There and Back Again: September 11, 2012

Day 1 of Field Research

by Senior researcher Jenny O’Brien

9am. Wellman Road and 27th St.  Jefferson County about 8 miles north of Lawrence

I started this adventure at the end of the gravel road to our house.  Husband dropped me off and we did a run-through test hitch.  Then he drove back home and I stood by the side of the road, nerves all a jingle waiting for a ride.  I wrote “Lawrence” on the white board, held it out and the VERY FIRST CAR stopped for me!  A couple, Tony and Monica, took me all the way into town to the post office.  I told them about Lawrence OnBoard and asked them some questions.  They seemed quite excited about the program and said they would certainly pick up LOB riders, especially if there were incentives.

9:35 9th St and Vermont in front of the Carnegie building

I picked this spot because it was between two stop lights and the traffic was slow and heading west.  There were 5 empty parking spaces, so plenty of room to pull over.  I wrote “Going to the Merc” on my sign.  3 minutes and 20 cars later a kind older lady in a swanky car pulled over and said she would give me a lift.  She was on her way to meet friends for coffee and said I looked “safe”.  It might be pertinent to mention that I am 5’4″ tall, about 45 years old and pretty non-threatening.  She dropped me off at the Community Mercantile at a little before 10.  I called Husband, had a snack and chatted with friends and was feeling exhilarated at the ease of my journey.

10:40 to 11:15 Various spots near 9th and Iowa

So much for the easy part.  The tricky part was to get myself back home.  My first roadblock came when I tried to hitch from the Merc parking lot.  After 5 minutes with my white board (“Downtown”) the front end manager came out and told me with the utmost courtesy and sympathy that they do not allow solicitation on Merc property.  In a way, I was almost expecting that, but it never hurts to try.  For future reference, Lawrence OnBoard will have to develop some kind of mutually beneficial relationship with businesses in order to get rides from their parking lots.  So, back to the public right-of-way.  I tried unsuccessfully to hitch along 9th street, but there was a serious lack of space to pull over.  I started walking toward downtown.

11:15 9th and Avalonbus stop

There is a bus stop on 9th street with a nice long pick up area.  I decided to try my luck there.  I let the KU bus and the T bus go by, then put out the white board with “North Lawrence” on it.  8 minutes and 30 cars passed by, then a woman in a pickup truck circled the block to pick me up.  She was about my age, Native American I would guess and a PhD candidate in the KU Film school.  Turns out we have a mutual friend.  This woman, Carol, said she thought I might be from out of town and confused about the bus system.  She went a mile or so out of her way to take me across the Kaw River bridge into North Lawrence.  It would be a good idea to carry the bus schedule and a bus pass with me next time, and use the T for some of my travels.  I suspect people might be reluctant to give rides when it is obvious that I could use the bus.

11:30- 12:30  North 2nd St.  various spots

Now we come to the part of the journey that was NO FUN AT ALL.  It turns out that North 2nd Street is a terrible place to hitch a ride.  I suspect it is a combination of factors:  fast moving traffic, a gritty industrial feel, too many destination choices, and few good spots to pull over.  A large percentage of the cars are heading onto the highway and everyone seemed to be in a bad mood.  The bright spot was when I stopped in a sign shop to ask permission to hitch from their parking area (see, lesson learned already).  I had a nice chat with the owner of Al’s Custom Signs with regards to materials and techniques I could use for my white boards.  Then it was out in the hot sun for 25 minutes, over 300 cars passing me by.  I gave up and started walking north.

12:35 pm.  Hwy 24/40 in front of Pines Garden Store

I walked under I70 where North 2nd st. turns into Hwy 24/40.  There was a good pull-over spot at Pines, with some shade.  I wrote “Midland Junction” on my sign and VOILA!  After 8 minutes and fewer than 100 cars, a young woman in a giant truck pulled over.  She had a very young child in the back seat and she said my sign was really helpful.  She drove me the short distance to Midland Junction (3 miles, no sidewalks, fast traffic).  I stopped in the farm store, had some refreshments and headed out for the final leg.

1:20 pm  Wellman Road and Hwy 24

I was pretty confident in getting a ride up the Wellman road, since it is moderately busy and it takes people to McClouth and Oskaloosa.  Also, country people seem to be generally helpful.  I thought I would head for the power station where there is a turn-out (10 minute walk) but on the way a young fellow in a van pulled up next to me and offered to drive me north.  I hadn’t even put out my sign!  This driver, Cain Robberson from the Indie Folk trio Olassa, took me all the way to my gravel road, 27th street, and told me a scary story about a hitcher he picked up once.  I assured him our riders would be vetted for safety, and he said he would look out for them in the future.  At this point I could have walked the 1 1/2  miles back home, but I was beat, so I called Husband, who fetched me back home.

All in all, it was a fascinating and encouraging first time out.  I learned so much, I could never write it all in this blog, but I will make a few observations:

  •  People are generally more kind and helpful than we give them credit for.
  •  All the drivers today picked me up out of kindness and curiosity.  Good motivations!  3 of the 5 had either hitchhiked themselves or picked up hitchers in the past.
  •  Safety is a primary concern, especially for women.  If I were a large man, I definitely would have had a harder time getting a ride.
  • Logging the license plate numbers is a good safety backup, but boy is it awkward!  Need to figure out how to streamline the process.
  • Most of my rides (4 out of 5) were too short to use my questionnaire.  Next time I will hand the driver a stamped, addressed postcard with questions I would like to ask.  It is best to let the driver direct the conversation during the ride.  Also, I don’t want my presence to be a distraction
  • The white board is a BIG HELP.  It is flexible, visible, reusable and looks more legit than cardboard.

That’s it for the first day on the road.  Stay tuned for more Adventures later this week!