Lessons in Budget Travel – A Tale of Hitchhiking on America’s West Coast

A Pile of Money July of 1992 was the year my travel addiction began to take hold, and from the moment I boarded the Qantas 747 bound for Hawaii, my life and especially my view of the world would change forever. I’d never met anyone who’d travelled overseas, and the first few months spent on the road were definitely a steep learning curve.

To be quite honest I had no idea what I was doing, or where I was going. After spending a week in Hawaii and a couple of weeks in Canada, I ran a few figures through my head. Although I’d saved a decent amount of money for my travels, at the exuberant rate I was burning cash, I would have blown the lot in 6 months, and would be back in Melbourne for Christmas.

At this early stage, I was enjoying my travel’s immensely, and the thought of being home in 6 months was not an option. From that moment, the decision was made to seriously tighten the purse strings, and try and travel for as long as possible.

After a few weeks of what I thought was budget travel, I believed I was doing OK. That was until the day I met Carl, from Liverpool England.

Carl was an absolute cracker, one of the funniest blokes you could ever meet, and he had me in stitches every time he spoke. Although at first we weren’t traveling together, it wouldn’t be long until Carl and I teamed up, and we would spend a fair bit of time together.

We were both travelling in a southerly direction, and I’d keep running into Carl at the different youth hostels along the way. We’d depart the hostels early morning, roughly at the same time. I’d make my way down to the local Greyhound station, whilst Carl would stroll on down to the nearest highway. He would then hold up his infamous cardboard sign, that simply had the word ‘England’ written on it, and without fail he would have hitched a lift in no more than 10 minutes.

I could never figure out why people were drawn to this sign, and how it worked for him time and time again but, the proof was undeniable. Carl would always beat me to our next destination. Sometimes he’d get a lift all the way, and other times he would need to string multiple lifts together, but he always got there first.

He’d always turn to me and say, in his raspy Liverpool accent ‘Took ya time, didn’t ya lucky’. Carl called me Lucky from very early on, as every time we played pool, I would always get beaten. I think it said allot more about Carl than myself though, and how much time he spent in bars and pubs.

There was no doubt that you’d describe Carl as a frugal traveler, but that would be under selling it. To put it bluntly, Carl was the stingiest bastard I have ever met.

Carl at The Banana Bungalow

Carl (on the left) with another fellow traveller who's name eludes me. Banana Bungalow - Los Angeles - 1992

The next couple of weeks we spent drifting down the West coast of the United States together, was like a rapid learning diploma in budget travel, and there I was, with a one on one course with the scrooge master himself.

Carl loved to tell a story, and told me about a time whilst travelling in Canada, where he couldn’t find anywhere to sleep for the night. He actually had the balls to initiate a chat with a couple of policeman, and asked if they could lock him up for the night, so he could save money on accommodation. Apparently they burst out laughing and refused, but this gives you an idea of the type of person I was dealing with.

Carl was tight in every way, pinching pennies where ever he could, but there was one thing that he taught me early on, and that was ‘never, ever’ include alcohol in your daily budget.

If you must, then pass up on accommodation (and even food in extreme circumstances), but you can drink as much alcohol as you like. I was never much of a drinker, but like a good student, I listened and took all of his teachings on board.

After leaving San Francisco together, I decided to give this hitching caper a go. Carl, said it would be allot harder to get a lift with two people, so it may take a little longer than usual. We caught the local bus to the outskirts of San Francisco, and positioned our selves on the side of the highway. I sat on my pack and relaxed, thinking it was going to take all day. Carl then pulled out his cardboard sign, holding it out into the lane of oncoming traffic for all to see. Cars were buzzing by, some curiously slowing down for a look, whilst others would toot their horns.

I seriously thought we’d be there all day, but in no more than 15 minutes, Carl’s little sign had worked, and we had a lift.

I learned very early on, that hitching rides was like pulling the handle on a Vegas slot machine, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. Your just never quite sure if you’ve won or lost until you get several miles down the road. This time though, we knew what we had straight away. With music blaring and can of beer in hand, it was quite clear from the get go, we had ourselves a bit of a nutter.

He wasn’t the full box of chocolates, if you know what I mean, but then again between Carl and myself, we probably weren’t too far behind him!

Carl and Another Traveller

Carl and another fellow traveller who's name eludes me.

He was heading back to LA after seeing some friends in San Francisco. As we started our way down the highway with this lunatic, he finished downing his can of beer and tossed it out the window, and then asked if we wanted one. I don’t drink beer, but Carl being Carl replied, ‘Sure Thing’. He quickly hit the brakes and pulled over to the side of the

road, got out of the car and walked to the rear, and opened up the boot (trunk). What the hell is this bloke up to?, I thought. Next minute he’s back with a couple of cold can’s, as he had them on ice in the back.

