2017 Theme Issue - Stranger(s)
As my wife, Jocey, and I drove toward Dallas/Fort Worth International, bloody armadillo carcasses littered the roadside the same as opossums do back home. We’d been visiting our son in Arkansas and were now on Highway 69 near Atoka, Oklahoma, heading south. That’s when I noticed the inconspicuous sign. I would’ve missed it altogether had I not already been scanning the shoulder, vying for a solid glance at one of those strangely armored animals—a genuine curiosity to a native East Coaster.
WARNING: HITCHHIKERS MAY BE ESCAPING INMATES
The sign intrigued me. Clearly, it hadn’t been created without precedent; there was at least one driver out there who had a hell of a story to tell. And I appreciated that it was written in the present tense. It seemed proactive, as if the Oklahoma Department of Corrections was admitting it wasn’t perfect. The sign also was an interesting commentary on human nature. The Oklahoma DOC recognized that despite most people’s innate desire to assist those in need, this area wasn’t the safest place to demonstrate such altruism.
So between that warning, the decimated armadillos, and the brutal 101-degree heat, there was a sense of foreboding. But it was that message, in particular, which got me to thinking.
Somewhere buried in a box of my mother’s old photographs is a picture of four-year-old me circa 1974, barefoot, wearing cutoffs and a t-shirt. My hair is shaggy, bowl-cut. An iron-on decal spans my chest, depicting a fist and giant orange thumb extended in the classic hitchhiker’s pose. There’s no arm, no body, no face, just a humongous thumb. The shirt reads Keep on Truckin, or something close, the flowy, bubbly letters smooshed together like graffiti along a highway overpass.
Unbeknownst to me, that shirt offered the first hint of what the future held in store, a clue to an unavoidable, self-fulfilling prophecy.
Hitchhiking, in some form or another, has always existed. A farmer, with horse and hay cart, picks up villagers walking to market, a kid let’s his friend hop on the back of his bike. Hitchhikers in France at one time used baguettes instead of their thumbs to catch rides. In America, the pastime seems to have evolved in earnest around the 1920s, coinciding with the mass production of the automobile. Combine that with the vast size of the United States, the lack of public transportation, the impending Depression, and the advent seems inevitable.
My first experience with a bona fide hitchhiker happened when I was eight. My father and I were driving back from the store when we inexplicably stopped for a guy on the roadside. My mother had always emphasized the ghastly atrocities hitchhikers were capable of, had ingrained in me that hitchhiker equaled bad. As delicately as she could, she explained the gruesome horrors of kidnapping, torture, and murder. So just peeking over the windowsill and glancing at a hitchhiker produced intense anxiety; picking one up was unfathomable.
When Dad pulled over and the vagabond approached, my father reached across and rolled down my window. “Where you heading?” he said to the man. And then to me, “Jump in back.”
I have no idea how the guy replied, what he looked like, how long he was with us, where we dropped him off, or what he and my father discussed. All I remember is fear. What if he attacked my father and then kidnapped me? Took me to his shack in the Jersey woods and tortured me before slitting my throat with a rusty machete?
Turns out, that didn’t happen. But for an eight-year-old who’d been fed countless doomsday scenarios, who’d been warned that pedophiles lurked around every corner, hid in bathroom stalls and cruised movie theaters searching for boys like me, well, that hitchhiker might as well have been the boogeyman.
Yet not long after, at twelve, I hitchhiked for the first time. Five of my buddies and I wanted to play Donkey Kong at the pizzeria four miles away. Someone suggested we hitch. I hated the idea, was sickly nervous, but said nothing.
To better our odds, we split into two packs. The other group let us set out first, which seemed a noble gesture until shortly thereafter a car zoomed past, my friends hanging out the windows, laughing and giving us the finger. We’d been duped. However, they got dropped off halfway, so when my group caught a ride and zipped by, we made sure to let them have it twofold. The summer air whipped through the windows as we tasted true freedom for the first time. We’d discovered we didn’t have to walk everywhere. Or pedal bikes. Or beg our parents for rides. We now had another means of transportation, albeit unreliable and potentially dangerous—if not deadly.
