All thumbs, no body-parts stew

I'm not your average hitchhiker thumbing his way through town, but I ought to be.

For decades now, the baby boomers have warned us that this bohemian mode of transport is finished. We live in a different time, they say. In the '60s, folks didn't have to worry when you hitchhiked. Things were safer. Better.

Back then, you could hop off the side of the freeway into a stranger's VW Vanagon and not end up dead, skinned, simmering in a stew on some backwoods stove top. It's different today, they insist. And it is.

But not in the way they think.

Violent-crime rates in the United States are much lower than they were in the early '70s, according to FBI reports. Add in ballooning gas prices and an increased awareness about carbon-footprint impact, and maybe the next time you leave town, you'll join me out there on the edge of Highway 80, grinning in a white T-shirt, thumb out, with a dusty sheet of cardboard that reads “Salt Lake City” in black marker.

As such, my hitchhiking journey to Wyoming is about as safe as it is boring. After about eight hours of waiting, waving and walking, I finally catch my first ride out of Rocklin.

My travel partner is a chatty veteran named Bob on his way to Reno, Nevada, to pick up his broke-down Harley. Before leaving me on the east end of town, Bob spends our miles together speaking on sobriety, speeding tickets and Vietnam (“I keep saying it, historians got the Gulf of Tonkin all wrong!”).

Back on the road in Reno, my spirits are high. I amble backward along the freeway's edge, chest swelled, thumb out, flashing my teeth and waving at the eastbound traffic.

Early afternoon arrives, and I am at rest on the highway on ramp outside of Sparks, Nevada. A sky-blue semi with a load of spiraled black tubing grumbles to a stop at my side, and I crawl into the cab to meet a fresh-faced Moldovan immigrant named Andren on his way to drop a load off in Ohio. He promises, in his Russian-esque accent, to get me to Salt Lake City that evening.

Andren is 26, young for a rig owner. He's ecstatic to have company today, eager to practice his English. He feeds me Russian food, explains why I should believe in God and regales me with a surreal story of the time in Moldova in which he and a friend drove their Mercedes under a horse. Conversation with Andren requires focus, due to his accent. But he is a gracious driver, and, as with all hitchhiking experiences, lending an ear is part of the deal when you're not paying for gas.

The next afternoon, we arrive at my destination: Rock Springs, Wyoming. I leave Andren at the truck stop with a handshake and a nod and walk into town. I still have all my fingers and toes, which means I'll be putting these thumbs to use again sometime down the road.