Hitchhiking through Colorado

This is a story of stories about how I got from Denver to Silverton depending solely on the kindness of strangers. It contains many plots and characters. It doesn’t have a climax. If anything it has a slow fizzle.

In July, Independence Day actually, I celebrated by finding a Canadian, Alicia Woodside, parked on the side of a road in Seattle. She was expecting me. It was 4 a.m. She threw her giant, awkward, navy blue duffel bag in my car, and Tim drove us to the airport and dropped us off. We flew to Denver, CO with the intention of renting a car and driving to Silverton where we would hang out waiting for the Hardrock Endurance Run 100 miler. Would you believe that there wasn’t a single car to rent in all of Denver? Herein started our wild and crazy journey.

Phone a friend or someone who you briefly met when you were in a different country

Lucky for us, I had reached out to Jennie Areson, a woman who I had met earlier this year when traveling in New Zealand. She said, if you come through Denver, visit me! So, a few days before the trip when Alicia alerted me that she was having some difficulty booking the rental car, I sent Jennie a quick email and we set tentative plans for a visit. When we called her from the airport explaining that we didn’t have a car or any transportation, she volunteered, thankfully, to come and get us. I’m pretty certain that’s not what she expected when we had had arranged a visit earlier in the week.

After calling around to a couple car rental agencies on July 4th, Alicia and I quickly came to the realization that we would need alternate transportation to Silverton because there were absolutely no cars available for rent in the entire town!  So when Jennie picked us up and asked us what our plan would be, we told her we would be hitchhiking. Jennie drove us to where she was living–a retirement community with her parents. They happened to live next to her boyfriend’s dad. Jennie and her boyfriend were nearly 60 years old and their parents were almost 90. You wouldn’t know it because Jennie helped us make up an elaborate lie so as not to worry her parents about our impending hitchhiking shenanigans.

After making cardboard signs, “I-70 to Grand Junction,” Jennie donned us with 4th of July garb including a blue bedazzled foam Statue of Liberty crown, a red-white-and-blue-silk-flower lei, and an American flag. She dropped us off close to the interstate after her boyfriend gave us some really useful tips about how to hitchhike. They then circled us in their car to make sure we were doing OK, and we waited 5-10 minutes.

IHOP provides the best customer service

A woman and man in their early 20s pulled up asking us if we needed a ride and if we had gas money. “Yes!” Before asking any questions, I knew immediately that the woman’s name was Nichole and that she worked at IHOP because that’s what her name tag attached to her IHOP apron read. “Why did you pick us up?” I asked.

“I just like helping people.”

Matt was her accomplice. After we stopped by a gas station to fill the tank, we drove with the windows down, our hair flying freely, through Colorado canyons hanging our American Flag out the window. We crossed the Continental Divide, stopped briefly for some food and the this is where we found out that Nichole had been raised in foster care and Matt had been divorced. “What happened?”

“She didn’t want to wait for me to get our of jail.”

It gave us pause for a moment, but he seemed harmless.  Alicia and I regretted not asking him why he was in jail. We speculated many things, drugs mostly. Soon afterwards they dropped us off in Vail and we were hailing another ride.

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People in Vail drive fancy cars including the police

As soon as Nichole and Matt drove away we immediately felt like we were out of place standing among the luxury resorts, and watching people drive by in their luxury cars not even willing to make eye contact. Some people drove by and politely told us that they weren’t going in that direction. We positioned ourselves at the entrance of a roundabout. We would be easily visible from there.  We grew discouraged after waiting for about 10 minutes without a ride but mostly because a person drove by and yelled out their window to us, “Look who’s behind you,” and as we turned with excitement expecting to see a kind soul willing to give us a ride, our hopes were soon dashed when we saw the Vail police had shown up in their luxury SUV.

The officer told us we couldn’t hitchhike here, and she directed us to a different place that wasn’t in the roundabout where people would actually be able to stop and pick us up if they wanted. It seems that she had a plan up her sleeve because as soon as we were packing, van-fulls of Australians started to pass us. They put their windows down and yelled out “Do you need a ride?” and pulled over to the side of the road.

Gidday Mate

I ran to meet them while Alicia tugged at her oversized, floppy bag. The full size van was full of jerseyed, sweaty, smelly Australians listening to pop music, drinking gatorade. One of the guys even had a shark onesie on. We found out they had just played a Lacrosse game and this was the National Australian Lacrosse team.  They took us to Eagle, Colorado and we did some quick work for Where in the World is the Pink Unitard. The Australians kindly invited us to stay for their pool party and barbie. We hesitated for about half-a-second and agreed because it was now almost dinner time, still on day 1 of our trip, and we were growing hungry.

Australia Lacrosse team and a Shark

We had a delicious dinner and practiced our swimming while showing off our scarred ultra runner legs. After a couple hours, we thanked the team profusely for the party and we forged ahead with our journey. On our way out one of the coaches took pity on us and offered us to stay in one of the extra team rooms in the hotel. We declined and this turned out to be one of our worst decisions…

Chauncey the train hopper

As we walked out the front door of the hotel and neared the end of the building a man in his 20s yelled out to us asking if we wanted any beer. I hesitated and said “No Thanks,” but Alicia said louder “Yes!” So we awkwardly meandered over to find that he had a keg that he wanted to share. He greeted us by saying “I told them if I was going to work on July 4th, then they needed to buy me a keg.”

