If you want a radical way of getting a practical education, Josh deLacy ’13 has a formula worth considering: It starts by strapping a 55-pound pack on your back, emptying your wallet and hitting the open road.
The course has no prerequisites. And costs only time. How much time? Depends on the student.
For deLacy, it was a 39-day class this summer, immediately following graduation. It covered a wide range of topics, had dozens of different teachers from a variety of backgrounds. Some classes were taught in transit and some over meals.
The course is called “Traveling on Trust: No Money. No Interstates. Hitchhiking through Small-Town America.”
“A lot of it was really inspired by the professors and education that I received [at Calvin],” said deLacy. “Like the focus on life is more than about making money and getting a stable career; it’s really about engaging the world, learning and trying to connect with people on an honest level.”
Armed with a BA in writing and political science, deLacy, a self-described introvert, commenced on his next venture.
This class began on the side of the road in Mount Vernon, Wash. Instead of raising his hand, deLacy stuck out his thumb.
His first assignment didn’t come easy. DeLacy walked three miles through suburbs before his first teacher arrived on the scene. He reflected in his blog:
… He offered to pass his house and take me all the way to the start of Highway 20, the road I would follow the rest of Washington. As we drove, he told me about his car: a customized Volkswagen Rabbit powered by vegetable oil. He finds waste vegetable oil, filters it, and gets more than 40 miles to the gallon.
From there on, rides were easier to come by. … I quickly figured out the best places to stand: near a wide shoulder or turn-out, in a low-speed area, after a stoplight, by a long and straight stretch of road. The first gives drivers a place to pull over; the second and third and fourth give them time to see that I’m not the normal hitchhiker.
Most people do not expect me. Well-groomed, smiling, clean … . Several times, I’ve been told I remind people of a friend, or a son, or a past version of themselves. And almost always, the driver comments on honesty. “You just look like I can trust you man.”
That trust would have to go both ways. And it didn’t take deLacy long to realize it would.
DeLacy’s trek through the state of Washington came in 11 makes and models. Three of his rides were with young mothers with their babies riding in the back seat.
Those who gave me rides defied patterns in age and gender, in economic status and political ideology. Some are hitchhikers themselves, others are totally inexperienced. Many are Christians, some oppose all religion, and a few hold to other faiths. I have observed only one commonality in those who stopped for an atypical hitchhiker: they all deserved trust. They were generous, they were honest, and they were good people.
In Ponderay, Idaho, he was met with brutal honesty and a lot of trust:
“You aren’t a freak, are you?” Kathy laughed.
“I like to think I’m not.”
“I guess you have to be a bit of a freak to go hitchhiking, but that’s not too bad.”
“My name’s Josh.”
“Want to come to our house for dinner?”
“Great. Sharon’s pregnant, so we’re really hoping you’re not a freak. You seem like a good kid.”
As far as pre-ride introductions go, this was one of my favorites. Kathy just said out loud what everyone else thinks.
DeLacy’s journey continued along Highway 2, an east-west highway that runs just 30 to 50 miles south of the Canadian border. The two-lane highway took him through Montana, where he was picked up by four high school girls who drove him 50 miles at 110 mph. He then traversed through North Dakota, learning about the oil industry, its importance to the region, and the long hours and tough life for those working there.
He then arrived in Crookston, Minn.
As he waited and waited and waited for a ride, he decided to give in and hear the heartbeat of this small town.
I heard stories of growing up in Crookston, back when the park used to have a toboggan track all the way to and over the frozen river; of controversial current events, like replacing the outdoor public pool with an indoor one; and small-town portraits, such as the 60-year old who keeps her property free of pigeons with a 12 gauge shotgun.
He also learned about the town’s famous 100-year-old candy shop.
A wonder of hitchhiking and couchsurfing and any traveling that puts you in contact with a local is getting the insider’s scoop. A long-time resident knows more than a guidebook, and a local can show you what defines the town, not what defines its tourism.
DeLacy left the candy shop with a half-pound of “chippers,” chocolate-covered ridge potato chips, compliments of the owner. Hours later, another family in Crookston took him out for pizza. The townspeople of Crookston had team-taught this day’s course and left deLacy with much to think about.
It is impossible, I realized, to predict the details of a day that depends entirely on strangers. But much to my type-A chagrin, I am learning that unpredictability is not a bad thing. When I hitchhike, I expect apathy. I imagine vice. To be ignored by drivers, hassled by cops, assaulted by criminals—but I cannot predict virtue. Altruism is illogical, and so the generosity I encounter defies my expectations.
His journey continued into Wisconsin. Just steps over the border, he squeezed into the back seat of an old, clunky, clutter-filled car and met Cindy and Len, a dating couple in their mid-50s.
“What you’re doin’ is really cool, hon. I mean really cool. You know how some people collect cats or dogs?
“That’s how I collect sons. You’re gonna be my new son. So you better stay safe out there!” She lit a cigarette. “You don’t have to worry about this ride, at least. We won’t kill you.” Cindy looked back at me and winked. “Or maybe we will!” she cackled. “I’m just kidding, sweetie. …or am I?” She winked again.
The couple dropped off deLacy in Brule, Wis., a town of just 600 residents.
Cindy scrawled her address and home phone number on a scrap of paper, then turned it over and wrote some more. “Don’t read it until I leave, otherwise I’ll cry!”
After their car rounded the curve and disappeared, I read Cindy’s note: “We will be thinking about you, sweetheart,” it read. “You will be in our thoughts and prayers. XXOO.”
By day 10, deLacy had made his way into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A few days later he stopped in Grand Rapids and stayed the night with some friends from college and then hitchhiked to Ann Arbor for another friend’s wedding. As he spent a couple of days in familiar settings, the first two weeks of travel through small-town America began to sink in.
