National hitchhiking trip interrupted in Van Wert

July 29, 2013

RITTMAN — Michael Gibson and his 18-year-old son, Scott Fritts, walked out of their home at 5:09 a.m. on June 15 with nothing more than $105 and 60 pounds of possessions split between two backpacks.

“See you in a while, America,” Gibson said into his video camera as they stood on the porch, dawn just beginning to break over their sleepy Wayne County community.

They returned to their family 16 days and 7,500 miles later feeling prepared to tackle anything life had to hand them — and with a new appreciation for the good in humanity.

A lot of folks thought they were crazy for wanting to hitchhike to California and back.

Fritts said the motivation was simply “to see different things and meet new people on the way to wherever you’re going.”

That, they did — accepting more than 80 rides from strangers in two-seater convertibles, family sedans, vans, pickup trucks and tractor-trailers traveling country roads.

They turned the camera on each new person they met, recording images and slices of life on their cross-country adventure and uploading them to YouTube so friends and family could follow along.

“It’s changed us,” Gibson said of the trip. “All the good people out there. People are a lot kinder than you think.”

The idea for the trip came in March, when Gibson and Fritts met a hitchhiker during spring break in New York. They were thrilled by his tales, and the very next day they started looking at websites devoted to hitchhiking do’s and don’ts.

Fritts was graduating from Rittman High School, with plans to enter the U.S. Air Force, so it seemed like a fitting event to cement the father-son bond before Fritts left the nest. Besides, Gibson was still unemployed after losing his restaurant job last year, and had the time available.

“We did research for four months,” Gibson said. Preparation included taking their backpacks to a local bike path and practicing 50-yard sprints as if they were running to meet a stopped vehicle. “We wanted to feel what it would be like.”

Cookie Monster code

Gibson said his wife, Katherine, and his other five children were supportive, but they stopped telling acquaintances about their plans.

“People told us nobody picks up hitchhikers anymore,” or they would recount some scene from a horror movie, he said.

“But we had this planned out to a T. We even had code words. ‘Cookie Monster’ meant we needed to get out of a vehicle,” Gibson said. (They never had to call upon the Cookie Monster.)

Their family also helped by grilling them constantly about what they would do in different circumstances.

“We were prepared for everything except for the heat. Heat is one thing you can’t prepare for,” Gibson said.

On their first morning, Gibson and Fritts hit the streets and headed west. It was too early for much traffic, but a couple of hours later, they met Jim, who drove them from Sterling to Seville. It was a short jaunt, but breaking the ice lifted their spirits.

Nobody picks up hitchhikers anymore? In their first two days, they accepted 22 rides along U.S. 224 and along the old Route 66.

Among them was Mitch, a factory worker who had a full-time job but lived in his car anyway; an elderly lady who lectured them about the dangers of hitchhiking; and a man who bought them a steak dinner and a hotel room.

They also met a truck driver who let them sleep in the back of his cab as he drove them to Tulsa, Okla.

The bed in the cab and the hotel room were rare treats. Of 16 nights on the road, 14 were spent sleeping in fields, in parking lots or behind gas stations and car dealerships.

Most nights, they used one of the ponchos they carried to protect themselves from the ground, and covered together with the second poncho. The only other things in their backpacks were three pairs of socks, an extra pair of shorts, a pair of jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, sunscreen, bug spray, a first aid kit, three pairs of underwear, swimming trunks, a map and a couple of wigs.

Gibson chuckled at the choice of the wigs.

“We just thought they would make a funny picture somewhere,” he said.

On a crutch

A funnier picture turned out to be one of Gibson hitchhiking while wearing a hospital gown and leaning on a crutch. It was no costume. Both father and son ended up in the hospital once during their journey — Gibson when he cracked his shin and got a hairline fracture, and Fritts when something bit him in the night and swelled his foot up.

Gibson said they were stopped by police several times along the way. Veteran hitchhikers had warned them to carry a credit card so they couldn’t be termed a vagrant, so Gibson had $25 loaded onto a prepaid card that he never used, and whipped it out each time they were stopped.

“The cops were so nice,” he said.

In Indiana, one sheriff’s deputy stopped them because they were walking down a dark country road. After hearing their story, he gave them a lift to the next county. There, he’d arranged to hand them off to another sheriff’s deputy, who took them to a better-lit area so they could continue their journey.

It was their personal rule to hitch only on country roads. Hiking on expressways is illegal, traffic is moving too fast to stop, and the point was to see America, not to cross the country as fast as possible, Gibson said.

Friendly city in Texas

Gibson and Fritts didn’t hesitate to name the friendliest city in the country as Shamrock, Texas, where they were constantly addressed as “sir” and handed $20 bills from three different locals.

“We never asked anyone for money during the whole trip,” Gibson said, but estimates people voluntarily gave them $225 over the 16 days.

When they asked employees at a Best Western in Shamrock if they could upload their videos and charge their iPad in the lobby, the staff made them Texas-shaped waffles. And while they waited at a gas station for a ride promised by a man they’d met the night before, the gas station attendant noticed Fritts shivering and gave him a jacket.

The promised ride showed up and hauled them all the way to Fremont, Calif.

Los Angeles was to be their ultimate destination, Gibson said, but they had to change plans.

