I'm lucky enough to have been "of age" in the late sixties, when hitch-hiking was (however briefly) a reasonable way to travel. I thumbed rides through and across at least thirtyfive states, including the Deep South ones where "everybody" knew they hated anybody with long hair or a beard. Traveling alone or with a buddy, and more than once with a woman as company, I never no never not one time had a really "bad" experience.
They taught me to avoid being dropped off within the city limits of Flagstaff, where for a long time "freaks" hitching through could count on shaved heads and fines in the amount of whatever cash they were carrying, less ten bucks. Off and on, bored cops around Denver harassed hitch-hikers with varying degrees of severity, and there were a few other places where you could count on trouble...
A few women I knew, foolish enough to travel alone, had some truly nightmarish experiences...
But whether it was due to my size, a guardian angel or plain old luck, nothing truly scary or threatening ever happened. But this one time I was, for maybe five minutes, hellaciously frightened, convinced my run of good luck had come to a real unpleasant end.
I was a college kid, recently separated from my first wife, the beginning of a string of short-term estrangements that lasted until we realized two people who so cordially and mutually detested one another ought to just stay the hell apart. Over Spring Break I decided to thumb towards Cincinnati where a certain nubile young female soul had invited me to visit during Purdue's off days. On the way out of town I stopped by a friend's house to let him know I'd be gone for a while (Which is to say I needed to do some post-adolescent male bragging about the aforementioned invitation...).
One thing led to another - - my buddy had a new Creedence album, a hardly touched pack of rolling papers and uh, something to roll up in 'em - - and it was way after dark before I got on the road, heading out pre-interstate Highway 52, hoping to make the Cincinnati 'burbs by morning.
Caught a ride not five minutes after sticking out my thumb. Climbing into the back seat of an old two door '49 Chevy beater, I figured I'd only gain a few miles. Didn't seem reasonable to ask a car that ratty-looking and rough sounding to go much futher... I had just enough time to realize none of the three older guys already in the car had been near a shower lately when the front passenger said, in an unmistakable Georgia red clay cracker drawl, "Boy, you ever get mistook for a girl? With that hair hanging so long I mean?"
I told him no, that didn't happen too often, and asked the driver how far out 52 they were going.
"Ain't sure," he said, and I wondered if the surly hostility I heard in his voice was real or imagination. "Where 'bouts you going, this time of night?"
When I told them Cincinnati, foolishly mentioning a lady at the other end of the trip, the passenger commenced a long story about having just finished a stretch on a Florida county jail road crew. (It's funny to think "chain gangs" back then were perceived to be a barbaric, inhumane vestige of the "old South," not the "creative correctional alternative" some states are re-adopting of late.) The point of the chain gang story from up front wasn't the hardship of doing county time in Florida, but rather, how long it had been since any woman had invited the teller to come anywhere close.
Which didn't, from my perspective, seem particularly relevant or welcome news...
All in all it didn't appear to be like a real promising ride, and I wished to hell those guys had been driving a four door car. Having my hand wrapped around a door handle, ready for a quick escape, given the opportunity, would have been a real comfort.
Ten or twelve miles east of town the car turned off Highway 52, onto one of the rural gravel dirt roads common back then. Another half mile and the driver steered us onto a rutted country lane, killed the headlights while he crept along at a crawl.
"Crawl" was also what my skin commenced doing in the back seat. I stuck one hand in my pocket to subtly withdraw and open a knife I used to carry, a knife I hadn't any real clue how to use in a fight. While I wanted to ask - - I mean really wanted to ask - - where in the hell we were going, I was sufficiently afraid of what I might hear I left the question unvoiced.
The car further slowed near an unlit house, and rolled another fifty feet or so until we came to a dead stop near an old barn. The driver got out, and in a moment there was a weird set of sounds behind us. "What's he doing?" I asked, my mouth dryer than any drought in this or any other world.
"Fillin' the gas tank," drawled the guy from Georgia. "We ain't doing nothing tonight and decided when we seen you a standin' there by the side of the road we'd take you as far as we could get gas to go."
My benefactors were aware a) the family who lived in the dark farmhouse were out of town and b) the farm's owner kept several fifty five gallon drums of gasoline near the barn, for his tractor. That farmer would unknowingly fund a big piece of our trip; the sound from the rear of the car was a manual pump filling the Chevy's tank.
Turned out those guys - - even the guy from Georgia - - were pretty interesting company, and turned especially cordial a few miles down the road when I offered to buy us a case of whatever beer they drank. They were Stroh's men, as it happened, and the case I picked up at a liquor store was awful cold. They carried me right to where I was going, and way before dawn I surprised hell out of a young girl who today is a doctor of veterinary medicine in Dee Cee, knocking on her parents' door in the dead of night.
One more thing: before they left I offered the guys in the Chevy five bucks toward gas for their trip back to Indiana, but they wouldn't take it...