“This time there’s going to be excitement and adventure and really wild things!”
~ Zaphod Beeblebrox
While Zaphod rarely hitchhiked himself, the above words are a pretty accurate description of what it’s like to hitchhike. And today I’m very excited to share with you an interview which contains all three.
You see, a few weeks ago I had the honor of interviewing one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met, and certainly one of the most unique people I spent time with during my 5+ month solo journey to the US West Coast and back.
A Living Legend
Even though you may not have heard of Irv Thomas before, he’s becoming more and more well known because of what he’s done and the unique way he lives his life. In addition to hitchhiking across the US and Europe, he has biked across Canada, written multiple books, and has been happily jobless for over 40 years now. And as far as I know, he’s been hitchhiking, on and off, for longer than anyone else alive: over 66 years. He was even recently highlighted in a TEDx talk in India. And in the talk, Puneet Sahani featured an especially helpful quote from Irv regarding the nature of hitchhiking:
Hitchhiking is the rare activity that takes events out of your control, thus teaching you how to accept “whatever happens” and that things always work out if you let them do so, that you receive what you need; and what you don’t receive, you don’t need. Thus, it allows you to be, or become, your natural self, as you will draw to yourself the destiny that is yours.
~ Irv Thomas
Having hitchhiked over a dozen times myself, I can certainly relate to Irv’s words.
Did I forget to mention that Irv is 84 years old and still very active?
In fact, he’s been seen hitching along the West Coast as recently as two years ago. And, as I alluded to above, I had the pleasure of meeting Irv during my West Coast journey, and I must say he has the energy and acuity of someone decades younger. I’m very glad that he agreed be my first interview subject for Byteful Travel. We had so much fun during this interview. In fact, our interview went into so much depth that I’ve decided to break it up into three different articles. Below is the first part in the series with two more to follow.
So whether you’re interested in hitchhiking, living alternatively, or even just what it was like travelling around America back in the 1940s (before there was an interstate system), I know you’ll find this interview fascinating and enlightening, as I did… especially the part when he gets picked up by a car thief who asks him if he should run the California border!
Irv Thomas Interview
Part 1: Hitchhiking at Age 16 & “Dropping Out”
1. Thanks for agreeing to do an interview today, Irv. I could have sent you an email that had interview questions, but I think it goes much better with the flow of thought if you record someone speaking first and then transcribe it. That way you can also have unexpected stuff that happens which can be really great.
Let’s start this way: when people learn about you, how do you introduce yourself? Obviously, you’ve done a lot of things. You’ve been hitchhiking for over 60 years. Is that right?
Yeah, I’ve been a hitchhiker since I was 16.
2. Do you remember the first time you ever hitchhiked?
The first time I ever hitchhiked it was wonderful. It was just a total adventure.
3. And so much has happened since then, so how do you introduce yourself these days? You’re traveller and an author; you have a following online through your newsletter; and you occasionally host people via Couchsurfing.
Well, I’m a pretty private person when I’m out and about, but I’m also sociable if anybody opens up. But I just go slow with who I am and what I think of myself. And I’m sometimes baffled by the fact that I came to Seattle and immediately fell out of the counterculture, because I didn’t connect with any of it here at the time… But then it got started again with people doing consciously aware things about anti-work, anti-job situations, or “new ways to work” kinds of things… but I simply wasn’t working any longer. I didn’t have a job and didn’t want one.
4. Yes, and it takes a lot of courage to do something different.
Well, there had been a lot of support for that in the Bay Area in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I didn’t “drop out” until 1971, and I immediately picked up on a lot of what was going on. But then the movement just kind of died in the Bay Area around 1975. People started getting into “standard lives.”
5. Now, when you say “dropped out”, how do you define that?
Not holding a regular job. Not being managed by somebody. There’s a lot of ways to earn money, and there used to be a lot on your own. Like there were free universities in which you could teach classes. Putting out a small journal as I did, too, in those days…
6. That’s right. You kept a journal. What was that called? Black Bart? You kept that for a number of years.
Yeah, Black Bart Brigade — it had a lifetime of several years in print, and then an ongoing newsletter lifetime in a mimeographed format. It saw me through the period of getting used to living that way, and after that I didn’t need it anymore. But I wanted to stay in touch with as many people as I could, and their general emotional, even sometimes financial support, saw me through my narrow times.
7. Even though I wasn’t alive then, I get the feeling that the 1970s were big transition years for a lot of people.
Well, I thought of the transition year really as being 1969. It had a definite feeling to it of change. The only reason for my delay until 1971 was because I had come up to Seattle in 1969, intending to set myself up in something. I had a few ideas in mind, but I wanted to do this long bicycle ride across Canada. And I knew I had to do that before I did anything else, or I knew I’d never do it. And then just before I set out, my wife finally found me… Hahaha…
8. Oh, there’s a backstory there!
I know, I know… I agreed to go back and try our married life one more time, but I had to do that bicycle ride first. So I did that bicycle ride and then went back to the Bay Area for another go in the paycheck world. It lasted about a year. It was a miserable thing all the way around. I was clearly ready to leave, but I also had a lot of feeling for her. It was a genuine relationship, but it didn’t last because my head was in a different place. And eventually I just dropped out, totally. And that was when I connected with this group in the backcountry of the Bay Area, a group that lived in the woods and did this thing called Vocations for Social Change.
9. They lived in the woods?
In a sense. It was a backwoods community on the far side of the East Bay in the hills.
10. Can I ask if you had any kids?
We didn’t, and thank God for that because if I had I don’t think I would have had the irresponsibility to have left a wife and kids. But see, these days, since my head turned around on this Mayan Calendar thing, I begin to realize… I mean I look back over my life, and I can see these things that happened along the way that were like part of the pre-destiny for me. Because a lot of the things that I did, I’ve never had good explanations for, but now they all make sense.
11. Do you think that some people might call “dropping out” a form of entrepreneurship today?
No, it’s different. I mean, I didn’t want to be in the ordinary working world. That was a total departure from the commercial world as I understood it then. It didn’t make any sense to me. It had no feeling for me. I had tried various entrepreneurial things on my own in the earlier years. Nothing ever worked out. I really didn’t have the head for it. I certainly didn’t have the education for it.
12. The reason I say that was you mentioned before about other ways to make money that didn’t involve a normal job. And maybe I use entrepreneurship in somewhat of a loose way. But I often define it as “creating value for someone else and getting paid fairly for it”, and I think this would be an example of it.
It’s a kind of independent entrepreneurship, but yes I would call it that. You know I started a couple crazy things, and none of them worked out. Each one is its own little story. I guess I would say there were about 3 or 4 ideas I had that I pursued briefly and had no real success at.
13. Can you give me an example of one of them?
Yeah, I suddenly realized that the one thing in life that had no advertising on it were the little cardboard slips that they put in your shirt at the laundry. And I thought, “Ah! An empty space that there can be advertising on!” And I called it Shirt Boards. I made a folder for it. Got myself some desk space somewhere, and went around trying to sell advertising on that. I had collected a bunch of laundries that were willing to do it if I provided. I mean I did all the preliminary work, but of course I had no money. I went around trying to get investments for it, and in the end it just dropped of its own weight!
14. Was it that you couldn’t find enough customers or enough investors?
15. Yeah, it just goes to show that there are a lot of ideas, but implementing them is often harder than you think, at least in the beginning. And that brings me to the next part: what was the impetus for you stepping out of the “standard frame” that most people are inside of? What was the impetus for “dropping out”?
It came to a head on one job where I needed a raise because my wife needed dental work, and they wouldn’t give me a raise. And so, that was it. I was fed up with the whole thing. I wrote a lousy letter to my boss, telling him I was the best programmer he’s got, and I’m leaving and that’s that.
