Whatever Happened to Hitchhiking?

Goddamn, has this country changed in my lifetime, and for the worse in almost every way.  The 1960s, and especially the last three years of that decade, was a tumultuous era, what with nationwide race riots, violent street protests against the Vietnam War, mayhem on college campuses, weird trends in art and music, a breakdown in morals, the mainstreaming of black radicalism, feminism, queers coming out of the closet, and generally speaking, all kinds of crazy stuff.  I know, I was a teenager and lived through it.  But looking back, compared to today, the sixties seems like America’s Golden Age.  I can’t count the ways this country has gone to hell.

The 1960s also spawned the hippie movement which carried over into the seventies, and which evolved from the beatnik era of the 1950s.  Chances are you’ve never heard the word “beatnik” or the term “beat generation.”  I remember only vaguely, in the early sixties, the disparaging word “beatnik” which has long since gone out of use.  In the same vein, one hardly hears the word “hippie” anymore.  Beatniks and hippies were pretty much the same animal.  A hippie was someone who believed in peace and love, no sexual restraints, had long, shaggy hair and a slovenly appearance, and used recreational drugs.  They really burst on the scene in 1967 in San Francisco (where else?), the “summer of love” as it was called, and reached their peak at the Woodstock Music Festival in upstate New York in August 1969.  But there was a dark side to all this peace and love business.  Just one week before Woodstock, in Los Angeles, the grisly murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others were carried out by the demented cult followers of Charles Manson, a crime with strong hippie overtones.

I want to digress here and talk about Jack Kerouac and his famous novel On the Road, published in 1957.  The book, while fictional, was based on his experiences bumming around America, which included a fair amount of hitchhiking, and the characters in it were real people with fictitious names.  I have the Signet paperback edition of On the Road, and I’ll quote from the back cover: 

ON THE ROAD is a saga of youth adrift in America, traveling the highways, exploring the midnight streets of the cities, learning the vast expanse of the land, passionately searching for their country and themselves.  ON THE ROAD is an explosion of consciousness — a mind-expanding trip into emotion and sensation, drugs and liquor and sex, the philosophy of experience and the poetry of being.  ON THE ROAD turned on a whole generation to the youthful subculture that was about to crack the gray facade of the fifties wide open and begin the greening of America.  It is, quite simply, one of the great novels and major milestones of our time.  

Having read the book, I can tell you that this is wildly overblown hype appealing to the corruptibility of young people, though there’s some truth to it.  For me, On the Road was a laid-back, entertaining read, the author a likable lost soul.  Two words missing from the hype, which would’ve described Kerouac well, are “aimless existence.”  In any case the book got rave reviews and became an influential bestseller.  Kerouac wrote some other less famous novels, lived a dissolute life in the company of wastrels, and died in 1969 at the age of 47, a result of many years of heavy drinking.  

I have another book, Antizion, subtitled “A survey of commentary on organized Jewry by leading personalities through the ages.”  You won’t find it in any bookstore or public library.  The book, compiled by William Grimstad and published in 1973, is filled with quotations highly critical of Jews spoken or written by famous, accomplished men, as well as some lesser figures, going all the way back to ancient Rome.  Kerouac has an entry, and was quoted in the March 1970 edition of Esquire magazine:  “The real enemy is the Communist, the Jew.”  Grimstad adds:

Kerouac, as much as any individual, launched the American youth movement that has grown to such dire proportions in the present drug-oriented “hippie” trend.  His book On the Road set the tone for the first of these movements, in the 1950s.  Yet, ironically, Kerouac ended his days convinced of an immense conspiracy against Western civilization, an upheaval that had used him then discarded him, and at the heart of which stood the Jew. 

You won’t find anything about this on Jack Kerouac’s lengthy Wikipedia page, though it accurately portrays the peculiar contradictions of his character.  I mean, how do you explain someone who at one and the same time was good friends with Allen Ginsberg and William F. Buckley?  It bears repeating that Kerouac was basically a decent guy.  I detected a sincere affection for the old America in his book, but it was his libertinism, his wayward morals, that the media moguls highlighted and the reason they catapulted him to fame.  Without that one book he’d be about as famous as I am.  