When I ask people what they like about living in a small town most refer to neighborliness. People nod or wave or smile at each other. People say “good morning” when you pass them on the sidewalk. You know everyone on your block and half the people in town, but you acknowledge new faces, too, and strike up conversations with them when you’re waiting for your dinner or your coffee. Strangers are people, not scenery, and when you’re the stranger, that difference matters.
Beyond helping a stranger travel a few miles, a few patterns of virtue have emerged, such as dinner offers and invitations to stay the night, but much of the goodness I find remains unique and surprising, and it emerges from equally unique and surprising sources. A drug addict called me her new son and gave me a baseball cap; a Vietnam vet taught me a self-defense technique. A camp host gave me a free tent site, and one waitress let me spend a full rainy day in her diner, even during the Friday night dinner rush.
DeLacy’s experience then literally turned south for the next leg of his journey as he headed toward New Mexico.
In Indiana, he was picked up by Glen, a truck driver in his 50s, with whom he’d spend the next 24 hours.
In our initial introductions, I discovered that Glen used to chair his church council, and he had also served on the school board. He was a father of two, a former farmer, and a backpacker.
During the trek through Indiana, Illinois and Missouri, Glen bought deLacy three fast food meals, let him sleep in a bunk in his truck, and discussed a wide range of topics from farming and crop failure to environmental conservation and government regulations.
Talk with someone for more than a few hours, and they are no longer a stranger. Talk with him for sixteen hours—about faith, about politics, about messy divorces and financial troubles and kid problems—and you have a friend.
He rode across Kansas in patrol cars (hitchhiking makes locals nervous in Kansas, so officers have a system of shuttling transients to where they are going). And in Colorado, he took rides from an aspiring artist, a pair of modern-day hippies and a man who had spent three years in a mental institution.
He spent a good portion of one of those days with Heather in Salida, “the biggest little art town in Colorado.” DeLacy toured the town while Heather pitched her work to a local gallery. The owner liked her photography and agreed to hang some of her work, which focuses on a type of antique called primitives.
The two then left the town and talked for hours as they drove through the mountains of southern Colorado.
We stopped several more times. An abandoned barn-style house, built alone in the windiest valley in southern Colorado. A boy staring through a fence, a mutt beside him and a junk-filled lawn behind. A “Hippies Use Backdoor” sign and a wooden sign for a wild game butcher. She saw personal histories in all of them.
“I mean, this day has been too good to be true,” Heather beamed. “I saw a beautiful sky, got my art in a gallery, and I met you!”
As deLacy’s journey turned north toward the final leg, he had a lot more time to reflect and longer gaps between rides, especially in Utah and Nevada.
In the small town of Junction, I planned to catch a ride on UT153, which goes 40 miles through a national forest and ends up in the small town of Beaver, with nothing but outdoors in between. That nothing, I learned, also applies to vehicles.
I read four chapters of Garrison Keillor. I worked on my farmer’s tan. I watched the horses corralled beside the road. I talked with the houseowners across the street, who walked over and gave me a sandwich and a water bottle and then raised their eyebrows when I told them my plan.
I learned about Utah’s oil boom, its Indian reservations, its mining history. I met Latter Day Saints instead of tourists, and I saw country that no one but locals and off-roaders see normally.
Though the syllabus was flexible, deLacy did plan on being back in Washington for his friend’s wedding. And as he crossed into northern California on Thursday afternoon, he still had 500-plus miles ahead of him and just a day and a half to cover that ground.
To deLacy, all hope seemed lost.
And then a minivan pulled up.
A man a few years older than me rolled down the passenger window and waved me over. He was alone in the van, but the seats were filled with boxes, bins, and backpacks. He was moving.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I’m going north.” Even to myself, I sounded hopeless.
He paused. “How far north?”
“All the way to Wenatchee, Washington.”
“No s---.” A smile, wry and a little suspicious, started and kept growing. “That’s where I’m going. You can keep me awake.”
On this last leg—the final exam, if you will—deLacy was reminded about trust, something he gave and received repeatedly during his 6,500-mile trek through 17 states. The track he took had 139 teachers on wheels and many more on the ground. He became friends with drug addicts, college students, police officers and truck drivers. He stayed the night in the cab of a semi, an original homesteader’s cabin and spent most nights in a tent about 100 yards off the road. This adventure taught him a lot about people, about small-town America and about himself.
When I graduated college, my friends and I agreed that more than anything else, our education had shown us how little we actually knew. My understanding of the world felt much more complete back in high school, when I was studying the surface of subjects and moving in the same familiar circles. College exposed me to depth, variety, conflict. Now, when I pick up a Shakespearean sonnet, I know that there are at least three different ways of reading it, each supported by scholars and academic articles. I know that even the punctuation is up for debate.
So it is with people.
After riding with 139 strangers—plus passengers and those I met in small towns—the extrapolated assumptions I make about people no longer fit. Most of the surprises I found during this trip were people who overthrew my stereotypes. A former bounty hunter now works in the ministry and hopes to plant a church in Africa or Southeast Asia. A grimy trucker helped found his college’s economics honor society. A “tough guy” with tattoo sleeves, sunglasses, and gangster goatee said “God bless” after driving me three miles through Taos. A couple in their 50s, financially successful and some of the most outdoorsy, active people I have met, believe in Atlantis, aliens, and astral planes.
I took this trip to gain a practical education, to see how life unfolds outside of theories and textbooks. I learned much, certainly, and I know more about people and life and virtue than I did before I put my thumb out for the first time in Mount Vernon, Washington.
Matt Kucinski is Calvin’s media relations manager.