Lessons from the Road

Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash

From McDonald’s to marketing, one hitchhiker’s guide to going home

I’m a loner, a daydreamer. My report cards in grade school confirmed this, as all my teachers said, “It seems John’s mind wanders off into another world, a world of imagination. He needs to concentrate, to participate more with the class.”

Maybe that’s why I didn’t mind hitchhiking. It was the 50s and we lived in a rural area of Cincinnati, so when I got off the school bus I walked the two miles or hitchhiked home. In the spring, walking was a pick-me-up in the exhilarating spring air, my shirt off, soaking up the warm sun that had finally emerged after a long winter. It was a time to dream, to be alone and when the 40-minute walk ended I was back in the real world of home, the smell of dinner cooking, the sounds of my mom in the kitchen.

Other times, like in the dead of winter when it was dark by 4:30 p.m., I’d hitchhike home from the bus stop, hoping for someone to stop and save me from the Midwest chill burning my face.

Today “thumbing” is not in vogue. In fact, you almost never see hitchhikers anymore; it’s outlawed in many states. And in my eight years of doing it I only had one uncomfortable situation. A couple stopped and asked me to sit in the front seat between them. I didn’t think about it but thought it was odd. In minutes, man tried to put his hand on my crotch. I grabbed the steering wheel and angrily shouted that if he didn’t stop I would drive the car off the road. When I exited I elbowed the creep in the ribs and pushed his wife out the door.

In those days, nothing compared to what I think of as my marathon of hitchhiking: those cold winter nights that found me on the road from Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana to Cincinnati. The 275-mile trip in the sleet and snow, in freezing temperatures, was grueling. I hit the road after my last class, a scarf wrapped around my face, two sweaters under my jacket and those wonderful insulated gloves that my Mom had bought for me.

I “thumbed” to save the cost of a $35 bus ride. In 1958 I earned $46 a week working in a factory and taking the bus was not the best economic decision. Besides, I enjoyed meeting the people who picked me up. On a few occasions a few jerks stopped and when I got to their car pulled away—laughing and giving me the finger; one even mooned me. However, most were friendly and wanted the company and really enjoyed talking about Irish football.

After a few tries at the various routes (there were no Interstates in those days) I decided to go through Indianapolis. There wasn’t much difference in the countryside in the winter but in the spring the Indiana farmland reminded me of an Andrew Wyeth painting. But there was another reason for heading to Indianapolis: By-pass 100, a shortcut around the city, and the first place I had ever seen a pair of golden arches, rising like a mirage in the desert.

I’d never seen a hamburger drive-in except Frisch’s Big Boy on Reading Road in Cincinnati. This place was called McDonald’s which was new to my vocabulary but the sign on the arches said “over 100 million hamburgers sold” I was starved after more than four hours on the road so I ordered a two cheeseburgers and those delicious thin-cut French fries. In four-years I never missed stopping at this McDonald’s on By-pass 100. My mouth watered when my odyssey began knowing that McDonald’s was only hours away. Years later I still visit their locations at least once a week. Who would ever guess I stopped at what has become an American icon 61 years later.

Aside from an early lesson in fast food, hitchhiking taught me something even more important and that was how to market myself. Through trial and error on the road (and interminable waits), I learned to wear a coat and tie. I also made a sign that neatly said, “Notre Dame to Cincinnati.”

And what a difference it made.

People stopped right away. Most of them wanted to talk about Notre Dame football. Another time I got lucky when a friend of my dad’s picked me up in Indianapolis and drove me all the way home. I learned right away that the sign and my appearance spoke to what prospective rides could expect when they picked me up. Today, that’s what we should expect from everyone we deal with.

And yes, I am still a dreamer. My hitchhiking days are long gone but I have not given up the pleasure of a good daydream. As Oscar Wilde so beautifully said, “A dreamer is the only one who can find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”

This story is from the January 2020 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.