Nick Metz and Collin Searles have been friends since freshman year when they lived on the same floor in Wilkeson Quad.
So when Metz got a call from Searles last spring asking if he wanted to sign up for a two-week hitchhiking ride across America, Metz felt like he had no choice but to say yes.
“I answered the phone and Collin said, ‘Yo, dude, I’ve got a great idea, wanna go hitchhiking this summer?’ And I was like, 'Sure, why not,’ and then we just kind of did it,” Metz, an environmental studies major, said. “We chose a date when the semester ended and we just went.”
Metz’s impulsive decision to join Searles on a trip calling back to another era led the duo to meet an eccentric band member right here in Buffalo, attend a sleepover with a total stranger and traverse the edge of defeat, just before crossing into the central time zone. The duo learned lessons on privilege and security while on the road.
Metz and Searles each packed a backpack with three changes of clothing, a shared tent, food, a camp stove, their water bottles, rain jackets, 12-in-1 soap, a rechargeable battery, a physical map, their phones, their wallets and a sign that read WEST in big bold letters.
And that was it.
On May 17, Metz and Searles waited for two hours beside I-290, right off UB’s North Campus, for their first leg of the adventure. But before landing their first ride, Searles, who invited Metz to go hitchhiking, felt a bit apprehensive about hitching a ride with a stranger, while Metz felt a little ridiculous waiting on the side of the road.
“Waiting for our first ride, I was a little nervous because I didn’t know what to expect,” Searles said.
“The most nervous thing was just sitting there with your thumb out and you’re like, ‘Oh, what are people thinking?’ Are they are looking at us like, ‘What a bunch of crackheads?’’” Metz recalled.
Adding to the stress of the first day, Metz and Searles were stopped by the police — for the first of many times.
“It took awhile on the first day for us to get a ride, probably two hours and we got stopped by a cop on the first day,” Metz said. “We got stopped by the cops probably a total of over 20 times.”
“[Hitchhiking] isn’t illegal,” Searles chimed in (hitchhiking is legal while on the shoulder of the road in a majority of states).
Metz and Searles learned to bookmark a website on their phones detailing the hitchhiking laws to show the police whenever they were stopped. But it wasn’t just the act of hitchhiking that attracted the police’s attention.
“On two separate occasions, in two separate states, the police were called on us. The complaint was that there was an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old hitchhiking,” Metz laughed. “Two separate states, same ages. Apparently, we really look like 11- and 13-year-olds.”
Still, the duo came across what they described as the most “interesting” ride of their trip that first day, when a white van sporting a “free candy” sticker on its side pulled up beside them.
“This guy pulls up in this white van and it literally says ‘free candy’ on the side. This punk-rock dude opens the door and asks us where we’re going,” Metz said, his face lit up with glee. “We’re like, ‘Can you get us to Erie [PA]?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, sure.’”
Once in the car, the man, Greg, told Metz and Searles that before he could take them to Erie, he would have to make a few stops — the first to pick up his dog.
“He drove us to the middle of a bunch of warehouses, it looked like you could build cars there,” Searles laughed. “He was only our third ride and I’m thinking we’re done for.”
Greg had warned Metz and Searles they needed to be careful of his dog, a “vicious” pitbull.
“He leaves his keys in the car, and goes in for 20 minutes, with his keys in the car, very trusting dude,” Metz said. “He comes back with Princess Peanut Butter Cup who is this old, sweet dog, the sweetest thing ever, and [she’s] cuddling with us in the back. We asked him, ‘We’re going to Erie now, right?’ And Greg says no. He said that he needed to go pick up some weed but he couldn’t go to his drug dealer’s house because his baby mama [lives] next door to her and he couldn’t see her [his baby mama].”
Greg then brought Metz and Searles to a Tops parking lot to meet a dealer dubbed in Greg’s contact list as “Brian Goatf----r.”
Finally, with Princess Peanut Butter Cup and a bag of marijuana in tow, the gang set off for Erie.
This ride would also teach Metz and Searles their first hitchhiking lesson after they offered Greg gas money: never pay your ride.
“It’s just the principle of it, you’re hitchhiking and you’re not really expected to pay gas money,” Searles said. “It’s the whole idea that you’ll ruin it [for] other hitchhikers who need transportation without money; if you pay money, it’s like making [paying] an expectation.”
