My plans last Sunday were simple: head to Frenchtown, knock out a Happiest Hour column at one of the bars, and make it home in time to enjoy some sun. But with my gas tank hovering just above empty and the need for an oil change mounting with every mile, I decided to try what I'd seen so many in Missoula doing over the years—hitchhike. Frenchtown's a short 17-mile hop, I thought. Hitchhiking used to be a standard way of getting around. Someone's bound to pick me up.
An hour later, on I-90's westbound on-ramp, where Orange Street dead-ends at the Waterworks trailhead, I was getting nowhere.
At the Beartooth Pass two summers ago, a thumb landed me a ride in less than five minutes. I didn't even have a sign that time. You'd think the lack of ski gear might make my bid for Frenchtown more successful.
Cars zipped past, many of them with lone drivers. All I got was the occasional wave.
Across the interstate, on the eastbound on-ramp, Kris Gayer's luck wasn't much better. A graduate history student at Montana State University and veteran hitchhiker, Gayer was heading back to Bozeman after camping at Weir Hot Springs. The trip up to Missoula days earlier took him about seven hours, he said, with changeovers in Three Forks and Butte. It's a stretch he thumbs frequently, he said, about 12 times and counting. He'll be doing it in mid-June for a raft trip on the Lochsa River, then again for Missoula Hempfest this September.
Had Gayer and I been caught with our thumbs up in states where hitchhiking is outlawed—including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Idaho—we might have faced small fines. But most states have the same uniform code on the books as Montana: "No person shall stand in a roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride from the driver of any vehicle." Gayer was on the shoulder. I was in a parking lot. Neither counts as a violation.
Still, hitchhiking isn't nearly as popular or publicly acceptable as it was back when Clark Gable thumbed a ride in the 1934 classic It Happened One Night. Some young folks still tramp in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac, and of Chris McCandless of Into the Wild fame. But hitching is a diminishing mode of transportation nowadays, more commonly associated with horror than romance. Just last year, Frank Dryman was apprehended in Arizona for the decades-old murder of Montanan Clarence Pellet. Pellet had picked up a hitchhiking Dryman outside Shelby in 1951. Dryman repaid the favor by shooting Pellet to death, stealing his car, and fleeing to Canada.
Missoula hasn't dealt with any problem hitchhikers in recent years, says Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen. But that doesn't mean law enforcement advocates drivers pulling over for an extended thumb. "Typically, we encourage people not to pick up hitchhikers. Our line of work is one where we deal in the possibility of something really, really bad happening...Consequently, we tend to think, 'Why put yourself in the position of possibly having a problem when it's so easy to avoid?'"
Gayer has learned to tune into passing cars and drivers. He knows what to look for and how to present himself. On Sunday, he was traveling light in beige shorts, a blue raincoat, and a small daypack. As drivers roared past, he smiled wide and made eye contact. Eye contact is essential.
"People will pick you up because they want to talk," Gayer said. "A lot of times people are just bored. They see you and decide they want some company."
Clearly nobody eastbound or westbound was particularly lonely this afternoon. While Gayer usually gets picked up within half an hour, both of us were striking out. Then Gayer hit me with a revelation: "Missoula's the hardest town in Montana to hitch in. That's because you're stuck on the interstate ramps pretty much. Once you get away from 90, hitchhiking's a breeze."
Gayer's experience thumbing in the Gallatin Valley or the Flathead may differ, but I later uncovered evidence that knocked his "breeze" theory down a peg. In 2006, two hitchhikers named Scott and Fiddy embarked on what they called the Hitch50 Project, an attempt to hitchhike to all 50 state capitols in 50 consecutive days. Their online chronicle includes a post on the difficulties of catching a lift from Helena to Shelby. The roadside wait lasted five hours before they finally gave up and crashed at a nearby motel.
Despite his successes, Gayer seems quite familiar with failure. He's been stranded in Butte before, and said he once had to take a cab from Missoula to Bonner when police kicked him off the Van Buren Street on-ramp. The disapproving looks he reports from passing drivers also suggest that the culture of hitchhiking culture is in serious decline.
"I'm actually disappointed in Montana youth," says Gayer, who is 25. "Most young people drive right by me. The majority of my rides come from other people, people who were my age back when hitchhiking was common."
Satisfied that Gayer had given me some useful tips, I ventured back to the westbound ramp. I smiled. I made eye contact. I held my cardboard sign. And...nothing but friendly waves.
I decided to pack it in at the two-hour mark. When I glanced back at Gayer's hitching spot, he was gone.