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

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