With the price of gas on the upswing at the advent of another summer, hitchhiking can also be expected to be on the rise.

As more Mainers take to the “thumbs up” mode of travel they can take inspiration from the fact that many of our state’s political icons also once commonly pursued it. From George Mitchell to Paul LePage, from Joe Brennan to John Frary, despite their divergent ideological paths, all at one time in their youth heavily relied upon it.

For Mitchell, it was how he as a 16-year old made his first trip from his Waterville home to Bowdoin in 1950. Hitchhiking is how a 30-year Joe Brennan made it from Portland to Augusta to be sworn into his first term in the Maine legislature in 1965.

The Husson College undergraduate Paul LePage visited college acquaintances in Aroostook and New Brunswick by this method in the late 1960’s.

The impetus for Mitchell, Brennan, and LePage was economic necessity. Though involuntary frugality was an occasion also for John Frary’s hitchhiking, his professed reasoning was something else altogether. As the spirited conservative columnist and one time Congressional candidate recently explained – possibly somewhat tongue in cheek – to this columnist:

“When I was in high school the constant theme that we were exposed to was you should not drink and drive. So being an impressionable young man I had thought about it and decided I would rather drink than drive. So I proceeded according to that.”

Frary carried the philosophy well into his adulthood, not obtaining a driver’s license until he was 44, not owning his own car until 62. Now at 74 and having reversed the priorities of his youth, he now spends more time driving than drinking. He is still as cognizant as ever that they should not be concurrent pastimes and has a license unblemished by a drunk driving charge.

The duration of Frary’s experience is on par with a figure at a different seat at the political table, Maine Green Party Founder Greg Gerritt, who like Frary, has spent most decades of his adult life without a car. Gerritt, who in 1986 was the first Green Party candidate for the state legislature in the United States and later served as Secretary of the national party was – until his removal to Rhode Island a few years ago – one of the more inveterate practitioners of hitchhiking in West Central Maine.

(This columnist has on occasion provided rides to both Frary and Gerritt, though he was deprived of the privilege of hosting them simultaneously as vehicular fellow travelers.)

Though many public as well as private figures in Maine have regularly pursued the hitchhiking experience there’s only one who has written a recent book about it. Meet Josephine Swan, the author of the riveting, you-can’t-put-it-down The Right Car – A Hitchhiker’s Hymn to the Divine in Humanity,

The Spruce Head resident logs about 2,500 hitchhiking miles a year. In keeping with her description of the practice as a form of “forced austerity,” she “would not suggest hitchhiking to anyone at any time.”

The admonition is issued despite that fact that her remarkable book is on the whole an uplifting testimonial to the generosity and humanity of the many drivers who get her from Montana back to Maine during five hot days in July of 2010. This occurs after a stirring account of her attempt to re-kindle an association with a close friend for whom she unsuccessfully endeavors to seek psychiatric support. A modern day Henry David Thoreau, Swan not only travels with frugality but lives that way as well, usually residing in small cabins without the amenities of modern utilities.

In a recent e-mail to this columnist, Swan prescribed these recommendations to those who, like herself, have been forced to resort to the hitchhiking practice:

“Wear clean conservative clothing, with some color somewhere; red or blue and clean white is good.

“Carry a well printed sign on a white, 16 by 10…The pen should be waterproof magic marker so there is no messiness about the sign if it rains. The marker should be black or dark blue, not red (which signifies trouble), not yellow (can’t see it), not pink (depicts vulnerability and thus target/victim).

“Never wear sunglasses. They cannot see who you are.

“A hat needs to be clean, good design, and not stylish or over the eyes. We are not aiming to attract any other attention except business. Need to get to where the sign depicts.

“Face the traffic only when you are completely ready. No phone out, not holding a drink or a coffee, and you are not rushing, not desperate. You are steady, ready, and at work.

“It is a good idea to smile, but slightly. No laughing or grinning. The idea is to show respect.”

Swan also offers this advice on what to do when a driver does in fact stop to attempt to pick you up:

“Open the door with confidence and look at them then, and say hello with genuine welcome, as if you were greeting them at your own front door. Ask where they are going. While you do this you can sense the car, who is in it, whether they are sober, straight, and safe.”

Once the decision is made to accept the offer of a lift, Swan then suggests the following:

“They have stopped for you and so your job is to be there for them. If they want to chat, if they need silence, if they need to talk about something…If they need to make a detour, get out where they make their turn.”

As for what steps you can take if you realize you have been picked up by someone that makes you feel ill at ease, Swan advises:

“Pick a landmark, say you want to stop there and get out.”

“In a word Paul, don’t hitchhike.”

Like Swan, this columnist also does not extol nor does he celebrate the practice. With public transportation still out of the reach of many Mainers and with emergency circumstances occasionally compelling its use in unforeseen circumstances, it’s a phenomenon that will, however, likely endure. When its use is unavoidable, Swan’s advice on how to practice it is a set of principles on which – however much they may politically differ – Mitchell, Brennan, LePage, and Frary would likely find some common ground.

Paul H. Mills, is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]


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