A Young Hitchhiker's Guide To The Road: Smile

May 9, 2011
Originally published on May 11, 2011 1:38 pm

I'm not in the habit of picking up hitchhikers, but the one I approached on Interstate 10 in West Texas not long ago looked different. He was a friendly faced lad with a cardboard sign propped against his rucksack read "West," and he was playing a fiddle.

The day was overcast and traffic light. He was standing beside the road just beyond the city limits of Junction, a ranching town surrounded by limestone hills and dull-green junipers.

I pulled over.

He said he'd been waiting for a ride for only about 10 minutes. His name was Dereck "Chip" Williams, 23, from Duluth, Minn. Where was he going?

"I'm heading to British Columbia to grab up the most amazing woman I've ever met, go to Alaska, buy a sailboat and sail the world," he said with a big grin.

"Oh, and I've only been playing violin for 12 hours, I think that's important to mention," he added, laughing. He traded his guitar for a fiddle in the last town.

Chip was wearing a gray hoodie given to him by a Christian evangelistic team. He had $27 in his pocket, and his lunch was a bagel and a jar of peanut butter. He said everything he needed was in his backpack — minus the e-tablet, on which he was keeping a journal. He left it in a truck stop bathroom.

I gave him a reporter's notebook and a pen to start a new diary.

"My philosophy of life is basically to live life. Do what you do, love what you do, and don't listen to naysayers," he said. "I'm really content with being a minimalist. So as long as I got my coffee in the morning, a pouch of tobacco in my pocket and a couple bucks for whatever, I'm happy."

Chip didn't care for the names assigned to him by social service agencies and the police: homeless, hobo, tramp and vagrant. "Traveler is the one I use most often," he said as we rolled westward together.

He said he's been on the road for three years during which time he has crisscrossed the country five or six times coast to coast. Along the way, he met other travelers who schooled him in the proper way to hop a freight train and thumb a ride.

"A train-hopper kid showed me to be big on safety. You should not hop a freight train. It's dangerous and illegal. He taught me how to scope out the yards, what's coming in and out, which cars are ride-able and which ones are the suicide cars," he said.

What did the veteran hitchhikers teach him?

"Probably the most important rule of hitchhiking is to smile. You don't want to be a bucket of misery on the side of the road. Nobody wants to pick up a bucket of misery," he said. "So you want to have a good air about you, you want to stay clean."

And you want to have good props, he added — like a cool sign and a fiddle.

They worked with me. I gave Chip Matthews a ride all the way to El Paso, Texas, where he planned to spend the night with a friend in the Army, then head north to Canada and find his girl — whose name is Angela.

A postscript: I met Chip on March 19. On May 9, he called me in Austin (his mother had given him a cellphone for his birthday) to report that he was turned back at the Canadian border because he didn't have enough money. "But it's all good!" he insisted. He ended up in Bellingham, Wash., where he was currently sleeping in a tree — that's what he said — and where he landed a job on a fishing boat headed to Alaska. There, he planned to finally hook up with Angela.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

NPR's John Burnett is based in Austin, and that means that he spends a good deal of time driving the desolate highways of Texas. Recently, on one of those long drives, John Burnett picked up a hitchhiker.

JOHN BURNETT: The day is overcast and traffic light. I'm driving west on Interstate 10 through limestone hills studded with dull-green junipers. On the outskirts of the town of Junction, in the middle of nowhere, there's a friendly-faced lad with his thumb out. A cardboard sign propped on his rucksack reads West. He's playing the fiddle. I pulled over.

(SOUNDBITE OF PASSING VEHICLES)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DERECK WILLIAMS: My name is Dereck Williams. I'm from Duluth, Minnesota. I'm 23 years old. I'm heading to British Columbia to grab up the most amazing woman I've ever met and go to Alaska and ultimately buy a sailboat and sail the world.

BURNETT: His nickname is Chip. He wears a gray hoodie given to him by a Christian evangelistic team. He has $27 in his pocket. Everything he needs is in a backpack, minus the laptop he left in a truck stop bathroom. His rules of the road are basic.

WILLIAMS: My philosophy of life is basically to, you know, live life, you know, like, do what you do, love what you do and don't listen to naysayers. You know, like, you can't do that. I'm really content with being a minimalist. So as long as I got my coffee in the morning, a pouch of tobacco in my pocket and, you know, maybe a couple of bucks for whatever, I'm happy.

BURNETT: He does not care for the names assigned to him by social service agencies and the police: homeless, hobo, tramp and vagrant.

WILLIAMS: Traveler is the one I use most often.

BURNETT: Chip says during the three years he's been on the road, he's crisscrossed the country five or six times coast to coast. Along the way, he met other travelers who schooled him in the proper way to hop a freight train and thumb a ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF PASSING VEHICLES)

WILLIAMS: Probably the most important rule of hitchhiking is to smile. You know, you do not want to be a bucket of misery on the side of the road. Nobody wants to pick up a bucket of misery. So you want to have a good air about you. You want to stay clean.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: And I've only been playing violin for 12 hours. I think that's important to mention.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: There is an update to Chip Matthews' story. Chip did not make it to British Columbia. He was turned back at the border because he didn't have enough money, but he did get a job on a fishing boat headed for Alaska where he plans to meet up with his girl, Angela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.