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 History/Culture: Hitch-Hiker's Guide to a Better Society: Bring Back the Thumb!

TravelBy Dave Lindorff

Back in 1966 when I was a 17-year old and just finished with my junior year in high school, I spent part of the summer working as a dishwasher and busboy at a couple of restaurants on Cape Cod. It was grueling and low-paid work, and by the time I’d done it for about five weeks, I was ready to give it up.

The road beckoned, and so I contacted a friend, Charlie Vidich, and proposed that we hitch-hike to Alaska, it being the most remote place I could think of that we could get to overland without a passport.

The idea didn’t sit well with our two respective mothers, but we prevailed on them with the help of our fathers, who I think were happy to see us out of the house, and so we packed knapsacks and bedrolls, went out on the road, stuck out our thumbs, and headed north and west.

It took us about 10 days to reach Tok Junction in Alaska at the northern terminus of the Alaskan Highway that coursed from Whitehorse, Yukon to the Alaskan border. We then hitched around the state visiting the sights and the cities of the nation’s last frontier region. ...

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It was the beginning of a decade of hitch-hiking adventures that took me, and later my wife Joyce and me down the east coast to Florida, across the country to Washington, Oregon and California, and to many states and places in between,

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, hitch-hiking was both a way of life, and also a routine mode of transportation for more mundane purposes, like getting to and from work.

It was easy, relatively safe (as long as you took a good sniff before getting in a car to make sure there wasn’t a strong smell of alcohol), and also interesting, because of the wide variety of people one would meet.

It is also something that simply isn’t done anymore.

Lately, I’ve been asking myself why. On a few occasions, averaging perhaps once a year, I have hitched, mostly out of a sense of curiousity to just see if it is still possible to do. The results are dismaying. Once, when my son was just five years old, on a bitterly cold winter day when the wind chill was below 0 degrees, when one of our two cars was in the garage and my wife had already left for work with the other, I was late getting my son out to the school bus and he missed it. The prospect of having him home for the day, when I was busy with a story that was on deadline that day led me to try to come up with an alternate way of getting to school. Hitch-hiking was the only solution I could think of.

I bundled up Jed and myself, made a cardboard sign that read, “Help! Missed the School Bus,” and took my son out to the road. We walked a few blocks to an intersection so we could stand on the road that ran straight down two miles to his school, and then stood there. It was rush hour, so though it was bitingly cold, I figured some one of the endless stream of commuters heading to work would stop for us.

To my astonishment and growing anger, though, lone male driver after lone male driver, not to mention many lone female drivers, drove past us, usually turning their heads away so as to avoid looking at us. Some of them were people I know I had seen in the supermarket and the post office over the year we had lived in town. No one was stopping.

After 20 minutes of this, I decided it was time to leave, because it was so cold I was feeling like I was committing child abuse keeping my son out there.

Just then a van pulled up on the other side of the road, going the wrong direction. The woman driving it rolled down her window and asked if we’d like a ride to Jed’s school. I said “Sure!”, snatched up my son and ran across the road, jumping into the back of the van with Jed.

The woman said she had just driven her three children past us, taking them to a church-run school that was also down the same road. She said she had seen us but felt uncomfortable picking up strangers, especially with her kids in the car. But she felt sorry for us, and particularly my little boy, so she decided to ignore her fear and give us a lift. She drove us to the school and when I got out, she said she’d wait for me to come back, and would give me a lift home. I was impressed, I confess. After having well over a hundred gutless and selfish guys drive past us, here was a woman ignoring her fears and giving me a lift, not just to school but to my house.

Over the years, I have had other rides offered to me when I’ve tried thumbing. Usually it is some guy my age (I’m 59) who hitched around himself in years past, and who is now repaying some karmic debt from long ago. Occasionally it will be a car with some young people in it, though that is rarer.

One thing that strikes me is that nearly everyone who finally does offer me a ride—and hitch-hiking these days is not something to attempt if you have to get anywhere in a hurry, because the wait for a ride can be interminable!—immediately hastens to explain that they “never do this” ordinarily because it is so dangerous.

Why do people consider picking up hitch-hikers to be dangerous? I always felt as a hitch-hiker years back that it was I who was taking the risk—drivers can after all be inept, exhausted or drunk, and if it was a couple of guys in the car, there was also the risk of being mugged or worse. In fact, hitch-hikers in my experience, have tended to be nice people—often worldly-wise, though maybe a little down on their luck. In all the years I’ve picked up hitch-hikers as a driver, I have never been threatened, though I have had some scary experiences as a hitchhiker because of the people who have given me a lift.

In large part, I am convinced that the problem is our media, which exhibit a pornographic interest in violence and crime at the expense of any real news. Most Americans actually believe that the country is a much more dangerous place today than it was 30 or 40 years ago, filled with psychopaths, ax murderers and rapists. There is no way that Americans today are more violent and criminally minded than they were in the 1960s—in fact they may be less so--but the media barrage of violent news stories from across that nation has everyone convinced that this is so. This leads to a general sense of distrust of strangers, which makes thumbing a real challenge to the zeitgeist.

I’m thinking that with this new depression that we are entering, in which people are losing houses, jobs and cars, that it is time to resurrect the culture of hitchhiking, both as a way of providing needed alternative transportation to those without it, and as a way to challenge and undermine the prevailing debilitating national culture of fear.

For the last 30 years, we as an American society have become increasingly isolated socially. Not only do we spend all our time outside of work confined in our homes or in our cars, but when we circulate socially, it is almost exclusively within our own narrow class circle of acquaintances.

Hitch-hiking, and picking up hitch-hikers, can be a way of breaking down that wall of isolation.

So here’s a suggestion. If you need to go into town on an errand, and you’re not in a hurry, try hitch-hiking for a change (all the better if you live in a small community and the people passing by on the road are people who know you by sight). If you’re driving and you pass a hitch-hiker, pull over and offer him or her a ride. Who knows? It might be me.


DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based investigative journalist and columnist. His latest book, co-authored by Barbara Olshansky, is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). His work is available at: www.thiscantbehappening.net


[16 March 2009]

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