The day I hitchhiked from Columbia to Jefferson City

Dennis Warden

It may come as a surprise to some of the younger readers of this column but in the last century, when I was attending college at the University of Missouri in Columbia, there was no such thing as cell phones or Uber.

I know this is shocking but people actually survived without many of the modern conveniences that we have all come to rely on including microwave ovens, home computers and the internet.

We did have electricity and running water. Some of us grew up with air conditioning but many did not.

That’s the way it was. I wonder what advances in society the next generation will grow up with that we have not even dreamed about yet?

Anyway, one weekend I needed to make a trip from Columbia to Jefferson City for a religious function, and for the only time in my life I was without a car. On top of that predicament, my roommates, Richard, Randy and Ed, could not loan me one of their vehicles.

So I was left with only one other option, I hitchhiked from Columbia to Jefferson City.

Although I had never hitchhiked anywhere before, I had observed a master hitchhiker who taught me many of the tricks of the trade. 

My mentor was John. He was my sales partner in the summer of 1980. This was the summer of my sophomore year at Mizzou when I sold books door to door in Virginia and West Virginia. I was fortunate enough to have my 1972 Chevy Nova for transportation. My partner did not.

I remember driving into Covington, Virginia on a Sunday morning in early June. 

Covington is a small city with a population of around 6,000. The company we were selling for, The Southwestern Company out of Nashville, Tenn. , gave us some contacts for housing. After just a couple of calls from a pay phone we found an elderly lady that would rent us a bedroom by the week.

Because I owned a car, my sales territory was the small towns and rural areas 10 to 30 miles around Covington. John’s territory was inside Covington and the small towns closer to where we were stationed.

Once he had knocked on most of the doors in Covington, he had to hitchhike to the other communities. 

I remember taking John to the edge of town on my way to another community and dropping him off at a gas station in the pouring rain.

He took no more than five steps after leaving my car and found a ride in the direction he needed to go.

John was a natural and he shared all his secrets with me.

Number One

The main secret to hitchhiking is enthusiasm, no one wants to pick up a rider that looks depressed and gloomy. 

Number Two

Look the driver in the eye. It’s harder for someone to pass you by when you are looking directly at them. It helps them to make a personal connection with you.

Number Three

If you can, hitchhike at an intersection or on the entrance ramp of an interstate highway. At best, make sure the driver sees you long before he passes you by. It’s too easy to pass someone up when they are already traveling 60 to 70 miles an hour.

Number Four

If you are the one picking up a hitchhiker, pay more attention to someone with a backpack or some luggage. This tells you they have a legitimate purpose for traveling.

As I recall, that day I had to stick my thumb out twice. And both times, using John’s advice, I had no problem. I’m sure it helped that I was a clean cut, respectable looking college student.

I picked up my first ride from the campus to Highway 63. Then I stuck my thumb out on the entrance ramp at Broadway to 63.

Just like magic the first car, or in this case pickup truck, picked me up. I threw in the duffle bag I was carrying, jumped into the bed of the pickup truck and hunkered down for the 30 minute ride to the state’s capital.

After you have had to rely on the kindness of strangers for a ride, it gives you more empathy to help others who hitchhike. But with cell phones and Uber I don’t see many people hitchhiking.

NOTE: Covington is situated in a valley in the Allegheny Mountains. My ‘72 Nova didn’t have power steering or power brakes (it did have air conditioning). Coming home each night I could put the car into neutral, shut my car off and coast two miles down the mountain. As I rolled into town I would restart the car, put it into gear and drive home, something you can’t do with a modern car.