Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Hitchin' the Valley
How hitchhiking became part of the Gunnison Valley culture
Imagine standing on the side of the road waiting for a ride: a car pulls up, a stranger’s car. You have no idea who this person is, or even if they are really going where you need to be.
You step into this possible serial killer’s vehicle, ignoring the Hollywood idea of murdered hitchhikers found on the side of the road. It takes a lot of trust in humanity to hitch a ride.
Hitchhiking is not unique to the Gunnison-Crested Butte area, but few other places have embraced the act as much as this valley.
One of the most distinguishable elements of hitchhiking in the valley is the fact that Gunnison and Crested Butte have designated hitchhiking stations, although very few people seem to know the origins of these locations.
Estimates from police officers and city officials from both Gunnison and Crested Butte put the implementation of the hitching posts anywhere from 10 to over 50 years ago.
“The hitching posts were here way before I got here,” said Sherman Driver.
Sherman has been a bus driver for the RTA in Gunnison for the last five years, but has been living in the area over 40 years.
“There has been hitchhiking going on well before I moved here,” said Gunnison City Commissioner Phil Chamberland. “It’s been an American tradition since the 60s and 70s.”
Hitchhiking has been banned in several states across the country, including Alabama, Arizona and California, but never by Colorado. Colorado is known as one of the friendliest places to hitch a ride. Hitchhiking is also illegal on any interstate highway, but that doesn’t affect this valley.
“I think that Hwy 135 being the only route to CB made this form of transportation effective,” said Chamberland. “The Stations were probably just convenient locations to get to.”
Hitchiking was much more popular on a national scale several decades ago, however many people started to shy away from thumbing a ride after hearing horror stories of hitchhikers getting kidnapped and killed. In fact, in the late 70’s, serial killer Ted Bundy escaped from a courthouse in Aspen with the intention of coming to Crested Butte, but became disoriented and lost his way. Still, this area has never seen any of the dangers of hitchhiking first hand.
“I don’t know of any incidents that have happened here,” said Crested Butte Chief Marshall Tom Martin.
Martin has been a Marshall in Crested Butte for over 26 years.
“We encourage people to hitchhike. We’ve even given people rides to the hitching posts.”
Despite some of the potential risks involved, people in the valley still welcome hitchhikers with open arms.
“I’ve always picked up hitchhikers,” said Ira Conn, a boat captain from Maine. Conn has been living in Crested Butte for nearly a year.
“I’m not worried about it, I’ll pick up just about anybody,” he said. “It’s not that big of a commitment.”
Conn even said he has made a lifelong connection through hitchhiking while back in Maine. His full story can be found in article three of this blog.
Not everyone shares Conn’s sense of security with roadside wanderers.
“I used to pick up hitchhikers, but I don’t anymore,” said Jason Tisdale, a painting contractor in Crested Butte.
Tisdale said he once picked up a very suspicious transient on the side of the road in Truckee, California.
“I just had a really bad feeling about the guy,” said Tisdale.
Although nothing bad happened, it soured Tisdale to the idea of letting strangers into his truck.
The attitudes of the locals seem to contribute to the willingness of people to hitchhike and to offer rides.
“There are a lot of kids around here,” said Conn. “Most of the people are young and conservationally oriented, so it makes sense to pick people up.”
The safety of the community plays an important role as well.
“It’s a pretty small area and people have less cars,” said Tisdale. “Plus we don’t have the criminal element other places have to deal with.”
Hitchhiking may be a thing of the past for much of America now, but here in our valley it is still a cherished way to get around. And with what seems to be the full support of the city councils and law enforcement of the area, hitchhikers will have a place to roam here for many years to come.
So what makes someone a successful hitchhiker? It seems easy enough to stand on the side of the road and wait for someone to stop for you, but would you really feel confident enough to actually go through with it?
The next article ‘How to get picked up: The Art of Hitchhiking’ focuses on the techniques that good hitchhikers use and the methods they use that appeal to their potential drivers.