As I got older, I began hitching solo. And every time I did, I worried about abduction, murder, and death. What if the driver wanted to rob me? Or rape me? Or just kill me for no reason in particular? Not once in the countless times I hitched did those thoughts not cross my mind.
I felt there was actual skill involved in hitchhiking, even artistic elements. My method was to walk until I heard a car approaching. I’d then turn to face the vehicle and stick out my thumb while shuffling backward. I might flash a smile and soften my eyes if it was a woman, or squint, attempting to look tough, if it was a man. Certain drivers avoided eye-contact. These were the people who in no-way-under-any-circumstances would ever pick up a hitchhiker. My mother, for example. And I understood. You are letting a questionable stranger into your world. They have no car, presumably no money, and they want something from you. So why would anyone ever stop?
The answer is simple: people are kind, intrinsically decent. They want to help, especially when they perceive the person in question as less fortunate. It makes them feel good, basic human nature. And it’s precisely that human nature the hitchhiker counts on.
Once a car stopped, the cat-and-mouse act truly began. There was a weird, unspoken mind game that occurred, the driver thinking, “Well, he must be crazy or armed if he has the guts to hitchhike,” while the hitcher thought, “Why would anyone pick me up unless they have ulterior motives?” There was a feeling-out process that never fully subsided until you’d been dropped off safely.
In 2014, this “kindness of strangers” idea played out before the world when two Canadian professors set their hitchhiking robot on the side of the road and then observed its travels. According to their website, “hitchBOT…traveled by itself and couldn’t move on its own but required friendly humans to take it from place to place.”
The functioning part of hitchBOT consisted of a torso and head—imagine a Shop-Vac canister—equipped with a GPS system and a rudimentary, electronic smiling face. Its arms and legs resembled blue pool noodles, while Wellington boots and rubber yellow gloves provided a bit of style. It was a cute little thing, impossible not to smile at when you saw it.
The website explains that “During the summer of 2014, hitchBOT hitchhiked across Canada from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Victoria, British Columbia. In just 26 days it hitched a total of 19 rides and travelled over 10,000 kilometers.”
Despite the above example of selflessness and philanthropy, I didn’t trust anyone when I hitchhiked. Instead, I preferred to carry a weapon, most notably my Buck knife. But if I didn’t have that handy, I’d at least find a rock and cup it in my fist. I wasn’t positive how that would help, but it was better than nothing.
In the late ‘80s, friends of a friend (a guy and a girl) picked up a hitchhiker in Virginia. At some point, the hitchhiker bound them and forced them into the trunk before driving off as they kicked, screamed, and pleaded. They were held captive for several days until they managed to escape. I don’t know the specifics, except one: deep rope-burns encircled their wrists forever after, a permanent reminder of how close they’d come.
My biggest adventure occurred when I was sixteen. Some senior girls who’d just graduated invited me to their rental beach house in Delaware—two hundred miles away—if I could get a ride. I was only a sophomore, but when a group of good-looking, popular, eighteen-year-olds ask you to Beach Week, well, by God, you find a way.
I sat in my room, duffel bag packed, contemplating whether or not I had the balls to go for it. That’s when John Cougar’s “Pink Houses” came on the radio. It spoke to me. “Ain’t that America” had a feel to it. Freedom, hitting the road to see the country. That song was the catalyst I needed, so while my mother was busy with housework, I quietly slipped out the front door. Within three minutes, my neighbor, only a few years older, happened by. And just like that, by simply extending my thumb, I was Delaware bound.
I had no map, no GPS, no iPhone. Instead, in my pocket were some crude directions one of the girls had scratched down. I was travelling on my wits, fueled by adolescent lust, testosterone, and a strong yearning for freedom.
