The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire
The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - Thumbing My Way to Adventure
There's nothing quite like the open road. When you hitchhike, you surrender to the unknown and open yourself up to serendipity. I've thumbed my way across the American West several times over the years, and each trip has been an adventure unlike any other.
Hitchhiking requires a leap of faith. You must trust in the kindness of strangers to get where you're going. Sure, there are risks involved. But for me, the human connections I've made on the road far outweigh any fears.
My first ride was in a dusty pickup truck outside Barstow, California. The driver, Buck, was a weather-beaten cowboy hauling a trailer full of horses. He reminisced about his rodeo days while country music crackled over the radio. Just a few miles down the highway, Buck decided to pass the torch. "It's time for you to meet my friend Dale," he said. "He'll get you further down the road." And so began my journey, passed from one friendly stranger to the next.
I've ridden with ex-cons starting new lives, college students on road trips, parents showing their kids the country they love, and retired couples ticking states off their bucket lists. We've broken bread together and exchanged stories as the miles rushed by. These fleeting friendships have taught me that human kindness knows no bounds.
Hitchhiking has shown me corners of America that most tourists never see. Drivers have taken me down hidden side roads to mesa-top vistas and brought me home to meet their families. I've sampled regional cuisines and slept under more stars than I can count. Out there on the open highway, far from city lights, the nights come alive with shooting stars.
When you hitchhike, you meet people from all walks of life. Hardships are shared; advice is given freely. Some rides stay with you forever—like the stranded father and son I drove 100 miles out of my way to reunite with their broken-down car. On the road, people take care of each other.
What else is in this post?
- The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - Thumbing My Way to Adventure
- The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - Strangers Who Became Friends
- The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - The Beauty of the Badlands
- The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - Nights Under the Stars
- The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - Quirky Encounters on the Highway
- The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - Chasing Sunsets Across State Lines
- The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - Finding Myself in the Desert Dust
The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - Strangers Who Became Friends
Hitchhiking brings people together in profound ways. Complete strangers become fast friends through unexpected encounters on the open road. I've been picked up by people from all walks of life, but we've always found common ground during our shared journeys.
My most memorable experience was with an elderly couple, Joy and Marv, who were lifelong hippies. They were on an epic road trip across the country in their faded VW camper van, reliving their youth. I must have looked tired and bedraggled when they pulled over to offer me a ride outside Albuquerque. "Hop in, sweetie! We'll get you wherever you need to go," Joy beckoned warmly.
Over the next three days, Joy and Marv became like family. We sang along to the Grateful Dead as the desert landscapes unfurled before us. At night, we camped beneath the stars. Marv taught me how to build a campfire properly while Joy made us herb-infused meals on their portable stove.
During the long hours on the road, Joy shared wisdoms accrued over her 70+ years. She believed in spreading more love than hate in the world. Marv taught me the names of all the birds soaring over the mesas. Together they showed me the power of living authentically, following your bliss.
I parted ways with my hippie elders in Flagstaff, Arizona. But I'll always remember the love they shared so freely with a vagabond stranger. Joy and Marv taught me that genuine human connection transcends age or background. If you open your heart on the road, you'll find friends in unexpected places.
I've been lucky to meet many such friends while hitchhiking. There was Brad, the trucker who bought me dinner at a small-town diner and shared trucker wisdom over endless cups of coffee. And Madison, the college student who invited me to stay with her family so I had a safe place to sleep.
The most unlikely friendship I've forged was with Darius, a gruff, burly rancher. He didn't seem like the type to pick up hitchhikers, but he took pity on me stranded on a dusty backroad. I rode with him for hours, bumping over the prairies in silence. But as the day wore on, Darius opened up. He told me all about life on the ranch and his hopes of passing it onto his kids someday. By journey's end, the grizzled rancher had become a father figure, dispensing advice and making sure I had enough cash to reach my destination.
The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - The Beauty of the Badlands
The Badlands of South Dakota should be on every wanderlusting traveler's bucket list. This otherworldly landscape evolved over 75 million years, shaped by floods, volcanic eruptions, and roaming prehistoric beasts. Today, the Badlands' rugged beauty and fossil beds draw over a million visitors annually. Come discover why this majestic national park has inspired nomads, artists, and presidents alike.
As you traverse the Badlands' 240,000 acres, the terrain morphs kaleidoscopically between rocky ridges, towering spires, and steep canyons. The Lakota gave this region its name, Mako Sica or "land bad," for good reason. The harsh environment and erratic weather patterns deterred homesteaders. But modern day explorers are drawn to the Badlands' mesmerizing splendor and glimpses into the past.
Follow the Badlands Loop Road to encounter the park's diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Stop at scenic overlooks like Big Badlands to survey the vast swaths of mixed-grass prairie, intermittent badlands, and expansive sagebrush. Savor the silence broken only by the songs of Lark Buntings and Western Meadowlarks. Watch prairie dogs pop in and out of burrows carved into the cliffs. Scan for Bighorn Sheep navigating precipitous ledges.
As you hike the Badlands' trails, like the spectacular Notch Trail, keep an eye out for ancient mammalian fossils eroding out of the rocky soils. Over 75 million years ago, rhinos, saber-toothed cats, and other prehistoric giants roamed here. Today, their fossilized bones provide a window into the Late Cretaceous and Early Paleogene periods.
The Badlands' magical sunrises and sunsets draw outdoor painters hoping to capture the ever-changing pink, orange, and purple hues streaking the sky. Try your hand at sketching the alternating bands of brown, red, and white that stripe the spires and buttes. But beware - the flaming skies signal rapid temperature drops.
The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - Nights Under the Stars
Nothing compares to spending the night under a canopy of stars while hitchhiking through America's vast deserts. Laying your sleeping bag down on that open stretch of earth connects you to the nomads who wandered the same landscapes ages ago. As the Milky Way unfurls above you, a sense of calm washes over your weary traveler's soul.
Fellow hitchhikers fondly recall nights sleeping in this natural cathedral. Madison, a college student making her way to Portland, remembers stargazing in eastern Oregon's high desert. "I'd never seen so many stars, even growing up in rural Wisconsin. It was humbling yet profound to feel so small under the immensity of the galaxy." She credits her desert night under the stars as a pivotal moment that ignited her passion for astronomy.
Truckers speak wistfully of nights parked out in the desert, fire crackling beside their rigs. To them, the solitude beneath the cosmos brings a meditative peace. "It's just you, the endless night sky, and Mother Nature's lullaby of coyotes yipping," chuckles Dale, an old-school long-hauler. "Can't find that zen back home with the city lights drowning out the heavens."
For many, slumbering beneath the desert's dazzling canopy carries a spiritual weight. Emery, a seeker who hitchhikes to sites of natural wonder, reminisces about a profound night near Utah's Goblin Valley. "I've never felt closer to the energies of the universe. The shooting stars felt like cosmic messages. I awoke reborn under those stars." She says the desert night sky ignited her spirituality.
Even jaded travelers find the endless expanse above the desert humbling. Iggy, a grizzled punk rocker, remembers a night near Joshua Tree. "I thought I was too cool to feel small under some stars. But man, those desert skies showed me my place. Couldn't even comprehend the scale of it all." Though typically stoic, Iggy admits he teared up beneath the cosmos' immensity.
The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - Quirky Encounters on the Highway
Thumbing rides across America's vast highways brings all kinds of quirky encounters. When you hitchhike, you never know who will pull over next. The open road attracts colorful characters. Fellow wanderers fondly recall their strangest rides filled with oddballs, free spirits, and one-of-a-kind personalities. These quirky highway happenstances become treasured travel memories.
Madison tells of a dude ranch worker named Django who picked her up outside Barstow. He rocked a thick handlebar mustache and blasted Old West ballads the whole ride. They rode in silence until Django suddenly started unsolicited yodeling along with the music. Madison stifled giggles as the cowboy crooned and yodeled for miles. She now fondly remembers her unexpected carpool karaoke with quirky Django.
Truckers trade tales of unforgettable hitchhikers they’ve encountered. Dale the long-hauler recounts giving a ride to a scraggly millennial duo with a pet ferret. The hitchhikers let their furry friend roam free in the cab. Dale shuddered recalling the ferret scurrying beneath his feet on the gas pedal. He dropped that whimsical pair off at the next chance.
For every “normal” family who picks you up, there’s the occasional oddball eager to take you further down the highway. Iggy the punk rocker recalls getting a ride from a UFO hunter scanning the New Mexico skies. As the driver rambled on about alien abductions, Iggy eyed the tinfoil hat in the backseat. He wrestled with whether to grab it for protection from celestial kidnapping.
