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Change of Seasons

Hitching a Ride to Spring Break

Suzie Lechtenberg

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Mary Anne Wise and friends in Calhoun, Ga.,
(Courtesy Mary Anne Wise)
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It was April 1972, and I was 18-and-a-half years old. It was spring break. We were so excited to get out of Minnesota -- it had been a long winter, and when you live in the Midwest the ocean just has this exotic pull, and we were so pumped up to go.

We had this ride all set up with another fellow student, and the bags were packed and we were going to leave early in the morning. Then the phone rings, and it's our friend John, and his plans have changed and he's not going to Florida after all, and our ride had fallen through. And we were just devastated.

We were so disappointed. And then we just kind of looked at each other and said, "You know what? There's strength in numbers -- why don't we hitchhike?"

I remember we threw our keys on the kitchen table and we symbolically shut the door and locked it behind us, as though there's no turning back. We were just giddy, just gleeful... "Let's go!"

We had a sign -- a little cardboard sign -- and I'm pretty sure the sign said Ft. Lauderdale. And the three of us are standing just shoulder-to-shoulder on the side of the road. And we would just put out our thumbs and people picked us up.

So here it is now, the end of our second day, and it's probably 10 o'clock at night, and we had been deposited on an exit-entrance ramp outside of Calhoun, Georgia. And pretty soon a car comes by, slows in front of us -- and wouldn't you know it, it's the cops. And we all just had this sinking feeling, like, we are so busted. None of our parents knew that we were hitchhiking.

The officer got out of the car and said there'd been some trouble lately, and he didn't think it was safe for us to be on the road. And he said, "Well, hop in." He started driving back to the station and I remember he saw somebody who was obviously drunk driving in front of us, kind of weaving around, and rather than pull the guy over, he simply followed him home and watched him get out of the car and fumble with his keys and get in the house.

And next he drove us to the station, and we got in the station and there were three cots with pillows placed. We knew exactly who those three cots were for -- they were for us.

And in the morning, the same guy who picked us up in the squad car came back. He told us to get in his car, and he took us to the local diner and bought us breakfast, and returned us to the entrance ramp of the freeway. He let us out of the car and cautioned us to be careful out there -- and pretty soon, we were in a car going down the road again.

Finally we arrive in Florida. And now it's time to come home... And oh man, 36 rides down, how many is it going to take to get back? We were sort of exhausted by that time. I think we were outside of Miami, maybe, and it was our very first ride. And the fella driving us notices the car ahead of us with two young men in the car and the car has Minnesota license plates.

And the driver that we are with says, "I have an idea -- why don't one of you grab this piece of paper here... Write 'Minnesota?' on the paper, and I'll pass him. As I'm passing him, I'll honk my horn, try to get his attention, you can put the sign up in the window, and point to yourselves, and who knows, maybe they are going to Minnesota."

Well, that's exactly what we did. And the two guys in the car with Minnesota license plates nod yes, pull off to the side of the road. And we hop in and we get one ride all the way home.

It just felt charmed. It felt like a charmed trip. It just felt like a charmed life. Thinking back on the trip, it's one thing to do it when you are young. But now I've got this daughter who is 17, and I really hope she doesn't do anything so foolish.

What I do wish for her is that she meets the kind of characters that we met on the road, and that she has people when she is in tough spots, or potentially dangerous spots... I do hope people find her and take care of her, as we were taken care of.

  • Music Bridge:
    Maggie May
    Artist: Rod Stewart
    CD: Gold (Island / Mercury)
More stories from our Change of Seasons series

Comments

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  • By Sheila dennis

    From West Palm Beach, FL, 03/21/2011

    I and 2 other female friends (Phyllis and Sue) hitchhiked from Atlanta, GA to Ft. Lauderdale, FL for spring break, which also took place the same weekend of Easter 1972. I join the 1972 list of people that converged on that locale, and we all have stories to tell...some of the most magical days in history. 1972 wss a magical year.

    By Willis Youknowwho

    From The Ocean, FL, 06/18/2008

    What you talkin about Willis?

    By Pam Wise

    From Dresser, WI, 05/17/2008

    I am the baby sister of Mary Anne. She is 5 years older than me. I don't remember that exact details of her leaving for this trip because there were many events between my brother and sister. I do remember thinking how cool they were and that I hoped someday I would grow up and have that same kind of free spirit longing to see the world. In part, I look to my parents who taught us to see the world as a whole, not just our tiny corner of it. That embracing life without fear was what opened your mind. Ofcourse, I never did anything so foolish...or did I???