My wanderlust was real, as much a part of my nature as a dog’s instinct to bolt after a rabbit. I needed to roam. I longed for something greater. I wasn’t trying to hurt my parents or cause undue worry. They were good people. They loved me. But I wanted to explore, to fall in love and swim in rivers with beautiful carefree women just as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper had done in Easy Rider. But I was sixteen, naïve, and had a heavy dose of rebellion and foolish immortality running through my veins. I wasn’t mature enough yet to comprehend how worried my mother would be once she learned her son had slipped out the back, Jack, to be his own man, Stan, and used the Jersey Turnpike to get himself free.
After explaining the plan to my neighbor, he drove me all the way to the Turnpike. A friendly tollbooth operator told me, “It’s illegal to hitch on the pike, but if you stand just outside the entrance, cops can’t touch you. You’ll probably catch a lift in no time.”
He was right. I stood by the stacked line of cars waiting to pay their fare, my thumb only raised thirty seconds before two black men in a two-door Lincoln told me to jump in. The passenger folded his seat forward while scrunching his chest toward the dash, and I clambered in back. Immediately, I realized I was trapped. I had no viable means of escape if things got weird.
For the next hour, they never said a word, but they gave me a sandwich and dropped me off at their exit without a hitch (sorry) and even offered advice on how to proceed.
There were numerous other rides I don’t recall, except for the last one. The man claimed he was a doctor. He drove a sports car, some sort of Mazda. As soon as I entered, he clicked the automatic door locks, causing jolts of apprehension. What reasonable explanation was there for locking the doors? I fingered the Buck knife’s hilt, the folded blade offering some reassurance. But not nearly enough.
Doc asked basic questions: Where you from?…Do you play sports?… Favorite subject?…and I answered, New Jersey…Football and lacrosse…English…though I never divulged the deeper truth: that I’d snuck out of my parent’s house, technically a runaway. But I’d never seen it as such. I wasn’t running away from anything as much as I was running to something.
As we neared the condo just south of Bethany Beach, I envisioned what I’d do if Doc continued on Route 1 instead of stopping. Would I plead with him? Stick him in the ribs if he refused to pull over?
Doc eased off the road but didn’t unlock my door. I was so close, only a hundred yards from my destination. As he reached into his pocket, I mimicked him, palming the knife. But my paranoia was unwarranted. Doc didn’t brandish a weapon. Instead, he held cash, seven ones. “Here,” he said, “I want you to have this.”
“I can’t take your money. You just gave me a ride.”
“Take it. Please. I’ve got kids your age, and if they were in your situation, I’d want people to help them.”
My situation? The Atlantic roared as I opened the door. I could smell and taste the salty air. A group of girls were about to deem me a total badass for hitchhiking two hundred miles to party with them. At sixteen years old, in the summer of 1986, I wouldn’t have traded my situation for anything.
“Thanks,” I said as I exited. He confirmed all I’d discovered through hitchhiking, just as the tollbooth operator had, just as the two black men had: people were good, decent, and wanted to help. Of course, it would’ve only taken one deranged driver with a sick sexual fantasy to alter my naïve, rosy view of the world.
The same weekend of my Delaware journey, another hitchhiker, just over the Jersey border in Pennsylvania, was shot in the head. At least that’s how I remember it. I think I heard it on the radio or from my mother when I called from the condo to let her know I was okay. I haven’t been able to verify it, but what I can confirm is that a serial killer was indeed murdering and castrating hitchhiking young men during that same time period. A few months after my adventure, on November 24, 1986, the nude body of a hitchhiker named Jack Andrews was found at a rest stop in Litchfield, Connecticut. His genitals were missing, his nipples removed, both legs severed at mid-thigh. The case is believed to be linked to several other murders of young hitchhiking men, including Wayne Rifendifer, whose naked body was found on August 19, 1981 in a wooded area of Pennsylvania. He’d been shot in the back of the head, his genitals also removed.
