BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Michael Schneider of Lummi Island is lean and tanned, with white hair, a short white beard, and an intelligent face.
Not the sort of person you’d expect to see thumbing a ride, but the kind of person you might decide to drive to his next destination.
The 72-year-old retired teacher has become a Johnny Appleseed of the benefits of hitchhiking. He considers ride-sharing a commonsense way to help the environment that has been discouraged by a culture of fear.
“I’m the only guy out there,” he said. “You can drive from New York to San Francisco and not see a hitchhiker.”
A native of the Midwest, Schneider taught math and drama in New York and Colorado, then lived in Oregon before moving to Whatcom County nearly a decade ago. As a teen, he hitched through Europe, a common diversion for young people. But unlike most thumbers, he has continued to hitchhike, reported the Bellingham Herald.
While living near Denver, Schneider sometimes hitched more than 40 miles to his teaching job. His topcoat and briefcase apparently did the trick; he was never late for work.
When he lived in Bend, he hitched to promote his idea of a membership-based ride-sharing program, akin to a nonprofit Uber for hitchhikers. His plan didn’t take hold, but ride-sharing programs have surfaced elsewhere in the country.
In recent years, Schneider has traveled to distant parts of the country, then hitchhiked to explore the local history and scenery, and to meet local residents.
“It’s a unique way to see the country,” he said.
He traveled to western Wisconsin four years ago, then hitched south to Postville, a small town in northeast Iowa. The reason? Schneider had enjoyed a book, “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America,” about the town’s response in the 1980s when members of an orthodox Jewish sect opened a kosher slaughterhouse nearby.
The following year he flew to Kansas City, Missouri, and hitched west to Lawrence, Kansas, to meet a woman who was trying to start a ride-sharing program, then thumbed his way to Denver.
In 2014, he flew to Atlanta and hitched through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
“Southerners know that Northerners are afraid of them,” Schneider said, “and they can’t figure it out because they know they’re nicer than us.”
In September he traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee, and hitched through Kentucky coal country before flying home from Cincinnati.
“I spent eight days just moseying,” he said.
Again, a book contributed to his choice of destination. Schneider had read “Storming Heaven,” a novel based on the real-life “Battle of Blair Mountain” in 1921, when 10,000 coal miners clashed with 3,000 coal company supporters and law officers. Their weeklong battle, including biplanes that dropped bombs, left dozens dead.
In Benham, Kentucky, Schneider visited the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum, where a floor of exhibits showcases Loretta Lynn, who grew up in nearby Butcher Hollow and who started her family and singing career in Whatcom County.
He was struck by Kentuckians’ friendliness and determination while living in an economically depressed region.
“There’s a combination of palpable despair, and also generosity,” he said.
To increase his odds of getting a ride, and to show his appreciation for drivers who stop, Schneider travels with a sign saying he will pay 10 cents a mile. Most drivers decline his offer. Others mistakenly think he’s asking for help and offer him money or food.
“The poorer they are, the less likely they’ll take your money,” he said.
Schneider says hitchhiking is safer than people think, especially with stronger laws against drunken driving.
He likes to share his story about hitching from Klamath Falls, Oregon, to Bend the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A middle-age woman in an old Datsun who gave him a ride asked why he was hitchhiking. He answered, in part, “It’s my way of fighting fear in America.”
Schneider does follow common-sense safety practices. He declines an offer of a ride if the situation doesn’t feel right, and he doesn’t hitch at night.
“If I hit a town that’s got a motel and it’s 4 o’clock, that’s where I stay,” he said.