Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Death of Hitchhiking

Used to be, way back when, that one of the most efficiently economical, if not speedy, ways to get from point A to point B was to hitchhike. Despite such stories as that of Billy Cook (who did kill a couple who were kind enough to give him a ride on US 66) and a ton of urban legends that told of drivers being murdered by psychopathic or ghost hitchhikers (the "no good deed goes unpunished" school of thought), hitchhiking was a viable transportation alternative in the US starting in the Great Depression and continuing through the mid-1970s.

It was helped along by the likes of Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road was not only the so-called (by the sensationalistic-even-then media but no one else) "Bible of the Beat Generation" but a seminal influence on the thinking and behavior of the "flower children" of the late 1960s. All that despite the fact that even a casual reading of On the Road will reveal that Jack Kerouac did surprisingly very little hitchhiking in that book.

This alternative form of travel reached its zenith with the rise of the Hippie Movement, when any "long-haired freak" (i.e., a Hippie) who wanted to go somewhere was virtually guaranteed of a ride, at least part of the way, by some other long-haired freak in a car. It was rare for someone to have to wait longer than an hour -- and often much less -- at a good freeway on-ramp before getting a ride.

There was an active "jungle drums" communication system between and among the hitchhikers as to what on-ramps were the best and which were to be avoided. Back then, a lot of states still had some very draconian laws against hitchhiking, but those laws were enforced differently in each state. Colorado had the most strict laws, and they were the most strictly enforced. A good friend of mine was trying to hitchhike out of Trinidad and got swept up by the cops, had to spend a night in jail and two hours the next morning at a "rescue mission" (where he had to sit through a lengthy and completely boring sermon) only to get for his sustenance a bean sandwich(!) and an onion, followed by a five-mile hike out of town before the cops finally turned back and he was able to snag a ride over the border to New Mexico.

I did my share of hitchhiking back in the day, and it was almost always an adventure. One time my buddy and I were at the very back end of a line of Hippies wanting rides from Sacramento to "the north" (Portland or Seattle) and a guy drove down the line asking people something and then driving on to the next person or group. I didn't know what he was up to, and I was ready to turn him down since everyone else had, but when he got to us he said he was going north, but he was going over to the coast road (Hwy 101) and then north, but only as far as Eureka. "Only?"

We took the ride, eventually landing in Arcata in time to socialize (i.e., "party down") with some Humboldt State students (even back then it was known as "Dope U") for a few days, and arrived in Portland a few days behind in a schedule that we didn't really have.

No, I didn't ever get picked up by that legendary car full of horny schoolteachers resulting in a Dear Penthouse Forum letter. Nor the solitary woman out to "get even" with her husband -- that's what bars were for, anyway...

But one thing I used to do all the time circa 1974, killing time at an on-ramp, was to write this graffiti on the backs of freeway on-ramp signs: "A man without a country is like a fish without a bicycle." That wasn't original with me by any means -- I cribbed it off the wall of a Hippie bar in the Bellingham WA suburb of Fairhaven -- but I do note with a modicum of anonymous pride that it was eventually picked up by Gloria Steinem and changed to "a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle".

It was an extremely interesting and entertaining way to travel, as long as you didn't have an inflexible itinerary or a schedule, as long as you were willing to entertain the drivers that picked you up, and as long as you didn't have an over-inflated idea of how dangerous it was to hitchhike. The California Highway Patrol did a study, released in 1974, that indicated that hitchhikers were not disproportionately more likely to become crime victims than the general population. Other studies confirmed that as well.

So why did it stop? Nowadays you can drive from coast to coast, from border to border, and see maybe a single hitchhiker or two. I think it's because all the hippies grew older and got more fearful from watching Faux News, and everyone else -- the same people who wouldn't give you a ride back then -- still has the same "fuck you" attitude that they always had...

That and I think we are all more fearful in general than we were back in the day, when it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and love was all around, you know, all that stuff. I personally have not picked up a hitchhiker in years and likely will never do so again. It's probably still as non-dangerous as it ever was, but still... I'm older now and I've probably soaked up by osmosis some of that famous "good sense" that we all seemed to lack back then. (My father was famous for saying, about me, while shaking his head slowly back and forth, "that boy just ain't right in the head".)

In 2013, MSNBC did a story called What Killed Hitchhiking? that goes into it in some depth. As a guy named Phil Reed from says, "it was the demise of the '60s mentality of love and trust and the belief in community ... Hitchhiking hippies were replaced by hitchhiking ex-cons. Even I wouldn’t pick up a hitchhiker today."

And there you go.


Nan said...

IMHO, what killed hitchhiking was the advent of better news reporting and the popularity of shows like "Criminal Minds." Hear enough stories, both factual and fiction, about serial killers specializing in murdering young people who hitchhike and suddenly Greyhound is looking really good. The stories that got told in our misspent youth (i.e., the '60s) had all the credibility urban legends usually have -- it happened to a friend of a friend -- so we all laughed them off the same way you laugh off all ghost stories. When you see it repeated over and over on the 24-hour news channels, though, or see it come up as a plot device on multiple crime shows it starts to sink in that maybe, just maybe, hitchhiking can be more risk than it's worth.

Farnsworth68 said...

Thanks Nan. I probably shouldn't have limited my media criticism just to Faux News. You are correct that it is not only news but also the entertainment branch of media that has sensationalized it as well.
I'm still thinking that it likely isn't any more dangerous now than it ever was, but the focus has shifted from the scary driver going to harm the hitchhiker to the scary hitchhiker -- an ex-con with evil intent -- who will harm the driver.

Ed said...

John Waters hitchhiked recently and wrote a book about it: "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America."