I was worried about what hitching might turn into with the smell of beer on our breath, but that didn’t sway my judgement. Alicia and I shared some sips from the same glass while learning that Chauncey was remodeling the hotel where the Australian’s were currently staying. He had been living in the hotel for the previous several months and was finishing up the job (it looked great!). In just a few days he would be heading home to Portland.

As we sipped, we explained our adventure up to this point. Then Chauncey detailed his life as a train hopper. He would do this on days he was not scheduled to work. Occasionally he would be caught and beaten, but mostly he found it easy to just jump on, ride down to California and back over a weekend’s time. Apparently, there’s an entire community of people who do this sort of thing. Encouraging us to try it, he said, “As girls, you’d never get beat up.”

We left Chauncey with a Stanley thermos in hand full of beer. Hand written on it in permanent marker read “Chauncey.”

It’s not safe

We clipped that thermos onto our bag and made our way to the highway intersection in time for dusk. We waved our American flag and danced to some iPhone music as a few people drove past. We were worried because the area wasn’t very heavily trafficked. After waiting 10 minutes, we started to turn back to the Australian’s, but that’s when Dan, a portly man in his 50s, drove up in his old pick-up truck. We awkwardly tossed our bags in the back asking him if he wanted us to sit up front with him or in the back. He laughed and said, “Up front! What kind of person do you think I am?” As I climbed into the back seat, Alicia grabbed our new thermos and settled into the passenger seat.

As we drove toward Glenwood Springs, Dan told us stories of his golden days. Days when he would trail run, ski, and hitchhike across the country. We thoroughly enjoyed his conversation. In fact, when we reached our destination, we sat in the truck for about 10 minutes just chatting before setting out on our way. A strong message Dan conveyed to us was how everything was safer back when he did it. Now hitchhiking carried inherent dangers but more so for girls. ( Side note: Everyone in CO, especially the Australians, used the word girl to describe any woman of any age. It seemed slightly old-fashioned, but I went with it.) Alicia did not appreciate this message and pressed him hard by what he meant by that, but she was never able to get a direct answer. The inherent message is understood, and now that I think about it, I think the inherent-ness of the message may be part of the reason that women are easily victimized. Good for Alicia on challenging him!

Sleep on the streets vs. trespassing?

We left Dan and set to work finding a hotel. We went to a few only to find that there was no vacancy. We were not reassured when someone told us, there’s not any hotel rooms left in this town. We didn’t believe it so we started calling around, and, well, it was true. Apparently Glenwood Springs is a very popular place to visit on July 4th.

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So, we started looking for a place to sleep. Any place. We were tired, especially Alicia who had stayed up all night the night before. We didn’t think hitchhiking further was a good idea or feasible since people driving by couldn’t see us or our sign in the dark. We had no car. Alicia had a big awkward bag that was very difficult to carry. We found a green space within Glenwood City Limits, but the sprinklers were running. Then I shared a story with Alicia that Julie Urbanski shared in her book _The Trail Life_.  The story is that Julie and her partner, Matt, had hiked the entire distance of the PCT making it all the way from Mexico to Canada only to find there was not a single room available for rent. So. They slept on the sidewalk in their tent.

We were kicking ourselves for not staying with the Australians. We. Are. So. Stupid. What is wrong with us? What are we doing right now?! But, we gathered ourselves, sucked up our pride, and threw out tent up right there on the sidewalk of Glenwood Springs in front of a Best Western Hotel. There were lots of giggles between us as we crawled inside. I think I even said something like, “I’m going to be so proud of us if we sleep here ’till morning!” We drifted off to sleep. About an hour later we were awakened by someone yelling “Police” and shining their flashlight in our tent. Alicia didn’t wake up, but I pleaded with the officer telling him our story. We had no car. There wasn’t a single hotel room in this town. We were willing to buy one, but we couldn’t.

The officer coldly said, “There’s no camping within the city limits.” When I asked him for alternate ideas he gave what seemed like 2 equally bad ideas that included walking to a park outside of town or walking to a steep slope past the freeway several miles away. Alicia slept through the entire discussion. After the officer left, I woke her up and told her we had to go. I pulled my jeans on, climbed out of the tent, stretched, then crawled back in the tent.

We debated, “What will happen if we don’t go?”

“What if we just go back to sleep. They probably won’t come back.”

I tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t. I was worried about getting arrested! Hitchhiking was something I was willing to do, but spending time in jail during my vacation, well, even I have limits. So, we crawled out of the tent. I pulled the tent down while Alicia scouted out a new spot. Rather than sleeping on public property, we ended up trespassing on private property-a deli’s patio. We slept, but I was worried the entire time that the owners were going to show up and call the police. We got up with the sun, a couple hours before the deli opened, and packed our bags. We headed to the pie shop down the street, sat for a couple hours while we drank a couple pots of coffee, and ate breakfast and then said goodbye to Glenwood Springs.

