Summary: In October 2016, I hitchhiked about 2000 miles from Springfield, MO to Los Angeles, California. It took 6 days and 11 rides.
The following account focuses on the characters I met and the stories I have from this trip. Stay tuned for a more practical how-to-guide to hitchhiking.
On Monday October 24th, 2016, I checked out of my motel, walked to the closest highway on-ramp, and stuck my thumb out. I was in Springfield, Missouri. On my back I carried a tent, sleeping bag, enough food and water for a couple days, and other survival tools – including a cell phone and a fixed-blade knife. Not that I needed all of that. But here’s the story of my journey west, day by day, ride by ride, exactly as it occurred:
Day 1, Ride 1: Springfield, MO -> Springfield, MO
A local farmer in a pickup truck picked me up along Rt 44 and took me 10 minutes west. He was delivering walnuts around town, he told me, because so many of them grow on his property. They only sell for $15 per 100 pounds, but he grows 1500 p0unds so he might as well sell them. I told him I was headed all the way to California and he told me he was planning to drive to Cali himself next week to help his friend who owns a marijuana farm with the harvest. I hinted that I would be down to do some trimming, but he didn’t reveal the farm’s location to me.
Day 1, Ride 2: Springfield, MO -> Joplin, MO
After a couple hours of waiting and hiking to better hitching spots, I finally got picked up by a very cool hippie woman. With her two toddlers sleeping in the back seat, Hippie Woman told me about the Rainbow Gathering (annual gathering of anarchists and survivalists at varying locations), the Hippie Truckers (a Facebook group that functions as a rideboard for hitchhikers to find truckers offering rides), and why she had moved to Missouri eight years prior (cheapest houses that aren’t in the middle of nowhere). Hippie Woman was awesome, and we stopped at the grocery store, where she bought me and her kids donuts, and then her house before she dropped me at an off-ramp in Joplin, MO. I stopped for the night.
Days 2-3, Ride 3: Joplin, MO -> Anna, TX
An 18-wheeler pulled over at my on-ramp and said he was heading towards Dallas, so I hopped in. Amir turned out to be the coolest dude I’ve maybe ever met. Born in Afghanistan, his family fled to the U.S. around 1990 and settled in New Jersey. After high school, he got a job by flipping through the Yellow Pages, starting with “A”, and calling every company to ask for work. When he got to “Limousine”he finally got someone on the phone impressed with his go-getter attitude, and he nailed the interview the next day and had a job as a limo driver. He worked his way up, eventually buying his own vehicles and hiring his own drivers, until he had a million-dollar business with repeat clients like the Sopranos guy and “90% of rappers out there.” But in 2008 he decided to get into real estate, and the housing crash wiped out his entire savings within months. It was after this that Amir joined the Army. He has since served 3 tours to Afghanistan, his native country. At the time I met him, Amir had only been driving a truck for 5 months to make ends meet, and he was applying to jobs as a contractor to go back to Afghanistan yet again. He was also waiting for a patent to come through on a fitness invention that he was confident would be a big hit.
Amir and I actually stopped at a truck stop in Oklahoma for the night. I pitched my tent in the bushes and Amir slept in his truck’s built-in bed. I woke up at 4:30am, packed my tent in the dark and got back in Amir’s truck to ride the remaining hour to Anna, TX.
Day 3, Ride 4: Anna, TX -> Webber Falls, OK
An 18-wheeler pulled up to me at the truck stop and asked where I was going. I told him west, and he said he was going northeast, back where I had come from, but he could drop me at Interstate 40 in Oklahoma, and I could go west from there. It felt weird to go 3 hours back in the same direction I had just come from, but I did it anyway. The driver was nice enough to give me a free ride, but he was otherwise a deplorable person. He would launch into these stories that were nothing more than recounting the creative ways in which he had been horrible to his ex-wife. She gained weight; he had called her a trash disposal to her face. She suffered from schizophrenic hallucinations; he hung a photo in their bedroom and pretended not to see it. When our conversation inevitably turned to his adoration of Donald Trump and his hatred of all Muslims, I had to argue. I explained that only radical Muslims engaged in terrorism; he countered that Hillary would soon implement Sharia law, just as Obama had been trying to do these last 8 years. Yes yes! Well, one does not simply talk reason to an old racist truck driver whose main source of information is TV news and video games. But he dropped me at I-40 and I awkwardly departed.
