standing in and then up the embankment. Not a mark on him, someone said.

Washington State, 1974

Three of my kindest, gentlest friends were hitching south to Seattle and decided they had to go past the “No Hitchhiking” sign on the freeway ramp—man, wife and child hoping for a ride before dark.

The next car that came by was a state patrolman. He just angrily reamed the couple out for quite a while, then drove off. They walked back up the ramp and tried again. The patrolman circled back in a few minutes to apologize just as ardently.

He explained how a short time before, he was the first on the scene of the grisly death of three other people hit on a ramp just north of there. He then put the little family in his patrol car and drove them home.

 

Hitching was a necessity for Chad King when he worked in Adrian and didn’t own a vehicle.

By Chad King

I never knew where I would end up or who was picking me up. It was a very dangerous way to travel.

One night when I was hitching, a huge deer almost took me out just past Canandaigua Road. It jumped right out in front of me by a few feet in a full-out run! He came right out of the corn field.

I used to hitch from Morenci to Adrian all of the time. I did it for an Arby’s job that paid $4.25 an hour. I walked that whole 22 miles two times in the two years that I hitched.

I started driving old beater cars once I could afford one.

 

Ella Butts from rural Clayton tells the story from the 1970s of a young man who needed only two rides to get more than half way across the country.

Ella and her husband, Leonard, had been in Wyoming visiting a family member and were heading back home when they heard a message from a trucker in Rapid City, S.D.

The truck driver said over his CB radio that he just dropped off someone who needed a ride to Ohio. The trucker had brought his passenger all the way from California.

“We picked him up and took him to Wauseon,” Ella said. “He slept most of the way.”

The hitcher called his brother for one last ride and the Butts family returned home to Clayton.

 

Former Morenci resident John Van Valkenburg used his thumb to get home every day from Adrian when he was a student.

By Dr. John Van Valkenburg

My hitchhiking story is from the beginning of my sophomore year at Adrian College in 1949.  I would get a ride over to Adrian College with my brother, who worked at Bohn Aluminum and I had scheduled my classes to be completed at 2 p.m. I would hitchhike each day back to Morenci. 

I learned a lot about getting to Morenci by thumb during those days. It was difficult to get a ride south on M-52, so I would follow the railroad tracks to Weston and once on Weston Road, I could thumb a ride into Morenci without too much difficulty.

Thanks to Doc Bryner, I had a job in the Morenci Rubber Plant in the finishing department. 

Doc permitted me the freedom to check in and check out on my time so I would work two to four hours, be tired and go home.  It was hard to work in study time, but I survived.

Hitching doesn’t always go smoothly. Scott Porterfield remembers a 20-hour trip home from Ferris State. 

By Scott Porterfield

The first college I went to in 1967 was Ferris State in Big Rapids. It was 250 miles from Morenci and I hitchhiked home a couple of times. I carried a small empty suitcase with a handwritten sign on it.

The first sign said GR-96, which would get me to I-96. The next sign said Lansing 127, followed by Jackson 127, followed by Hudson 127. When I got to Hudson you were done as far as getting a ride. I would call my Mom who would come pick me up. 

I hitchhiked home the week Martin Luther King was killed in 1968. I got stuck north of Grand Rapids in the middle of nowhere. It was illegal to hitch on the interstate but that was the only way I could hope to wave someone down.

The first car to pick me was a state trooper. He was an older gentleman and lucky for me, had a son going to Ferris State. He gave me a lift 20 miles further down the line. He wished me “Good luck.” 

I then went back on the interstate and was picked up by a second State Trooper who was not so nice. He put me up against the car, frisked me and admonished me for being out on the interstate.

I pointed out that I had gotten this far by one of his fellow officers. He said, “Get in” and drove me another 20 miles and said, “Stay off the interstate.” He drove north and when he was out of sight, I went back on the interstate. I was still a long way from Grand Rapids.

A black gentleman stopped and asked me if I wanted a lift. I took a deep breath and got in. He was angry about the week’s events with Dr. King being assassinated but as luck would have it he was headed toward Jackson. He was not mad at me but obviously was distraught over the events of that time. He yelled a lot about it and I just listened. Just east of Jackson, he ran out of gas. I got out of the car, stuck out my thumb with my Hudson sign and got a ride immediately from some “hot” high school girls.

