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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Former hitchhiker recalls a more trusting past

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We came upon them suddenly as we rounded a bend in a narrow road that wound along Spain’s Mediterranean coast.

They stuck out their thumbs. Maybe 18 or 19, she pretty, he a little scruffy. Day packs; probably beach-bound.

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“Should we stop?”

Three decades ago, I would have done so almost automatically. If you hitchhiked yourself, you stopped for others — and I had been a regular hitchhiker.

When college broke for Thanksgiving or Christmas, I’d head to a nearby overpass, scramble down to the interstate, and hold up my sign.

‘Most often your rides came from salt-of-the-earth types or aging hippies, folks who were bored and wanted to talk the miles away.’

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It would generally take a day to get home, but it was time interestingly spent. Most often your rides came from salt-of-the-earth types or aging hippies, folks who’d thumbed themselves once and who were bored and wanted to talk the miles away.

They never seemed dangerous, though some were certainly passing strange.

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Heading from Los Angeles to San Francisco, my pal Tim Cockey once thought he’d hit the jackpot when a driver said he’d take him all the way to Bay Area. Until . . . well, cut to Tim: “Every 10 minutes he pulls out a sock and smears it with glue and then holds it to his nose. While he is performing his inhalations, he has me reach over and steer the car. Along the coastal highway! It has curves! It has cliffs! And it is dark!”

When the driver pulled over for a break, Tim offered to drive. “By this point he is so high he insists on seeing my driver’s license first. I show him, and he concludes that he can’t let me drive, as I have an out-of-state license.”

Myself, I once hopped into a van so thick with smoke that it was akin to stepping into one of Amsterdam’s cannabis coffee shops. The driver’s name was Andy. His wife had left him and he was utterly perplexed as to why.

“Never get married,” he counseled. “Sure, it’s great to have someone to do the laundry and clean up the house and cook the meals. But uh-uh.” It struck me that I might be able to help Andy solve the mystery of his failed marriage. But it was his van, and he was the one dispensing advice.

“When people say ‘thank you,’ say ‘welcome,’ ” he told me. “Not ‘no problem’ or ‘glad to’ or ‘my pleasure.’ Just ‘welcome.’ ’’

Why not the others? “Because sometimes it is a problem and you weren’t glad to. That’s why you just say ‘welcome.’ ”

The conversation took a philosophical turn. Had I ever considered what things would be like if humans were descended from cats? The time he had afforded to this subject might have been more profitably spent contemplating the cause of his wife’s discontent.

“Everyone would be neat, because cats love to wash,” he observed. He took his hands off the wheel. One hand stalked, then pounced upon, the other.

“We’d all be quick,” he said. “Cats are quick.”

Cats would keep their paws on the wheel, I wanted to say, but how could you prove such an optimistic assertion? The cats of my acquaintance, after all, had been easily distracted by moths or bugs or marbles or even bits of dancing light.

“Thanks for the ride,” I said when he dropped me off.

“Welcome,” Andy said.

I never had a bad experience. Only one even qualified as startling. About 10 minutes into our ride, a 20-something woman I had stopped for pulled a large knife from her coat pocket. “You seem like you’re OK,” she said, folding it closed and slipping it back into her coat.

Then some brutal crimes made the news. People got understandably cautious about stopping for strangers, which meant hitchhiking was no longer an easy way to get around, so fewer and fewer did it. After a while, the only people left thumbing were types you’d be leery picking up.

Still, young people probably hitchhike all the time in Spain, I thought. It would be fun to talk to them.

“Should we?”

But . . . we were turning inland soon. Besides, the back seat was cluttered with our stuff.

The hope on their faces turned to disappointment. I felt a pang of regret, and then of realization. We were just too captive to our American anxieties to pick them up.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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