Day 3, Police Encounter 1: Webber Falls, OK
Thumbing on a rural road next to the I-40 West on-ramp, a sheriff’s car pulled up to me and rolled the window down.
Officer: I’ll have to take you to the next county over. We have a local statute against hitchhiking and panhandling.
Me: Oh, really?
Officer: Well, how long do you think you’ll be out here?
Me: I usually get a ride within half an hour. I’m hitching all the way to California.
Officer: Well, I’ll let him know you’re here, ok? Have a good one.”
And he peeled out. I guess he told the Sherriff I was cool, because minutes later, a different sheriff’s car passed me without stopping.
I’m not sure why the officer gave me a free pass on their local “No Begging Ordinance,” but I’m guessing he sized me up, realized I wasn’t homeless, and let me go based on that. Local laws against panhandling are designed to remove the homeless and the hippies – I was deemed to be a normal.
Day 3, Ride 5: Webber Falls, OK -> Checotah, OK
A middle-aged couple pulled up in a minivan. They owned a thrift shop, but today they are delivering their handmade vintage furniture to a few furniture stores in the area. I spent ride sitting on a handpainted Coca-Cola bench. These folks were very concerned that I planned to hitchhike across the desert. I’ve never been to the southwestern US, so I hadn’t really considered the challenges of the desert, and honestly I wasn’t too concerned. “There’s nothing out there for hundreds of miles at a time! You’ll get stranded!” I thought it was hilarious. Most people are surprised and impressed to meet someone who hitchhikes for fun, but these folks were exchanging uneasy glances, offering me extra blankets – they really thought I was going to die of dehydration along a New Mexico interstate. I guess it’s possible, but I feel like somebody would stop their car for a man standing in the roadway waving wildly for water.
Day 3, Police Encounter 2 and Free Stuff: Checotah, OK
Thumbing by the truck stop in Checotah, another sheriff’s car (different county) pulled up to me. I approached his passenger window, giving my best, most-chill sounding “How you doin’?” but instead of hassling me, this officer smiled and handed me a take-out box with a slice of pepperoni pizza! And just like that he was gone. Not 20 minutes later, a few black folks pulled up and, when I declined their ride south, asked if I was hungry and gave me a $10 bill. How fucking cool is that? The whole day was starting to seem like a grand cosmic message about police and racism and naked altruism in the American heartland, but I was just happy to have pizza.
Day 3-4, Ride 6: Checotah, OK -> Needles, CA
After 2 hours where I declined 3-4 rides in the wrong direction, a big truck pulled up with California plates. The driver was a Chinese-American named Yuen, and he was going all the way to Chino, California (a suburb on LA). I spent the next 24 hours in Yuen’s truck. That night, we drove through the panhandle of Oklahoma, northwest Texas, and stopped for the night in Jamestown, New Mexico at 4am. Yuen’s truck, like many long-haul trucks, had bunkbeds in the back. I offered to sleep in my tent outside, but Yuen was happy to offer me the top bunk. The next morning, we drove through NM and clear through Arizona. Yuen would’ve taken me to LA, but I had arrived too early – my LA friend and host would not be in LA for another week. So Yuen dropped me in Needles, California, and I stayed at a campsite with a view of the Colorado River.
Day 5, Ride 7: Needles, CA -> Kelso, CA (Mojave National Preserve)
Getting to LA was no longer an immediate concern. So I decided to continue hitching west on I-40 in the hopes of reaching a national park for some camping and exploring. Luckily, a nice Navy vet turned engineer picked me up and even offered to take me off the highway into the Mojave Desert National Preserve. He dropped me at the Mojave Park tourist information center in Kelso, a ghost town with an old train depot and not much else. The Internet had said there was a restaurant in Kelso, but the park ranger informed me that the restaurant had closed two years ago. I asked where else I could find food and water in the park, which is about 50 x 50 miles. She said there was water at 3 locations and no food – although she would be happy to sneak me some snacks. Not wanting to trek 10 hours alone to a campsite and ration peanut butter for the foreseeable future , I took some pictures and prepared to leave the Mojave!
