The Hitch-hiking Grandmother: "that" Grace Small

By: Bernd Wechner
© July 1, 1999

The Hitch-hiking Grandmother: "that" Grace Small

The Hitch-hiking Grandmother: "that" Grace Small

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: July 1, 1999

Grace SmallThere's a little known woman, even among hitch-hikers, who spent the better part of her life hitch-hiking the United State and subsequently Europe. She was born in the last century, 1895, to a time when the only real mode of transport on land was the horse. She saw the motorcar enter the scene in 1910 with the delivery of three Velie "40"'s to her hometown on the prairie.

She watched her father take that first drive, no driving school, no driver's licences, there was no-one to teach, just trial and error. She learned to drive six years later, among the first women ever to drive, and the only woman in her town who drove. She would teach others to drive in a time when people thought cars like horses, letting go of the wheel as they did the reigns ... thinking the car would find its own way, as the horse!

With her father she ran a garage repairing the cars thus damaged. Pulling them out of ditches and getting them going again. She married, had four children and kept the garage going. In time the children grew up and her husband strayed ... she fled.

She was 46 years old, it was 1941, she had no money, and she'd hitched locally a few times in the '20s so she set out one winter's morn to thumb it to her daughter some 1,000 miles away. It would be the start of a career ...

She never did find her husband again, finding instead the Lord. Bible in hand, in all good faith, she would spend some 27 years hitch-hiking, crossing the United States at least 19 times and the West coast alone another 10 times, around Europe for three months 'tween March and May of '64. To be fair she used a Eurail pass much of the time, but when compelled to hitch for one reason or another, she would all the same reflect "I was thankful to be a hitchhiker and not a tourist on a group tour. I could never have had such a good time." She was 68 years old!

Her incredible story was captured along the way in many local newspaper articles, from which she won the titles The Hitchhiking Grandmother and The Hitchhiking Great Grandmother ... She stopped hitching only in 1981 at the age of 86, on account of declining health.

Ruth Barton Davies captured the whole story, cradle, almost to grave, going through Grace Small's journals and recollections with her over a period of four years from 1985. The book "The Hitchhiking Grandmother" was published in 1990.

It's brilliantly written, engrossing to read, spiced with everything from baby photos to her 93rd birthday, family and hitching scenes in between. She lived in a most remarkable time, seeing the motor car arrive on the scene, mastering it first behind the wheel and then behind the thumb ...

On her first venture in '41 she describes one scene so hauntingly similar to an experience of my own, and reminiscent of a past article (A Hitch-hiker's Christmas) that it's worth a mentions here. Stuck on the road one night, with no place to stay, she knocked on the door of lonely house with the lights on, hoping for some help. She knocked, the door opened and a lady, seeing a stranger on her doorstep simply uttered in panic "I am a good Christian lady!" and shut the door in Grace's face. Grace was left to wonder "whether or not she, as a Christian, knew about Christ's words on being hospitable to strangers."

It's sad in a way that she reflects on occasion that hitch-hiking is not safe anymore. "Besides, the changes in our times dictated there was nothing safe about it. (No one should think that because I was unscathed, they would be preserved from harm.)", she writes in the preface. Even the introduction describes a 1947 venture of hers, in which with in life savings she sets out from Illinois to the West Coast (Goin' to California ... to start a new life) and narrowly escapes some vaguely alluded to unpleasant fate ...

I can't help but wonder how much times have changed the risks we run, and how much they've changed out perception of them, but they are themes I can explore readily enough at another time. It is perhaps ironic though, that in pandering to the popular notion of discouraging would-be hitch-hiker's (with gentle reminders of danger as an introduction), that Ruth Davies has no more recent experience to draw on than 1947, very near the beginning of Grace's career (the good old days) not the end (when "Hitchhiking is not safe anymore.").

I can heartily recommend finding a copy of Grace's biography, and can second the cover-slips claim that. Here is a woman who ignored the cultural messages of her time about propriety. She followed her heart and her hunches ... It's a blueprint for women about ingenuity and breaking the binds of cultural expectations. Above all it's an inspiration for all readers who value their personal freedom and dare to live their dreams."

Full tracing details for the bookworms:

    The Hitchhiking Grandmother
    By "that" Grace Small
    As told by Ruth Barton Davies
    The Pilgrim Way Press
    Forest Grove, Oregon, 1990
    ISBN: 0-9623785-0-X

Etymological footnote: Way back when, when I was a beginner I once said to someone I was going to hike somewhere. "that's a long way to walk?", he replied ... and I said, "Oh, I mean hitch-hike!". It became abundantly clear to me in the months and years that passed after that time, that "to hike" is in fact generally understood to mean "walk" in the English language.

Well, to be fair, I knew that before then too, but somehow the logical contraction of "hitch-hike" seemed at the time, to be "hike". Not at all, the vast majority of people I've encountered, and literature I've reviewed over many many years of hitch-hiking, uses the word "hitch". I should have said, I was going to hitch, not I was going to hike, and my chances of being understood would have been somewhat better.

I mention this here, only because I have in fact come across the occasional writer who used the word "hike" to imply "hitch-hike". None of them have been anglophones though. Until now. Grace Small, a true to the bone American woman, consistently uses the work "hike" when she means "hitch-hike". That makes this book, and this lady linguistically somewhat special in my experience, and vindicates that early bungle of mine!

It's interesting to note that neither the Oxford English Dictionary, nor Merriam-Webster's suggest that "hike" has anything to do with "hitch-hike", the nearest meaning offered being "To travel by any means". Both dictionaries though, note that "hitch" is an abbreviated form of "hitch-hike". Looks like Grace and I don't have the dictionaries on our side :-). I'd recommend you stick to "hitch" if you want to be widely understood in any case.

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