The Golden Age of Hitchhiking

The Alabama Humanities Foundation will sponsor a traveling exhibition called “Journey Stories” in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution beginning June 25 in Jasper. This post is the first in a series that will highlight our own personal journey stories. Our stories may include how our ancestors traveled from far away lands to come to America, or it could be about a memorable family trip to anywhere in the world, or perhaps it’s a story about our first car or train ride. Anything that includes travel and transportation can be considered our own journey story. If you would like to submit your own journey story, please email Jennifer Dome at: jdome@ahf.net.

By Bob Stewart, AHF executive director

Compared to railroads, riverboats and covered wagons, hitchhiking doesn’t hold a lofty place in America’s transportation history. But there’s no doubt of its place in popular culture. Think of Jack Kerouac (On the Road), John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath), and Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions), to name just three writers who have included hitchhiking in their classic works. Science fiction writers have even described interstellar hitchhiking (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and inter-dimensional hitchhiking (Robert Heinlein, Job: A Comedy of Justice). Add to these literary works the many references to hitchhiking in music and film, and it’s safe to say that the lone traveler thumbing a ride on an interstate ramp or a dusty two-lane highway will remain an icon of the American imagination.

Fortunately for my generation, the golden age of hitchhiking on a mass scale occurred when some of us needed it most—the 1960s and early 1970s. Not that we were penniless or homeless. But in much of the country, hitchhiking was simply an accepted mode of travel without having to invest in a personal vehicle. Until I bought my first car in 1974, I relied on the outstretched thumb for a good part of my travels and transportation during my first two years of college. In the Five College area of Massachusetts (Amherst-Hampshire-Mount Holyoke-Smith-UMass), a reliable, free bus system allowed you to easily move around from campus to campus for classes, parties, etc. But the area was also filled with students and “townies” offering equally reliable, free—and safe—rides for the asking. You could stand outside my fraternity house on Route 9 and catch a lift to virtually any local community, and even farther destinations such as New York and Boston, as quickly as you could catch a bus. So everybody hitched, even women.

Some of my most memorable hitchhikes included:
• A series of rides with my fellow Alabamian, Rik Williams, to the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire during our first Thanksgiving break. One ride was in the back of a pickup during a driving snowfall.
• Standing alone with my thumb out on I-95 in the notorious South Bronx area of NYC. That I jumped into the cab of a semi shows how desperate I was to get off that stretch of highway.
• A college chum and I being picked up on the Bessemer Superhighway by another friend’s mother and sister after hitchhiking from Nashville (having already bummed a nonstop ride from Massachusetts to the Music City). They were so shocked to see us on the side of the road that they actually stopped and took us to Tuscaloosa! We were undoubtedly the first and last hitchhikers that either of them ever picked up!

After I acquired my own automobile, I regularly returned the favor by picking up hitchhikers myself. I even gave a ride to three total strangers from Boston to San Francisco—and back for another one.

There must be an “invincibility delusion” gene among 21-year-old males, which leads them to not think twice about catching a ride from a bearded guy in a baseball cap driving a Peterbilt—or eagerly stopping for him when he’s the one with his thumb out. That gene became dormant in the late 1970s after a few well-publicized killings of and by hitchhikers. Young male and female hitchhikers finally bought cars, got married and began raising children for whom hitchhiking was absolutely verboten—even if it meant buying them their own cars. (Perhaps the invincibility delusion gene has reemerged in recent years with the explosion of extreme sports.)

According to British sociologists Graeme Chesters and David Smith in a 2001 paper, “The Neglected Art of Hitch-hiking: Risk, Trust and Sustainability,” (http://www.socresonline.org.uk/6/3/chesters.html), hitchhiking isn’t likely to return on a widespread scale, despite nostalgia, charity, and young people’s passion for adventure and the environment. Most folks view the risk as too high, and they have a greater variety of transportation options anyway. Those occasional souls on the side of the road with a handmade sign reading “New Orleans” or “need food and a ride” aren’t your father’s hitchhikers. Give them a couple of dollars, but let them catch a lift with another Good Samaritan besides you. Nor would I advise hitchhiking as an efficient method of, say, getting to that important business meeting in Atlanta. Amtrak—or even a bicycle—might be faster.