If you're traveling Route 12 between Montpelier and Worcester, there's a new ride-share option for folks willing to try something a little out of the ordinary. It's called "coffee-pooling."
There's a new cedar post outside Birchgrove Baking, a café on Elm Street in Montpelier. It's etched with the words "the hitching post." On the side is a bright orange flag that can be raised and lowered.
About eight miles up Route 12, there’s another hitching post outside the Post Office Café in the small town of Worcester. That's where I met Phoenix Mitchell, the man behind the idea.
Mitchell said if you want a ride between the hitching posts, all you need to do is raise the flag and wait.
With any luck, someone like Ana Burtnett will offer you a ride. The hitching posts have been up less than two weeks, but when Burtnett pulled over for us, she said we were her third pickup so far at the hitching post.
"If I have extra seats and there's somebody who needs it, that's one less or two less cars on the road," Burtnett said — and that's exactly the big idea behind the hitching posts.
Right now there are just the two hitching posts. But as we got out of Burtnett's car in Montpelier, Mitchell said he's hoping people will jump onboard and help extend the hitching post network to a café near them.
"That’s how this program will hopefully spread," Mitchell said.
To demonstrate possibilities, he listed other central Vermont coffee shops: "Middlesex has Red Hen. And also, Northfield has … Carrier Roasting. Barre has Espresso Bueno. Maple Corner — East Calais has the Maple Corner Store."
Mitchell got startup money for this ride-share endeavor from the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the Montpelier Transportation Infrastructure Committee. He used the grants to design and make the posts, and Mitchell said he'll share those plans with anyone who wants to put one up in their community.
"It's an idea that's being formed as we're using it," he said. "And that's the great thing about it is I just wanted to get the ball rolling — the idea started. And now it's in the hands of people using it and the drivers in our community to recognize it as well."
Mitchell also used some of the startup money to have wooden coins made. The so-called "coffee coins" are good for a dollar off anything in the participating cafés.
"People can come into Post Office Café or Birchgrove and buy a coin for a dollar," explained Post Office Café co-owner Leslie Sabo explained. "And the idea is that they'll share that coin with the person who gives them a ride. It's just sort of a way to help with gas, just be friendly about it."
Mitchell said the cafés are an integral part of what he hopes will become the hitching post network.
"Coffee-pooling relies upon the idea that we're connecting with each other through this café culture, which is a fun way to, like, bring people together and to share rides," he explained.
To be clear, coffee-pooling is basically organized hitchhiking — and hitchhiking comes with some inherent risks. Mitchell said no one has expressed any safety concerns to him thus far. However, he did talk with one parent about a strategy for kids using the hitching post.
"I’ve heard from one person here in Worcester that has younger teenage children that she's really excited that they take it," he said. "… She was saying that what they're gonna try to do is wait at the hitching post and if someone pulls over that they don't know, they're just going to say, simply, 'Oh, that’s really kind of you but we're actually waiting for someone that we know to get a ride with.'"
Mitchell said that's a good tactic for anyone who's nervous about the concept, but still wants to give coffee-pooling a try.