The Market for Hitchhiking

Selling, as many salespersons will tell you, is all about closing a sale on something that a buyer is already inclined to buy. Rarely can even the best salesperson take someone cold off the street and sell them something they have absolutely no need for. Brassieres to football players would be a good example. For that thinking ahead of time, you need marketing. Marketing and Sales are at ends of a scale, as many people in business know

Everyone in every career — and every other relationship — needs to learn a little marketing. Now. Marketing includes identifying what group of people you want to approach with what kind of product, and perhaps where and when as well. In between is actually making, or procuring, that product. Selling takes all of those marketing decisions, which should have identified buyers and the products they want, and closes the sale of the product.

In my days as a hitchhiker, I learned mostly about marketing, and less about selling. The cars are coming quickly and have a few seconds to size you up. Most drivers will pass you by even if you are the most charming, upright, smiling, clean-cut person they have ever seen on the side of the road. That, I have explained elsewhere, is because most people who pick up hitchhikers were once hitchhikers themselves, or had brothers or sons or husbands or others who did so. So there is automatically some kind of relationship in hitchhiking, and that is the first most important rule of marketing: Everyone is not going to want what you are selling.

Once they stop for you, it is almost as you have closed the sale. Very rarely will anyone ask you to step back out of the car once you are in (unless you show them you are carrying a gun). However, beyond that, other good marketing concepts can increase a hitchhiker’s chances immensely. Finding a place on the edge of town where they are still moving slowly is clearly important. The faster they are moving, the less likely they are to put on the brakes.

I once thumbed on fast highway cresting a hill outside Helena, Montana where the national smokejumpers school is. I missed so many rides. Rather than walk a few miles back to slower traffic bordering Helena, I was thinking of going up to the door and volunteering as a smokejumper. These are forest fire fighters who parachute from airplanes into the mountains, to get on a far side of a developing fire. Short of the worst combat, it may be the most tiring and dangerous situation you can be in. (The kindly farmer who finally stopped for me was the first time fate probably saved my life. The second was when I was preparing to go on a Marine night patrol in Vietnam. My ankles cracked as they have all my life, and I was asked politely not to go on any night patrols.)

There are some standard roadside strategies that occasionally work. They say if you are a young man, you should carry a tennis racquet. This obviously signifies you are an upperclass college boy and would not do anyone any harm. If you are a young woman, you don’t have to do anything. You don’t even have to look at them. Women hitchhiking never have to give a thought to marketing, as they present no danger. Sometimes a man and a woman hitchhiking together will have the woman stand on the road until someone stops, and then once she is halfway in the door, she asks the driver if he has room for her boyfriend (now emerging from behind a nearby tree). Clearly a bait and switch.

One variation that worked well in Wyoming was when my little brother, Dan, came to visit. He wasn’t into girls yet and so that weekend I did not hitch to Yellowstone, but rather showed him around Wyoming by thumb. I was 19 and he was 14 and much shorter than me at the time, and it looked for all the world like I was babysitting. We had no trouble getting rides because the image was right. We even got a ride on one of the long haul trucks out in the middle of Wyoming, when these drivers had huge penalties for picking up hitchhikers. But they all must have had a little brother at one time, and at that time – lucky for us – one driver could not resist. Sitting up high above the plains was doubly enjoyable because my little brother was going through a “big trucks” phase where he went to the library and studied all the makes and models and variations in horsepower. This made for a deeply involved conversation between my little brother and the surprised driver, as I fell asleep against the door.

Marketing while hitchhiking provides fairly immediate feedback, as the cars shwish by and both the passengers and the drivers look straight ahead, rigorously, as if they know but don’t want to admit you are there and in need of a ride. Sometimes, I admit, I liked it if they felt guilty. Did they not know what a charming conversationalist I was? Or what a great altruistic impression this would make on their children who were otherwise coloring outside the lines and poking each other all day in the back seat.

There are times, however, when you cannot blame the drivers for not wanting to know you are there. It was the very end of the baseball season in 1961 and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, both of the New York Yankees, were both nearing Babe Ruth’s home run mark of 60 that had lasted over 30 years. With only five games left in the season, Maris had 58 and Mantle had 57 home runs. Who would break the record of 60 first? And who would be the final winner in this “home run derby” as the sportswriters coined it. When I would get a ride back from Yellowstone and those college kid parties which ended the season, I would always hear the car radio going and would always be updated on the progress of Mantle and Maris in their epic drive to the finish – and most likely a new home run record.

And then suddenly the rides dried up. I was standing outside a mom and pop gas and groceries stop, where it would usually be very easy to get a ride. At least that is what my tried and true marketing savvy told me. But nothing was working. The drivers not only ignored me as they accelerated past, they positively scorned me. A few shook their fingers at me. Mothers made kids in the back roll up their windows and the kids put their noses to the glass as if they’d never seen a hitchhiker. I check the front of my clothing. Had I dripped grease on myself from my latest hamburger? Were my shoes on the wrong feet? I went into the mom and pop gas and grocery stop to sooth my angst with a small bag of Fritos and a coke, and hopefully get the days’ update on Maris and Mantle. But that is not what was on the radio. Instead, there was this urgent message from the National Safety Council:

“Due to the violent axe murder of a travelling family by a hitchhiker near Denver, Colorado, the National Safety Council is warning all motorist on this holiday weekend NOT TO PICK UP HITCHHIKERS!”

