When hitchhiking became faux pas, Bruce Prehn set his sights on a new way to travel the country—carrying a red gas can. Now he hits the road as the Traveling Gas Can Man, raising money for charity and spreading positivity, one ride at a time.
It all began when Prehn graduated from Bellport High School and decided on a bare-bones adventure, hitching all the way to Alaska.
“When we got to Alaska in ’77, people would hitchhike with just a backpack all the time,” he said.
Prehn enjoyed hitchhiking and it became his favorite hobby.
Then came the 1980s. The decade of slasher films and “Unsolved Mysteries” fueled America’s newfound fascination with serial killers and true-crime lure, and poisoned the waters for well-meaning travelers hitching their way to new destinations.
“People stopped picking up hitchhikers. I’d be there, on the road with a big smile on my face, and my thumb up ‘like this’ and nobody picked me up. I said, ‘Hitchhiking is over. Nobody trusts nobody no more’,” he said.
Defeated, Prehn settled back into his life in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, but by the early 2000s, he was itching to get back on the road. He knew sticking his thumb up wouldn’t get him anywhere. Nobody was willing to pick up a hitchhiker, but would they be willing to pick up a fellow driver in distress? That’s the question he had on his mind when brainstorming the Traveling Gas Can Man concept.
“Everyone can relate to running out of gas,” he said.
His concept worked. Now Prehn relies on the hospitality of strangers, who see Prehn with a gas can, and, thinking he’s run out of gas, pull over to help. Then he introduces himself as the Traveling Gas Can Man and explains his mission.
When he leaves home, he has no idea how long his journey is going to take or what’s going to happen along the way—but that’s part of the fun, he said. On a recent trip, he went from Billings, Mont., to Seattle, Wash., in one shot, with one driver. No matter where he goes, his goal is always to see as much as possible—and to get to know the person whose kindness he is relying on.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take. Nothing is for sure. You’re totally dependent on someone picking you up and that’s what I love about it,” he said.
A few years back, Prehn added another element to his legendary travels, dedicating them to charity by creating a GoFundMe page and asking everyone he meets along the way to chip in. Every year, the charity he chooses is different. This year, when he gets back on the road, he’ll raise money for melanoma, a cause near to his heart because of his own diagnosis and recovery from the illness. In past years, he raised money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital and Alaska’s homeless population.
“I’m spreading kindness, joy, and the hope that there are good people out there,” said Prehn.
Traveling all those months, people wonder what Prehn brings along with him. But what he packs isn’t nearly as interesting as what he packs it in. The gas can is actually a decoy for a suitcase. He cut the plastic can open, added hinges, and packs it with necessities. When he isn’t in need of a ride, he covers the gas can with a black cloth.
His suitcase—err, gas can—is Marie Kondo-approved, with perfectly rolled T-shirts (usually with his signature American flag as a theme), socks, underwear, a toothbrush, and anything needed for a life on the open road. He also travels with business cards, an idea given to him by his brother, Jeff, in order to make his operation look a bit more official. That’s also why he created a Facebook page—so friends he makes along the way can follow him on the rest of his journey. But like anyone on a long-term adventure, money is crucial to survival.
“The most important thing I carry is my credit card,” he said.
Hitchhiking with a shtick is nothing new, according to Prehn, and, in fact, traveling with an object is a conversation starter or an icebreaker of sorts.
“I didn’t invent it,” said Prehn. “There was a guy traveling around with a fridge.”
Prehn is referring to Rob Cope, a New Zealand writer who, in 2016, traveled the United States and New Zealand with a 5-foot refrigerator after he and his wife got divorced. His tagline was: “If your wife kicks you out, grab the fridge and run.” In the end, Cope was able to travel America’s West Coast by relying on strangers who were mostly interested in his side story.
Prehn’s next gas-can-fueled adventure will happen when he gets back to Alaska. Right now, he’s visiting with family on Long Island, taking it easy—but he said he’s eager to get back on the road and back to relying on human kindness as currency for his travels.