The number of times I’ve hitchhiked in my life can be counted on just a handful of thumbs. The first might have been when I was 18 and stuck in the bleakness of Canton, NY, and conspired with my friend Chowder to make our way to the next bleak town over, Potsdam, to see the Pink Floyd movie "The Wall." As he and I recall it, we had little trouble getting a ride out to Potsdam in dayight, but ended up walking the whole 11 miles back in the frigid blackness of night. Lesson learned: if drivers can't see you until they are whizzing past at 60 miles an hour on a lonely road, they probably aren't going to pick you up.
A far more memorable hitchhiking experience happened a couple of years later, as I attempted to make my way out of West Berlin, through East Germany, and back into West Germany via my thumb. This may sound incredibly stupid, like maybe I would end up getting captured by the enemy and thrown into an East German jail where I’d be brainwashed into being a Stalinist, but actually it was standard operating procedure for anyone without a car trying to get from West Berlin to West Germany. I had a Eurail Youth Pass, which allowed me to ride the trains as often as I liked in most of western Europe including West Berlin, but was not recognized in East Germany (there weren’t a lot of tourists heading to East Germany back then), in the middle of which West Berlin was an island city. I went to the checkpoint on the outskirts of West Berlin with a piece of cardboard onto which I had scrawled "Munchen," and immediately was picked up by the only two people in all of Germany who didn’t speak English. They weren’t going quite that far, but pointed to a spot on the map where they could drop me off: an industrial town called “Erlangen.” Yes, my train pass would be valid there. It was a good plan.
If I had been the driver and they had been the hitchhikers, I’d have dropped the two Germans off on the side of the road somewhere logical and then would have been on my way. But these two didn’t think this was friendly enough, so instead they took me to a punk bar to introduce me to “young people.” I assured them in perfect English that this wasn’t necessary, despite the fact that my train wasn’t going to arrive until sometime in the middle of the night. I was the opposite of a punk, not a redneck but of a classic rock geek, with a backpack that screamed “American Tourist!” and a pouch that hung around my neck with my money and a passport in it. They didn't understand what I was saying and, anyway, weren’t going to take no for an answer.
When we arrived at the bar, all eyes were on me as the two friendly Deutschlanders asked the bartender to stow my backpack in a back room. It was a tense negotiation but my new friends soon prevailed, then walked me from group to group to see if any of the punks would be willing to take in a refugee at their table. I was mortified. “Just go,” I wanted to say. “For crying out loud I’ll nurse a beer and try not to make eye contact with any of these skinheads!” Soon two young women, one dressed like a normal person and the other punked out with spiked hair, agreed to allow me to impose on their conversation.
I don’t remember how things proceeded, but somehow, over the course of hours, I made friends with these two German punkettes, who eventually saw me off to my train. In my memory, these two German lasses are waving to me in slow motion at 2 in the morning with misty eyes as the train pulls away, having been won over by my American earnestness, but for all I know it was 8 at night and they left me alone on the platform with hours to spare before my train arrived.