Metz and Searles learned more of these unspoken hitchhiking rules from a houseless man, Matt, who the pair met walking his dog. Matt reminisced about his own hitchhiking days, and Metz and Searles, feeling defeated from being stuck in Ohio, unable to get a ride that day, listened.
“He told us he was staying in a motel down the road, gave us his key and told us he’d be there in a few hours if we needed a place to sleep,” Metz and Searles said of their unexpected host. “Nicest dude ever, it wasn’t weird at all.”
“I talked to him until three in the morning,” Metz said. “He’s got a really sad story. It’s unfortunate. But he’s really educated and really smart. Entertaining to talk to. You know, a great guy. I still talk to him sometimes. I have his Facebook.”
Meeting Matt became a pivotal point in their trek across the country. It’s when Metz and Searles went from being two guys learning how to hitchhike to two guys knowing how to hitchhike.
“He was sort of like a guide we met at the point where we [were] so over it [the trip],” Searles said. “If we didn’t meet [Matt] we probably would have left. But he told us that a ride will always come and that really got us through. Some days, you’re just waiting for like eight hours in the hot sun. People are flipping you off, yelling ‘freeloaders’ and honking at you. I mean there’s a lot of things… Are you going to get a ride? If you don’t get a ride, where are you going to sleep? Where are you going to eat? It’s the exposure of all those factors at once that’s like, okay, what is gonna happen? Especially when you get a ride because you’re ending up somewhere completely different and you’re at the will of the person driving.”
The duo’s final ride, into Cheyenne, WY, was their scariest one, Metz and Searles said. The two were offered a ride by a “super-religious Cuban guy” who drove a semi-truck and whose driving left a lot to be desired. The truck driver made direct eye contact with Metz and Searles while they watched in horror as the truck occasionally drifted over into the other lanes.
“I got a video of [his driving] because I was like, ‘No one is ever gonna believe me,’” Metz said. “He was looking at us while driving and his girlfriend sent him nudes, that he was looking at, zooming in on her bra and everything while he was driving.”
The truck driver’s religious beliefs were also rather startling, Metz and Searles said. Over the course of the ride, the driver shared controversial ideas like how he thinks women are the inferior gender because Eve came from Adam in the Bible. Despite how foreign of an idea that was to Metz and Searles, they had no other choice but to agree.
“I heard that and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s crazy,’” Searles said. “You’re stuck in their car so there are certain things that you have to say. I’m not gonna go pressuring into that topic because if they’re very adamant about it, you’re in their car and you don’t want to piss them off.”
Metz and Searles say they came to understand their immense privilege while on this trip. Being able to traverse the country as young, white men gave them immunity to racist and sexist comments, even if it made them feel uncomfortable.
“One thing again, we are white males so a lot of our experiences with people being racist is like, ‘Oh, I can’t imagine [thinking like] that,’” Searles said. “But what would somebody who wasn’t in our position, how would that experience be, right?”
The two also say they came to understand their monetary privilege, in addition to their social one. Metz and Searles arrived in Chicago around dusk one evening, and as they were walking down the street, they came across scurrying rats and people preparing to sleep under umbrellas.
They decided to spend money to stay the night in a hotel. They acknowledged that their financial security kept them safe.
“That was the moment where I was like, ‘Dude, if we didn’t have money we’d be sleeping on like the streets of Chicago,’” Searles said. “It was a very big perspective sort of thing for sure.”
The two said that they largely enjoyed their trip and that they would both do it again, but that “95%” of the time it was miserable: Standing on the side of the road, waiting for hours on end in the heat and direct sun, trying to look happy and fun, all for someone to pick them up.
“It really sucks to be standing on the side of the road,” Metz said.
“The moments that you meet the people though, it’s like damn, I would never have met you in my life just because of the social circle I have, and if I did I would assume things about you,” Searles chimed in. “Now I’m stuck in a car with you, and they’re pretty cool.”
The duo recommends hitchhiking and has some tips: Be willing to say no to rides heading away from civilization, pack lightly and come with a sign and a good attitude, since nobody wants to pick up an unhappy person.
Metz and Searles both said that hitchhiking is like a butterfly effect; it’s impossible to predict what rides will come but the decision to take a ride will impact future ones.
Their next big adventure is hiking Denali, the highest peak in North America, which they hope to accomplish after they graduate in 2023.
Julie Frey is an assistant news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Julie Frey is an assistant news/features editor for The Spectrum.