Self-taught poverty is a help toward philosophy, for the things which philosophy attempts to teach by reasoning, poverty forces us to practice.
By DENNIS HARROD
Ed Griffin-Nolan scares me.
Maybe scares is the wrong word. Let’s just say he makes me uncomfortable. He reminds me of all the things I haven’t done and probably won’t do in this lifetime. Griffin-Nolan doesn’t just talk about things he hopes to do: He goes out and does them. He’s in touch with the world and puts himself out there and makes himself a part of it and it a part of him. And at the age of 61, he hitchhiked across the country. And then he wrote a book about it.
Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore (Rootstock Publishing) is his account of a trip he took in 2018 that in general outline duplicated a hitchhiking trip he and a high-school friend took 40 years earlier. After a life of a couple of marriages and one divorce, three kids, the loss of loved ones and enough adventures to fill a dozen books, he wanted to know if the world he had encountered on the road in 1978 was as different and dangerous as we’ve come to believe. Are we really so separated today that the collective we of America no longer exists? Griffin-Nolan thinks not.
“Unless I’m the outlier,” he writes in his introduction, “I think that deep inside, most of us want to connect with each other.”
What better way to test that hypothesis than to put himself on the road, starting at his home in Pompey in Central New York, sticking his thumb out and aiming west?
People try to talk him out of it, telling him, “One, nobody hitchhikes anymore. Two, it’s not safe. Three, things have changed too much.”
He doesn’t listen. On his first day, he is stopped by two Onondaga County Sheriff’s Deputies who repeat that it is too dangerous to hitchhike. He will be killed, one of them observes. The reporter in Griffin-Nolan asks them what in their experience as law-enforcement officers leads them to that conclusion. What evidence do they have? Turns out they don’t have any. But they believe it nonetheless.
Griffin-Nolan’s book is about the infinite experience of the road, of a trip whose destination is vague and changeable. The mystery inside every car or truck that stops, the leap of faith it takes to enter a stranger’s vehicle and commit one’s life to that person. A car stops, Griffin-Nolan enters and: “Then we meet, and something new begins. It’s like starting a new job or moving to a new town or kissing someone for the first time every single day.”
From Pompey to San Francisco, Griffin-Nolan is picked up by too many people to count. Each one defies categorization and Griffin-Nolan gets to know them as best he can in rides that last a few minutes to many hours. They are no longer faceless drivers speeding by on the road, but human beings with lives and concerns and worries of their own and, judging by their willingness to stop what they are doing and open their cars and lives to a stranger, they are also seeking connection with their fellow travelers.
Lydia, a mother taking her four children to the zoo, stops and picks him up. So do Mike and Kelly, a middle-aged couple on their way to visit Mike’s 93-year-old mother in hospice care in Ohio. They fear it might be their last visit, but they stop to pick up a hitchhiker along the way.
Scott, a Mennonite father driving two hours to take his daughter to a basketball tournament she can’t even play in because she’s injured. Griffin-Nolan asks Scott why he picked him up: “People need help,” he answers. Before the tournament, Scott and his daughter had gone to church, and the pastor encouraged them to be “‘doers, not just hearers’ of the gospel.”
And there are many, many others, many of whom have little to share but are willing to share what they have. Many of them are carrying profound grief with them, as is Griffin-Nolan, looking for someone with whom to share it, unburden themselves, much like the Ancient Mariner. Griffin-Nolan’s own grief travels with him until, in a moment of absolution, his grief transforms itself and him.
Griffin-Nolan doesn’t just talk about the drivers who pick him up (but there are enough of those to fill a short Russian novel). He also tells us of the people who work in the gas stations and convenience stores and fast-food places and hotels along the way. Their stories blend with his and the shared experience of being human unites them.
Griffin-Nolan does not discuss politics with many of his benefactors. A few bring it up, a little on both sides of the great divide. One guy, a generous and grieving guy, goes hundreds of miles out of his own way to get Griffin-Nolan to where he’s going. Politics doesn’t come up on the ride, but Griffin-Nolan later discovers via Facebook that the man is something of a right-winger, or at least a Facebook purveyor of some of the less reputable ideas that pass for conservatism today. Griffin-Nolan says he has a hard time reconciling the man on Facebook with the kind soul who picked up a hitchhiker.
He doesn’t go too deeply into it, but it’s food for thought. What do we do with people who are good and kind and a godsend on the road but who have ideas different than ours, sometimes ideas we find reprehensible? Do we ignore the good they have done and focus on the bad? Or do we look at the entire person, good and bad, try to figure out what it is that makes them the way they are (and what makes us the way we are) and see if we all can’t change for the better. The only way to do that is to get to know one another. And a good way to do that is to pick up the next hitchhiker you see. You never know what you might learn about your passenger and yourself.
Not likely, I know. Nobody hitchhikes anymore. But everybody should read this book. It will go a long way toward reviving your faith in your fellow human beings.
Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He has been a reporter, editor and critic for newspapers and teacher of Spanish at Syracuse University. Ed Griffin-Nolan, who believes we’re all on the road sometime, also has a blog, titled “Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore.”