I had started hitching at 2 p.m. from Ferris. It was now 11 p.m. and snowing. The young ladies took me all the way to Hudson, stopping at that old A&W root beer place. It was now way after midnight and the weather was worsening. I crossed the street and stood out on 127 wondering whether to call my mother (bad idea) or figure something else out. And I was out of signs.

A moment later, a big produce truck pulled up next to me and the driver said, “Need a ride?” I asked where he was going and said Toledo. Normally, he told me, he would have gone down U.S. 20, but he was kind enough to take the detour and drop me off in the driveway of my parent’s house. It was about 2 a.m. by the time I went to bed.

Some people stand by the side of the road for hours; others have all the luck. Leland Emmons was one of the lucky ones.

Leland was in the service in 1956 and was stationed in Ft. Knox, Ky. A buddy gave him a ride through Louisville and he was picked up by someone else immediately. Leland had his ride, but he knew it could be better.

At a stoplight, he noticed two cars with Michigan plates and he asked his driver to wait while he checked with the next car up. Sure enough, he could get a ride to Michigan in that other car.

“After a while the guy asked if I wanted to drive. I took over and drove halfway across Indiana.”

Leland’s good fortune wasn’t over yet. He was dropped off on U.S. 12 and within a couple of minutes a dairy farmer he knew named Virgil Pifer picked him up and took him right to his house.

“I probably waited 10 minutes total and I got home before dark. But I wouldn’t do it again.”

And those two guys heading north to Michigan?

“I’ve always wondered if they were hauling moonshine,” Leland said.

 

Former Morenci pastor Paul Koons recalls an odd experience one day on the road.

By Paul Koons

Once when hitching home from college at Otterbein in Westerville, Ohio, I got picked up by a salesman on his way home for the weekend who took a nip out of his pint and then offered me a swig. I figured one of us ought to stay sober. 

It was one of the quicker trips home that I experienced.

Ray Ramsdell’s story from Spring Break 1971 didn’t start out as a hitchhiking story. 

By Ray Ramsdell

Three of my football buddies and I (combined weight of nearly 800 pounds) left Ohio in my dad’s 1967 Rambler American sedan loaded with us and our camping gear. We  arrived without mishap at Daytona Beach and spent a fun “educational” week.

 On our return trip, we headed home bright and early in the morning and made it all the way to Macon, Ga., where the transmission went out. Back in that day we did not have credit cards. We had enough cash to buy our meals and gas on the way home, but the tow truck took all of that.

We decided that four people were not likely to get picked up so we broke up into two pairs. The first few rides were pretty easy to get and Nick and I got to Follet, Tenn., about 2  in the morning.  It was a very chilly night in the mountains and we were sunburned from the beach.

After two hours of shivering in the cold, we saw a Dodge Charger with Ohio plates and a man riding alone pulling in to get gas. We ran to the gas station and begged the guy for a ride. Initially he told us that he didn’t pick up hitchhikers. He relented after we begged him to at least take us to the next exit. At one point during our ride, I woke up and had my head on the driver’s shoulder. He eventually dropped us off in Cincinnati.  

We hadn’t eaten for almost 24 hours at this point. We were almost immediately picked up by a young family (a man with his wife and baby) and somehow the woman must have sensed we were hungry. She unwrapped some home-made muffins and gave them to us.  The muffin was the best tasting muffin I ever had in my life.

They dropped us off about six blocks from my house.  We walked the rest of the way and my dad took Nick home.

We found out later that Rick and Barry had gotten a ride from Macon all the way to Toledo and arrived several hours before us.  

Over the years, I tried to pay it forward and picked up hitchhikers. I quit after I picked up one guy who smelled bad. I ended up dropping him off at a restaurant and giving him money for a meal. He tried to pay me with his razor but I told him “no...just pass it on when you get on your feet.”

To this day when I drive through Cincinnati, I bless that family with the delicious muffins.

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