Even the mom and pop who ran the gas and groceries store looked at me rather strangely as I bought my Fritos and Coke. I had not, after all, parked a car at the gas pump, or anywhere else they could see. I had a small backpack I carried. I was a little scruffy from a weekend of parties. Mom looked me up and down.

“Where you from?” She asked. Something malevolent in me wanted to say Denver. But I didn’t.

“Working down in Edgerton. Oil exploration.”

“One of those hotshot boys?

“Yes, ma’am.”

Pop came in. “You guys make it up this way on weekend a fair bit.”

“Yeah, they only pay four nights. Saves the stockholders money.”

“Well, you’ve mostly behaved yourselves in Sheridan.” I seemed to be passing my evaluation. An idea bubbled up from my Fritos and Coke.

“Say, it’s going to be tough getting back down to Edgerton, even the 80 miles, by tonight. Do you suppose you have a couple of things that could help me?”

It wasn’t much, so they agreed. I bought three colored grease pencils from them, black, a yellow, and a blue. They gave me an old cardboard box and some heavy duty scissors to cut it up with.

This is the part of marketing about advertising. I had to take what I knew they were hearing on the car radio all weekend as they drove, and make it work in my favor.

Like the girls in high school we all hated, I prettied up my sign by using the blue to outline the yellow letters in the middle of an oval. Mom and Pop both looked a little askance at what they had abetted, but shrugged it off as one of those crazy hotshotters from Edgerton, who usually did no harm.

I went out to the side of the road with my sign, and held it up to the leery passersby. Even if they kept on going, their faces seemed to brighten and some of the kids even looked back out of the back windows and gave me a thumbs-up. The seventh car, with two carpenters on the way to Edgerton, picked me up laughing.

“Like your sign,” said the driver.

“Needed the right advertising,”

“Better keep it,” urged the driver, and motioned me to throw it in the back seat. The sign was about two feet by three feet, and looked something like the Good Housekeeping seal. Except for what it said:

“APPROVED” was the word in the center. And circling around the edges it read: “NATIONAL SAFETY COUNCIL.”

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

Reveries of a Hitchhiker

Hitchhiking and our vast American roadscapes were made for each other. Possibly the concept of mindfulness was actually invented by a hitchhiker, because the living moment out there was as expansive as the 360 degree sky — and yet it all focused down into you at the lonely middle. There were long times between cars and even longer between rides. Wyoming was one State I thumbed across a lot, because at age 19, I was working with an oil exploration crew, and drawing “hotshot” pay.

This seismograph-exploration crew, out of Oklahoma City, drilled holes for dynamite from a rig on the back of a truck. The surveyors laid out the pattern of dynamite holes so that geologists could later “read” the underlying rock formations. These depth lines formed geologic patterns, with suspended  ink pens jiggling across large scrolling white paper in a trailer. These signals issued from the shock-reading “jugs,” devices which I had stretched in the manner of Christmas lights across miles of ridges and dry gulches. I planted all the devices on a grid, and picked them up, and moved them to another location – all day long. I ran the lines of jugs exactly and directly to the surveyors call, whether straight up a mountainside cliff or across a rattlesnake lair with them snapping at my high boots. I was a “jug hustler,” and a damned good one.

We were a “hotshot” crew, which meant we worked 16hrs for 4 paid days “on” with a hotel room, and had 3 days “off” on our own, a practice which we knew saved the company a lot of money. Not many people know that because that oil exploration needed miniaturization of electronics, General Instruments eventually became Texas Instruments, which first mass produced semiconductors and helped create the digital electronics revolution that then made small computers possible. A long sentence, and I didn’t even know any of that back in Wyoming.

So for those 3 unpaid “hotshot” days, I was on my own. It didn’t take me long to find out that Yellowstone Park was on the other side of the State. During the Summer college kids –boys but most especially girls – worked as guides and waiters and hotel maids. This smelled like good times, a siren smell, coming clear from across the alkaline plains where we looked all day for oil . So the minute my hotshot pay stopped, my thumb was out. We had a drink at night in one of the 7 bars, but I rarely met any of the normal townspeople except when I got a ride, because my goal was always – Yellowstone!