Roads closed due to wildfires forced them to redraw their route, so they made it as far as Barstow, Calif., then on Day 6, they turned to head home.

Bucket list

Skipping Los Angeles meant missing out on several of their 101 goals. They had created a bucket list with the help of family and friends, ranging from touring a radio station to flying a kite to getting free food from a restaurant.

But things they would not be able to check off included swimming in the ocean, stepping foot into Mexico and finding celebrity handprints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that matched their size.

They did, however, achieve 69 of their goals.

That included volunteering at a soup kitchen, which they did in Barstow.

“Just to hear other people’s stories.” Gibson said. “It surprised me because it wasn’t about drugs and alcohol. These were people who had lost jobs and were just trying to get back on their feet.”

And it included staying in a homeless shelter themselves, which they did in Las Vegas — a city where they were nearly trapped for three days.

Trouble in Vegas

Vegas has a prison to the north and the south, and because people are forbidden from picking up hitchhikers near prisons they couldn’t figure out how to get through the sweltering desert.

Staying at the homeless shelter was difficult, not because of the company, but because they had to relinquish all their belongings.

“They took our backpacks, our iPad, everything we owned. We got it back in the morning, but it was hard letting it go,” Gibson said.

They did get to shower — one of only four showers they took on their trip — and slept in military-style bunks.

On their second night in Vegas, they learned about a man who let homeless people squat on his property. At 1 a.m., the man took them in as well, and they learned about the lives of some of the nine people who were living in a trailer, tents and shacks set up around his house.

There was no electricity, but the residents had built themselves a solar-powered battery that gave them heated water and even Internet access.

“It was the most amazing part of our journey,” Gibson said.

During the day, some of the residents assembled inside the house to play music. On a drum set made of cans and the soles of shoes was a man who told a heartbreaking tale of losing his wife and son, and how he still carried his son’s ashes with him.

Into the desert

On the fourth day in Vegas, Gibson and Fritts decided the only way out of town was to tackle the desert. The north route seemed to offer them the fastest escape — a 17-mile walk through the desert. So they loaded up with water and ice, soaked their shirts, and set out.

Along the way, they came across several dead animals that had been tied up in bags and tossed off the road. The scene was heartbreaking.

“Vegas was the best city, and the worst city,” Gibson said of their experience.

Eventually, they made it to a truck stop where they recovered and found their next ride.

Soon after, they accepted a ride that was the only time they came close to invoking the Cookie Monster. A man and woman had picked them up, then proceeded to drink alcohol and light up a joint.

“I asked to be let out because my son, he’s 18 and I don’t allow that,” Gibson said.

The only city that frightened them was Peoria, Ill. — and not because of anything the locals did to them.

“People kept saying, 'Don’t go through Peoria. A couple of white boys won’t survive,'” Gibson said. “But we’d been all over the United States and we thought, what the heck. We walked into town at 9:30 p.m.”

Almost immediately, they heard gunshots and sirens in the distance and wondered if they’d made a mistake.

“But nobody messed with us. We were scared but only because others made us scared to be there,” Gibson said.

The next day, Fritts blew out his shoe. Gibson did his best to fix it with duct tape, but the shoe kept falling apart. To make matters worse, their thumbs suddenly had lost their magic. Motorist after motorist was passing them by.

“I started saying, ‘I’m done. I’m done.’ I was ready to find a Greyhound,” Gibson said, “But it was Scott — he never once wanted to give up.”

So they stopped at a church where “Pastor Becky” heard their tale, bought Fritts some new shoes (Gibson insisted it be the clearance aisle of a local store), gave them $60 and took them to the county line.

“I’m not a religious person at all, but it seemed like God started playing a role with us,” he said.

They were next picked up by an engineer who said he passed them by earlier but “I knew when I got home and read my Bible, God was going to ask why I didn’t pick you up,’” Gibson recalled him saying. “After that, ride after ride started coming.”

Gibson instructed his son before their journey to wave and be friendly to oncoming traffic, believing in karma. It paid off now.

A woman stopped and said she and her fiancé had seen them waving earlier, so on her return trip, she picked them up. She was so enamored of their story, she had driven them all the way to the Indiana state line before they realized how far she had gone out of her way.

Big trouble in Ohio

In Ohio, they finally met a cop who refused to let them go any farther. An officer in Van Wert stopped them, told them hitchhiking was illegal, and insisted they have a ride before letting them leave the station.

A mere two hours from home, Gibson said he called a cousin in Norton to come pick them up. To complete their journey, Gibson and Fritts stuck out their thumbs, accepted a ride from the cousin, and videotaped him as they had done all the drivers before him.

“We walked into the house at six in the morning” where he found one of his sons sleeping on the couch, Gibson said. He gave his son a kiss and got a sleepy “Good morning” before his son realized who had kissed him. That was followed by screams, hugs and hours of story-telling.

Gibson and Fritts were close before their trip began, but there were still things to learn about each other.

“I’m so proud of him. He never quit. When I was saying I was done, he kept walking,” Gibson said. “I told him ‘now that you’ve done this, you can do anything.’”

And Gibson knows he’s raised the standard of what his other kids — ages 2 to 10 — expect from him when they get older.

“But I’d do it again,” he said. “In a heartbeat.”