A Senior Moment – “TRAVELLIN’ BY THUMB”

  Rev. Bob Johnston

An interesting article in last month’s MacLean’s Magazine reawakened some long-forgotten memories of my reckless youth. Peter Shawn Taylor (“Thumbs Down”, August, 2018), evoked a sense of nostalgia among many now-seniors and Boomers who came of age in the 1960s. He bemoans the demise of hitchhiking as a common and cheap means of getting from point A to point B along North America’s highways and byways. I had to dig out and dust off old diaries to retrace my own adventures on the road.

In September, 1959, I embarked on my first-ever train trip, heading from Toronto’s Union Station to Iowa as a University freshman. Crossing the mighty Mississippi River from Illinois, I arrived at a tiny railway station in Dubuque and waited patiently on the empty platform for my ride to the college. In fact, the platform was not entirely deserted; an attractive young woman sitting gracefully astride her large metal trunk also waited for our minibus to arrive. To my everlasting regret, I acted like the bashful farm boy (that I was) and failed for over thirty minutes to initiate any conversation. She proved to be equally shy and reticent, creating an awkwardly painful, half hour introduction to campus life for both of us. But I digress!

In 1960, for my Christmas vacation as a now-sophomore, I again returned home to Canada. My diary notes that, for some undocumented reason, I chose to hitchhike along 550 miles of highway, through two states and half of Ontario in frigid, snowy weather. I’m now guessing that my motives were not only to save money but also experience some adventure along the way. Recorded details are sparse, given the circumstances, but my notes tell me that I left Iowa at 6pm, December 17, on a Greyhound bus through Chicago to South Bend, Indiana, then hit the road in the middle of the night for Michigan, walking backwards and heading north with my frozen thumb and right arm extended in desperate hope.

What undoubtedly helped my journey was the fraternity jacket I wore. This signalled to drivers that I was legit— an earnest young man simply trying to get home for the holidays. Anyone with a child also in college was more inclined to take pity on me. Bob’s diary also notes that, unwilling to drag a suitcase with me, I wore three pair of pants and two sweaters. That sartorial decision also served to ward off hypothermia. Twenty four hours and six rides later—to Detroit, to Windsor, to Chatham to London to Galt to Toronto—I wearily staggered through my relieved parents’ front door.

Two weeks later, on January 2,1961, I wisely took the overnight CPR train back to school.

Hitchhiking is a learned art, wisdom gained primarily from experience. I discovered very quickly that standing on the edge of an interstate highway is a hopeless venture. Cars whizzing by at 60 mph are not

inclined to hit the brakes for a lonely roadside traveler—unless she happens to be the glamorous Hollywood actress, Claudette Colbert. In 1934, she and Clark Gable co-starred in It Happened One Night. The film won four academy awards. Its most famous scene is available on you tube (Lessons In Hitchhiking: It Happened One Night, Claudette Colbert.)

Gable and Colbert are forced to try hitchhiking together. Ever the handsome hero, he immediately directs her to rest on a nearby roadside cedar fence and let him flag down passing cars with a confidently extended thumb. After hours of unsuccess, Colbert takes over, explaining that it is not the thumb which is the important body part in these situations. She then proceeds to show one shapely leg and the next car immediately does slam on his brakes.

I didn’t possess a shapely leg, then or now. I soon discovered that, as female hitchhikers were better “equipped” to find rides, I never tried my luck anywhere near where they were competing for drivers’ attention. I also learned to await a pickup at entranceways to major highways where speed limits were much lower, enabling me to make plaintive eye contact with the man behind the wheel.

Undeterred by my Christmas ordeal, on June 6, 1961 I again hit the road at the end of my next school term. More nostalgia next week!