Everyday on my commute, I cross the Appalachian Trail twice (coming and going). It crosses Zachary Taylor Highway (aka U.S. 522) at the Smithsonian’s Wildlife Conservation Center on the west flank of the Blue Ridge below Chester Gap, before winding its way up into the northern section of Shenandoah National Park. This makes Front Royal the largest town in the closest proximity to a trailhead for…well, let’s see…hell, I don’t know—read Bryson’s book or Garvey’s book if you really care. It’s the closest real town to the trail for days or weeks whether you’re northbound or southbound.
So one evening recently on the way home from work, as I headed up the grade out of Front Royal (or, as I like to call it, "The Big Eff-Err”) I was startled to see a pair of backpackers hitchhiking to the trailhead.
You simply don’t see hitchhikers much anymore; I can probably count the number I have seen in the last decade without taking my shoes off. And frankly, I wouldn’t have given a thought to picking up a single one of them—they all seemed to fit my mental picture of the kind of person you want to steer waaaaay clear of; the kind who is always described by his neighbors, ex post massacre, as “…quiet, kept to himself, never really got to know him…”
Most of the hitchhikers I recall seeing appeared to be 'riding Shank’s Mare' on account of the intervention of some legal authority or another, and they couldn’t master either the capital investment or the requisite motor skills necessary to operate a second-hand department-store bicycle. A sling-blade? Sure. A bicycle? Not so much.
But I digress. These two were clearly serious backpackers, and they were clearly heading back to the AT trailhead (the cardboard sign saying so was a dead giveaway). But as I began slowing down to pick them up, I realized I was on a motorcycle, which poses some logistic awkwardness when trying to carry two passengers avec backpacks but sans helmets. So I swore that the next time I saw similarly vetted hitchhikers, I would stop and give them a lift.
Well I’ll be damned if a few weeks later, there I was driving home through the big Effer and walking around the corner onto the ZTH was a bona-fide backpacker sticking out his thumb.
Well, what could I do? I hit my turn signal and screeched to a stop on the gravel shoulder a hundred yards down the road…and sat there. And sat there.
And sat there. Finally I started honking the horn; the poor sod simply hadn’t expected the first car driving past to stop. When I finally got his attention, he grabbed his pack and bolted up the road with a great big grin on his face.
Did I mention the dog?
Yeah, that’s the other thing. A lot of the hitchhikers I’ve passed by over the years I passed by because they were travelling with a dog—usually a big dog. But this guy was in the company of a big, beautiful husky. And now that I am officially owned by two dogs, I had no choice but to stop and pick them up. So the pack goes into the trunk, the very well-behaved husky—“Icarus,” with his own gear, if I recall correctly—goes in the backseat very politely, and the dude rides shotgun.
So we make trail-chat for the four minutes or so it takes to drive up Chester Gap to the trailhead, and it turns out he’s one of the rare southbound through-hikers who started at Katahdin in the spring and is heading home to Georgia by mid-October. I noted how skinny he was, and how different his gear is from what mine was back in the day, and that he travelled with an iPod (...anathema, to my mind) and that he used two metal walking staffs, which is becoming more common than it ever was when I hiked. At the trailhead, Icarus sniffed around a bit and marked the signpost at the trailhead, while the dude loaded up and got readjusted. We said a cheerful goodbye, and I hope he enjoyed his little bit of trail magick.
Funny that I know the dog's name but not the man's.
Worse things could happen than for hitchhiking to make a comeback; sadly it seems to have all but disappeared from our cultural landscape. It is peculiar that there are two competing archetypes when considering hitchhiking: the deranged, homicidal hitchhiker, deftly concealing an axe beneath his duffel bag, and the psychopathic loner in his beaten-up old car, body parts in the trunk, looking for his next victim. Maybe hitchhiking had gone away because all these avatars found each other and simply annihilated each other like matter and antimatter.
I must admit to having some weird disjointed recollections from my times riding my thumb: catching a ride out of the Northeast Kingdom in an ice truck driven by a French-Canadian from Quebec who couldn’t quite get it that we had just taken four weeks to walk from Massachusetts all the way to Canada. Our packs rode in the back of the truck, on top of the bags of ice. When we finally got out at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere in the middle of July, it felt fantastic to put on an ice-cold backpack.
Or the ride with the man claiming to have been a mercenary in South Africa, who told tales of fly-fishing with his Dad as a kid, and his colorful sotto voce complaints at the time, or the local Veterinarian who worried aloud about the impact of the newcomers to the mountains and the thoughtless development they would bring, or riding with the packs in the open bed of a pickup truck, heading up a winding mountain road while cradling a glass gallon jug of cheap wine and freezing in the cold wind. Or just the generosity of spirit among those who stopped, often going well out of their way to go all the way to a trail crossing or to a particular destination in a town.
And the beer…it seems absolutely unreal to think of a time when people would drive nonchalantly with a cooler of ice-cold beer on the passenger seat, popping one open and taking a long draught from it at a traffic light, and sharing them with a slightly-underage traveler. There were times of absolute loneliness and despair, of fear, of watching night fall or feeling the deathly calm as storm clouds gather, utterly isolated, without recourse and all but invisible. Ironically, some of my least favorite memories of hitching occurred on the ZTH, decades ago. Those were humbling moments, and lent themselves to some deep soul-searching. Hitchhiking certainly provides a complex and rich prism through which to view the human condition—watching people look through you and pass you by, looking through people and passing them by.
Well, it's pretty clear to me upon some reflection: Dog or no dog, the backpackers in or out of the Big Effer got a ride with me, no questions asked.