icon-email icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-print icon-rss icon-search icon-stumbleupon icon-twitter icon-arrow-right icon-email icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-print icon-rss icon-search icon-stumbleupon icon-twitter icon-arrow-right icon-user Skip to content
Senior Correspondent

Since retiring, I’ve picked up very few hitchhikers. Though when I was younger, I stopped quite regularly for those with their thumb stuck out. As you know if you’ve read my book, "A Lifetime of Small Adventures," picking up hitchhikers (and also hitchhiking) led to a number of my more interesting misadventures. During the last few months, however, I’ve returned to offering a lift to those standing by the side of the road and thumbing a ride.

As I’ve recently been driving down to California’s Central Valley (from my home in Central Oregon), I spend quite a bit of time on the open road. So I get to see a number of folks hitching a ride.

Why have I been stopping to pick them up? I think that my motivation is twofold. First, I’m sure that anyone thumbing a ride could use my help. Second, I think it’s a kick — kind of an adventure to get to meet these folks. To see what they’re up to and to find out what makes them tick.

Take last week, for instance. There I was driving south on Highway 97 south of Bend, Oregon. There was a middle-aged fellow thumbing for a ride. I stopped my truck, hopped out and dropped the tailgate. He loaded his backpack into the bed of the truck. With both of us seated in the truck, I asked him, “Where are you going?”

He said, “To Klamath Falls. I’m going there to visit my son.”

I told him, “Fine, I’m going through Klamath Falls on the way to California.”

He replied with a smile. As he did, I noted that he was a kind of a smallish man with a goatee. He wore a grey tank top shirt which, if it were white, I would have mistaken for an undershirt. He also wore blue jeans and boots.

He told me that he started his trip from Bend about twenty-four hours earlier. Some fellow in a sedan gave him a very short ride after which he was stuck out in the forest all night, so he made a bed out of some pine needles and wrapped up in his jacket to get some sleep. He slept OK until just before sunrise when a pack of coyotes attacked his pack to get at the food within.

I told him, “I’ve never seen coyotes more than two at a time. But I have heard that they will work in packs.”

He assured me that, “Well, these coyotes sure did.”

As his destination in Klamath Falls was some two hours away, we had lots of time to talk. I can’t remember how we got onto the subject, but he told me that he was absolutely certain that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. He said that, thus far, the president had produced three separate birth certificates. One from the State of Hawaii and another from one of the states on the East Coast. But he couldn’t remember which specific state.  According to my passenger, the president’s third birth certificate was from a Middle Eastern nation. But he couldn’t remember which specific nation.

It was then that I turned to look him over carefully. I spotted the all-black tattoo on his left arm. And that’s when I remembered my conversation in the sauna bath.

My Conversation in the Sauna Bath

It was a decade earlier when the big, heavyset fellow entered the sauna bath. As he sat down on the wood bench, I said, “Hi.”

He grunted a sort of “Hello.”

I recall thinking, "Hm…Not very friendly." I wondered if I might get this fellow to converse with me. I noticed that he had quite a number of all-black tattoos on his arms, neck and legs. So I said, “You’ve got quite the collection of tattoos.”

He said, “Yeah, I got them in the joint.”

“In the joint?” I replied.

“Yeah, I served three years in the joint in Honolulu.”

“Oh.”

Then he told me, “You can always tell when a guy gets his tattoos in the joint because they’re all black.”

By then, I was feeling pretty happy with myself. Not only did I succeed in getting this guy into conversation, but I was about to learn something from him. Something I was unlikely to learn from my family and friends.

He said, “In the joint, we shave down the black chess pieces and mix the shavings with salad oil. And that’s how we make ink for our tattoos. Then we just use a pin to poke the ink into our skin.”

Back in the Truck on Highway 97 Headed South

Noticing that the fellow seated next to me in the truck had an all black tattoo on his left arm, I figured, this guy has served time in jail.

Well sure enough, into the second hour of our drive down to Klamath Falls, my passenger was getting pretty comfortable talking to me, so he told me of some of his theories about the law. And he added, “I learned a lot about the law, especially during those five years that I was in jail.”

Hoping to encourage him to go on with his story, I said, “Wow, five years! That’s a very long time.”

He agreed that it was a very long time. And he told me, “Yeah, I did some stupid things when I was young. I stole a car and I walked into a store and stuck a gun in the store owner’s face.”

He quickly added, “But I didn’t shoot anyone.”

As we approached Klamath Falls, I offered to drop him off anywhere he’d like. He mentioned a department store which was near his son’s house. Entering town, he offered directions to the department store and succeeded in getting us totally lost. At long last, he spotted a food market which, as he recalled, was close to his son’s house. So I dropped him off there.

Driving through town, trying to find my way back to highway 97, I smiled to myself. For I had enjoyed an interesting conversation by simply giving a fellow a ride. And with another four hundred miles to California’s Central Valley, perhaps I’d have the opportunity to pick up another hitchhiker.

Stay Up to Date

Sign up for articles by Bill Birnbaum and other Senior Correspondents.

Latest Stories

Choosing Senior Living
Love Old Journalists

Our Mission

To amplify the voices of older adults for the good of society

Learn More