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Don’t get arrested in Glenwood Springs

We stood near the freeway once again, but this time in the bright morning light. It was a heavily trafficked area, which was one of the reasons Dan wanted to take us all the way to this point even though it was far past where he lived. The other reason was because there were lots of hotels and it would be easy to find a place to sleep. Ha!

We waited a couple minutes near the highway, and a mom in a mini-van with her 18 year old son, Susan and Levi, pulled over. We jumped in and we laughed about everything, including Susan’s own hitchhiking experience as part of a domestic dispute where she really stuck it to her ex.  They were from Aspen and when we described our previous 24 hours Susan said “You don’t want to get arrested in Glenwood Springs.” She went on to tell us the jail there is crummy and that if you get arrested somewhere, do it in Aspen. Noted. Alicia, next time we should take that side route through Aspen! They took us to Grand Junction, their destination for truck buying and a major transition for us as we would need to use the flip side of our sign from this point forward. “Silverton”.

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Naturists among us

We hopped out, positioned ourselves at an intersection and waited 5 minutes. A self professed ‘chunker-dunker’ pulled over. He moved the box of peaches out of the front seat to the back of the truck and 2 peaches fell out of the box and rolled across the road. It seemed innocent enough. “Mmmm, fresh peaches!” I said.

“You can help yourself.”

“Oh, no, that’s OK.”

“I might have one!” Alicia says sheepishly.

“OK. I’ll have one too.” I give in, realizing I needed permission from Alicia.

Dale immediately told us, “I can take you the whole way, but I am planning to stop at a clothing optional hot springs.” Awkward laugh from me sitting in the front seat and a resounding “That sounds amazing!!!!” comes from the back seat.

We drive along with Dale and we learn that he’s opening a specialized storage unit system for people to grow Marijuana in. The units will be fit to house the tallest possible marijuana plant allowable per Colorado state law. There will be an option to rent growing equipment including planters and lights.

Dale was by far the biggest character we met along this journey. He told us stories of a friend whose house was blown up in Utah by the mega-drug maker Merck…why? I didn’t really understand the reason but it had something to do with chloride. He reassured us by explaining that his friend had an attorney from AANR, which I didn’t yet know what that was. It would soon become clear that Dale was a nudist and that after some discussion, he would find a way to loop every conversation back to being a nudist. Running-run a bare buns run. Hiking-hike nude. Business idea-print people’s nude torsos on shirts so nudists can wear them in public and not feel oppressed. Swimming-prude or nude?

As an ultra runner, I could respect the desire to talk about your sport incessantly. But this was way more entertaining than and completely different from my sport. And a few times there was an air of creep vibe.  Like, when Dale tried to lift my shirt during a photo. Um, excuse me?! Alicia doesn’t put up with that shit.

Before we made it to the hot springs, we stopped at a grocery. Alicia and I were in the produce section whispering.

“I don’t know about the hot springs. I don’t see them on the map”

Alicia had a good idea that she would look them up on the phone before we agreed to turn off to make sure they were legit. If it seemed like something wasn’t right, we would use the code “Does something smell fishy in here?” to communicate our need to abort ASAP. Luckily the hot springs were confirmed to be legitimate and they were beautiful and relaxing. And they didn’t smell fishy in the least.

After relaxing all afternoon, we jumped back in Dale’s truck and made our way to Silverton. As we pulled into town, Alicia and I looked at each other and felt as though we had really accomplished something. It was a buzzing excitement that felt like we had just completed a very difficult run. We were proud at our canny ability to hitchhike 360 miles, traspass, sleep outside, and get invited to parties and hot springs. It was a grand adventure!

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5 thoughts on “Hitchhiking through Colorado

  1. I love how you captured my anger at the sexist “it’s not safe for women to play” comments!

    And. I think you should take up writing and hitching full-time, bud! I’ll go in with you, we can make it a real business and also make stops along the way to sell nudist shirts at hot springs. 😉

  2. This was great! Reminded me of many of my hitchhiking escapades. Note for the future…when in town, set up in a churchyard. They don’t typically call the police 🙂

  3. If only I was a women…there wouldn’t be constant long waits. Stranded in pueblo, dressed and groomed well but can’t get anyone to stop. Hitching is so slow going compared to when I was in USA 5 years ago…

    1. It’s true. Sorry that you’re having a hard time. I hope you get a ride soon. I will admit that after that experience, I have tried to pick men up more often…can you do anything to make yourself look less scary? Like carry around a flower and a helium filled heart balloon or something?

  4. I am pretty much dressed same as 5 years ago, but cleaner and wear light blue jeans, light red and yellow jacket along with new light blue 60l backpack. I have drawn British flag on cardboard and drawn smiley faces around the symbol but still no luck. Thankfully it still works but average waiting time on my (so far 3 weeks) current hitching tour is 8 hours. The people who have picked me up are mixed from young and old ladies to menacing looking biker men. I seem to get a lot of dirty evils, middle fingers and told to get off the road/get a job comments.

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