    By katherine finnigan

    05/02/2008

    In June, l969, I went to Japan by myself for two weeks. I was 22 years old and fearless. I traveled south to Hiroshima, seeing many sites along the way. I decided to take a "sleeper" compartment on the express bullet train back to Tokyo. When I went to my sleeper compartment, it was filled with drunk Japanese men. I went back to the main area, which was also filled with drunk Japanese men. I explained my situation to the ticket taker. He spoke no english. As I was standing there not knowing what to do, a Japanese man came up to me and handed me his business card. In perfect english, he said, "I was educated at Harvard Medical School, let me help you." He took me to another car, explained my problem, and saw to it that I was safe until I reached my destination in Tokyo. I have never forgotten his kindness, nor my own foolishness.

    By Debbie Smith

    From Reno, NV, 04/28/2008

    I listened with intrigue this story of hitchiking and was taken back to my summer of travels across this land by thumb. I especially loved the part where the officer took everyone in and protected them. THAT, I feel was the defining moment of humanity in the 70's. I have great stories of places and events, but it was the people that were so generous, so helpful and just wanted to share their slice of life in America, that when I think back, I feel "good all under."
    Mary Anne, thanks for sharing. NPR, thanks for airing.

    By JOHN PETRIE

    From TUCSON, AZ, 04/27/2008

    I was really moved by this hitchhiking story in many regards. By the longings of the young women, the concern and kindness of many of the people they met along their journey, and some of my own stirred memories. I remember back to around 1970 (I'm 45 now) when I was riding in the car with my mother in our suburban Cleveland town when we picked up our teenage next door neighbor and one or two of his friends who were hitchhiking. I recall my mom lecturing these boys about the potential dangers of what they were doing. Some things have certainly changed, but thankfully there are still many concerned and kind people who shepherd us through difficulty.

    By Catherine Partrick

    From Washington, NC, 04/27/2008

    What a great story and a wonderful adventure. I'm probably about Mary Anne's age (I too have a 17 yr. old daughter) and I hitched one time alone in college at night. It still terrifies me to recall it. But it was the 70's, people were different and the person who gave me an hour's ride was a good person. (He also warned me to be careful. I never did it again.) But I wish I'd been one of Mary Anne's friends on this trip. I'm sure there are lots more stories within this one that would be fun to hear. Thank you for telling us this one. (May daughter loved it too!)

    By Duncan Moffitt

    From Minneapolis, MN, 04/26/2008

    In the spring of 1972 I was in my early 20s. I had an old VW bug, of course! As driver, or a hitchhiker, I met dozens of people on the roads. We were all so young, and so casual and comfortable with strangers. We often shared adventures, impromptu meals, and occasionally other pleasures. Our varied hitchhiking stories were always the first common bond. Thirty-six years afterward, your charming tale of hitching a ride to spring break is a sweet and vivid reminder of an era long gone. Thank you, Mary Anne!

    By Pat Powers

    From St. Paul, MN, 04/26/2008

    Mary Anne,
    Thanks for that story. I loved it.

    In the spring of 1963 I was a freshman at River Falls and bet my roommate that I could get to Menomonee in an hour by hitchhiking. I won the bet and that started a series of trips I took by thumb over the next 5 years. I went to Madison, then Texas, then California, Oregon, Florida and even Catalina Island off southern Ca and finally Mexico City. Many, many wonderful stories and times. A few rough times but for the most part, people were very kind and generous to me, as they were to you. Most couples or families who picked me up would say they don't usually pick up hitchhikers but I reminded them of their brother, seemed like a nice young man, etc.. I was just a young kid fresh off the farm and I looked like one so that helped. Along the way I drove a semi, promised to keep many drivers awake, got warning tickets from the cops, got caught hiding from the cops, rode with a few crazy/dangerous drivers, slept in an old wooden jail and in general had many great adventures.

    Would I give permission for my kids to do such things today? NO WAY!!

    As Mark Twain said: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did."

    Take care,
    Pat

    By julie klosterman

    From MInnetonka,, MN, 04/26/2008

    Listening to your story of youthful travel, via hitchhiking, made me pause for just a few moments and reminisce about my own hitchhiking experiences with a college roomate in North Dakota in 1971-72. Having your own car was a luxury but needing to make it home for the weekend frequently required a thumb. One weekend, after getting stuck along the interstate in a snowstorm, and then being picked up by a family with 6 kids in a very crowded station wagon, my roomate and I had to admit that the thrill was gone!

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