Hitchhikers also meet plenty of free spirits following their bliss. Emery remembers a hippie couple who gave her a ride in their vegetable oil-powered Mercedes. The earthy duo only fueled up at greasy spoon diners, filling their tank with leftover deep fryer oil. Emery admired their resourcefulness and commitment to sustainability. The hippie van smelled like fried food for miles.
Sometimes the most unlikely rides bring the greatest joy. Brad the trucker recalls picking up a spunky grandmother en route to see her grandkids. As they traversed the prairies, “Granny Jo” entertained Brad with off-color jokes and stories from her hell-raising youth. Brad never expected to laugh so hard with the little old lady. Jo taught him to never judge a book by its cover when meeting fellow travelers.
The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - Chasing Sunsets Across State Lines
As the desert sun dips below the horizon, ribbons of pink and purple streak across the darkening sky. For hitchhikers racing westward, sunset brings a singular magic. From California to Texas, wandering souls chase the ephemeral beauty of dusk spreading its watercolor hues from one state to the next. This twilight pilgrimage yields an awakening.
Fellow wanderers speak of the profound impact of chasing sunsets state by state. For Madison, sunset's fading light stoked her desire to keep moving forward. "I grew up watching the same Wisconsin sunset my whole life. But moving west, each new sunset lured me further." She followed the receding rays for three weeks, finally reaching the Pacific at sunset's culmination. "Arriving at the ocean as the sun dipped below the waves completed my journey. I'd finally chased it to the edge of the continent."
Truckers understand the siren song of the setting sun. Long-hauler Dale sought out routes leading him westward as the day waned. "Looking forward to another stunning sunset kept me truckin' those last miles." The solitary life of a trucker is punctuated by nightly rendezvous with the dying daylight. "For one glorious moment, that big ol' fireball unites all of us looking west. Reminds you you're not alone out here."
For some, chasing sunsets awakens spiritual longings. Emery recalls driving her VW bus west from Amarillo. "Seeing that orange ball sink lower each night, I glimpsed the passage of time. Each sunset marked another day passing." Approaching New Mexico, the sunset's fading light ignited an epiphany. "I realized I was chasing the impermanent, not the eternal. I changed course to follow my heart instead."
Others experience more existential awakenings when chasing sunsets. Iggy remembers thumbing rides along I-40 as dusk fell over the Texas panhandle. "With all that empty space, it hit me how insignificant one human life is. But also how precious." The vast expanse dwarfed his punk rock angst. "Under all those wild colors, I felt connected to everyone else staring up in wonder too."
The Open Road: How Hitchhiking the American Deserts Lit My Wanderlust on Fire - Finding Myself in the Desert Dust
The desert has a way of stripping everything down to the basics and bringing clarity to those seeking meaning. Many a wanderer has discovered themselves while traversing the arid landscapes of America's West. Here among the drifting dust and dancing heat waves, profound realizations take shape.
When Madison embarked on her journey west from Wisconsin, she expected to reach the Pacific with little inward reflection. But while hiking ancient Native American trails in New Mexico's high desert, she gained sudden insight. "Out there alone, I couldn't ignore the voice inside urging me to change paths," she recalls. "I had to listen to my soul's yearnings." The desert's silent vastness gave Madison clarity to leave behind expectations and follow her heart.
Truckers also find solace in the desert's minimalist tranquility. For long-hauler Dale, the lonely interstate allows room for introspection. "It's just you and that ribbon of asphalt cuttin’ through the open desert," he says. "Nothing else matters except the present moment. Your trivial worries seem so small out there." The desert's stoic timelessness brings Dale calm and perspective.
Seekers often trek into the arid wilderness hoping to unearth purpose. Emery took a vision quest in the Utah desert seeking direction. "Sitting there in the dust, fasting and meditating, I shed everything that didn't serve me." Emery emerged replenished, realigned with her goals. "The desert's cleansing winds blew away the clutter so I could hear my inner truths."
Even unlikely sojourners stumble upon enlightenment in the desert. Restless and adrift, punk rocker Iggy embarked on an aimless pilgrimage down the West Coast. While hitchhiking through Death Valley, surrounded by parched silence, Iggy experienced satori. "It was just me and all that nothingness. Felt the first real peace I'd known." Out there, external chaos melted away so Iggy could rediscover his authentic self.