Before Michael Paterniti published some of the most strangely beautiful and empathetic stories of his generation, before he was a contributor to The New York Times Magazine and a correspondent for GQ, he was an 18-year-old standing by the side of a Canadian road, trying to hitchhike to Alaska. Briefly recalling that trip in his first book, “Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain,” Paterniti described himself as wearing “a dopey, squinty-eyed grin.” Nevertheless, he wrote, “it felt momentous.”

I could relate. I’ve gone hitchhiking every chance I’ve had since I was 17. It’s shot me off across the country and around the world, shocked and overwhelmed me, and broke me out of a kid-shyness more effectively than when I had to cold-call people at my first magazine gig. It’s exposed me to lives I could hardly have imagined. I’ve had long rides where I learned about labor conditions on the Google Maps team, the life of a French Foreign Legion paratrooper in the Congo, and what it was like to be part of the founding government of Kosovo. In my writing and reporting, it’s led to everything from stumbling onto an anarchist squatter commune in Detroit to finding new dimensions in Dostoyevsky. I don’t even know if I’d have understood that I could be a journalist without hitchhiking.

And though it’s rarely acknowledged, it seems like hitchhiking has shaped a lot of other journalists. Traces pop up in the work, and sometimes just in the early author bios, of some of our best writers: Sebastian Junger, Ian Frazier, George Saunders, Doug Bock Clark, David Sedaris, Vanessa Veselka, Vikram Seth, Patrick Symmes, and, of course, Michael Paterniti.

Michael Paterniti

Michael Paterniti

Once I noticed this hitchhiker-to-writer trajectory, a series of questions became unavoidable. Paterniti, with whom I’ve worked a bit as a fact checker at GQ, agreed to let me ask them. I tried to find out whether he saw his hitchhiking experiences as having, to some extent, made him the writer and reporter he became, whether those experiences inspired his openness to the unexpected, whether they granted him the comfort with vulnerability that allowed him to report from precarious situations. I wondered if hitchhiking had given him some practice talking with strangers about the things that really mattered — the sorts of conversations that are so central to his work.

I called Paterniti up on a gray Monday in May, a younger hitchhiker asking for the outlook of an older one. Our conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

 

One thing hitchhiking made me realize was that the world is more magical than I thought it was, more surreal, and that seems to be a perspective that comes through in a lot of your stories. I’m thinking, for instance, of the Ukrainian giant. Would you trace any of that back to your own hitchhiking?

Well, I do think you take the stance of a hitchhiker on every one of these stories. You really are hitchhiking in the most psychic and even physical sense. People are driving you around, people are showing you stuff, people are inviting you into their kitchens. They’re showing you emotions that they haven’t shown the people who are closest to them.

One thing I loved about hitchhiking was you had no idea where you were going to end up that night, you had no idea what you were entering when you got into somebody’s car. I remember there was this guy — we were up in Canada, it was basically on the highway from Prince George to Prince Rupert — and he dropped us off on an Indian reservation. We never thought we’d see the guy again. We stayed in some half-abandoned house that was being built on this reservation, just holed up there. The next morning we woke up to the sound of the whole crew coming in to work and we ducked out the back. We snuck down a gully, came out on the highway, and put our thumbs in the air. The first guy who picked us up was the same guy who had dropped us off. That guy’s life — we knew it completely by the time we were done with him. If you sit in the front seat with somebody, especially if they’re talkative, it’s better than being in a bar somewhere. You learn a lot, fast.

I loved that. You can go with a complete stranger and there’s this almost instant intimacy. It has to do with movement, it has to do with travel, it has to do with the total randomness of it. When you get on a plane and you go to Kazakhstan, you’re doing what one does when one goes on assignment. You roll the dice, you’re allowing the randomness of it to enter in, and then that’s when you get this really interesting friction. You get a little bit of a radar by having to live by your wits, and that’s definitely what you’re doing when you’re hitchhiking.

A lot of the time when people pick me up, they’ll say ‘God told me to pick you up.’ They get really religious. A lot of your writing seems to focus on fairly spiritual matters. Do you think any of those sorts of conversations influenced that?

We got picked up between Portland and Seattle by these hippies who were drinking tons of beer. Their car was kind of like their own private, mobile ashram. I remember having what I guess would have counted as a heavy conversation when you’re 18 and the people driving you around are completely stoned and drunk.