A long time ago I read somewhere that On the Road inspired a lot of young people to hitchhike around the country in the sixties and seventies.  Maybe so, but not in my case.  My first long haul hitchhiking trip was in January 1974, when I flew from New York to Phoenix, Arizona and thumbed all the way back home to Long Island.  That summer I tried and failed to hitch all the way to Alaska, giving up and turning back in the Canadian province of Alberta, about 800 miles north of the border, after I hopped a freight train and it went southwest instead of northwest.  In 1975 I hitched through the northern states, skirting Canada, then in Washington dipped south and made a U-turn back home, somewhere in California.  In 1977 I hitchhiked from New York to San Francisco through America’s mid-section, then went south, taking a redeye express freight train from Stockton to Bakersfield, then hitched back through the low states, getting a very long ride from Arizona to Pennsylvania, where I got out and thumbed to Buffalo to pick up the family station wagon which my brother had loaded up and driven there at the start of his senior year in college.  I’d heard of On the Road in the seventies, but didn’t get around to reading it until 1980 or ’81.  I had one last cross-country trip up my sleeve, which involved a failed attempt at becoming a freelance travel agent for an outfit in Oakland, no longer in business, booking adventurous journeys around the world.  What better way going coast to coast than sticking my thumb out?  Reaching North Platte, Nebraska, the home of Bailey Yard, the largest freight train switching yard and servicing facility in the world, a ridiculous eight miles long, I tried to complete my trip in style, courtesy of Union Pacific, but was caught by a security guard.  Luckily he wasn’t a bad guy, and seeing I wasn’t a bad guy myself, didn’t arrest me but drove me off the property in his pick-up truck with a warning not to return.  So I hitched the rest of the way.  This time I didn’t hitchhike back home but flew from San Francisco.

So all told, I figure I’ve hitchhiked roughly 15,000 miles around the USA, plus about two thousand in Canada.  This doesn’t count miles logged before my first big trip.  I attended LeMoyne College in Syracuse for one semester in the fall of 1971, and while there I hitched to Cortland and back, a seventy-mile round trip, to see a friend who went to the state university.  Over the next two years I also hitchhiked twice from Long Island to Syracuse to see friends at LeMoyne.  Years earlier, when I was 16, I’d take the bus to Meadowbrook Parkway in the summer months, then head down to Jones Beach by way of thumb.  Lots of teens around my age did it.  When I turned 17 and got my drivers license, I drove to the beach in my own car.  Every time you’d see ten or fifteen kids hitching there in the morning, then in the afternoon returning home, and I’d always pick up as many as would fit in my car.  Who hitchhikes to the beaches on Long Island these days?  Nobody.  The same is true of my all-boys Catholic high school, Chaminade, in Mineola, which is set back from Jericho Turnpike, a major east-west route.  Lots of my classmates who had missed the school bus or whatever would stick their thumbs out to get home, and it was easy, because Chaminade boys were always well-dressed and everyone knew they were a good breed.  But it’s just not done anymore.  What happened? 

I’ve taken many road trips in many states in the last fifteen years where, in the 1970s, hitchhikers were a common sight, especially on the interstates, but also on secondary roads, especially those in the vicinity of national parks out west.  I know – I saw them with my own eyes and I was one of them.  But in the last fifteen years I honestly don’t remember seeing anyone sticking his thumb out.  Maybe there were one or two who slip my mind, but it sure is a different country today.  Again: what the hell happened?  Was hitchhiking just a fad that faded away with the vanishing hippies?  I don’t see it that way.  It’s true that hitchhiking was largely a hippie thing, but I was never a hippie, and I ran into many other hitchhikers who weren’t either.  I just don’t know.  Maybe it has something to do with America no longer being a high-trust society, or that males, beginning with Generation X, were conditioned to be less inquisitive and adventurous and more wimpy and brain-dead.  And you know, maybe the hippie movement did a little bit of good in awakening a latent sense of wanderlust.  I must admit that a few passages, but only a few, in that On the Road blurb which I quoted above, struck a chord in me: traveling the highways….learning the vast expanse of the land, passionately searching for their country….the philosophy of experience.

