If you’re less than 40 years old and never hitchhiked, I’m sorry. You missed out on a form of transportation that has been destroyed because of group paranoia. Maybe it’s not really paranoia since the current state of society justifies the fear we feel of strangers. Anyway, if you haven’t tried it, don’t. It’s too late, and nobody will pick you up unless you are an attractive young girl and then …
By the age of 14, I was a landlocked surfer. My dad was good about loading up the boards and driving us to the beach on the weekends, but being a man of responsibility that didn’t always work out. When it didn’t, I was forced to lie, saying that a friend’s dad was driving us. Before you’re too harsh on my parents, keep in mind that these were fairly innocent times where violent crimes were fairly rare. Not that they never happened. In fact, they could have happened to my hitchhiking partner, Sarah Jane and me.
Her name was not really Sarah Jane, but she I don’t want to embarrass her, or her grandkids, with tales of her wild days, so we’ll just leave it at that. She was what we used to call a “Tomboy,” a girl who did all the things that were then reserved for boys, like skateboarding and surfing. And she was cute — tall with blond braids that had been burned straw white by the summer sun by the time school began again each September.
Our goal was always Huntington Pier, and the scam was forever the same. She would stand on the side of the road with her thumb out while I would sit just out of range of whatever driver stopped. I sometimes had a surfboard with me, but in a time of 40-pound, 10-foot surfboards, that made our passage to the beach even less sure.
Sometimes freaks would try to force themselves onto Sarah Jane, or, less often, me. But we had made a pact never to say anything until we reached our destination, so we sat quietly, deflecting roaming hands, jumping out when we got to the beach, where, Sara Jane once kicked a dent in some weirdo’s car door. Trust me, he had it coming.
Once at the beach, Sarah Jane had no trouble borrowing a board for the afternoon, and I would ride awkwardly ride a few waves in the wake of her usually brilliant performances. She was a natural at everything she tried, even poker, which she would play for hours beneath the Huntington Pier, taking money from the mesmerized suckers who underestimated her.
Hitchhiking with the guys, or alone, was never as easy as it was with her, and by the late ‘70s rides were rare and often risky. I still remember the last time I hitched. It was Thanksgiving 1984. I had taken the train from my parents’ home in Montebello to Oceanside, which was at that time the end of the line. It was around midnight, and drizzling when I stuck out my thumb, and he pulled over.
As soon as I got in I realized my mistake, that he was one of those guys I had heard about who had removed the passenger side window crank and door handle. The only way out was through him, all 300-plus pounds of him. He was breathing hard, sweating and slowing down when I told him to let me off at the karate studio I didn’t have in Encinitas. He never called my bluff, and sped up, dropping me within walking distance of my home.
I haven’t thought about that guy in a long time, but I still wonder what happened to Sarah Jane, the unknown patron saint of adventurous surfer girls everywhere.