We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide. It is the necessary pattern. —Richard Rohr, Falling Upward (2011)
“Kat, it freaks me out. Every time you stick your thumb out you get this glint in your eye. You just like this way too much.”
That’s what Tomislav thought. It was 1985, and we had just hitchhiked from my uncle’s cabin in the mountains of Colorado to Longmont, about halfway to Boulder, and were heading back up to the cabin with a bag of groceries. I stuck my thumb out, eliciting Tomislav’s words and a disapproving head shake.
Here’s my guilty secret: he was right. I did like hitchhiking. Probably way too much. I loved the sheer randomness of it. I loved the unexpectedness of everyone I met. I loved the sense of limitless possibility implied by standing at the side of an open highway, hair blowing in the wind, thumbs up to the world. I loved that just on that stretch of highway between Boulder and Estes Park, I had gotten rides from my cousin’s dentist; an auctioneer; a kooky woman tripping on acid; and most surprisingly, a voluble, elderly lady in a Lincoln Continental (the one and only time I was ever picked up by someone in a Lincoln Continental). She was cheerfully running away from her deadbeat, no-fun husband: “So I just says to myself, well, fiddle-dee-DEE! I’m goin’ up those mountains myself then! He’s no fun at all! Fiddle-dee-DEE! That’s what I say!”
The way I see it, hitchhiking is sort of like practice for saying yes to God, for whenever you get around to believing in God. I think saying yes to people is a good and often underrated warm-up exercise.
But where, you may be asking, is the spiritual discipline part of hitchhiking?
Well, I have to admit, hitchhiking isn’t the most mature form of spiritual discipline. It’s the sort of spiritual discipline that someone mostly without either spirituality or discipline takes on. And it requires neither spirituality nor discipline for its success, which was a great advantage to me.
But it had two big benefits in addition to a low bar for entry and getting me someplace. The first was that it provided opportunities to say yes to a seemingly random assortment of members of the tribe of homo sapiens. I’m a firm believer in yes being a requirement for going forward with a spiritual life. The way I see it, hitchhiking is sort of like practice for saying yes to God, for whenever you get around to believing in God. I think saying yes to people is a good and often underrated warm-up exercise. (I once heard of a pastor with a former prostitute in his flock who concluded, after seeing what she brought to his congregation, that promiscuity—yes on steroids?—was under-appreciated.)
Second, it provided a data stream. Being an experiential learner, I’m a big believer in setting up mechanisms for generating personal data streams. My hitchhiking data stream told me some moderately encouraging things: most people are decent; a lot of people have an almost biological to urge to protect a single woman by the side of the road; the soul is an expansive and surprising organ, and many people will bare theirs to you with surprisingly little provocation or modesty. Also, the world is a many-splendored thing, as seen through all those eyes and cars and souls.
The data stream also taught me something else really important that I didn’t know before I started: namely that I was arguably worth protecting. Now, I’m not going to say that hitchhiking is an optimum mechanism for learning self-worth. It totally isn’t. I could easily have been unlucky and learned the opposite lesson, and the whole story of my life would have turned out differently. I could have wound up being sex-trafficked or something. But the fact is, I wasn’t. I was picked up over multiple years in multiple countries most often by people who were kind and who took me where I was going. Some took me home with them. The occasional dicey moments always ended well enough.
Photo by Black Ivy Images
Once, for example, I was camping in the mountains of Argentina, near Mendoza. I was alone and didn’t have a tent, and the crowded campground gave me zero privacy. So I picked up my backpack and moved into a nearby horse pasture. It was a cold and moonlit night, and I was shivering in my light sleeping bag. It seemed the horses were restless, too, and it took me hours to get to sleep. In the middle of the night, I awoke to a thundering vibration under my body and a strange and entrancing sight when I opened my eyes: the horses cantering around me in a circle in the moonlight, manes and tails flying, frost shining on the grass. I was in awe—and terrified. Would I be trampled by these moonstruck animals? To make my presence clear, I waved my cocooned legs around in the air like a giant caterpillar for a while. The horses stayed in their circle, and eventually I drifted off again and slept until long after the sun came up.
