The sun has risen, technically, but it’s overcast and we’re in a drainage anyway, so everything still has that dark purple hue. We slip into our boots quickly, it’s cold, no sense in standing around, and shoulder our skis to cross the highway. Look both ways, move across quickly, hyper aware of ice underneath the fresh-plowed snow. Then we get set up, finding a happy medium where oncoming drivers can see us, and have time to stop, but won’t affect traffic too much. Thumbs out, ready to hustle as soon as someone pulls over.

I love hitchhiking to ski. It’s one of my favorite things about living close to the mountains. From my house I can walk a block, stick out my thumb, and in 20 minutes I’m on the chairlift. And on the pass there’s endless permutations: Park at the top, ski all the way down, and hitch back. Or park at the bottom and hitch up, avoiding the cluster of belligerent skiers fighting for parking at the summit. Or drop partway, hitch, traverse, ski, traverse again, and hitch back. We have options. And they’re all wonderful.

My partner prefers the bus. She dislikes the emotional labor of hitching, and prefers her podcasts. I, on the other hand, love connecting with whoever happens to stop. I’ve chatted up schoolteachers and loggers, patrollers and electricians. Often we find out that we’ve got friends in common. Regardless, I love the moment to chat, punctuated with an endpoint, a fist bump as I unload, grab my gear, and start hiking.

Hitching in the summer is fine, but it’s a lot more of a logistical challenge with a mountain bike. In the winter it’s easy. Throw my skis on the roof rack or in the back, hop in, shoot the shit for a minute, jump out, ski. It’s exactly the level of human interaction I want on a ski day. Sometimes it’s exactly what I need to cool my nerves, calm me down before a day of questionable decisions. Others it’s a way to decompress - working at home sometimes means that a little human contact on the way to the hill makes a big difference.

And then, of course, there’s the game of it all. I love to try to figure out the ideal strategy for hitching. Where to stand, when to go, what cars are more likely to stop. It’s important to put yourself in the driver’s shoes. Where can they see you the earliest, while still having plenty of space to slow down and pull over to pick you up. So often I see other skiers hitching with no regard to highway safety. It’s frustrating, we need to be as unobtrusive as possible, playing just outside the rules in a way that doesn’t offend anyone. We try to plan it out so that the fewest number of people have to hitch. It’s easier to drop everyone off at the top, and then have one person park at the bottom and grab a ride back up than it is to find a car with space for six skiers and gear. And don’t get me started on folks who try to hitch from places with no shoulder, no safe place to pull over. They’re just making it harder on themselves!

But, once you’ve got your strategy figured out, there’s no guarantee. Don’t trust Utah plates, they’ve got places to go, and traction laws to ignore. Same goes for California. Sometimes you can tell it’s a rental, those cars are never going to pick you up. That truck full of drywallers though, there’s a good chance they’ll stop for you. Just don’t ever expect a luxury SUV with a rocket box to pick you up. Minivans are a safe bet. So are small trucks from the early 2000’s. I’ve ridden in a lot of Tacomas. Once I hitched up with a guy in a Subaru Baja. I was so smitten by its practicality that we bought our own two weeks later. Subarus are a safe bet, generally, they’re often driven by folks who understand the ethos of hitching.

There’s a certain karmic exchange at work too, folks who hitch themselves are much more likely to pick you up. What goes around comes around after all. Once I got picked up by a massive LDS family in a farm truck. They already had four kids packed into the crew cab, and another sharing shotgun with his mom when they picked me up. The mom squeezed into the back, and I got to hear all about their ski vacation as the kids in the back fought with nerf guns. The dad had hitched across the country as a teen, and resolved to return the favor whenever he could, regardless of how much space was actually in the car.

Sometimes you get lucky and hitch a ride with an old head, the kind of guy who’s already been chewed up and spat out by a few resort towns. Often there’ll be Phish playing, and an ashtray in the center console. It’s best to just nod along with these folks, any interjection will probably be overridden anyway.

On the deepest pow day of my life, we rode in the back of a Datsun pickup while the hippie in the front smoked a bowl and talked aimlessly with his old dog, lounging across the dog bed he’d torn out the passenger seat to install.

I’ve only shared my partner’s trepidation about hitching a few times. Once a guy in an Audi picked me up on a pow day. He had a bit of a manic air about him, talking fast, leaving sentences hanging, gesturing a lot. We drove 75 mph all the way up the winding road, passing cars in every blind corner. He had the seat belts buckled against the seats so that they offered absolutely no increase in safety, but kept the warning lights from going off. I was queasy by the time we got to the hill, and I staggered to the trees to puke a little before I got on the lift. But still, even then, I was glad I didn’t have to drive to the hill.

Hitchhiking is a mixed bag. You’ve got to take the weird with the mediocre. But skiing is the same way, and there’s something special about the little bit of ski culture that’s created when we put out our thumbs and commit the journey to the mountains to a stranger.