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A thumb and a prayer

A thumb and a prayer

A thumb and a prayer
Tim Shey has been hitchhiking around the United States for 12 years with little more than a backpack, a computer flash drive and a little help from the Lord. WILL MOSS - Ravalli Republic

Tim Shey has slept in a lot of haystacks in his life.

Not to mention boxcars, abandoned vehicles and old barns.

For most of the past 12 years, Shey has been travelling the United States with only a backpack and a thumb … And a little faith in a benevolent friend.

“I call it the hand of God,” he says, referring to the way that everything always seems to work out for him no matter where he goes, who he meets or how he gets there.

“A lot of really profound things happen on the road,” Shey says. “Time and time again you find yourself broke or almost broke and someone picks you up and they buy you a hamburger, or you might get an odd job. It’s neat how things are put in front of you … It’s obviously a gift.”

Shey’s father was a veterinarian who used to follow the wheat harvesting crews throughout the Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s. It was from his father that Shey learned about the possibility of a life on the road through stories of his experiences hitchhiking.

“I was raised with a positive view of hitchhiking,” he says.

Later, in the 1970s, when Shey was working in a lumber yard, one of his buddies told stories of hitching coast to coast in only three weeks, which renewed his childhood interest in the road life.

Shey eventually got out on the road, hitchhiking around through the late 1980s.

In 1989, he started attending classes at Iowa State University, majoring in English literature with a supporting field of journalism.

After graduating in 1995, Shey took the LSAT’s and applied to a number of law schools. No one accepted him.

“Obviously I was not meant to be a lawyer,” he says, “so the Lord impressed my heart to quit and just hit the road.”

So, in 1996, Shey threw a few things in his backpack, stuck out his thumb and began a journey that has brought him through 39 states and into the lives of hundreds of strangers.

“Even though I get tired of hitchhiking, I’ve met a lot of great people and it’s strengthened my faith,” he says. “A lot of great things have happened on the road … Things happen and it’s like ‘Wow, that was the hand of God.’ I mean there’s no way I could have planned that. It’s just amazing what happens on the road.”

One thing Shey has noticed in his life on the road is the generosity strangers are willing to extend to a person in need.

Once when he was travelling through Pennsylvania soaking wet in a downpour, he happened into a pharmacy to pick up a few items and got to talking with the pharmacist.

After talking for a while, the pharmacist offered Shey the dry spot on the sidewalk under the shops awning as a bed.

Shey accepted and set up his sleeping bag.

During the night, the police confronted him, telling him to move on. He asked if they would call the pharmacist to check his story. After speaking with the pharmacist, they bid him a good evening and went on their way.

And, it seems, more times than Shey can remember, he’s been offered a couch to sleep on by perfect strangers, or given a little bit of cash by a church’s congregation to keep him going.

In addition to the kindly assistance he receives from strangers, Shey sees a lot of, what he would describe as, divine providence - benefitting both him and others.

It can manifest itself in simple ways, like the night he was walking south out of Jackpot, Idaho and came upon an abandoned boxcar in a field. He went inside and found a dining room table and a wood stove. Shey built a small fire and sat at the table to eat a simple meal consisting of a hot dog he was given earlier in the day.

It can also come in very profound ways, in which he almost feels like a tool of the Lord.

One night, Shey was thumbing for a ride in Sioux City, Iowa. A fellow picked him up and didn’t say a word. Shey asked him where he was headed.

“I don’t know,” the driver replied.

“All the red lights went on and I thought ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be in this car,’” he recalls.

Shey asked him what he meant by that, and the driver anxiously and emotionally explained that he had just lost his job and had been kicked out of his house and had the police called on him by his wife who thought that he was a drunk.

The driver told Shey he was thinking about killing himself.

“I said, ‘Don’t do that. God loves you and he’s got a purpose for your life,’” Shey says.

At that point, the driver began weeping.

Shey spent a long time that night, riding and praying with the man who eventually decided to head for a local rehab center.

“The guy said, ‘I don’t pick up hitchhikers. I knew I was picking you up for a reason,’” Shey says. “Things happen for a reason, let me tell you, it’s just amazing.”

There have been some scary experiences for Shey, however, in his years on the road. Although - strangely - they always seem to end in a positive way.

One night in New Mexico, a passenger with “crazy eyes” in a car that picked him up tried to stab him. The driver scolded the passenger and apologized to Shey.

He offered to feed him dinner, which Shey - a little shaken - declined. The man apologized again and gave him some money for food. The man with the crazy eyes also chipped in with a buck or two.

The worst thing that has ever happened to him, says Shey, was in upstate New York.

A fellow picked him up and offered him a bed for the night at the “Christian community” he lived in up in the Catskill Mountains.

Shey was a little uneasy due to some strange scripture that the driver was quoting.

Within five minutes of arriving, Shey says, he knew that he was in a cult.

“Why am I here?,” he thought to himself.

During a strange fellowship ritual after dinner, Shey met a man who seemed interested in his hitchhiking.

“Put your trust in God,” Shey told him.

Later that evening, a group of men tried to convince him to join their community. Shey was not interested.

The next morning, it was announced that the man Shey had told about hitchhiking the night before had escaped.

Shey got the feeling he should probably do the same and headed for the door, where he was confronted and told that he had to stay by the man who had originally picked him up.

“I’m not a physically violent man,” Shey says, “but if that guy had touched me I would have decked him into next week. You will not make me a slave of any cult. I’d rather be dead … The gospel is freedom. It’s liberty. You’re free to receive it or free to reject it.”

Mostly though, Shey maintains that his experiences on the road have been positive. He does feel though as if that chapter of his life may be coming to a close.

In 2000, Shey wrote a manuscript about his experiences on the road. He sent it off to a publishing house and it was rejected.

Over the next few years, he edited it; making some changes and removing about 20 pages.

Then, hitchhiking out of Helena one day, a driver told him about a publishing house in Maryland that he might want to try.

Shey, who carries the manuscript files on a flash USB drive that he wears around his neck, e-mailed the story to them from a public computer in Idaho.

The company accepted his book in less than 24 hours.

“I said, ‘Now what is this?’ Is this some sort of joke or something?,’” Shey says.

But he met with the company’s representatives and signed a contract on Sept. 12 of this year.

Two weeks ago he approved the final proofs and is now just waiting to approve the cover design.

Shey’s 120-page autobiography, “High Plains Drifter,” could be available in stores and online as soon as December.

Now he’s interested to see the reactions of readers.

“My guess is that most people in America don’t hitchhike and don’t pick up hitchhikers,” he says. “So, out of curiosity, they may buy it.”

Anyone who is interested in Shey’s writings or his book can find out more on his Web site

“If this does sell, maybe that’s my door opening to get off the road and settle down,” Shey says. “Maybe I’ll keep writing or something.”

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Reporter Will Moss can be reached at 363-3300 or


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