Column: Thumbin’ in Tahoe – locals say it’s easy
Truckee’s W.B. Brown knows what it’s like to wait for a ride while patiently standing on the roadside, equipped with various pieces of loot – traveling gear, snowboarding gear, climbing gear, work clothes and anything else she might need between rides.
She squints, the sun in her eyes, as she stands along Highway 89 North just about 150 feet from her Prosser home. She sticks her thumb out with a blatant jab, and within seconds a pack of motorcycles zips by.
W.B., who once hitchhiked in Alaska from Hanes to Homer in two days, has been hitchhiking for years. At one point, she stood along an Alaskan highway for almost 10 hours before getting a ride. When hitching across the desolate Yukon in Canada, she was a bit more fortunate.
“I was lucky to get one ride the whole way,” she said. “Some people didn’t; and you don’t want to be stuck on the side of the road there.”
In the Truckee-Tahoe area, though, many hitchhikers say it’s easy to get a ride.
“Around here, hitchhiking is pretty easy,” she said. While she hasn’t been hitching much recently, W.B. said she relied on hitchhiking during her car-less years in Tahoe to get around on a daily basis.
“When you don’t have a car, it pretty much dives you right into hitchhiking,” she said.
Mostly, she said, it’s locals in their twenties who will pick her up, but she does get the occasional tourist offering her a ride. And for the most part, her experiences have been good.
“You meet a lot of people hitchhiking,” W.B. said. “You talk about the weather a whole lot.”
Recalling what it’s like to hitchhike in the winter, W.B. cracks a smile.
“I hitchhike in the winter with all my gear in a huge backpack,” she said. “And [heavy duty snow removal equipment] is a very scary reality when you’re hitching in the winter.”
Seeing relatively young folks standing by the roadside with an upright thumb is a common sight in the Truckee area -where people are either trying to get to and from work or to and from a social setting.
“Usually, people are hitching to go back and forth from work; mostly ski resort employees,” said Brian Federici, who seldom passes up an opportunity to offer a hitchhiker a ride. “If I have room, I pick them up.”
Federici said he picks up hitchhikers at least two to three times a week -many of whom are foreigners doing exchange programs in the area and working at resorts. He moved here last year from the Bay Area, where he never picked up hitchhikers.
“Around here it’s mellow and people all seem pretty nice. People feel more comfortable in a small town. It’s something you see all the time here,” Federici said. “Sometimes I will pick up the same people I’ve picked up before. Some of them say, ‘hey, I know this dog,’ and pet my dog Kaylee.”
He said he always asks people how long they’ve been waiting, and their answers vary. Usually it’s not too long, not much over 10 minutes, but he’s been told the weekends are the hardest, when more non-locals are around.
Many times, if he isn’t in a big rush, Federici said he will drive out of his way to take a hitchhiker to their final destination or as close as possible.
“I usually try to,” he said. “It all comes back to you. While I don’t hitchhike myself, I figure someday my car will break down and someone will offer me a ride.”
Local law enforcement officers say they haven’t had too many problems with hitchhikers in this area. Hitchhiking is illegal on state interstate highways, but legal on other roadways, as long as hitchers are not standing in the roadway.
“We don’t have a lot of problems with hitchhikers unless they are standing in the roadway to get rides,” said Nevada County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Gary Jacobson.
Jacobson said he was unable to recall any major incidents regarding hitchhiking in Truckee in recent years. He said officers don’t infringe on hitchhiking unless it is inhibiting traffic. He said the sheriff’s office hasn’t received complaints from the Town of Truckee on the matter either.
California Highway Patrol Officer Dennis Dugger said this area does get a lot of hitchhikers, but most stand where they are supposed to be – off the roadway.
But hitchhiking is dangerous by nature, he warned.
“All law enforcement frown on hitchhiking in general. It’s just not safe; especially for young women,” Dugger said. “You never know who you’re being picked up by and/or who you are picking up.”
On a Sunday afternoon in August 1997, a 21-year-old female Homewood resident was hitchhiking along Highway 28 just east of Tahoe City and was picked up by a Carson City man who pulled a gun and handcuffed her to the car.
According to reports, when the young woman accepted the ride and got into the car, the man pulled out a gun and ordered the victim to the floor of the vehicle. She was then handcuffed. As the man drove towards Kings Beach, the victim was able to free herself and leap out of the car in Agate Bay. Washoe County Sheriff’s deputies were able to stop the man near Incline Village. A search of his car revealed two additional firearms and a machete.
Lara Genung, 23, said she did a lot of hitchhiking last year and had one scary incident. She was picked up on West River Street by a man, whom she told she was going to Tahoe Taps.
“He started turning left (the wrong way) and I told him if he’s not going to Tahoe Taps to let me out here,” Genung said. She got out of the car at the end of West River Street.
“It just got me a little scared. But it was my only bad experience.”
Genung thinks it is easier for girls to get rides hitchhiking. She said she actually got picked up by a lot of women who told her they only pick up girls.
“Hitchhiking at night is something I don’t like to do because you can’t really see who you’re getting in the car with,” she said.
She said she usually doesn’t pick up hitchhikers when she’s driving unless she has other people in the car with her.
For Federici, it’s more of a local thing – helping people like himself get to where they need to be.
“I like it. People just jump in the car and they aren’t even worried at all,” he said. “For a lot of people, it’s their main means of transportation.”
W.B. said she has fortunately never had any real scary experiences.
“I think it’s pretty safe here,” she said. “I would only hitchhike locally – never on the Interstate. People have been really nice for the most part. I have had some creepy ones … but nothing has ever happened. It’s the risk you take. You just never know who’s picking you up. You could get really hurt.”
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