The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Backcountry
Some years ago I was driving solo back to Oregon from a hut trip in British Columbia and spent the night in my car near Wenatchee, Washington. I woke in the morning and started driving, and on the outskirts of Leavenworth I saw a guy alongside the road with his thumb out. “Fellow dirtbag,” I thought. “No doubt heading to his job as a lifty at Stevens Pass.” I stopped, he hopped in, shut the door, and said “right on dude, thanks! I just got out of jail!” Wow. Not exactly the conversation starter I anticipated. But generally it worked out, though instead of the Stevens Pass, he needed a ride all the way to Seattle, and on the way he made sure to point out to me where the state pen was. Since then I’ve both given and received a lot of rides care of the thumb, and realized there’s a big difference between hitchhiking and….mountain hitching.
The only thing better than loop ski tours are point-to-point ski tours, where all the terrain that unfolds from your skinning and descending is new and you really feel like you are covering some ground. A lot of the moderately accessible, popular backcountry terrain in North America has mountains with drainages that lead out to other roads, and while you can run up and back, multi-canyon shuttles with your buddies, I’d rather spend my time hiking and skiing in the mountains than sitting in the car. Being able to capitalize on other folks “goin’ my way” is a far more efficient use of the valuable resource of time. And what better place to stick out your thumb than in the mountains?
After my experience in Washington I apparently didn’t learn my lesson, and several times I’ve seen “characters” standing forlornly alongside desolate sections of western deserts at dusk who looked like they could use a break, so I’ve picked them up. And more often than not, I have regretted it: they have been as stinky as they looked, talked incessantly, are pretty weird, tried to talk me into taking them further than I can/want to, could sure use a few bucks to help them get to Chicago to see their mom before she dies, etc. But when the flats of the desert tilt upward into the mountains….well, everything seems to change. Somehow our social radar is recalibrated, and giving a ride to the lifty or the folks who just did the canyon-to-canyon tour back down is not only okay, it’s practically expected. Perhaps it’s a function of tribalism: our “tribe” of snow/adventure folks has an unspoken but innate understanding that we all have been there and we owe it to our fellow tribespeople to hook them up on a ride when the thumb comes out, regardless of how many people/dogs/kids/boards we have in our car. And we’ve all been there: we’ve had to bail from our pards on tours early for some reason, we went the wrong way in the fog, we got carried away in the excitement and said “we’ll figure it out!” or we too wanted to do the canyon-to-canyon (to canyon?!) tour. “Don’t worry about it! We’ll get a ride!”
But what about when we don’t? What does that say about society? Once a buddy and I were outside of Anchorage , on the edge of where the plains meet the mountains, trying to get down to the Kenai. It was raining (what a surprise) and on a fairly major highway (a bit of a mistake) we were hoping for a ride and it was taking too long, to the point where we starting to resort to our synchronized jigs ending in a dramatic thumbs-out flourish. We saw a motor home coming towards us and just put out the token gesture since motor homers never pick up hitchhikers, when to our amazement we caught a glimpse of the driver and passenger waving madly at us. Yeah, whatever….wait a minute, those are the folks we spent hours chatting with on the bus in Denali! And even they didn’t stop for us! Despite the fact that we had established a relationship with that nice couple a few days prior, the social construct of “don’t pick up hitchhikers!” overrode the concept of breaking down the barrier between people being safe in their vehicle and soggy transient types who needed just a tiny bit of help. Hitching, and picking up hitchers provides an opportunity for a more egalitarian society.
Speaking of egalitarianism, it’s a fact that resort skiers also traverse many of the same roads that we backcountry types use. Though resort skiers may share the same demographics as we do, the vast majority are not of the tribe. Despite having half-full roof racks, plenty of backseat room, and empty-bed pickups, resort skiers don’t seem to “get it;” they apparently haven’t “been there,” and to them there is no distinction between the skids out on desolate sections of freeways and these hippy dippy cross country skiers who probably ate bark for lunch instead of foie gras and didn’t splash on more cologne on their last trip to the bathroom, if there even was a visit to the bathroom! So we mountain hitchers have to wait for the rental SUVs to stream past long enough that the gal in the beat up Tacoma sees you and screeches to a stop so you can toss your skis in back, jump in while she’s moving all of her shit out of the way so her dog can settle into your lap.
Teton Pass is one of the world’s headquarters for ski hitchin’. Doing the booter from the top of the pass and dropping west towards Mt Taylor or east down the aptly- named Glory Bowl puts you well down either side of the pass. If you’ve gotten lucky enough to get one of the highly valued parking places at the top of the Pass, you need to get back up to the Pass, or you had to hitch up from the bottom to start your day. Either way, yer hitchin’. But this particular intersection of plains and mountains reflects a simmering problem; though there are a few of The Tribe, there are also ranchers and locals who are resentful of what you entitled backcountry skiers represent, and these days they may be just as easily be flashing you another internationally-known hand signal in response to your thumb out. But no doubt somewhere behind Angry Guy’s F250 is a dude in a beat up Subaru who will heed the call.
One of my favorite hitching scenarios is when I finish up a ski tour at a popular trailhead, occupied by many people who are clearly not members of The Tribe. This provides an opportunity to walk up to folks whom otherwise would assiduously avoid eye contact when safely ensconced in their metal cage zipping past you and asking the clearly-rhetorical question “Hi! You folks heading down the canyon?” They awkwardly reply in the hesitant affirmative, and then feel compelled to give you a ride. I like this mostly because it is a nice initiation for these folks into The Tribe; hopefully you don’t offend them too much with your healthy sweat and after a few minutes of chitchat they realize that mountain hitching is indeed A Thing, and that it does not in fact involve rape or robbery. As you exit their car with hearty “thanks again,” you can only hope that perhaps the next time they’ll be more inclined to stop for a fellow Tribe member standing alongside a busy slushy highway in a snowstorm.
I’m still a bit picky about who I’ll pick up out in the flats, and try to avoid hitching there myself. And I try to be understanding when perfectly-appropriate cars and drivers blow by me for minutes on end. But to enable those high-value point to point tours and keep the invaluable flexibility in ski touring, believing that the mountains can still make Tribal members out of anyone, I will continue to take my shades off, assume a big smile, and hold my thumb high.