Hitch-hiking North Dakota

by John M. Andrist

I suppose nobody from my time who travelled with his thumb could forget the experience. I was only 15 when I first hitch-hiked my way on a 500-mile jaunt diagonally across North Dakota.

It was about 4:00 in the afternoon when I walked over to the edge of Breckenridge from the college of science in Wahpeton, where I was learning to operate type-setting equipment summarily known as the Linotype.

I hoisted my thumb, which was the proper, or perhaps I should say improper, way to beg passing motorists to stop. As the clock kept ticking I was beginning to wonder if this was a good idea, when a trucker finally pulled over.

The ride through Fargo and on to Valley City on old Highway 10 was mostly uneventful, but when darkness was decending I learned the first lesson every hiker needs to know: The going gets really slow after dark. I’m sure it was totally dark when I got my next ride with a young Medina man who was on his way home from seeing his girlfriend. An hour and one speeding ticket later I was standing on the Main Street of Medina.

Midnight in Medina was a very lonely time. Traffic was at standstill, and while pondering what my next move should be sometime later I saw a stopped car at the other end of Main Street, with its hood thrusting into the night air. So I ambled down the street to say hello, just in case it was somebody feeling charitable.

“How far west are you goin?,” I asked, as he busily was pouring oil into his engine. “Montana”, came the reply.

“Any chance I can ride with you as far as Bismarck?” I inquired. “Nah I don’t pick up hitch-hikers”, he said

So I played my “poor me” card and said, “I’m really just a little guy, trying to get home to see my girlfriend for the 4th of July. I don’t really look very dangerous, do I?” It worked, and he said, “Get in!”

I think the only sleep I got that night ensued on that ride, and sometime between 2 and 3 a.m. I was learning Bismarck was just about as quiet as Medina. So I rested on my back on the courthouse lawn to wait for daylight. The first rays of light started appearing around 4 a.m. (before daylight time was in vogue), and I wasn’t sleeping anyway, so I decided to walk to the edge of the city, which at that time was near the state capitol building.

And I learned my second hitch-hiking lesson. In those days traffic was lighter yet in western North Dakota, but people were friendlier. I soon got a ride from a worker on the Garrison Dam, which was under construction. The highway around the DesLacs Lake east of Kenmare followed the lake shore. It was curvy, had gravel surface, and the driver was travelling close to 60-miles an hour. By the time I reached Kenmare I was so scared I almost kissed the ground.
Coincidentally my next ride was in the car of a highway patrolman, which was doubly interesting, because the hitch-hiking practice had been prohibited by law in neighboring Minnesota.

It was early evening when I arrived in Crosby. I don’t know how I got back to Wahpeton. I think my dad felt sorry for me and bought me a train ticket for the return trip. But I had learned enough so it was not the last hitch-hiking adventure in my life.

Oh yes, if you want to know more about how special that girlfriend was, four years later I married her and we had 57 great years together.

(Hitch-hikers were once common on North Dakota highways, and particularly during World War II many servicemen got free rides to and from home, because few people would fail to stop for a man in uniform). Beginning in the 1950’s, with the increase in auto ownership, the practice became unsafe, due to unsurly riders, and some states even passed legislation forbidding the practice.)