But the experience is not for most people.  Most people are appalled by the idea of unrolling a sleeping bag in a field a hundred yards off the road.  I get that.  Me, I’d never go skydiving.  I’m too chicken.  So you see, we all have our quirks.  I was never gone from home more than three weeks, and usually I’d stay in a cheap motel twice a week.  I didn’t mind going without a shower three or four days and feeling a little grungy — it goes with the territory — but most people can’t hack that.  The risk factor, I’m sure, weighs heavier.  It’s true, of course, that when a car stops for you — and naturally it’s mostly men driving — you don’t know who you’re dealing with.  It works both ways, though, as he’s taking a chance by picking up a stranger.  The great majority won’t risk it.  Now and then, I heard horror stories of hitchhikers, usually women, being murdered.  And don’t ask me how I remember the date, October 13, 1972 — maybe because it was a Friday the thirteenth.  It was on one of my trips to Syracuse that this huge Hispanic guy, twice my size, pulled over for me on Route 17, near Washingtonville, where he said he worked on a migrant farm.  He was a homosexual, an aggressive one.  A few times he grabbed at my crotch, asking me disgusting questions, and I don’t have to tell you what he had in mind.  I told him repeatedly, “Just pull over and let me out, okay?”  He finally did, and I’ll never forget that sickening look of disappointment on that creature’s face as I got out.  While on the subject, I had only one other experience with a homo, not at all threatening.  Carl, a middle-aged man from Michigan, picked me up near Salt Lake City on his way to San Francisco (where else?).  Actually, he wasn’t a bad guy, and never came right out with the truth, but I picked up on things — his destination, where he’d be staying with his friend Dominic; his admitting that he’d never had a close relationship with a woman; and his insistence that we share a motel room as we got near Lovelock, Nevada after dark (“Don’t worry, I’ll pay for it”).  I lied that it was a matter of pride that I never stayed in motels while hitchhiking cross country, and told him I’d sleep outside under some trees and meet him in the morning.  I thought about disappearing on him, but I really wanted that ride all the way to San Fran, so I did catch up with him in the morning and everything turned out okay.  

If there was any justice in this world, I could’ve written my own version of On the Road, and seen it become a runaway bestseller because I have as many if not more stories than Jack Kerouac did, but since that’s not in the cards, I’ll run a few scares and unpleasantries by you to give you an idea of what can happen when you travel this way.  The scariest thing that ever happened to me was with a guy who was driving nonstop from New Jersey to Rapid City, South Dakota in a sports car convertible.  Although I usually didn’t hitch at night, this time I did, and he picked me up somewhere in Minnesota on I-90.  He was taking amphetamines, called “speed” back then, to stay awake.  The pills were in a small plastic bag on the console.  A friend of mine who had worked in the area told me not to miss the Badlands in western South Dakota.  A bypass off I-90 went right through them and rejoined the interstate further west — an easy detour.  I talked the driver into seeing the Badlands and we got there around dawn.   I’d never seen anything like these eroded buttes and hills.  It was like driving across the moon, a mind-blowing experience for both of us.  After an hour or so, we were back on I-90, not far from Rapid CIty, and I had nodded off.  I was awakened by a violent wrenching and loud screeching.  I opened my eyes to see that we were swerving wildly across the road.  Despite popping pills through the night, the guy had fallen asleep.  Even though the convertible top was up, I knew that if the car flipped it was all over.  There was nothing to do but ride it out for five seconds.  We careened off into the grass, and thank God the car stayed on all fours.  It was one of those things you never forget.

Something similar, though less scary, happened in New Jersey near the end of my January 1974 trip.  The driver was doing about 40 mph in icy conditions when a discarded Christmas tree suddenly rolled into the road right in front of us.  He swerved to avoid it, then went skidding out of control into the opposite lane.  Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic.

In Arlee, Montana, an Indian stopped for me inside the Kootenai reservation.  There were seven or eight empty beer cans on the floor by my feet, and the car reeked of beer.  Alcoholism is a big problem with Indians, and he was living proof of that, though he didn’t seem to be drunk.  But he was driving way too fast, on a two-lane country road.  I glanced over at the speedometer, and saw that he was doing close to 100 mph.  This was crazy.  “You think you can slow it down a bit?” I politely asked.  “I’m not scaring you, am I?” he replied.  “Hey, you know what I tell my kid?  You die once, you die like a man.”  Just what I wanted to hear.  Minutes later we gained on a police car, and he slowed down to 65 mph, which brough my anxiety level to near normal, though I was as relieved getting out of that car as I was with that Friday the thirteenth faggot.  Another time in Montana, traveling at night on I-94 with a much safer driver, our headlights suddenly picked up a majestic elk standing motionless in the road right ahead of us.  He slammed on the brakes and didn’t miss it by much.  Later, out of nowhere, there was a tremendous thump on the windshield.  We didn’t know what hit us at first, then we smelled it.  Some jerk standing on an overpass dumped what must’ve been a gallon of beer on us.  