It was a time past when college men and drifters stood as equals beside those long open spaces, little more than a small pack and a bundle of aspirations in hand. There was a strong kinship, as well, with some drivers. Those drivers who had hitchhiked before, or who had sons or husbands who had hitchhiked seemed to have inherited an obligation. They tended, at least, to give my thumb a lookover, and on some occasions to stop. Sometimes you just had to be polite company. Numerous times, though, the hitchhikers struck up conversations with lonely drivers, and they became temporary friends. Occasionally you’d both would go to a bar at the driver’s destination, and you’d hear the local opinions about the state of the world. Occasionally a farmer would have a couple of days work and a tack room to sleep in, that is if you weren’t headed to Yellowstone. Of course, if you had that cross-state smell of youth in your nostrils and two days at most to find a place to crash and seek out the parties, you moved right along.

Of course, a significant number of the drivers who roared past a hitchhiker never felt that need, nor experienced that kinship. As I say, it was a time past, and now, in our next Century, we have all become very cautious…and for good reason. In the early 1960s, however, there seemed to be a Samaritan quality afoot, especially in those plains, which were so often stark and harsh.

Hitchhiking had its opportunities, but if you had to be somewhere for a job, you left early. You may have had good luck with long rides for a couple of weeks – and most rides in Wyoming are long ones – but you could never count on steady good fortune. Sometimes you got off at the turnoff to a ranch and then waited an hour just to see another car or truck. Sometimes it got dark on you and sometimes it rained. Sometimes the dust blew. And sometimes you had to string together many rides just to make it back.

All of which is to justify why early one Sunday morning I lifted myself from my comfortable pad on the floor of a hotel’s laundry room. On the road with no time to waste because I had to be 300 miles across the state by tonight, through the city of Casper and up to Edgerton where our trucks were and where my hotel room was. So I was out there outside the edge of Yellowstone Park, thumbing away at 8 that morning. A grand total of 3 cars passed me and then I had a ride…and what a ride. It was a 1962 Pontiac Bonneville convertible with a 450 horse 8 cylinder engine. The driver had slick-greased side burns coming out from his Stetson, and dark glasses so that I never saw if he actually had eyes. He clearly wanted someone to appreciate his wheels. He laid a forty foot strip of rubber and smoke as my bottom hit the seat and the door slammed shut. I knew the right thing to say: “Wow!”

“My Johnnie Ponnie. Some engine, huh?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Far ya goin’?”


“Pretty far. I’m going to Thermopolis.”

Thermopolis. Shoshoni was halfway to Edgerton. Aha, but only about 50 miles from Casper. Hmmm….

Johnnie Ponnie at full roar covered the 200 miles to Shoshoni in about 2 ½ hours. The long, square Bonneville had to fill up its tank before heading north to Thermopolis. At 21 cents a gallon, I had an idea.

“Bet if got this tank of gas, I could talk you into dropping me in Casper.”

Greaseburns thought about it for a minute. “On one condition.”

“What’s that?.”

“You wait for me to get a case a beer for the seat.” Behind those dark glasses I know there was a crude twinkle.

“K.” (I have always been considered fairly easy in these matters.)

In those past days, before air-conditioned cars, the police in places like Texas and Wyoming considered it inhumane to make a person drive between towns without a cold beer in hand. The police smiled and waved as we entered their town at 100 miles an hour, respectfully slowing down – and stopping dead – for their one stoplight,  only to lay rubber out the other end. Finally, Jonnie Ponnie let me off in the center of downtown Casper.

This Sunday afternoon in Casper, Wyoming was over 100 degrees, which I had not noticed in the wind of the convertible. And not only that, the whole city was motionless. The Woolworths with their soda counter was closed. The few department stores were closed. Everything was still and very few cars even came through that intersection in the middle of town. I had no notion what to do next, until I saw the Orpheum Theater. The air-conditioned Orpheum Theatre. It was playing “The Guns of Navarone.” I had never seen the Guns of Navarone. There was no one in line at the box office, but the Orpheum Theater seemed to be open. I could feel its air conditioning gushing out to greet my 100 degree armpits. I bought a ticket and went it. The noon show was just beginning, and I could hear the stereophonic music booming as I opened the door. The theater had about 1000 seats, and every seat was empty.

Then, with the voice of James Robertson Justice relating how the Guns of Navarone guarded the shipping channels near Greece, I counted down the exact number of rows and counted to the exact middle, and took a seat absorbed by the huge screen and blaring music. This was a good way to spend an afternoon, I thought, my senses soaking up this almighty symphony. Alone.   And then the lobby door opened and a slit of light came through. What follows is the truth.

One of the local cowgirls came in with a large bag of popcorn in one hand. By the door’s glint of light I could see thigh-tight jeans and a cowgirl hat and a short sleeved plaid shirt.  I had never seen her before, not hitching through Casper or anywhere else. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she counted down the rows, as I had, and then, as I had, counted seats right into the middle of the theater. My eyes, of course, had been following her since she entered. She sat right down beside me, and held out her popcorn.

“For a minute there,” she said, “I didn’t think I’d find a seat.”

Okay, I know you don’t think this is true. But it is. And just to show you, I’ll let you figure out your own ending.  I’ll keep my ending to myself, but I will say it was pretty special and it gave me a great impression of Wyoming on the whole.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved