Below is part two of a three part series in which I interviewed author and record-holding hitchhiker Irv Thomas. See part one of this interview if you haven’t read it yet.
When we last left off, Irv was telling the story of how he was picked up by a man who he soon realized was a car thief. This man then asked Irv if they should try to bypass the California border patrol. Irv told him that he couldn’t give any suggestions, so the man buzzed past the California border with Irv still in the car. And as you probably can imagine, the cops came after them pretty quickly. After all, just a single diseased fruit could potentially bring down the entire agricultural industry of California, surely causing Californiageddon…
Or not. But running the border patrol is definitely not a good idea.
For part two, we get down to the fundamentals of how hitchhiking can forever change your perspective of how we live in this world, as well as some ideas on the surprising things you can be capable of when you assume full responsibility for your life. Many great resources are referenced and linked to, as well; and I encourage you to check them out and take advantage of them, such as Irv’s newsletter. Some of these links are indispensable resources, and some of them, like Couchsurfing.org, have had a truly profound effect on my life.
Irv Thomas Interview
Part 2: Derelict Days & Practical Hitchhiking Tips
25. So wait a minute. You guys just blew past the California border? And you’re sixteen. What are you going to say?
Well, I’m not going to participate in making up his mind, one way or the other.
26. What’s your main reason for not doing that?
Because I knew something was wrong. I knew that he had a problem. I didn’t know if he’d stole it or not, but I had no reason to think it was his car by that time.
27. You knew you couldn’t trust him.
Right, and I didn’t want to be a part of his choices and decisions. That was validated when the cops didn’t take my word for it, or didn’t take his word for it that he’d picked me up as a hitchhiker. So I had to go all the way back to Oregon to find the place where the last driver had left me off, because it had been in front of the driver’s house.
28. So they talked to that person at that house and…
He validated that he picked me up. It was a wonderful situation for a story, and of course that part I remember entirely well because it was the most significant adventure of the whole trip!
29. Isn’t it funny how the craziest thing at the time ends up being the most enjoyable to tell later on?
Oh yeah, I’ve told that story a million times, or a hundred anyway, and you know the time came years later when I tried to find that spot again where his house was. And I’ve never been able to locate it. Either they moved a road or they took down a hill or something. It’s not at all the way I remember it.
At any rate, do you have my hitchhiking book?
30. Yes, I have Derelict Days.
Well, that story is in it.
31. That book is chocked full of adventures! It chronicles tons of your hitchhiking journeys. For anyone curious, its full title is “Derelict Days: 60 Years on the Roadside Path to Enlightenment.” Highly recommended.
And I went back and got the book redone. I added a new chapter which includes the hitchhiking trip I did two years ago when I was 82. So instead of “60 years” it’s “66 years on the Roadside Path to Enlightenment.”
32. Well, there you go. Now the circle is complete. And anyone who is the least bit curious about hitchhiking (or even travel adventures in general) should definitely check that book out.
The thing that I like to stress about the book is that hitchhiking was my best teacher as far as showing me how life takes care of you and that things happen as they should. I came to learn all of that from hitchhiking.
33. Kind of gave you faith in the way the universe works and probably informed the way you think about the spiritual aspect of life, as well, didn’t it?
Yes, it introduces you to other elements of life besides what society, with its deliberate intent, tries to teach you. It tells you that life is different from what you were taught.
34. And that people are a little bit less scary than what the television tells us. I know that’s definitely been true for me.
Yeah, and you did your own hitchhiking.
35. Yes, I got up to Seattle via hitchhiking. I talked about that experience in an article, actually.
And it’s almost like there’s a concerted effort to discourage people in this country from hitchhiking. And did you know that Couchsurfing.org has a hitchhiking contingent? They have a section devoted to hitchhikers.
36. Oh yes! On their discussion boards. There are a bunch of interesting discussion sections on Couchsurfing: rideshare, nomadic discussions, places to find travel partners, and definitely hitchhiking discussions… I love CS’s discussion boards.
And it’s very popular in Europe now, yet it’s totally discouraged in this country, even though there is a good website for hitchhiking in the USA, as well.
37. So was there a moment, perhaps on that first trip, where you thought, “This is it. This is in my blood.”?
I just saw it as a good way to travel when you don’t have a car. It was a free way to travel; there were occasions where I could earn some income along the way; and generally it was just an adventurous way to go. This was really important to me as a kid.
38. What kinds of things would you do get extra income? What opportunities would present themselves?
In later trips I stopped off to pick hops in a hop farm in Oregon. In the evening, I could go into a bowling alley and set pins for several hours. They didn’t have automated machinery, so they hired local kids. And I remember doing that one evening, working myself up to a big sweat, in fact. And I think I made $3 that night, and that was big money.
39. How much of a time investment?
For 3 hours of work, but you weren’t paid by the hour, you were paid by the line you took care of. I don’t remember what the rate was, but it wasn’t all that much. They didn’t charge all that much for anything in those days.
40. So what year do you think that would have been?
My early adventures were all in the 1940s. And then I didn’t hitch at all until I had dropped out, which was around 20 years later. Then I had to get used to it all over again, and I felt kind of silly at that age.
41. And you would have been in your 40s. What was it like getting used to that again?
It took a while, but it was a different situation. I was doing it because there was no other way for me to travel. I didn’t have a car. But I also didn’t have the funds to travel “legitimately”; but since I had hitchhiked as a kid and knew all about it, I thought, “Why not?” In fact, recently I’ve even had occasion to grab a ride in the area here. And it’s happened! I’ve been picked up.
42. You mean in the middle of Seattle?
43. You mean, in the middle of the city… you stick out your thumb?
The funny part was I wrote an article about it because I got stuck in the winter when I was freezing, and I missed a bus. I thought, “Why not?”, and a bus returning to the bus barn picked me up, even though he wasn’t taking passengers. And I guess he took pity on me, because he drove me down the hill where I ordinarily get off. And there’s a friend of mine who’s in her late 60s who doesn’t have a car, and she visited me once and got a ride from here to the boat going back up to Victoria!
44. How did she find a ride?
I told her to catch a bus on the corner, and what I didn’t know was that the bus no longer stops on that corner. And she didn’t know where the bus stops, so she stuck her thumb out. It was around 6:30AM…
45. Wow… now those are the kind of senior citizens that I want to hear about! That’s so awesome. She must have been quite a confident person to do that, because most people wouldn’t even dream of doing that.
I know that, but she’d been living without a car for so long that she knew her way around in that world.
46. It changes you in a really positive way, doesn’t it?
Yes, I think so.
47. So were you hooked from the start, hitching, when you were a kid?
Well, I think so. I always enjoyed it. The first time, I went north to the Canadian border. The second time, I went to New Mexico to visit a pal of mine who was in service there. And the third time, I just wanted to get to southern California where I settled for a few months. And then I remember going from San Francisco to Sacramento. I think I did that with the woman I married.
48. You hitchhiked with her?
Yeah, just for the experience.
49. But she wasn’t much of a fan of travelling that way, was she?
No… well, she was still young. And I think we may not have been in college yet. But when people are younger, they have more life in them. That’s the worst part about getting into social convention is that you lose the sense of life as a kid. Well, “kid” as a youngster, as a college kid. College kids will do a lot that they won’t do 5 years later.
50. That’s true. Why do you think that happens?
Socialization and conventionalization.
51. What if you want to break out of that? What kind of advice would you give to people who want to hitchhike in the US today? I know that advice will be different than for Europe.
I suppose I’d advise them to go with a friend, just to get over the uneasiness. Rides aren’t as easy to get for two people as they are for one, but there is always someone who will pick you up because people are amazingly different from one another.
52. Do you think it’s that difference that makes hitchhiking possible, on some level? Or is it just human generosity or the faith humans have in each other?
It’s probably ragged today. I mean, people are standing around panhandling. And what I’m amazed at is the way other people just breeze past them as though it’s a nuisance. I do it myself sometimes. I’ve lately tried to pace myself on it. I like to give dollars to people out there panhandling.
53. And you have a lot more time than you otherwise would have to work with, don’t you?
Well, I’ve had all my time for whatever I want to use it for… for years now. The last time I earned any stable income was when I first moved to Seattle.
54. I agree that people will benefit from hitchhiking with a friend, especially the first time. I know it was hard for me the first time because I was still understanding the social dynamic for how it works.
Is there anything else that you would suggest for people doing it for the first time?
Yes. Do it outside of a big city. It’s horrible trying to hitch in a city, from any place. Like from here, I prefer to take a bus down to Olympia and hitch from there.
55. Yeah, it’s better if you can actually find the onramp which is the onramp everybody has to use to get to the direction you want to go.
But also there are areas, probably anywhere I think, that are not burdened by a freeway, where you’re exposed to the traffic going out of town, all of it.
56. You mean like county roads and state roads that aren’t super clovers?
They haven’t got a million cars, but you get all of the traffic out of town.
57. What about in Europe? You’ve hitchhiked in Europe, right?
That’s a mixed bag. You sort of have to know the territory. Places have different attitudes towards hitchhiking and hitchhikers. And to some extent there will even be different ways of holding out your arm or hands for a ride; so unless you have some local guidance, it’s not always the easiest thing in the world. I remember trying it in France and being very confused as to the customs there. I did it in various countries and had varying degrees of success with it. England was great. I always thought Britain was one of the best hitchhiking places I even went to.
58. And they probably do it the same way we do, I’d imagine. Thumbs up.
59. Let’s talk a bit about safety. The way I’ve always done it is when someone pulls over, I immediately listen to what my gut instinct tells me about this person. And I think that the more you travel and meet people, the more you learn to trust your instincts about that. And I’ve never had a negative experience.
And also there are different kinds of negative experiences, too.
60. That’s a very good point.
And my worst have been with the driving and the traffic as far as anything I’d consider a negative experience. One day it occurred to me that most of my difficult or troublesome rides were with two people in the front seat and me in back. I don’t really trust that combination.
61. Why is that?
I don’t know. I guess I shouldn’t say that it’s always a correlation, but the only times I’ve had any problem has always been with two people in the front seats. And it’s occurred in different situations, too. On my last hitchhike, I had a very funny one where the guy finally threw me out of the car!
62. The guy threw you out of the car? What happened!?
Well, that’s in the story too. One of my previous scrapbooks, I’ll forward it to you, so you have the story.
63. That’s actually a really good point. People can subscribe to your scrapbook newsletter.
Yes, they can email me a request. (Editing Note: You can also use this the online form.) It doesn’t have an website, though. But this one story is really funny. I actually made this guy angry, and he threw me out of his car! Haha!
Coming up in Part Three:
- Practical advice on how you too can “drop out”
- How live simpler and realize that life is moldable
- And a prediction about the changes coming very soon to our planet
So you can see why I’m looking forward to sharing with you the third (and final) installment of this rare interview.
List of Resources in Part 2
- Irv’s LiveJournal Blog
- Derelict Days: 60 Years on the Roadside Path to Enlightenment (Irv’s book)
- DigiHitch USA (tons of hitchhiking advice on different areas)
- Couchsurfing.org (a truly amazing community of hosts and travellers)