Hitchiking, mental illness, and picking up riders in bear country


I used to travel by thumb

Though now I think it was dumb.

     In the land of the bears,

     I’m a fellow who cares

I gave a few lifts, maybe some.

I used to hitchhike.  I was good at it.

In the late sixties and early seventies, back when I was still saying that I’d never be a doctor, I had no car and no money.  In the days of stagflation, even minimum wage work was hard to find. Like many in the prolonged adolescence of at the time I had wanderlust. 

I started hitchhiking in 1968.  By 1970 I learned to stand in front of my backpack, not behind it, not to wear a hat or gloves, and to stand where a car or truck could pull over safely and easily.  Good visibility and slow traffic speed were essential. Eventually I invented a four-step dance that pulled a lot of rides in.  I learned how to make a good, visible sign.

 I had a lot of adventures and a handful of times when I feared for my life.  Many times I rode with normal people who wanted conversation.  Sometimes I got a lift from hippies who wanted help with the gas money.  There were a few drivers who were running from the law.  Twice I exited a stopped vehicle without warning the driver.

But there were a lot of psychiatric patients, too.  People with severe manic-depression (now known as bipolar I) tend to delocalize geographically and talk a lot.  One fellow talked at auctioneer speeds from Kansas City to Julesburg.  I said Um-hmm every five miles or so and kept him happy but I couldn’t understand a word he said.  Eventually I gave up trying and just agreed with him. 

A few schizophrenics, having recently lost contact with reality, picked me up for reasons known only to themselves. 

Active alcoholics picked me up, and at the time I didn’t have sense enough to ask to be let out when the driver poured  whisky into his Seven-up can while he was driving  I drove for drunks and junkies who didn’t want to get picked up.

During those long rides I learned how to interview and how to be a good listener.

During my psychiatric rotation in med school I still didn’t have a car.  I bicycled 25 miles each way to the mental hospital, four days a week.  The inpatients I cared for had the same mental illnesses as the people I had been hitchhiking with.  But I had more room to move around and security to call if I things went bad (they never did).   The manic, the depressed, the psychotic, those with personality disorders and borderline personalities like to travel and want someone to listen to them.

I wasn’t in a position to pick up hitchhikers till I was twenty-nine and got my first car.  I gave rides on a regular basis, mostly to people who qualified for psychiatric care.  When I became a father, I got a lot more cautious; I  understood how being a family man meant making responsible decisions.

While we were in New Mexico, Bethany’s VW Rabbit had mysterious electrical problems, and one day just up and quit once on Interstate 40 between Grants and Acomita.   I did my four-step and  reeled in a driver with a sense of humor. 

I didn’t hitchhike or pick up riders for a long time after that, but as I edited this post for publication I remembered meeting a man in his early 20’s on the New York Throughway in 1971 in upstate New York.  He was hitchiking with his three-year-old son.  I could tell he didn’t want to say anything negative about the child’s mother in front of the child, but I could also tell that something bad had happened.  With no money and no possessions during the stagflation years, he was on his way west to try to find work and social support.  With sparse on-ramp traffic and approaching darkness, he excused himself and his boy; they were going to bed down in the adjacent cornfield for the night.  I kept my thumb out and didn’t get a ride till ten that night, but I’ve often thought of those two and wondered how the story came out.

On a usual basis I no longer pick up hitchikers, but while bear country we hesitated to leave someone in the wilderness with critters who regularly stalk and eat people.  We picked up three hitchhikers during our Alaska trip.  One, a native, had been working in Denali and was going to visit relatives for the weekend.  Another Denali Park employee had gotten homesick and left the park to go back to Florida

Back in March he took six weeks to walk from Anchorage to Denali.  We talked about literature and what does and doesn’t make a good read.  We discussed the importance of music in the world.

On the Kenai Peninsula we picked up a Polish national taking a break from work to go to church.  A biotechnology university student, he had been working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the last two months and decided he needed a break. When the seasonal work is done he plans to buy a motorcycle in Seattle and ride the California coastal highway. 

In terms of risk, he’s better off hitchhiking.

I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  While my one-year, thirty-mile non-compete ticks out I’m out on adventure.

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One Response to “Hitchiking, mental illness, and picking up riders in bear country”

  1. Marie Chelle Says:

    Thank you very much my friend, you are very kind in sharing this useful information with? others…. The details were such a blessing, thanks.

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