September 11, 2015

The Hitch-Hiker’s Song

Category: News — Ira @ 6:03 pm


Have we not crossed the stormy seas alone,
and known strange lands, and come again to
walk the continent of night, and listen to the
silence of the earth?

—Thomas Wolfe

It really was all so random, the way things came down at me that morning. Like so many things in life are, I guess. Random, I mean. On a normal morning, I wouldn’t even have been driving west down the road that is Rt. 23. A main artery that slices through Lancaster County, a highway that runs right by my house. Normally, I slip through the back roads, to get to work. But that particular morning, I had a few boxes to pick up from a vendor in Leola. And that’s the only reason I was driving west on Rt. 23, from Sheetz, after picking up my coffee.

And almost right away, I saw him standing up ahead. A man, leaning into the traffic, holding out his thumb. A hitchhiker. You don’t see many of those around here. I can’t recall when I saw the last one, anywhere. And as I drove at him, I heard them in my head, all the words of caution ever told to me. Don’t pick up hitchhikers. It’s not safe. Any person you pick up along the road could be a total psycho. There’s no way of knowing, one way or the other. Just drive by. Don’t let on you see them.

I looked at the man as I passed him. Older guy, probably sixty. With a thin little gray mustache. And I had to decide, right that second. So I did. I swung off to the shoulder, and turned on my four-ways. The man trotted up, opened the door and got in. “I appreciate you stopping,” he said. He sure seemed harmless enough. No problem, I said. I’m turning off, a few miles up ahead, in Leola. Where are you heading? “Lancaster City,” he told me.

And I didn’t really feel like talking a lot, as we pulled out into the traffic. We chatted briefly. And after a few miles, I told him. I’m turning left up ahead. I’ll drop you off at the gas station on the corner, there. He nodded. And then he slid it in so smoothly, it almost seemed like a normal thing. “Any chance you could spare a couple of bucks, so I can catch the bus into the city?” He asked, looking right at me. He panhandled the same way he hitchhiked. Looking you right in the eye. And I mean. What’re you gonna say? No?

Sure, I should have a few ones, I said, as I pulled into the gas station and parked. I fished out my wallet and found three bucks. Here you go, I said. He thanked me profusely. Not a problem, I said. I’d been taken for $3 by a real smooth panhandler, I figured. Ah, well. I’ve been to hard places such as that, or close to it. It’s been a while, but I’ve been there. You don’t forget what it is when someone helps you out, with no expectation of any return. When someone helps you out, and you know you’ll never see that person again. It’s been rare, that I’ve seen such a place. But I have seen it. Felt it. And I know what it is, to be standing out beside the road, in the real world or figuratively, holding out my thumb, asking for a ride. I know what that is.

And that was the first little hitchhiker incident I’ve seen in a few years. I’ve thought about it more than a few times, that I need to write about hitchhiking, some day. But I needed a trigger. This guy, that morning, thumbing along Rt. 23, gave me all the trigger I need.

Hitchhiking has always been a part of the legends in the annals of Wagler family lore. I grew up hearing the stories told. My brother Joseph and our cousin, Alvin Graber, hitchhiked down around Texas way back, decades ago. The details of what all they got into remain a little murky. I’ve mentioned that trip in my writing before, and got scolded good all around for having a wild imagination. So I’m not exactly sure of the details, because no one will tell me. But I know that one night, late, they camped out beside an empty highway, in the ditch. I’m saying, this was in Texas, here. The next morning they woke up to a real busy road, with cars and truck whizzing past their heads, just a few feet away. I guess they got up pretty quick and hitchhiked on out of there. Or maybe they walked to a bus station. I simply don’t have many actual details of that story.

I don’t remember any specific hitchhiking tales from my brother, Jesse. But I remember him telling us, his younger brothers, coaching us. And he got all dramatic about it. “When you’re standing beside the road, don’t just halfheartedly hold out your thumb. You lean into the traffic, like this.” And he showed us. “You hold your thumb right out there, and you look at the drivers in the eye, like you’re expecting them to stop. That way, you’ll get a ride a lot faster.” I’ve often thought of Jesse’s advice over the years. And whether I was the hitchhiker or the driver, his advice has pretty much held true, right across the board.