Ballistics reports would later confirm that the .38 caliber weapon from the Rifendifer murder was used a year later, on June 12, 1982, to kill Marty Shook, this time all the way across the country. A few days before, Marty had left his mother’s home in Sparks, Nevada, planning to hitchhike to Colorado. He never made it. A fly fisherman discovered his nude body near a canyon in Utah. He’d been shot in the back of the head, genitals removed. Similar cases were reported in Wyoming and Georgia. No suspect has ever been identified, but the killer is believed to be a truck driver since the bodies were found near major highways all across the country.
As a grown man, this disturbing information stirred reflection. If the timing had been slightly different, I could’ve crossed paths with that killer.
The following summer, two close girlfriends of mine convinced one of their grandfathers to drive them from New Jersey all the way to Colorado to see the Grateful Dead. When the car broke down along a highway in Ohio, the girls ditched poor grandpa and jumped into a trucker’s cab, determined not to miss one note of the opening set at Red Rocks. The trucker drove them straight to the venue with no problems. They were lucky. Though it wasn’t unusual to see females hitchhiking in the ’70s, and to a lesser degree the ’80s, it was also far more dangerous.
The most infamous hitchhiking horror story involves the brutal killings of seven girls in 1972 and 1973. Known as the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders, the young women ranged in age from twelve to twenty-three. Their naked bodies were found strewn along the highways of Northern California, raped and strangled. All seven had last been seen alive while hitchhiking. There are now at least eight other cases the FBI has linked to the same killer. One of the prime suspects was the notorious Ted Bundy, who’d been in the area at the time. The murders have never been solved.
I can’t pinpoint the last time I hitchhiked, though I believe I was in my late twenties after my alternator died in the mountainous backwoods of Virginia. I can recall, however, the last time I picked up a hitchhiker. It was 2004, and I’d just merged on to Interstate 81 when I saw a long-haired man in shorts, hitching. He had something in his hand, and it wasn’t until after I passed that I realized he held a cane—and that the man was actually a woman. Late fifties, early sixties. I pulled over, concerned for two reasons. One, it was an older woman on the side of a major highway. Two, I’d recently seen something in the news.
“Where you heading?”
“Knoxville,” she said, bending to peer through my open window, no doubt taking a quick mental inventory, getting the feel, making sure I checked out.
“Knoxville? That’s five hours away. I’m only going thirty miles.”
“That’ll work,” she said. “Can I throw my bag in back?”
She tossed in her duffel, then sat down, securing the metal cane between her knees. We made small talk—her name was Debra, she’d been at the local VA hospital, a Navy vet. I glanced at the odd scar on her left knee, a raised, purplish thing resembling the state of California. She planned to stay the night with a friend in Knoxville, but home was still far away.
“You came all the way up from Florida?” I said. “They don’t have a VA down there?”
I don’t recall her exact explanation, but she had no money, no transportation, and had been forced to hitch to Salem, Virginia to get assistance. She continued chatting, nervously rubbing her scar, and I talked nostalgically of my bygone days as a hitchhiker in New Jersey. But that news report I’d seen days before nagged at me. I felt it my duty to advise her, but I didn’t want to frighten her. If I suddenly started chatting about a deranged murderer killing women exactly like herself, what might she think? I decided to stay quiet until I dropped her off.
At my exit, I pulled into a Waffle House parking lot. For some reason, it seemed important that she be outside the car before I mentioned anything. “I didn’t want to freak you out while we were driving,” I said, “but the FBI just released warnings of a serial killer on the prowl, targeting women along major highways.”
“Oh, Jeez,” she said. She glanced in both directions, as if the guy might be hiding in the tall weeds. “Around here?”
“Most of the bodies were found along roads in the Southwest, but the cops believe they’re linked to similar cases around the country, including some in the mid-Atlantic.”
She had one hand on her cane, the other clutching her duffel. “That’s scary.”
“They think he’s probably a long-haul guy, finding women at truck-stops. Prostitutes, hitchhikers.”
“I never take rides with truckers,” she said. “That’s my number one rule, no truckers.”