On a quiet state road in Kansas once I was standing on the shoulder with my thumb out when some maniac in a pick-up truck turned the wheel right into me and might’ve hit me if I hadn’t lunged into the tall grass.  In Canada, I was doing my thing when a carload of teenage punks approached.  For no reason at all, the one in the front seat leaned out and screamed “Fuck you!” and his buddy in the back seat threw something at me but missed.  Also in Canada, I got picked up by a man who was very drunk but refused to let me drive.  He stayed in his lane but drove at a dangerously slow speed, and I was afraid we were going to get rear-ended.  It didn’t happen, and I even learned from Alex that paper mills gave off the awful stink that engulfed us at one point.  I tell that story elsewhere on this travel page, in the piece entitled “Honesty is the Best Policy,” and I tell more edifying stories there and in another travel essay under the title “I Remember Kindness.”  And truly, the uplifting or just ordinary experiences of hitchhiking greatly outnumber the few bad experiences, though they round out the whole story.  There’s one core truth here, and it’s this: the two or three percent of the population who will pick up a hitchhiker are very often a cut above in character, in having a good heart and more courage than most.  Many people who gave me rides were just plain nice folks, some of whom bought me a meal or put me up in their homes for a night.  It was all a wonderful, enriching experience, only a small bit of which I’ve related here.  I don’t expect to revive the good old days with this composition, but I’d be happy to learn that I inspired just one young man, or even one bold young woman, to get out there and hit the road.  With that in mind, let me give you some practical advice based on what I saw or learned firsthand — and I can’t help slipping in a few more stories. 

Maybe you’re wondering if hitchhiking is against the law.  I suppose there may be local ordinances banning it here and there, but I’ve never heard of any.  As far as I know, it’s legal everywhere, with some caveats.  On my first trip, in New Mexico, I got a ride in a van full of college students from Toronto who were exploring the U.S. on their winter break, and we hit a police roadblock.  Apparently, there was a violent criminal or an escaped prisoner on the loose.  A state trooper came over and asked the driver if there were any hitchhikers in the van.  He pointed to me and the trooper told me to step outside.  He asked me a few questions, then he said, “Do you know it’s illegal to hitchhike in the state of New Mexico?” but I’m sure he was lying.  Satisfied that I wasn’t who they were looking for, he let me go.  As for the caveats, you definitely should not hitchhike on toll roads, and I’m thinking specifically of the Ohio Turnpike, where I was told by a state trooper that I was under arrest.  I wrote about this in “Honesty is the Best Policy,” but it happened a second time the following year, and near the same city, Toledo.  True, I never learn my lesson, but for some reason no one would stop for me where I stood for hours, legally, on the approach to the toll booths, so out of desperation I took my chances and walked down to the turnpike, and got nailed.  Both times I was told to get in the car and that I was going to jail, but that didn’t happen, nor was I handcuffed or booked.  After speaking politely with the first trooper, he let me out with a warning.  The second guy was a real bastard and drove me to the trooper barracks, where I paid a small fine for trespassing and was free to leave.  

As for hitching on toll-free stretches — and I’m guessing that this applies to 95% of the interstate highway system — that’s somewhat iffy.  I did it many times in many states and never had a problem, except once in Utah, when a trooper angrily gestured for me to get off the road.  Fortunately he was going in the opposite direction.  You’re much less likely to have a problem in most western states where there are vast areas of low traffic volume, but you can play it safe everywhere by sticking to entrance ramps.  It’s a trade-off.  Needless to say, there’s much more traffic right on the highway than on a ramp, but going much slower on a ramp gives a driver a better chance to appraise you and it’s much safer for him to pull over.  But getting back to the police, I was never bothered by them aside from what I just told you.  In fact, in Illinois once, a cop in uniform in a marked car gave me a lift, but that was a unique treat.  As for how long you’ll wait for a ride, you just never know.  It could be one minute, it could be three hours, but averaging everything out I’d say twenty to thirty minutes.  On the whole, you’ll get rides faster in those parts of the west — Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas — where there are still remnants of the frontier spirit, of everything that used to be good about America. 

Obviously, the all-freeway interstates are the way to go if you want to get from A to B as quickly as possible, and that’s what I did frequently, but hitching on slower, secondary routes — like the fabled Route 66, which is all there was until the late 1950s — is often more rewarding for various reasons, one of which is, you’ll drive through little towns and see interesting things that you’ll never see from any interstate.  And it more often leads to memorable experiences, like drivers taking you out to dinner or offering you a night’s lodging in their homes.

