Joe Omundson

It’s thrilling when I extend my thumb for the first ride of a hitchhiking journey. My interaction with the world shifts completely because of a simple hand gesture. In a minute I might still be standing on the shoulder, or I might be zooming down the road, introducing myself to a stranger.

At 11:15 on Friday morning I walked south on Main Street with my backpack and an extra gallon of water. I held out my left thumb even though I was still downtown, and a car swerved to the curb within 30 seconds. I hopped in.

It was a local business owner headed a few minutes south of town. He was the first of four drivers who gave me rides that day. The second was a man who works for the BLM fire department, and the third was a guy from Bend, Oregon, who was driving to Telluride.

By the time the fourth driver picked me up, I’d traveled only 22 miles in four hours, but with him I made it as far south on 191 as I needed to go – a few miles past Blanding. Toward the end of the ride we realized we were friends with the same couple in Tucson.

My goal was to take state routes 95 and 24, the lowest-traffic highways I’ve hitched so far, 165 miles northwest through Hite and Hanksville. I walked west from 191 past the farmhouses and driveways until I found a private place to camp on the wide floor of a wash. I fell asleep to the sound of rain, wondering whether I would get flooded out of my spot.

The wash stayed dry, but it was raining again when I left camp and walked to a safe waiting spot. I got picked up by the first car that passed. The guy driving was a fellow through-hiker living in Colorado. Two hours later a man who works at Natural Bridges picked me up; we were both from Portland. He gave me beer, cheese and water, which I enjoyed as I waited three hours for my next lift.

Did you notice that I got six rides in a row from males traveling alone? That’s typical, but the next ride came from a friendly male/female couple from Anchorage. They were about to start a six-day backpacking and packrafting trip, and they drove 20 miles out of their way to drop me at a campground where they thought I’d have good luck in the morning.

Leprechaun Canyon campground was full of at least a dozen different groups. I put my tent near someone else’s camp – far enough, I thought. An hour or two later, when I was already in bed for the night, my neighbor returned and brought with him the sound of country music, expletives, and beers cracking open. He made passive-aggressive remarks at people and their dogs. When he noticed my tent he unleashed some highly unpleasant sentiments in my direction, and I felt an urge to talk with him, or leave, but I decided to ignore him and stay put. I figured anyone who drives to a popular campground on a Saturday night and then complains about other campers is determined to be angry.

I woke up at 3:30 and vanished from camp to avoid harassment. For an hour I followed a white line lit by stars, startling a cow. I made my bed on a flat area near the highway but didn’t bother to set up my tent. A big pack of coyotes yipped and whined in the distance, another pack answering down the canyon. Dew collected on my sleeping bag and I rested until predawn lit the eastern sky.

The morning was silent; I could hear white noise growing and reflecting off the canyons before I ever saw a vehicle approaching. This gave me a minute to jump up and get into position. After a two-hour wait – and three people who stopped to ask if I was OK – a couple who were returning to Colorado after a canyoneering trip made space for me in their truck.

They were going through Moab on the way. We talked about life goals and ideas. They drove me to within a couple blocks of where I live, and as I was saying goodbye to them my friend drove by and I rode with him for the last two blocks.

Hitchhiking the quiet roads was like fishing in a lake that only has a few fish but they’re extra hungry; even though there weren’t many people driving that way, the ones that passed seemed more likely to pick me up. I love this method of travel as a social experiment because I meet the most interesting, generous people. I also see the condescending looks from people who speed by in empty cars. The unpredictable nature of it reminds me to trust my fate and be open to possibilities.

Joe Omundson writes about travel, philosophy and society. He is preparing for a hitchhiking adventure from Moab to South America. Read more at

Hitchhiking the quiet roads was like fishing in a lake that only has a few fish but they’re extra hungry; even though there weren’t many people driving that way, the ones that passed seemed more likely to pick me up.