The first time I hitchhiked, I don’t remember what time it was or if it was raining. I don’t remember what I was wearing, other than I had my backpack on. I remember the smell of humidity from the creeks and the itch of my mosquito bites. I remember I had to forget myself, to ignore thoughts of what I might look like, or that I was in the position of having to ask for a ride, or what might happen once I did. I walked along the shoulder of the Seward Highway on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, just a little ways out of town. Each time I heard a car approaching, I turned around, arm extended, thumb pointing toward the sky. I was doing this alone for the first time, without my trail crew, part of me hoping a car would stop because I needed to get to camp after using the pay showers in town, part of me wishing one wouldn’t, because then I’d have to talk to whomever was inside.

I turned around and raised my thumb to the car passing now, a gray sedan. It drove past, but then slowed and pulled to the shoulder several yards in front of me. Shit, this is it, I thought, and ran ahead to the car.

A man and a woman sat in the front seat, middle-aged, long jackets and winter scarves on. The man sat in the driver’s seat. The woman had rolled down her window, and I stuck my head in a little. I forced a smile. I’m relaxed, I thought, and not at all freaked out. Please be normal people. Please give me a ride. I hoped they wouldn’t smell the desperation on me. I caught my breath. “Where ya headed?”

The man answered, low-key and friendly. “To our lodge on Exit Glacier Rd.” He wore heavy, 80s-type glasses.

Indeed, there was a fancy schmancy hotel at the beginning of Exit Glacier Rd., on the way to the park. My campsite was another couple miles in, just outside the entrance. I assumed the answer would be no.

“I’m going to the campgrounds just outside the park.”

The man gestured toward the backseat. “Hop in.”

My heart jumped up higher in my chest. “You sure? It’d take you out of your way.”

“It’s ok,” said the woman. She had short brown hair and a plain face.

Alright.” I took my pack off and slid in the backseat. As I closed the door, I realized was shaking. I curved my arms around my pack in my lap. That could be my armor.

The man put the car in gear, signaled and looked, and pulled onto the road. He glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “Car break down?”

“No. I was just spending time in town. I’m part of a trail crew. We’re doing work in the national park.” I paused. “With AmeriCorps,” I added, so he wouldn’t think I was a total psycho. I still hadn’t gotten completely used to the idea myself, saying it out loud.

The woman turned around. “That’s great. We’re trying to get our son to do an AmeriCorps program.”

I smiled and loosened my grip on my pack.

“Where ya from?” asked the man.

“Well, I’d been living in California, but I grew up near Chicago.”

“Really? No kidding,” he sounded excited. Oh God, is that weird? I gripped my pack again.

The woman smiled. “We’re from Indiana.”

I let go of my pack and let it rest on my knees. “Huh. Small world.”

“Out here seeing God’s country,” the man said.

We fell silent as the man navigated Exit Glacier Rd., Exit Glacier on display in front of us, a long, crusty mound of gray-white snow on permanent travel down a steep slope. It emptied into Exit Creek, which flowed mostly parallel to the road. The man dropped me off at the edge of the circular parking lot at the entrance to the national park, in front of the path signed ‘Trail crew camp.’ I hitched my first ride! I had jumped off the cliff and landed at the bottom intact.

I gathered my pack. “Front door service. Can’t beat it.”

“Thanks for working on the trails,” the woman said.

The man reached back and handed me a business card. “If you ever get to West Lafayette, Indiana, look us up.”

I opened the door. “Thanks again for the ride. And from fellow Midwesterners nonetheless.”

I climbed out, stuck his business card into my pocket, shouldered my pack, and said goodbye one last time as I closed the door.

After that, each time I raised my thumb to the sky, it became a tool, a means of getting from A to B. Soon my thumb was no longer soft and manicured, but seasoned and utilitarian. My cuticles climbed thick and dry and hung with a scaly edge. I didn’t care. My thumb became a signal, a beacon, and I admired its power. It grew to be a fleshy reminder of necessity, humility, and the people willing to help me in my journey.