Going with the flow: Hitchhiking down the Californian coast

by Jakob Horvat, August 11th 2017, San Diego/California
Hitchhiking is a mental sport. It’s an effective exercise in learning to handle rejections and letting go of expectations. It’s a way of traveling that makes almost anything possible. Or nothing at all. It’s about getting from A to B, indeed. But more importantly, it’s about what we can find in between. It is traveling in the moment with an open mind, positive energy and a loose schedule. My dear friend Benni from Austria came to explore the Unknown with me – hitchhiking California was his first time hitchhiking at all. We made it from Santa Cruz to San Diego in seven days.

1:30 PM, Santa Cruz, Highway 1 on-ramp. I took a black permanent marker out of my backpack and drew five letters on a cardboard: „SOUTH“; Monterey – an old fisher town forty miles from Santa Cruz – would be a good goal for the day. The Californian sun beat down on my skin as I finished writing and began showing the cardboard to the drivers passing by. Benni held his thumb out, and later we exchanged positions. No sunglasses – eye-contact with the drivers is crucial, although hard to execute as the bright sun made me twinkle constantly.

Pulsing nightlife in El Poblado – where the "paisas" mix up with tourists

The first minutes of Benni’s first hitchhiking adventure in Santa Cruz.

2 hours later, same place. Around five cars had stopped and offered us rides. But all of them went only a couple of miles southwards. Not enough to leave a good hitchhiking spot like the one we got. I could feel my face getting sunburnt. Sunscreen, nice try. How long would we wait? What, if we don’t get picked up at all?

Hitchhiking is a game

The rules are simple and there are co-players aplenty. They drive by in their cars. Hundreds of them. Sometimes thousands. Some laugh, some wave, some honk. A boy with a baseball cap showed us his middle finger and a lady shouted out something unladylike. There is only one real opponent here: Us! What we keep telling ourselves while standing on the roadside radiates out to the people passing by. Whether it’s encouraging or demotivating, it works in both directions. Patience is key and when I lose it, guess what, nobody cares. It just feels terrible. No matter what the drivers do, we alone decide whether we win the game or not. Having no tight schedules helps a lot, for it takes away the pressure from the experience and makes the whole game more joyful. If we make it to our destination Monterey today, fine. If not, we’ll sleep in the tent somewhere close by and give it another try tomorrow. Also fine.

hitchwiki.org tells about strategic hitchhiking spots

I’ll be honest with you: Keeping composure is often easier said than done!

But my experience has taught me that whenever I am ready to accept what comes along, the most unexpected things start to happen. Positive thinking attracts alike. In that very moment, no one could have proven this better than Harrison, a cool dude in his mid-twenties with a pony tail. He stopped his silver Toyota next to us and asked, how far „south“ we’d like to go. „Monterey would be nice“, I answered. „I’m going to Watsonville tomorrow morning“, he said. That’s halfway to Monterey. „If you guys can’t find a ride today, you can come with me tomorrow. We’ll get up a bit earlier and I can bring you all the way down to Monterey, no problem.“ Harrison’s offer was one of pure kindness and a genuine will to help. „Oh, and if you need a place to sleep tonight, you can crash at my place.“

From Santa Cruz to San Diego in 7 days with a 4 night stopover in Los Angeles

A stranger just invited us to his house

We didn’t want to give up immediately, but truth be told: hanging out on the roadside under the scorching sun feels much more comfortable with such a smooth exit scenario. Some other cars had stopped, but same story: nobody went all the way down to Monterey. After four hours we decided to take Harrison’s offer. He shared his dark green wooden house with five other people from all over the states. Surfboards leaned in the backyard and drums stood in the corner of the cosy garage we prepared our beds in. A kingsize mattress on the floor told us that we were not the first people sleeping there. Our hosts invited us for dinner, we shared the beer we brought, talked a lot and made this evening a perfect example for how quick strangers can become friends. If we let them. The idea of hitchhiking is to get from one place to another, no doubt. But there’s certainly more to it. For although we hadn’t even got one meter out of Santa Cruz, it had been a successful and very rewarding day. Why did Harrison care so much about us? „You guys instantly gave me good vibes“, he told us. „And I love to meet good people and help out if I can.“

As early as the day broke, Harrison took a detour of around 45 minutes to bring us all the way down to Monterey. My offer, that he can crash my couch whenever he wants to visit Vienna, was natural. As the small fisher town slowly awoke to the screams of the seagulls and the barks of the seals, we wandered through the charming streets along the port, wondering what our next steps would be. We had breakfast in a beach park, chatted with some locals, wrote in our journals, and soon carried on. We reused the „SOUTH“-cardboard from the day before and found ourselves on another on-ramp to the highway 1 around noon.

Morning hours in Monterey

                   Breakfast in a beach park in Monterey

What was just about to happen was close to magical

We waited for twenty minutes when a girl in her twenties came down the on-ramp. Her car was parked around 200 meters up the road. „Do you guys need a ride?“, she asked. „Well, that would be lovely. Where are you headed?“, I responded. „Big Sur, that’s around one hour further south.“ The girls’ name was Juliana and she walked all the way back to invite us to join her. Soon we were cruising along winding turns and picturesque seaside cliffs as we marveled at the stunning coastline that the highway 1 is so well known for. „We could stop and enjoy the view, if you want“, Juliana suggested. „It’s my day off and I do have plenty of time.“ We did want.

Juliana was an angel. Not only did she give us a ride to Big Sur, she also showed us around scenic places and offered us a place to sleep.

In the flow

Two stops later, we all hung out at a small and quiet river close to Big Sur, drank some beers and had no idea what awesomeness was yet to come. We met two friends of Juliana who were going to Santa Barbara the next day. They offered right away to take us down the 260 miles in their car. In Austria we say „Waunn’s laft, daunn laft’s“, which pretty much equals to being in the flow. We spent the rest of the afternoon at the scenic Pfeiffer beach in our group of five and played with the dog of Al Jardine, the lead singer from The Beach Boys. No shit. And Juliana invited us to sleep in her cute house on the mountain. „Is this really happening?“, Benni asks in an overwhelmed tone. Yes. It was.

Juliana’s friends Michael and Giovanni offered us a ride all the way down to Santa Barbara

Juliana found some charming words that evening:

„This day ended up so much better than I thought it would. This morning I couldn’t even have imagined to pick up two hitchhikers and spend such a great time with them. So thanks for being here guys. Thanks for being cool.“

The kindness we were allowed to experience in California didn’t stop

When we built up our tent on the beach of Santa Barbara, we already had a ride for the next day. Giovanni and Michael, the couple that took us from Big Sur to Santa Barbara, eventually took us all the way down to Los Angeles. Benni and I kicked off our four night stopover in the city of angels with a hangout on Venice Beach. He was seemingly stunned as we sat in the sand and watched the waves crashing on the shore. Almost speechless due to what had happened in the past days. I felt similar, although I have already hitchhiked from Austria to America and hence got the chance to experience such spectacular generosity from strangers in other parts of the world. But I admit, I too was surprised by how easy it was this time.

Camping on the beach of Santa Barbara

Chilling on Venice Beach / Los Angeles

Last destination: San Diego

We finally met with our friends Ita and Alan in San Diego

And then, Benni said something that I’ll never forget:

„I’m so amazed by how awesome people are. I would have never thought that. This trip opened my eyes and inspired me and I can’t wait to host Couchsurfers at my place in Vienna. I want to give something back.“


That’s the spirit, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the beauty of humanity!



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