16. So when you dropped out, how did that turn into more of a travel focus? Had you always been interested in travel before that? Because they’re not necessarily connected. You can drop out and not necessarily travel.
No, it wasn’t travel that I wanted so much as this loose thing called “Adventure”, and that was my form of adventure — the bicycle ride and the hitchhiking and so forth. As I mentioned before, my wife found me just as I was about to go on this bicycle ride across Canada and that was what I wanted to complete before I came back and gave it another try. And by this time I wasn’t hitchhiking anymore. The hitchhiking only resumed when I realized that the one thing I couldn’t afford in this new life of mine was an automobile. Because I’d already figured out that for an ordinary person an automobile uses up about a fifth to a quarter of their income. And I could manage without the automobile, but I couldn’t manage with it.
17. And I think that’s true for more and more people these days.
Yeah it is, and that brought a lot of side benefits ultimately because it’s encouraged my physical health tremendously.
18. So the first time you hitchhiked, you were 16 right? Can you paint the scene a bit for us? How well do you recall it?
Oh, I recall it pretty well. I recall episodes of it better than the whole thing, but I can definitely pick up certain scenes and situations of that journey.
19. Where did you depart from? Originally were you going to take a long trip or was it small jumps?
No, I wanted to reach the Canadian border. I started from San Francisco. I’m pretty sure I went across the bay and then north from there. I remember incidences along the way but not my specific route for that time. I remember hitchhiking that route other times, but I can’t be sure what happened on those first few days. I do remember that somebody put me up in his home, someone on the lower part of the Sacramento Valley; and I remember going north of the valley in the back of a truck. And it had been rainy and the truck smelled of former livestock!
But it was a lovely day. Everything just felt beautiful to me, just riding in the back of that truck… and then I remember being in the town of Redding which is at the northern end of the valley. I remember sleeping in a vacant place. I don’t know if the house was being torn down or built up, but I stayed on that front porch. It was a sheltered space from the rain.
20. What did your parents think about your travels? Did they know?
They were pretty cool with it. I had a lot of freedom as a kid, and mostly I think because I took it.
I intended to take a small pistol with me, but my father talked me out of that. He said, “You never know what you’re going to run into and you’re better off not carrying arms with you. Just supposed you get picked up by the police”, which is essentially what happened along the way. So I was glad that I took his advice, but it was really my choice.
21. Do you think that parents were less worried about their kids back then?
I think so, as a general rule, yeah. There wasn’t this cold heavy fear. I don’t regard my parents as not having taken care of my well, but I just don’t think people were that uptight in those days. Homes were left unlocked. Cars were left unlocked. There wasn’t the same kind of social effect.
22. Sounds like a relaxed world. A different America…
23. So when you got picked up by the cops, was that after you slept on the porch of this abandoned house?
Well, it was after that, yeah. It was actually on the way back home. I had such a great time going north, and I don’t remember too much of that part. But the best remembered part, of course, is when I got picked up on the road by a driver who had stolen his car. And I never knew that, of course, but I kept wondering why he was eating food out of a shopping bag. And then he needed gas, and of course they had ration stamps in those days which he didn’t have.
So he gave the gas station owner a whole set of machine tools. And I knew the machine tools were worth a whole lot more than the gas. So he’s giving up these machine tools in his truck for a full tank of gas, and I just knew something was wrong. He asked me about the California border station which was there really to watch for fruit that they didn’t want to let in.
24. It’s still like that today, actually.
I know they do have something there. But I didn’t know anything about it, and he wanted to know what would happen if he just buzzed on by. And I just didn’t want to be a part of that conversation! So I told him I had no idea and couldn’t give any suggestions, so he buzzed on by and the cops came out after us!
Next up in part two is more on “dropping out”, tried and true hitchhiking tips for beginners, and the conclusion to the border-buzzing story.