As the Flathead Grows, Hitchhiking Numbers Shrink

By Beacon Staff

Angey LaRoque spent much of her youth hitchhiking across the Flathead Valley from her home in Whitefish. Now she returns the favor as often as she can, picking up locals and travelers whenever there’s space in her red Firebird.

“It seems like an easy way to help someone out,” said LaRoque, who now lives in Olney, “especially if you’re going that direction anyway.”

This philosophy – common among Flathead Valley residents who have thumbed rides themselves – holds firm in some cases, especially for those trying to catch a ride to Whitefish Mountain Resort, or for hikers trying to get from one trailhead to another in Glacier National Park. But as the area has grown, hitchhiking has become a more complicated affair. Wariness of crime and the possible dangers of hitchhiking have caused what many see as a reduction in hitchhiking along local highways in recent years.

“In today’s mobile society, you just don’t know who’s giving you a ride,” said Geno Cook, patrol lieutenant for the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department who has lived in the area since 1989. “You never know who you’re going to be picking up or who’s going to be giving the ride.” Hitchhiking at night, he said, can be especially dangerous.

Even LaRoque said she would never want her teenage son or daughter to hitchhike today.

“This area is easily 10 times bigger now, and they’re not people from here,” she said. “So it’s not like you can go, ‘That’s that red truck I got a ride from. Stay away from that truck.’ It’s a different world.”

Such sentiments have filtered down to the international students working at Whitefish Mountain Resort, who in the past have been frequent hitchhikers between Whitefish and Kalispell, since most don’t have cars.

“The city is very welcoming, but we know there are dangers there,” said Sinara Vieira of Brazil, who is working as a cashier on the mountain.

It’s a message that Kristi Hanchett, human resources director for the resort, has tried to instill this year, after spotting some international workers trying to hitchhike back from Kalispell last winter while loaded down with shopping bags.

“Lots of them were going to Best Buy, and then they stand on the side of the road with all these bags, and that makes me very nervous,” said Hanchett, who said that they were easy targets for robbery.

So this year, for the first time, Hanchett is setting up rides to Kalispell in a company van whenever several international workers all need to go to town.

Such fears, and the resulting reduction in local hitchhiking, sadden Jamey Willows, who spent her teenage years hitchhiking around the valley from her home in Hungry Horse, sometimes just “for the adventure.”

“It used to be you would always see people hitchhiking,” said Willows, who now lives in Happy Valley. “It was really accepted, at least around here.”

Willows acknowledged that hitchhiking was far different in the late 1970s than it is today. For one, she often knew the person picking her up. But she still sees hitchhiking as an integral part of the close-knit Montana mentality and continues to pick up hitchhikers herself.

“I think the whole valley – and it’s almost like the Montana thing – the world could end, and 20 years later we’re still here,” she said. “It’s almost more like a little community, where farmers and people are helping each other out.”

That community still exists, particularly among skiers and hikers. Virtually every longtime employee at Whitefish Mountain Resort has hitchhiked up the mountain at some point – or given a ride to another skier or snowboarder.

“If you have skis, a backpack, goggles, or a name badge visible, you increase your chances (of getting a ride) by at least 30 percent,” said rental employee Dave Rubin, who frequently picks up hitchhikers on his way up the mountain.

Lauren Smither, a snowboarder who recently moved to Whitefish from Nantahala Gorge, North Carolina, likens the winter hitchhiking community in the Flathead to the river community back East, where she and other paddlers often had to hitch from the end of a run on the river back to their cars.

Having thumbed so many rides herself, Smither has come to see hitchhiking as a great opportunity to “meet such various individuals that you would never meet elsewhere.”

Although Smither herself has so far had no problems hitchhiking, or giving out rides, she admits that, away from the ski resort or the river gorge, safety becomes more of a concern – especially for women.

“Every time you hop in the seat with someone, you always have that underlying feeling, ‘I don’t know this person,'” she said. “I cannot tell you I would necessarily pick up a bearded 40-year-old man on the highway, but if it was a single woman, I probably would. And that’s a shame, too, because (the bearded man) could be a great guy. But I can’t really take that risk.”

Guilt and discomfort also keep some valley residents from hitchhiking. Tom Danley of Whitefish said he feels bad when he doesn’t pick up hitchhikers, and doesn’t want to impose that feeling on others.

Recently, while waiting for a SNOW Bus up to Whitefish Mountain Resort – one that was running late – Danley briefly considered sticking out his thumb, but said, “I’d almost rather go home and get my car rather than withstand all the rejection of people driving by.”

The SNOW Bus itself has likely had some impact on the number of people hitchhiking up to Big Mountain since it began running on a more frequent schedule several years ago, said Dale Duff, SNOW Bus president. Although there’s no way to measure such an impact, he said, the bus picks up more than 40,000 people annually – including many who previously may have hitchhiked instead.

Still, many believe thumbing remains an integral part of living in the Flathead Valley.

“A lot of people still really feel safe hitchhiking, because a lot of people work in Glacier, a lot of people work on Big Mountain,” Willows said. “And just because I’ve hitchhiked myself, I have pretty much a good faith that (hitchhikers will) be good people.”

LaRoque, too, said that she has retained her trust in the hitchhiking community, even as the Flathead Valley has grown and more outsiders have come in. She’s recently picked up travelers from Australia and from Duke University in North Carolina. And several years ago, when LaRoque and her husband’s car broke down on the side of the road: “When we finally got a ride, it was two women from New York City.”

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