And from Stephen, there was one hitchhiking tale. That time he left home, walking across the fields and woods, south to Highway 3. I’ve never asked him if he had planned to end up in the town of Welland, eighty miles or so east. But I know he thumbed his way there. It was winter. And it had to be cold. Some driver must have felt pity for a stripling Amish lad, shivering beside the road, with a meager bag of belongings.

Outside that dramatic world, most of the hitchhiking we did was local. Heading to town, half the time the people who picked you up knew you. Titus and I got all brave once, and hitchhiked over west to Centerville, about twenty miles from West Grove. This was soon after we had moved to Bloomfield. We walked the two miles on the gravel road to the highway. Then we walked west along the highway and held out our thumbs, like Jesse had taught us to. I mean, we leaned out, right into the traffic.

And soon enough, a guy in a car swooshed over onto the shoulder and stopped. I can still picture his face. He wore black glasses, and had that sloppy, long-haired 1970s haircut. We’re heading to Centerville, we told him excitedly. And he allowed that he could take us all the way there. And he pulled off onto the highway, at a high rate of speed. The man drove like a madman, way above the posted limit. Probably around seventy or so. And we came blasting around a curve, and there was a cop, coming right at us. The driver reacted dramatically, stomping on the brakes, tilting us all forward with the pressure. “Oh, (F-word), a Bear,” he exclaimed. He didn’t mutter. He spoke the swear word, right out loud, as he stomped on the brakes. Amazingly, the cop ignored us, and we slipped through unscathed. And that’s about all I remember about that little trip. Titus and I discussed it later, in hushed tones, that any man would just off and swear like that, just because of a cop. We agreed that we couldn’t see any reason to ever do such a thing.

And Dad never grumbled much, that we hitchhiked. Mom would have scolded good-naturedly, that we shouldn’t, when she heard we were stepping out. But she never made any big fuss. I guess they both caught rides along the road, somewhere, back in their memories. And I remember once, hitchhiking to Centerville with Dad. I think he had called Henry Egbert, the guy who hauled the Amish around in Bloomfield. And Egbert was busy right then, but he could come in later and pick us up. So Dad and I walked out, a bit west of West Grove. I don’t remember that he held out his thumb. I think he just held up a cardboard sign. He had scrawled on the word, with a black marker. Centerville. And soon enough, a farmer and his wife picked us up. They took us about halfway in. And we stood out beside the highway again. It didn’t take long for someone to stop. I’m thinking a bearded Amish man and his lanky teenage son can’t be all that threatening as hitchhikers.

Most of the hitchhiking I ever did was pretty local. So it was all safe. I mean, who’s going to kidnap or hurt an Amish youth? That’s how we saw it. I certainly never felt any danger. After I took to hanging around Chuck’s Cafe, I often thumbed my way to town. Half the time, seemed like, if I hung around the Café long enough, someone would offer to take me in. If not, I walked east, around the curve, leaning into the passing traffic. I need a ride. And it always worked out.

I remember once, hitchhiking my way home from town, a guy from Las Vegas picked me up. He was driving a Jaguar. I had never had a ride in a Jag before. I gaped at the gleaming wood paneling on the dash. The man chatted amiably. I don’t remember much of our conversation. I wondered fleetingly if he was with the mob, being from Vegas and all. Which means I must have seen The Godfather. Or maybe I had just read Mario Puzo. The man turned his Jag south on Highway 63, then, and I got out, and hitched my way on west to West Grove.

I was a little more cautious on the other side of the equation, over the years. More careful about picking people up along the road of life. During my years of wandering, I traveled the length and width of this land. And back in my Drifter truck days, I picked up a wanderer or two. In Montana, I picked up a hitchhiking woman in the rain. She was on her way to Great Falls, which is where I was heading anyway. She wasn’t all that communicative. We chatted a bit and she asked if I had any pot. Only she didn’t pronounce the word, pot. She said, Pawt. I allowed that I didn’t have any on me right then, and she asked to be let dropped off at the next gas station we passed. And so I left her in the rain, there.

