Thumbs Up

By Chuck Graham   |   April 5, 2022
Thumbs up along Hwy 166

After backpacking out of the Sierra Madre Mountains in the Los Padres National Forest, myself and two others hiked out to Hwy 166 to walk and hitchhike to our next water cache 15 miles to the west.

It would require brushing up alongside speeding semitrucks, sleepy cows, the arid Cuyama Valley, all the while knowing it was doubtful anyone would pick us up in the middle of the pandemic. Would the lonesome road win out?

As our thumbs pointed westward, and the miles of pavement mounted, it became increasingly clear we needed some luck. As one vehicle buzzed by us again and again, my mind drifted off like the cumulus nimbus above to a time not that long ago of an unconventional, yet successful hitchhiking mission.

The Rugged North

There were four of us experiencing everything Point Reyes National Seashore could throw at us. Ninety minutes north of San Francisco Bay, strong southeast winds, huge northwest swell, and pea soup fog attempted to thwart our sea kayaking jaunt out of Tomales Bay, around the towering Point Reyes Lighthouse, and eventually into shimmering Drakes Bay.

Occasionally, we were accompanied by friendly humpback whales, peculiar sunfish, and throngs of common murres. Once we paddled around the historic lighthouse, we rode a favorable downcoast current into massive Drakes Bay. Northern elephant seals snorted mightily on the deserted beaches, as consistent surf blocked our entry into the tranquil waters of Drakes Estero. 

The four of us patiently waited for the surf to ease, and then we stroked hard into the uneven surf, pushing past American white pelicans, cormorants, and shorebirds roosting on a spacious sandspit. Our pace lightened as we searched for a place to land for the night. 

Above the pickleweed, we slumbered, lulled to sleep by incessant birdsong and the surf roaring just a stone’s throw west of us. As the night wore on, storm clouds blotted out the multitudes of stars. The weather was once again about to turn.

Paddling Vagabonds

At dawn we quickly packed our kayaks knowing a winter storm was about to unleash on us. I was the last one to launch as rain began pelting four kayakers paddling the serpentine channels of Drakes Estero. The dense pickleweed inside the coastal wetland forced the howling winds to ease just enough.

From the water we had a fine vantage point of our surroundings. There was no denying the lighthouse on the exposed bluff to the west, where streams of cars aimed toward its blinking Fresnel light. However, it wasn’t long before that steady line of cars did an about face and headed back in our direction.

Views of Drakes Bay at Point Reyes

As sideways rain showed no signs of relenting, and wind gusts well into gale force range, park personnel thought it best to turn all visitors around, risk management weighing heavy on the national seashore. In this case, the weather was our ally. With all the cars in retreat, it was the perfect opportunity to fetch a ride.

The road leading to the lighthouse was the end of our trip. Our cars were six miles away in Inverness. We needed a ride. Friend Brad Greenbaum wasted no time, and began hitchhiking from his kayak. The first car was a Mercedes sedan. Brad extended his thumb skyward, and astonishingly the Mercedes pulled over. Brad quickly changed and rushed off to his truck, leaving us beneath the road in a culvert and out of the persistent rain.

One Last Attempt

Early on, during our undesirable trek along the narrow shoulder of Highway 166, we were facing and smiling at oncoming cars while hitchhiking westward. That strategy had become too much of an effort. When we felt an oncoming car closing in, we simply raised our thumbs with our backs to potential rides not expecting to get picked up. 

Still three miles away from our water cache, I raised my thumb one last time, and just like that, a friendly family of three pulled over in what was a brand-new Mercedes van. They whisked us away, and within minutes they dropped us off on the other side of the Cuyama River. Our water and a little food were hidden by a close friend within a fortress of gnarled tumbleweeds.

For hours, three road weary backpackers frowned on the demands of a seemingly endless paved route, but the thought of several gallons of water awaiting parched throats forced us to continue. However, it was the kindness of a young family that got us to our chaparral-cloaked haven, that cool water revitalizing the ongoing journey ahead.  


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