Thumb in the Air, Back to the Wind

A love of hitchhiking put this writer in the cars of strangers. And revealed her sense of safety for what it is: little more than hope.

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That first summer on Martha’s Vineyard, I hitchhiked everywhere; the Island roads were crowded with young people seeking rides to Oak Bluffs, the Island’s honky-tonk town, and the up-island beaches. It was a new, unexpected pleasure to hitch alone, without fear; back home in New York, I’d only hitchhiked with friends. It was the summer after they’d finished filming the movie Jaws and there were so many cars and people, you never waited long for a ride. The most surprising thing was that the driver would usually take you exactly where you were going instead of leaving you off somewhere, saying apologetically, “This is as far I’m headed.” I looked forward to walking up the path that led out of town and sticking out my thumb, wondering who I’d meet on the way to work that evening. It was hard to imagine bad things happening in a place where even the town dump presented pastoral views beyond the swooning of the scavenging gulls.

After Labor Day, the Vineyard emptied out as the summer people boarded ferries back to the mainland. I still hitchhiked, but the traffic was sparser, the roads more ominous, especially after dark. Like practically everyone else living in a seasonal community during the off-season, I worked several jobs to make ends meet: cocktail-waitressing on weekends, afternoons at a drugstore in Vineyard Haven, and the morning shift at a hotel in Edgartown where I once served breakfast to Thornton Wilder. Between the three, I knew pretty much everyone left on the Island by name or face and usually had no trouble getting rides.

One night in October I had dinner at a friend’s house in Vineyard Haven; she offered to drive me home afterward, but then her car wouldn’t start. It was after ten o’clock and there was no available public transportation. She invited me to spend the night, but I was worried about making it to my morning shift at the hotel on time. Reluctantly, I walked up the pathway that ran into Edgartown, telling myself that if I couldn’t get a ride, I’d sleep at my friend’s house and get up extra early the next morning.

After 15 minutes on the eerie, empty road, I was ready to walk back to my friend’s when a car skidded to a stop. I recognized the passengers as a group of young men from the Coast Guard Station that I’d waited on every Saturday night over the summer, who drank Budweiser and at times became rowdy but never disrespectful. The one who wore glasses always asked me on particularly crowded Saturday nights, “Are you okay?”

“C’mon! C’mon!” they cried now, appearing boisterous, though not drunk, according to my cocktail waitress radar. I hesitated, and then I got into the car because it was late, dark, and I needed a ride. Everyone seemed in good spirits and the radio was blaring out the open windows into the silent night.

I was sitting between two men in back and two others were in the front seat, or perhaps there were three, I can’t recall. The guy who wore glasses was driving. When we turned down County Road, in those days sparsely populated, with houses set further back in the woods, I thought maybe they’d decided it was faster to cut through County and take the road that ran along the water. When the car turned up a side lane, I thought maybe they’d forgotten something and were going to retrieve it. Even when we pulled into a small, isolated clearing, my mind kept manufacturing possible scenarios: Maybe someone had to go to the bathroom or someone was about to get sick. But it wasn’t until the driver killed the motor and the young men in the front seat turned around to face me that I thought, “Shit. How could I have been so stupid?”

I waited for the driver to ask me, as he had on those Saturday nights, “Are you okay?” But he never did. No one else spoke or laughed. I have no idea how long we sat there in silence, except for the sound of the radio static. And I will never know why, but suddenly the lights went on and the car started up and we drove out of the clearing back to the main road and then all the way to Edgartown. I don’t remember getting out of the car or being afraid that they knew where I lived. I don’t remember saying thank you, or thinking that perhaps the terror that had frozen my body had shown up on my face, and that was what convinced them to take me home. I will never know, and now it no longer matters.

I knew women who weren’t as lucky as I’d been, like the friend who hitched a ride in February, the bleakest month on the Vineyard, and was driven down a dirt lane into a deserted culvert and raped by someone she’d known for years. Still, she continued to hitchhike afterwards, as did I, but it wasn’t just economic necessity that kept our thumbs in the air, backs to the wind. We don’t want to believe that we’re taking chances, getting into cars with stranger or walking deserted beaches after dark; we want to believe that we’re free to live as we please, that people are basically good, that there are things they won’t do, lines they won’t cross, despite the headlines screaming otherwise. Most of us believe what we have to believe to survive.

Though I continued hitchhiking, I never had another bad experience on the Vineyard. But several years after that night on County Road, while living in Marblehead, Massachusetts, I’d written an article for an educational publication and my roommate was going to drive me to the editorial offices in the next town to drop off the piece. At the last minute, his car wouldn’t start; everyone else was at work, the local bus didn’t stop in this neighboring town and a taxi would have cost about $15—an exorbitant sum back then. It was my first piece for this publication and they paid decently and I wanted to be able to count on more work. Blowing the deadline would not have boded well.        

Though I’d never hitchhiked alone in the real world, I walked up to Main Street and put out my thumb. It was a winter afternoon and school buses crowded the road. Soon, a car drove by and screeched to a halt just past me. I turned and saw that it was full of high-school-aged boys. As I stood there, hesitating, anxious about making my deadline, one of the boys stuck his head out the window. He had freckles and hair the color of corn. He smiled and waved an arm, beckoning me to come closer. “C’mon,” he called. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

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