Day 5, Ride 8: Kelso, CA (Mojave) -> Primm, Nevada
After 45 minutes thumbing outside the tourist center, an elderly couple picked me up heading northeast to Primm, NV, or “state line” as they called it. It’s where you go if you want to cross the state line into Nevada to do some gambling. It’s on the way to Las Vegas, and you can’t miss it. Picture 3 skyscraper motel/casinos and a roller coaster rising out of a random spot in the desert, and you’ve got Primm. Not the place a budget hitchhiker wants to end up on a Friday night, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Day 5, Ride 9: Primm, NV -> Apple Valley, CA
Arriving in Primm, I crossed the highway to hitch back into Cali. A guy picked me up in an old El Camino and said he was going all the way to LA. I’ll call him Phil. Phil was living in his car, but he seemed to have money and definitely had family in the area, so I assumed he was doing it by choice rather than by necessity. I initially asked him to drop me in Barstow, but he invited me to his brother’s birthday party in Apple Valley (LA suburb). I took Phil for a kindred spirit who enjoyed the alternative lifestyle of being on the road and enjoying the outdoors. So I accepted his offer, despite a few red flags; he shared stories of a recent arrest (for possession of throwing knives) and setting a house on fire with his friends as a teenager (the house was abandoned and thought to be haunted). At the time, I just thought he was a badass hippie with an anarchist streak. In retrospect, the fact that he shared those stories with me (a complete stranger) so soon after meeting me should’ve been enough for me to hop off in Barstow.
Well, we finally pulled into Phil’s brother’s driveway, and it took literally 5 seconds for things to get super sketchy. The moment Phil and I got out of the car, a biker on a Harley screeches into the driveway, stops 5 feet from us, says, “Park your car over here,” turns around and zooms directly across the street down a long, long dark driveway. Not exactly how I’m usually welcomed to a birthday party. Well, this was Phil’s brother, who I soon found out was not actually Phil’s brother, but rather Phil’s friend who had looked out for him growing up in LA. Well, not exactly “looked out for him,” – more like “inducted him into his white supremacist gang” in their majority black and hispanic LA neighborhood. It turns out, Phil had misrepresented himself in more ways than one. His arrest for throwing knives? Turns out drugs were involved as well. There were other minor lies he was telling his own friend as the night went on for various reasons. Well, there goes any chance that I can trust this person in any way!
Well, I was stuck at a skinhead, biker gang birthday party, in an unknown suburb, at night, with my backpacks in Phil’s car. Nothing to do but wait it out a couple hours and wait for the right time to make your escape. Actually, it was a pretty chill party. Motorcycles were tinkered with, a weed bowl was passed around, and jokes were made about how many blacks one had killed and which snitches were associating with cops. We were actually at Phil’s friend’s parents house, and they were equally racist and ignorant. At one point I noticed a big red swastika painted on the front of Phil’s friend’s motorcycle helmet. There were discussions of the new security cameras they had set up for the house. Phil’s friend was a meth dealer by trade, so I guess the paranoia was appropriate. At one point we sang happy birthday and ate cheesecake, but mostly I just busied myself smoking cigarettes and tried to act normal.
