“I’m an old hitchhiker, I wonder what’s a waiting ‘round the bend
I don’t know what I might see and I don’t need no guarantee
Just a ride from here to there and back again.”
— “Hitchhiker” by John Denver
An array of scattered clouds like dust kicked up by a cowboy on a lonesome trail dotted the sapphire sky.
And on State Highway 9, just north of Breckenridge last Thursday morning, an aging cowboy’s right hand thumb traced along that trail in the sky.
Brian Raines appeared like a living anachronism on the northbound shoulder. A broad cowboy hat shielded his dark, narrow eyes from the sun. A small wooden cross and a pair of military dog tags — God and country — hung tight around his neck. A large, metallic rodeo buckle caught a glint of sunlight. Well-worn leather boots, as tan as his sun-soaked skin, blue jeans and a long-sleeve button-up white completed his outfit. His shadow loomed large and monolithic over the highway. It was as if one of the historical bronze sculptures had somehow sprung to life overnight.
As a young man decades ago, Raines used to hitchhike across the West, making his way to ranches for temporary work as a cowboy.
“It was a good life,” he said as cars zipped past and vanished into the horizon one by one. “As a young cowboy working on a ranch I could make $50 to $100 a day, get a roof over my head and meals.”
But as he grew older, formed a family, the life of the hitchhiking cowboy vanished into the rearview mirror. He settled down in the Texas Hill Country. But those object lessons of the past remained closer than they appeared.
At age 57, not long after going through life-threatening surgery, Raines chose to head back to highways.
“I woke up after being in a coma for 28 days and really started to look at life differently,” Raines said. “I realized this could be the last year I could go out on the road and do stuff like this.”
So after a 30-year hiatus from living the cowboy life on the open road, Raines made the decision to return to that life for one more year.
“My kids think their dad is nuts,” Raines said.
And the open highway has changed since Raines last lived on the road. Hitchhiking isn’t near as commonplace as it once was.
Thirty years ago there were about 50 vehicles on the road in the United States for every 100 residents, according to the Federal Highway Administration. By 2012 the number had grown to about 80 vehicles per 100 Americans — that’s almost one car per every man, woman and child in the country.
It’s also more of a young man or woman’s game, wrapped up in romantic notions devised by some of the beatnik writers of the 1950s.
Raines was already about halfway to his destination. In just a few days he’d thumbed his way from the Texas Hill Country to a highway in the High Rockies. He’s on his way to work on a ranch in upstate Montana, just like he did as a young man.
But some things have changed.
He carried a new iPhone on his hip so his kids can get in touch with him if they get too worried. And of course he had a four-legged companion. He packed light, leaving a tent behind, sleeping right under the stars at night.
And even though Raines is looking back through his return to the road, it might be a path for the future.
Hitchhiking has been noted as an environmentally and socially positive action. For decades Alan Pisarski, a noted transportation policy analyst, has routinely provided testimony to the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. His vision has helped shaped the federal highway system. He’s also recently written on the benefits of hitchhiking in modern America.
He points out that a driver riding alone is highly inefficient. Simply put it’s a machine that usually weighs well over a ton to transport an individual weighing 100 to 200 pounds.
It’s “a colossal resource that we waste,” wrote Pisarski.
He’s suggested new technology, such as smart phones, can help link drivers and hitchhikers. Imagine using your thumb to get a ride, but instead of hanging out over the side of a highway, you thumbed down a ride by punching buttons on an app. Some metro areas have already started online networks that do this. It’s called “slugging.” People looking for rides are called slugs. They connect with drivers at designated locations. It benefits both because an extra passenger or passengers lets the driver qualify for high-occupancy vehicle lanes on freeways.
But someone like Raines isn’t hitchhiking across the West for environmental karma points or a quicker commute to the office. He’s looking for something more. To him the information superhighway isn’t inside a laptop, it’s found on the blacktop. The ability to make spontaneous, real connections while soaking up the fabric of America’s highways, appears to be his motivation. He plans on chronicling all his adventures on the road, as a young and as he is today, in a book titled “Eye of the Cowboy.”
“Like most good cowboy tales, it’ll be full of lies,” he said with a smile, as another car zipped north into the distance.