Beloit College Magazine

Fall/Winter 2009 (November 23, 2009 at 12:00 am)

Hitchhiking as a Test of Human Kindness

November 20, 2009 at 12:00 pm
By Katherine Leveling

Alex Brower“Don’t talk to strangers.” That’s a message many children hear from the cradle. When Alex Brower’10 set off on a summer-long hitchhiking trip across the country, he threw that warning out the window.

In mid-May, the political science major stuck his thumb out in Jefferson, Wis., to meet the first of about 100 strangers who would take him through 21 U.S. states. Over 12 weeks, he traveled everywhere from national parks to tiny, off-the-beaten-path towns to the Las Vegas strip. While he wanted to see the country, he also had a point to prove: Our society is unnecessarily fearful.

“The cable news channels always find some story about somebody being abducted,” Brower says. “Those things happen—it’s not made up. But it’s something that’s blown out of proportion to make people think it happens more than it actually does.”

His summer experience definitely challenges those cautionary headlines. Instead of finding himself in danger, Brower met people who provided him with food, money, souvenirs, and even places to sleep.

“People are just really kind,” he says. “I never expected I’d be staying with anybody at their houses. But that happened to me about six times.”

Besides offering Brower their homes, people also took him grocery shopping; one person gave him a tent. That item became vital during Brower’s longest wait: eight hours on the cold desert roadside of Nevada’s Highway 50, “America’s Loneliest Road.”

“When I saw the sign, my heart sank,” he recalls.

On average, though, Brower waited about 45 minutes. The people who picked him up were as various as the places he saw. Among those who offered their passenger seats? An elementary school science teacher who took Brower from California to Oregon and gave him a magnifying glass, a Louisiana oil-rig worker who showed Brower an alligator farm (“Don’t ever buy alligator boots!” Brower urges), a woman who ran a cleaning business from her dual-purpose home and truck, and a French traveler who offered Brower a ride in his rental car if he would chip in money for it.

Such a range of people exposed Brower to something equally memorable: their viewpoints. “People have lots of ways of thinking,” he says. “That was bizarre in itself, seeing all the different ways people view the world.” Meeting people from all across the political spectrum pushed Brower to challenge his preconceptions. “It would have fit better into my value system if I could say, ‘it was all liberal people that picked me up,’” he says. “But it wasn’t. To hitchhike, you have to have a pretty open mind.”

Also required, Brower thinks, is a willingness to defy social norms. “You can’t be afraid to look weird,” he says, citing a time he collected stares on a park bench, three days removed from a shower, eating cold soup from a can. “You have to break away. People say, ‘I wish I could do what you did,’ but what’s holding them back is themselves.”

We may not all possess Brower’s courage, and we probably won’t start relying on our thumbs for transportation. But his story is a reminder that we can still rely on others’ kindness—and maybe have fascinating conversations, quirky souvenirs, and an unforgettable summer to show for it.

When we fear everyone, Brower insists, “we miss out on awesome things! Like awesome people!”

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