Eventually, we crossed the street to Phil’s friends house (yes, he lived directly across the street from his parents), and I politely declined the meth offered to me. I finally asked Phil to give me a ride to a motel, and I could tell that he understood I wasn’t down with the party. Well, we said goodbye to the party and started driving. Phil was strangely catatonic and spoke in a very soft, measured tone as we drove away from Apple Valley. I honestly think he was on the verge of multiple-personality disorder; he was at times a gentle soul and at times a nerdy racist skinhead. Needless to say, when he invited me to stay at his uncle’s house in Corona (“He won’t be home. Well, he might be home, but you can stay in my car and I’ll stay on his couch.”), I made an excuse about not staying with strangers and had him drop me at a motel off the highway. We had an awkward goodbye. I could tell Phil was lonely and desperately wanted to be my friend. He looked kind of dazed as I unloaded my packs and thanked him for the ride. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he drove off into the night and went somewhere to try to kill himself – that’s just the vibe he gave off – but my decision to escape was made hours earlier, and I locked that motel door behind me and didn’t come out until check-out the next morning. I wish the best for Phil, and I hope he chooses a better path, but I ain’t fucking with him.
Day 6, Ride 10: Norco, CA -> Jurupa Valley, CA
After the previous night’s encounter, I briefly considered just getting the fuck out of LA on a bus and ending the hitch journey right there. But I decided not to let one bad apple get to me, and I walked back to the highway and faced north.
Hitching out of any city is not going to be easy, and LA was no exception. I did get this ride from a hispanic guy in his mid-20s, and he was super impressed that I had hitched here from Missouri: “That’s badass!” But he only took me 10 minutes down the road.
Day 6, Ride 11: Jurupa Valley, CA -> Ontario, CA
After a long wait (45 min to an hour), a white unmarked van pulled up and a pudgy guy in his mid-20s asked me where I was going. Well, he could take me up the highway a bit, but he had to make a stop in Riverside for 10 minutes. Jake was a nice guy. He immediately asked me if I knew any drug dealers in Massachusetts. He explained that he grows weed and he always asks people to connect him with a dealer, because “even in 1 out of 100 people help me out, it works out for me.” I couldn’t imagine just immediately giving a stranger my weed dealer’s phone number, especially since he lives 3000 miles away, but I couldn’t deny Jake’s hustle.
Well, we stopped in Riverside so Jake could meet with his bail bondsmen. He had been picked up recently on a warrant for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Jake didn’t seem troubled by any of this. He spent about 40 minutes at the bail bondsmen while I waited outside, cursing myself for taking another ride that was proving risky and inefficient. But Jake emerged eventually and we piled back into his van. On the way back to the highway, we stopped at a fast-food restaurant. Jake bought me a strawberry milkshake and told me about his various stints in prison. He actually had mostly good things to say. I believe his exact words were, “Summer camp for adults.” Basically he spent most of his time hanging out, watching TV, smoking weed and cigarettes, and playing football in the yard. Yes, there was an occasional stabbing, but as long as you weren’t the one being stabbed, you just went about your business as the guards arrived to take the dead or wounded prisoner away to infirmary. Jake’s main complaint about prison was the work-release program. As a low-risk, short-term inmate, Jake would regularly leave the prison to work outside its walls, usually picking up trash along highways. Unfortunately, prisoners who do work-release are forced by the other prisoners to smuggle things in for them. And how do you smuggle something into prison? You “hoop it,” or shove it up your ass. So before leaving for work on a given day, a prisoner would tell Jake where to find the drop that day (somewhere near the worksite), and Jake would find a small package there, usually containing drugs or a cellphone, and he would hoop it before returning to the prison. Jake even told me how to prepare your asshole for the task: put a dab of hand soap on the tip of your finger, insert the finger into your anus, and you will automatically vacate the cavity.
Day 6, The Ride That Never Came: Ontario, CA
After Jake dropped me at a truckstop in Ontario, I tried hitching out for about 90 minutes before giving up. I was stuck in the sprawl of suburban Los Angeles, with no campsites in walking distance, and 24 hours in Los Angeles had convinced me that it was full of criminals and misfits.
It was Saturday. The night before, I’d received a text from a friend in the Bay Area. He had seen my posts on Instagram and wanted to know if I was going to make it up to the Bay Area. I had completely forgotten that he lived there. But I now made the decision to book a Greyhound bus up there. I walked to the metro, took the train the downtown LA, and hopped aboard the redeye Greyhound up to San Francisco. The first leg of this hitchhiking journey has come to an end. I sit typing this in Oakland.