By being a passenger you become hyper aware; you become hyper aware of the light. I was very much tuned to the landscapes we were driving through, and for me that’s always the beginning of a feeling of awe that’s definitely spiritual. Part of the beauty of it is you feel so completely untethered that it’s like you’re in a kind of existential state of suspension, and you end up asking questions, you end up going deep, you end up finding out about people’s inner lives. Inevitably — especially if you get picked up by the Buddhist hippies or the Christian anti-abortion person with the bumper sticker on the back of their car — you’re going to go there.

You can ask a difficult question and there’s space to answer it, as opposed to sometimes in everyday life.

That’s part of the anonymity of it. You can ask questions like, what’s up with your bumper sticker? What do you believe? It’s just so much easier to do it that way, instead of at Thanksgiving where there’s some rogue family member who’s going to take issue with the question. When people are really dug in, you can’t have the same conversation that you might have with a complete stranger in that suspended state of being.

Being on assignment, you are trying to create that suspension with somebody. You’re trying to take them out of their world by asking questions or asking them to sometimes do things, even. When I was in Japan doing the tsunami piece, I asked somebody to go back to the village that was wiped out, to the site where he lost his wife. In a weird way, that whole trip was like a pure hitchhike. He was much more willing to answer the questions, especially when we were in motion, when we weren’t sitting across a table from each other.

When you’re sitting in a car, you can look at each other, you can not look at each other. Someone has to be looking at the road most of the time. You can ask a difficult question and there’s space to answer it, as opposed to sometimes in everyday life. Don’t you find that?

Absolutely.

You’re kind of building something with somebody when you’re hitchhiking. You’re building this temporary relationship that’s only going to last as long as until their next turn off the main road, or X amount of miles and hours. In that space, it’s like you’re more available to each other, because that person picked you up for a reason, and you’re — yeah, you’re hitchhiking for a reason.

Of course, you’re trying, in your way, to not look like a psycho, and they’re trying not to look like a psycho. You’re trying to reassure each other somehow.

For sure. On the other hand, on trips that you go on alone, while you’re waiting for someone to stop — it seems to me there’s a huge amount of loneliness in that moment.

Yeah, and vulnerability too, like feeling vulnerable to even the weather. I think there was a point where I realized it was dangerous, especially on the East coast. I hitchhiked at one point from Cape Cod down to my house in Connecticut. It was pouring rain and I just kept hoping that these rides were going to last longer than they were lasting. I remember being soaked and miserable. The last ride was with some guy who had a bunch of weird chicken coops on the back of his jalopy. I was under a bridge, and I had my little sign and I had my thumb, and the guy pulled over. The vulnerability of that moment was — even as my mind was saying ‘oh, maybe this is the ride you don’t take,’ the other part of me was like, ‘I’ve got to take this ride. I can’t stand out here anymore.’ I was very grateful that he picked me up, but I had that feeling of risking more, maybe, than I need to.

Other times though, there’s a monotony to it. You start playing games with yourself, or, if you’re hitching with somebody else, you’re just monkeying around. It’s such a Waiting for Godot. You could be there for three minutes or you could be there for three hours. You have no idea how long it’s going to last. I hitchhiked with my brother across Ireland, and we just could not get a ride for the life of us, and that was fine. We were just hanging out. The weather was fine. We were united by trying to devise a way to figure how we could find a ride, how we would try to find a gas station to approach truckers, and what we were going to say. There was just a whole logistical thing that began to occur because we weren’t getting rides.

That was also why we thought buying a car on another trip to Alaska was a good idea. We convinced ourselves that it would give us more autonomy than the hitchhiking, which had gone pretty well up to Seattle, but then not so well up to Vancouver. So we were like, ‘when we get to Vancouver let’s try to find something really cheap.’ We each put in $150 and got a $300 car. And the car — we got three hours outside of Vancouver and we were going up a mountain and it started rolling backwards. We were in the middle of nowhere, so in order to even get anywhere we had to get rid of this car. We didn’t even sell it. It was a free tow so they could have the car. We never looked back, obviously. It was just another casualty along the road.

Even having 150 bucks on you at a time … For me, hitchhiking sometimes makes me realize I’m white, I’m male, it’s particularly safe for me. It starts me thinking about my own privilege and how I can get through the world fairly safely. Was that on your mind at the time?