“Well, I thought I should tell you. I couldn’t forgive myself if…you know, just be careful.”
She thanked me and we bid farewell. In hindsight, I wish I’d asked why she avoided truckers. Considering all the other dangers, it seemed a rule not worthy of “Number One” status.
After hitchBOT’s successes in Canada and then Europe, the following year the founders decided their little robot was ready for the mean streets of America. On July 17, 2015, hitchBOT set out from Salem, Massachusetts, bound for San Francisco. But only two weeks in, hitchBOT encountered serious trouble. The official website doesn’t provide details, only stating, “… sometimes bad things happen to good robots.”
Later, in an interview with CNN, creator David Harris Smith said, “hitchBOT was designed…with a personality and all the classic elements of drama, so it had a quest, and that quest was fraught with obvious dangers.”
Dangers indeed. On August 1, 2015, hitchBOT was found on the side of the road in Philadelphia, dismembered and decapitated. It had only managed 300 miles in America before meeting its violent demise. Turns out, even robots aren’t immune to hitchhiking’s numerous perils.
It’s been a long time since I’ve hitchhiked, but I still look back on it fondly. That journey to Delaware, for example, resulted in me falling in love for the first time. And not just with any girl. She’d been one of the most popular girls in the entire school. Two years older, a cheerleading captain; it was surreal, like I’d stumbled into a John Hughes film. Of course the feelings weren’t mutual, and when she left for college at the end of the summer, my heart was broken. But the point is, that would’ve never happened if I hadn’t hit the open road, thumb extended.
During my hitchhiking tenure, I encountered countless people who simply wanted to help, confirming my faith in humanity and also in the kindness of strangers. Of course, the line between good and evil is eggshell thin. I could’ve crossed paths with that deranged mutilator of hitchhiking boys. Or someone just as sick.
I recall once hitching near my house when a station wagon pulled over. The driver had a long ponytail, a mustache and goatee. As I leaned in to start the initial conversation, my feel was off. Not glaringly so, but something intangible raised my hackles. Just then, another vehicle approached, tapping its horn.
“Hey,” I said to the long-haired man as I nodded toward the other car, “that’s a friend of mine. Thanks anyway.” I never gave the incident another thought. Until now. It was probably nothing. Then again, who knows?
When I’d advised Debra about that serial killer, one thing I hadn’t known was that the investigation was part of an FBI effort called the Highway Serial Killing Initiative. Some savvy detectives discovered that over the past 30 years, 500-plus women had been found murdered along our nation’s highways, the vast majority truck-stop prostitutes and hitchhikers. Ironically, what had originally caught the investigators’ eyes was an inordinate amount of victims lining the roads of Oklahoma, including Highway 69, the one my wife and I were currently on.
Twenty miles before I’d passed that sign warning of escaping inmates, I’d seen a car pulled over. A man stood outside the passenger door, talking to the driver. He was shirtless, tanned, had a backpack. My first thought was hitchhiker. But I quickly dismissed it. Hitchhikers simply weren’t something you saw anymore.
And 50 miles before that, in Eufaula, Oklahoma, I grabbed coffee at a truck stop. As I paid, I noticed a MISSING flyer with a photo of a woman who looked vaguely familiar. As Jocey and I walked across that steaming parking lot, I said, “Did you see that flyer? About the missing woman?”
“I think Dateline did an episode on her.”
“Huh,” she said before taking a sip of her coffee, only half-interested. “Scary.”
We hopped back in our rental car and journeyed on, eager to get home and resume our safe and normal lives, unaware that over the years numerous hitchhikers had been dumped along that very highway, tossed out as carelessly as crushed beer cans or fast food wrappers. With no more compassion than I currently offered those mangled armadillos littering the road. In fact, those women were most likely cast-off with even less.
It’s all a crapshoot, I suppose. There’s good out there, and there’s bad. Sometimes you roll the dice, other times you pass if you’re not feeling it. Thankfully, 46 years into this game so far, and my luck has continued to hold.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/MortAuPat