As I started my drive up Boulder Canyon the other night, I noticed the usual number of people standing in the pullout, with their thumbs out, trying to hitch a ride. It reminded me yet again that in mountain country, hitchhiking is an acceptable means of transportation, one that I have participated in by both hitching a ride, and picking up riders.
It’s funny, because I grew up in a very conservative, mid-western urban/suburban area, where the only thing I ever heard about hitchhiking was that if you ever hitchhiked, or dared to pick up a hitchhiker, you would probably be murdered. It was portrayed as a very risky thing to do that only unkempt, crazy people did, and it was best to stay away from these unsavory characters. For most of my adult life, I adhered to this tenet, mainly from fear, but also lack of opportunity. It’s rare that you ever see anyone hitchhiking or would drive a road that was conductive to hitchhiking when you live in urban areas.
That all changed when I moved to the Sierra Nevada in the 1990s and lived in the small mountain town of Mammoth Lakes. I quickly found out from my friends that people hitchhiked all the time. Since I had one of the worst cars (Ford Mustang) you could have living in a snowy locale, I quickly turned to hitchhiking as a means to get around during the frequent, winter snowstorms. I mainly used it to get up the winding access road to the Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort. You had to figure that anyone driving up to the ski resort at 6:30 a.m. was usually a mountain employee. One day I got a big surprise when a middle-aged man in an old, dilapidated pick-up truck picked me up. I was grateful for the ride, as it was snowing, cold and windy. We quickly struck up a conversation and he asked me where I worked on the mountain. I said I worked at the ski shop in the main lodge, and he followed up by asking if I liked working with Jana (the manager). He seemed to know a lot of the employees, so I asked him what department he worked in, to which he replied he worked in marketing. We had a nice conversation, and the time passed quickly. It wasn’t long before we were pulling into the main paring lot. There were lots of cars there already, so I thought we’d have a bit of a walk. But he went right up next to the building and pulled into the space that said “General Manager.” At that time, Mammoth Mountain was privately owned by the McCoy family, Dave McCoy being the owner and his son, Gary, acting as General Manager. At that moment, I realized my driver who had so graciously picked me up was none other than Gary McCoy, but he was as humble as could be. I thanked him for the ride, and he told me to have a good day.
Since living in Nederland, I occasionally repay that favor by providing rides to hitchhikers as the mood strikes me. A couple of winters back, we had a terrible cold snap where temperatures went down to -35 degrees overnight, and then next day the high was -12. As I was driving through town on my way down to Boulder, I saw someone waiting at the bus stop trying to get a ride. How could anyone with a heart pass someone by in those kind of conditions? I picked him up, and found out he was a student teacher studying at Naropa University.
Over the years, we’ve provided rides to a variety of people — and old woman trying to get to folk dancing, a man trying to get to Boulder to catch a ride to the airport, a tourist whose car broke down on the Peak to Peak highway, and many backpackers and hikers just trying to make their way to the nearest town for some food and a hot shower. All have been kind, courteous and grateful. I think mountain people just have a certain amount of trust and a willingness to help those in need of a ride, because of the lack of other options. And despite what I had been told as a child growing up, not once I have ever met any axe murderers!