When I had any doubt about it, I would think I’m as safe as anyone could be out here. And when I was hitchhiking with my buddy, that made me feel safe. We got picked up by everybody. We got picked up by women, we got picked up by men. That became the most interesting part of it for me: Who stops to pick you up, who lets you in like that, and why? Some people were just being good samaritans, being Christian, some people were just wanting company, and some people were just like, oh yeah, I’m going that way, it’d be easy enough for me to give him a lift.

In some ways, for me, hitchhiking became very pure in the brief moment that I did it.

We hitchhiked through the Yukon. We got in the back of somebody’s pickup truck and they just bought a bunch of beer and we lived many lives back there. It wasn’t just us. There were some other hitchhikers and the guys in front, and we all switched around. The guys who picked us up were awesome. They had no reason to do that. They were just getting us to Anchorage and they knew that there was no way we were going to get there otherwise because it wasn’t like they were running public transport from out there up to Anchorage. That drive felt like forever. I don’t know how many hours it was, but it felt like 12 to me. I remember getting drunk, I remember sleeping, I remember waking up hungover, I remember eating breakfast. It felt like a full rotation.

Did you ever experience the sort of paying-it-forward hitchhiker? Someone who hitchhiked in their youth and was like, ‘oh, a hitchhiker, I’ve got to stop and pick them up’? That’s always been really fun for me, in the same way that I’m really happy to be able to ask you all these questions, to compare experiences in different eras.

I feel like my era might have been when hitchhiking was more prevalent and, almost, socially acceptable. I was at the tail end of that time, when you were more likely to pick people up. Then everybody ended up in their silos, because of whatever — partly the fear-mongering of the press when they latch on to those one or two stories that are the bad ones, which of course are a real risk, but it definitely squelched it.

When I was in Namibia on assignment, I had to borrow somebody’s Range Rover or something. I was with this elephant hunter and he loaned me his car. The one thing he said was, ‘Don’t pick up any hitchhikers. It’s just not good in Namibia to do that and you’re going to end up in trouble.’ I got out to the middle of nowhere on these dirt roads and I was trying to find this place that I had to do an interview. I was completely lost. There were no markings out there, nothing. Every once in awhile you’d see guys standing at the side of the road. You’d go by and they would half-heartedly stick their thumb up, knowing that nobody in Namibia stops. I guess it was very much like a racial thing, ‘cause the guys on the side of the road were black and I’d been told by this white guy not to pick up the black guys.

I saw these two guys from afar, and I stopped and I picked them up. I didn’t even think too hard about it. The truck had two seats in the front and an open bed in the back. We didn’t really even talk. I just rolled the window down and said, ‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I’ll take you as far as I go before I turn off.’ And they just said thanks and jumped in the back. I was driving and just thinking, ‘These guys are just trying to get up the road.’

It’s just having some faith in humanity or in the human encounter.

There’s no danger, but the danger that’s been projected on this. There’s no fear, in a way, if you’re willing to take the risk. But, at the same time, the stories, I guess, of people getting robbed were real. You know, it’s that constant balancing and that pay-it-forward thing. Maybe in that moment, when I was told most definitively not to, there was some part of me that wanted to, or needed to. I do think it had something to do with knowing what it’s like to stand by the side of the road. Of course, it was a hundred degrees out there and it’s desert where we were. I was like, ‘God, these guys don’t even look like they have water. I can’t just drive by these guys.’

It’s just having some faith in humanity or in the human encounter. Of course, there are so many examples of it going wrong, which is why hitchhiking is this weird Kierkegaardian leap of faith. You’re trusting, and by trusting, sometimes, magical things can happen. Magical things do happen. You get shown worlds that you would never otherwise have seen. Not to go in fluffy-headed about it, but what if the whole world was hitchhiking? What if it just became mainstream again and we just did it? That’d be kind of cool. It would just totally deactivate the tension around it in some ways.

And ecologically it would be terrific.

Yeah. I remember early on as a magazine writer, I pitched the idea a couple of times that I’m just going to hitchhike across America and write about it, write about these ideas we’re talking about right now. Once I had kids, though, I wondered if I be risking something by doing that As opposed to going to some very dangerous place in the world? I couldn’t quite figure it out.

You’re definitely risking something, and yet you still go there. But it’s a known danger and you can begin your calculations of how to be safe. So, I don’t know. In some ways, for me, hitchhiking became very pure in the brief moment that I did it. It was a really pure way to meet somebody.

 

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