On the way back east from the wheat harvest, I planned to stop in Omaha to see my good friend, Mark Hersch. A good many miles out, I came up on a young couple, thumbing their way right along the interstate. I looked them over as I passed, then made a snap decision. Pulled over, turning on my four-ways. I felt bad for the woman, out there along the road with her man. I had a big old suitcase up front with me. So I told the man as he stood outside the passenger’s door. She can ride up front. You sit in the back, in the bed. He agreed readily. I figured if they were planning on robbing me, he’d be the one to do it, and he certainly couldn’t do it from the back. The woman, a girl, really, sat up front with me. We chatted right along as we approached the city. I asked her for directions, and dropped them off right at their home, a little house in the suburbs. They both thanked me profusely.

And I picked up a few more total strangers along the road, here and there, throughout the years. In South Carolina, while attending Bob Jones, more than one road bum got a ride from me. Invariably, the bums hit you up for a few bucks. And I usually had a five or so to spare. Even as a student. And no, I never worry what any person will do with the money I give him. My duty ends the second the money changes hands. If he goes and spends every cent on demon rum, that’s his decision. At that point, it’s his money. Not mine. And what he does with his money is his business.

Like I said way back there at the beginning, you don’t see many people hitchhiking around these parts. You just don’t. And I figured that was my little experience, that other morning, that evoked a few old memories buried there in the back of my head. That’s what I thought. Until last Friday evening. I had stopped in at Vinola’s for Happy Hour. A few drinks, and some good cheap bar food. And a good time with my buddies. Around seven or so, I was heading out. Left onto Rt. 23, and over toward New Holland.

A quarter mile or so down the road, a man stood, leaning into the traffic. It wasn’t quite dusk yet, and I didn’t recognize him. But I thought, what the heck? I’m into picking up hitchhikers these days. So I swerved off into the next parking lot, a bit down the road. The man came puffing up. Wiry, in his sixties, with a thin little white mustache. Hey, you look familiar, I said. Didn’t I just pick you up the other morning, going the other way? He nodded as he got in. “Yes,” he said. “You did.”

And this time, I had a bunch of questions, as we pulled out into the traffic. What was he doing in Lancaster City? Working, he said. He had just got a job doing remodeling work with a friend. And his first paycheck wouldn’t come in until next week. What was his name? He told me, and from somewhere back there, the man has Amish blood. He never was Amish. His grandpa had left, decades ago. And we just talked. His fiancé had passed away unexpectedly a little over a year ago. “I went into depression,” he said, looking at me kind of sideways, to see my reaction. And I looked right back at him, and smiled. I know all about dark places, I told him. Believe me, I’ve been there, and not that long ago, either.

And we just talked. I’ll drop you off at Sheetz, I told him. And he told me a little bit how hard life had been lately. “But God is good,” he said. Yes, I said. Yes. God is always good. Don’t matter what you’re going through. Even in the dark places, He’s there. You can’t feel that, walking through. But you can always see it, looking back. “Yes,” he said.

We were getting close to Sheetz, where I would drop him off, just down the road from my house. And this time he wasn’t all that shy about it. Could I spare a few bucks, to help hold him over until his first paycheck came next week? And this time I wasn’t talking to a smooth-tongued panhandler. He was just a guy, down on his luck, walking down a tough road. Out there, whacking around, trying to do the best he could with what little he had. Trying to make it, hitchhiking his way to work and back.

Yeah, I said. What are you looking for?

It wasn’t much. “A five would get me some food and milk,” he said.

I dug into my wallet, there at the Sheetz parking lot. I got a five here with your name on it, I said, handing it to him.

We shook hands. “God bless you,” he said. “Thank you.”