Too long, it turned out, to be able to hitch a ride with the main trucker traffic crossing the Andes into Chile. There were almost no vehicles headed that way by that time in the morning. When a Brazilian trucker finally stopped, I breathed a sigh of relief and climbed in. Hah! In a little while he instructed me to undress. I politely declined, and he said firmly that I must if I expected to ride with him. I refused just as firmly, and he said, well then, he wouldn’t take me any further. He unceremoniously stopped the truck, and I climbed out—into the middle of nowhere.
I shouldered my pack and started hiking uphill, wondering how on earth anyone would stop for me in such a God-forsaken place. Was I going to have to walk to Chile? To my surprise, around a few curves, I came upon a police officer standing by the side of the road. We looked at each other in amazement, and he said, “What on earth are you doing here?” I explained my short, unsuccessful morning trajectory and asked him what he was doing there. It turned out his job that day was to stop and fine people for speeding on this remote and presumably unpoliced stretch of road. Suddenly he brightened up and said, “I know! I’ll stop the next tour bus that comes along and tell them they have to take you or pay a fine!”
Well, I’m here to tell you, the bespoke tour operator who arrived shortly thereafter was none too enthusiastic about this plan. Let’s just say that my grooming—camping tentless and all—was not up to Latin American tour operator standards (or many other standards, to be perfectly honest), and the backpack was a dead giveaway for a disreputable hippie type. I guess I was marginally preferable to paying a fine though, because he grudgingly let me on the bus. And I give him credit: he was quick on his feet. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced in his best Knowledgable and In-Charge Tour Operator voice, “we have a special treat for this morning. This young lady will accompany us to the border! She will be happy to answer any questions you may have.” With that, he handed me the microphone.
Those tourists turned out to have a lot of questions, especially of the “Does your father know where you are?” variety. Once I had answered their questions, I was invited to sit by a guy who gave me his address in Santiago, and I ended up staying with him and his family for about a week.
A lot of things happened like that.
“The theme would be feminism—changing how we exercise power within our criminal justice system.” Corey wanted to dedicate the exhibition to the seven important women who have influenced his life.
I was kind of iffy about whether I believed in God at that point, but a believer might make a pretty good case that someone was watching out for me. And eventually, the lessons of hitchhiking transitioned me out of hitchhiking. All those people who worried about me and cared about me enough to rescue me from the side of the road: I started to feel bad for causing them anguish and worry. I didn’t mean to burden them, but they were burdened just the same, and relying on their kindness to get from point A to point B started to feel manipulative and selfish.
And then there was my sister. After we lost our mother, and sort of our father too, I could not bear to be someone else she might lose. It seemed selfish to be careless with myself. So one day, I committed to not hitchhiking anymore. I did it first for my sister, and then for my friends and all those nice strangers who picked me up. Eventually, it was for God, and finally, for myself too.
It was about as sneaky a back door entrance to self-love as the universe could provide, but that’s what I needed. I sure wasn’t going to walk in any front door that announced that’s what it was about! Carl Jung observed that one of the first stages of life is about creating a self that feels pretty good about itself, that values itself. I got there, sort of, in my mid-to-late-20s, partly via hitchhiking.
As I see it now, my indiscriminate yes to whatever opened its door to me was a crude decision rule, but I suspect it took me further than no would have. And I think it kind of softened me up to saying yes to some of the preposterous things that God asks me to do, like forgiving trespasses, homeschooling, running for county board, loving my impossible neighbor, and accepting grace. I needed a whole lot of practice saying yes. I still do!
I know now that there are better and safer paths to self-love and faith in the goodness of the universe, but I didn’t find those paths. I know now that there are ways to learn to surrender to the Spirit that don’t involve surrendering first to anyone with a car, but I didn’t find those ways. I will always be grateful I survived the hitchhiking era long enough to get to the grace on the other side.
And in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that when my daughter called from Valparaíso, Chile, on their own adventure some 30 years later, and announced that they were planning on hitchhiking south to the Lake District, every alarm in my parental soul went off. I way too eagerly offered to wire them a couple hundred bucks so they could ride buses and stay in hotels. I could feel their eyes roll from 3,000 miles away.