RITTMAN, Ohio — 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, Ohio, 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, pick-up trucks and semis 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.
“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.”
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.)
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, Ohio. 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 semi-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 themselves 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.
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 pre-paid 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 storytelling.