You are welcome, I said. God bless you too, my brother. And then I left him.
And it’s that time of year again. Beach Week. Tomorrow morning early we head out. As always, I am beyond ready for it. It just seems a little strange that the year has slipped by so fast, and now it’s time. I remember last year, how desperately I needed that week to refresh my weary heart. This year, I won’t say my heart is particularly weary. I’m just tired, overall. Bone tired. And I will turn again to the incessant and eternal roll and roar of the sea to calm my soul, and rest.



  1. Enjoy your vacation down South, (just don’t hitch down there). You are a nicer person than you think most times, and you are kind to other people, a rare commodity these days for sure.

    Comment by Carol Ellmore — September 11, 2015 @ 7:45 pm

  2. Enjoy the beach. I don’t pick up hitchhikers, but if someone asks me for money, I usually give it, especially if it’s a woman with kids. It’s best, as you say, just to let it go. Once it leaves your hands, it’s theirs. Sometimes the person really does need food. There’s no way to tell.

    Comment by forsythia — September 12, 2015 @ 10:41 am

  3. Now that you’ve given away where you live, don’t be surprised if every John, Joe and Jacob Yoder show up at that garage party next year. :D
    You’re a goodhearted man, Ira. That’s why people like you so. And that’s why the Bad Company song is not about you.
    Vacation trips are never about rest. When you get back home, slow down a little. Take some warm baths in the evenings and get to bed earlier.

    Comment by Lisa DeYoung — September 13, 2015 @ 4:47 pm

  4. Appreciate the stories. I’m wondering if it’s not that hitchhikers have changed or “the world,” but the fearful mindset of the drivers. Your level-headed conversation helps a bit to tone that down, I think.

    Comment by LeRoy — September 14, 2015 @ 2:04 pm

  5. Hitchhiking took me from S.C., where I was born, to California alone in the early 80’s. in my late teens and early 20’s. My relatives live in Lancaster and I grew up in Pageland. I crossed the U.S. many times. God bless the hitchhiker! Years ago walking on a road was normal. Before roads we had paths. The only danger is to the hiker. We’re not all psycos. Some of us are explorers.

    Comment by Kevin Faile — September 16, 2015 @ 10:27 pm

  6. Ira….I’m currently working in South-Central Ohio where your folks once had a farm (Piketon, OH). We see more hitchhikers in this area due to the potential poverty of some. I’ve picked them up on occasion and have never had a bad experience in doing so. I’d like to add that I really enjoyed “Growing Up Amish” and am wondering if you’re related to the Waglers in Milroy, Indiana? Hope your “Trip to the Beach” was a total success!

    Comment by Larry Waters — September 22, 2015 @ 8:48 am

  7. Cool story about “hitcher” adventures. My buddies and I did a bit of it back in the ” 70’s.Sometimes it was on a Sunday and we wanted to get to Sullivan,Illinois which was about 15 miles away from the hometown.A small lake in the town park had a beach and swimming area,in the summertime it was a good place to go and look at the cute “English” girls.I had fears of maybe not getting back home before dark because the traffic dried up pretty quick on a Sunday night.Don’t remember getting stranded and cell phones ,didn’t know if there ever would be such a thing.I have picked up a few hitch hikers back in the day ,but I don’t anymore.Too many unknowns for me,especially in the Phoenix metro area.In 1989 while sitting at a red light in my CJ7,which had a roll bar top and no doors,a man standing on the corner jumped into the passenger seat without a word.I looked at him,he looked at me,the light changed and we went to the next one.He got out and walked away,not a word spoken between us.Guess he wanted a Jeep ride.Now days if there is a reason to be in certain parts of the city late at night,a side arm is under the seat,along with the permit that’s been in my wallet for many years.Peace to all…

    Comment by lenny — September 22, 2015 @ 12:43 pm

  8. Picking up hitch hikers can be dangerous. You must use good judgement. I spent 4 years hitching across the U.S. and met wonderful people. Always have mace in your car anyway I’m a self-defense instructor. Always be prepared for any situation you may come upon. Hikers are just people don’t let the bad overshadow the good. These days everywhere is dangerous prone. A lady’s throat was cut in a supermarket recently. For NO reason!

    Comment by Kevin Faile — September 24, 2015 @ 4:52 pm

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