Taking rides from strangers

It happens to all of us, eventually: the moment when you’re cold, hungry, tired, lost, far from your destination and looking into the eyes of a complete stranger who’s in a position to make your life easier by offering space in his or her vehicle. Or, perhaps, who could kill you.

There’s only one way to know.

This Outside article about getting a flat in South Africa prompted me to reflect on the kindness of strangers. For every nutcase who harms a passenger there are probably 10 — or 100 — whose good deeds go unspoken. Remember hitchhiking? I want to write a book about it because I can’t believe my kids don’t have any idea what it was like. Even my mother would pick up strangers who often entertained the car full of kids on the ride home. I believe that when it was more common to hitch or “thumb” rides people were less paranoid about asking and offering.

how it was done (not me)

how it was done — so simple!

There was a big gap in my “bumming rides” — maybe from the time a friend and I thumbed across northern France in 1984 to a time in adulthood when I decided not having a car wasn’t going to keep me from going where I wanted to. In those years my formula for deciding when and whether to take a ride from a stranger has evolved to include cigarettes, coins and scratch tickets. It isn’t  complicated at all, requiring that 1) you be the one who initiates the conversation and 2) have cash on hand.

Most of this is common sense, but I’m putting some serious effort into teaching it to my kids, because they think that as long as they have a cell phone they’ll never get stranded. Of course the first part of the lesson is to not end up in the situation by planning well, but the other is to develop and listen to the signals sent by one’s gut, because it’s usually right. That may mean there are times you’ll hoof it home, too.

Being on that edge, weighing that decision about your next move, is often a make-or-break proposition: if it goes well you’re more likely to pursue adventure, to trust your gut the next time you plunge in. If things go poorly you may become a hermit afraid to interact with people. I wonder if there’s a way to skew it in favor of adventure or if it’s left to a combination of  personality and circumstance?

Only once do I remember my gut yelling “NO!” when a guy offered me a ride home. I was about 15 and pushing my bike with a flat tire. There was some combination of his creepiness and my instinct telling me that since he offered without me asking there was something wrong with the equation. When I look back at it I’m glad I overcame the “good kid” urge to be obedient when he told me to put my bike in the back of his station wagon. I might have been the next picture on a “missing” poster but it didn’t scare me away from going back out on my own, looking for adventure.

You can’t always know it’s going to open up and pour on you miles from home, or that the subway is going to be shut down, or that the trail you’re on empties out on a road miles from the parking lot. And I’ve found, contrary to my paranoid friends’ firm belief that there’s an axe murderer behind every tree, people really enjoy being generous when it’s not inconvenient. Heck, I gave a ride to some shivering students walking back from a dance on a winter’s night in 1985 and they thanked me again at a reunion decades later.

The key is to trust your instincts. Once in Stonington CT I had walked miles from the marina to a store for much-needed allergy medicine. Facing a stupidly-long walk back after dark with a grocery bag, I opted to investigate taxis. Duh, I learned that Stonington is nice on the waterfront end but barely a speck on the map otherwise. The cab service I called said it would be a couple hours before someone could pick me up. That’s when I devised the cigarette/coin/scratch ticket strategy. I waited until a guy came into the store with 2 little kids and paid for his cigarettes with pocket change. I followed him out and offered money for a ride back to the marina. When he hesitated I told him my own daughters  were waiting for me there and would be worried that I’d been gone so long. He caved, and I was back at the marina in 30 minutes, leaving $10 or $15 on the car console.

not always the most reliable form of transportation

not always the most reliable form of transportation

Then there was the horrid sailing vacation to (overrated) Block Island when I hitched a ride for my whole shivering wet family so I didn’t have to listen to the kids complain all the way on a long walk into town. It was far better than staying in close confinement on the boat for yet another crappy, rainy day and hopefully the kids learned that there are gray areas around the edges of the rule about never taking rides from strangers. Exception No. 1: when you are traveling in a pack large enough to overcome the driver and steal his car if necessary. Or, when your parents say it’s OK.

When we were in Colorado we were out hiking when the sky opened up. Not being sure how far it was back to the car, we tried thumbing and ended up meeting a really nice couple who’d been mountain guides in the Rockies. Dumbstruck by our luck meeting them and hearing their stories, we kicked ourselves for not getting contact information when they dropped us at the car.

My most recent stranding was of my own doing: I got dropped off in an area where I know several people, and knew my car was just a couple miles away. Unfortunately I couldn’t connect the dots that afternoon and was stuck: smelly from a race and exhausted. Couldn’t even find a bicycle to steal. To add insult to sore muscles, my cell phone died while negotiating with far-flung cab companies for a $40 ride that might last 15 minutes. Bottom line, nobody was available to give me a ride, except for the lady who drove her 15 year old sh–box of a car to the convenience store for cigarettes.

It had been a few years since Stonington and Block, but I wrapped a smile around my frustration and approached her. She was friendly, and definitely interested in the money, never pretending to turn it down. She had to call her daughter first, she said, but quickly waved me back. I was at my car in minutes, happy to give the $40 cab fare to her in exchange for the nail-biting drive (while she was safe to take a ride from, she wasn’t the safest driver to ride with). And I hope she won something with the scratch tickets she was definitely going back to the store to buy with my fare.

Just like that lady in South Africa, it turned out fine. Relax, not everybody is an axe murderer.


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2 Responses to “Taking rides from strangers”

  1. Louisa May Alcatt Says:

    I have taken rides from strangers in similar situations as you. I have also given them. Glad to see we’re on the same page

  2. rojogaleana12 Says:

    Very interesting read.

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