We continued to drive a little further, and the scenery was beginning to become quite spectacular. We were heading through an area known as the Big Sur, with its high cliffs and jagged coastline. It was a memorable moment and we were all kicking back singing and having a laugh, when all of a sudden, he slams the brakes on again, this time more abruptly. He pulled up right on the edge of a cliff, that must have been a couple of hundred feet high, jumped out and walked around to the trunk again.

I looked at Carl and asked, ‘What the hell is he up to now?’ Carl starts pissing himself laughing and replied, ‘You’re not gunna believe this, he’s got his bloody golf clubs out!’

We both get out of the car, and walk over to him. He apologised for our delay, but said this is always something he wanted to do. He through about a dozen or so golf balls on the ground, and proceeded to yell ‘four….’ whilst cracking them off the edge, and into the surf below. We were laughing and watching over the edge, at how far they went.

After our unscheduled golf lesson, we jumped back in the car and continued on our merry way. The rest of the journey flew by, and all of a sudden it was starting to get dark. Our new found friend was turning off well before central Los Angeles and we were heading for the Banana Bungalow in West Hollywood. We asked him to pull over, thanked him for his unusual hospitality and got out.

As he drove off, Carl looked at me and said, ‘Well Lucky, looks like we need a place to sleep’. We weren’t even sure exactly where we were, somewhere on the outskirts of LA. We wandered for a bit, before finding ourselves in what appeared to be some sort of industrial estate. ‘This will do’ Carl said, but I wasn’t sure what he meant. That was until he pulled his pack off, opened it up and pulled out a tent. So there we were in the outer suburbs of LA, pitching a tent on a vacant block of land, surrounded by small factories and offices, and about to bed down for the night, basically without a clue where we were.

Carl and tent

Carl with his cardboard sign in front of our tent. God only know's where we were.

We jumped in the tent and rolled out our sleeping mats and bags. After about an hour or so of chatting, we rolled over and went to sleep, or at least we tried. Just as I was beginning to drift off, a very bright light began to illuminate the tent.

‘Cops’, I thought, but then the ground actually started to shake, and the sound of engines from a machine of some description began to get louder and louder.

We both jumped up and quickly got out of the tent, and that’s when the horn blasted. It seemed Carl had picked a great spot to camp for the night. As it was pitch black dark, we didn’t realize, but we had actually pitched the tent about 10 meters away from the interstate railway line, and a locomotive and it’s long line of carriages were crawling past us. We both pissed our selves laughing, as we watched it go by. After it had gone, we hoped that there would be no more trains during the night, as we were too tired to move the tent, and in reality, where would we go anyway?

As it turned out, there was only one other train that night, and after a pretty poor nights sleep, we awoke to a bright sunny day to see exactly where we were. As we got out of the tent, there were cars pulling in to the factories and workers pointing at us, and having a great old chuckle. We packed up the tent and headed off down the road.

Carl turned to me and said, ‘ Ok Lucky, now where off to McDonald’s for a wash and a free cup of coffee!’

The guy was a freak, and had me in fits of laughter for the next few weeks that we spent working together at the Banana Bungalow hostel. I ran into Carl a few years later in London, where he came down and stayed with me at ‘Forty Four’, the fabled London doss house. Although I never continued on the insanely ultra budget travel method that Carl endured (few ever would, or could). There’s no doubt that he opened up my eyes to budget travel, and if our paths had never crossed, instead of being on the road for 4 and a half years, it may have been more like 10 months.

Thanks Carl, where ever you are….


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     About the author

Jason has traveled the world extensively during the last 20 years, with overland journeys on six continents and across over 90 countries. This site serves as a chronicle of the images and tales from these journeys, as well as offering advice and general information for other like minded travelers.

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  • http://dosomethingcool.net Steve

    What a great story. Sounds like you had a lot of fun hitchhiking. The first learning experience of travel is really crucial. You’ll learn lots of good things about how to get from place to place and where to stay and lots of other things. It’s good that you got the travel bug; I think travel is one of the best things anyone can ever do. I love that sign too.

  • http://www.digid-rift.com Jason

    Thanks Steve. Yeah we had a great old time. Carl was one hell of a character, and meeting him definitely extended my travel. In South Africa, many years later, I used Carl’s cardboard sign trick and modified it to say, ‘Australia’. I hitched all over South Africa with it.

  • http://www.micahlevispangler.com Micah

    Awesome story! Thanks for sharing, mate.

  • http://www.digid-rift.com Jason

    Micah – Yeah, Carl was quite a funny bloke and we did have quite a laugh together during the time we spent together. I’m glad you liked the story mate. Thanks for stopping by.