Appearance means a lot, so look presentable out there.  Don’t wear unconventional or shabby clothes, and you’re better off not having long hair or even a beard.  Look like a regular Joe with a backpack trying to get somewhere.  Many times I was told, “I stopped for you only because you looked clean-cut,” and a few added, “Not like all these goddamn hippies,” or something close to that.

If you have a dog, you’re going to miss him and he’s going to miss you when you hit the road.  So what should you do?  By all means, take him with you!  Most people love dogs more than they love people, and the fear factor of picking up a stranger is diminished because they figure you can’t be such a bad person if you’re out there with a dog.  It’s a funky experience for them as well.  I never did this myself, but I met another hitchhiker who did, and he told me it was much easier getting lifts with his canine companion.

Our national parks out west are a treasure.  Nowhere else in the world can you find so much natural beauty and grandeur — the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Yellowstone and more — in a relatively compact area.  But they’re best seen using your own wheels.  You want to see these wonderful places at your own pace, stopping off and engaging in activities at your own pleasure.  You could get lucky and get a ride with someone whose itinerary matches your own wishes, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Here’s something I learned later, on my last trip in 1986: Use signs to show a destination, and make it legible — black magic marker on a white background.  It makes you less suspicious, like you’re a regular person just trying to get somewhere.  And use psychology.  For example, if you’re in the middle of Ohio and headed for the west coast, don’t write “Denver,” much less “L.A.”, but instead “Chicago”, as most people on the interstate won’t even be going that far, but will still pick you up if they’re going just halfway, which is still a pretty good distance.  I remember when I was in Iowa on U.S. 30, taking my time to get to California, and made a sign that read “Nebraska.”  The second ride took me well past the state line.  It was with a corny middle-aged couple whose teenage daughter sat quietly in the back seat — the kind of people who almost never pick up hitchhikers.  But my sign made me safe in their eyes.

Altogether I got about a dozen rides in eighteen wheelers and I loved every one of them.  There’s nothing like that feeling of power and command sitting that high up.  My all-time favorite ride began outside of Emporia, Kansas with a trucker hauling a full load of hogs to a slaughterhouse in Tucumcari, New Mexico, back roads most of the way, cutting a slash through the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, though I got out just before the Okie line.  It was three hours of pure bliss, “heading down that open highway, eating that concrete coming my way.”  You don’t hear poetry like that anymore.  Sooner or later you’ll find yourself in a truck stop with lots of big rigs parked while drivers are having a meal.  Don’t be shy about walking up to them and asking for a ride as they walk back to their trucks ready to leave.  The worst that can happen is they’ll shake their heads or say no, and that’s what will happen nineteen times out of twenty.  Insurance regulations prohibit unauthorized passengers, and they can get fired if it’s seen and reported, but now and then you’ll find a guy who just doesn’t care.  Owner-operators are a much better bet, but there aren’t too many of them.  Over the road trucking is a lonely job and some drivers just like having someone to talk to.  I got three or four rides this way.

So come on, man, as Joe Biden would say.  Get out there and hitchhike!  It’s the American thing to do!  You’ll meet all kinds of people and have all kinds of experiences.  Expect, sometimes, to be asked to get behind the wheel by someone who’s been driving for a long time and needs some rest.  You don’t know if your next ride will be ten miles or a thousand miles — or more.  That’s right, on four occasions I got rides more than halfway across the country, and spent two or three days with the people who picked me up.  That guy I told you about with the elk and the beer, he was just moseying along the northern tier and stopped for me in his Volkswagen bug in the little town of Norway in Michigan’s upper peninsula and took me all the way to the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.  Those Canadian college kids took me all the way from the lovely little town of Eagle Nest, New Mexico, glistening in the snowy Sangre de Cristo mountains, to Columbus, Ohio, before they turned north.  And what a time that was, driving across the Midwest through everything that winter can throw at you.  And I remember the Marine on leave from his base in Twentynine Palms, California, who wanted to get to his hometown in Ohio as quickly as possible.  He picked me up somewhere in Arizona, then stopped for another hitchhiker I’d been talking to and who was standing fifty yards behind me.  The three of us drove to Ohio in six-hour shifts around the clock. 

So this, then, has been my answer to Jack Kerouac, my condensed version of On the Road.  Maybe I’ve brought up that book too often, because like I said, it didn’t influence me.  I have so many more stories to tell, and if I knew I could find a publisher without much difficulty, I would’ve written a full-length book about my adventures.  Instead, at the age of seventy I’m settling for the satisfaction of looking back on what I accomplished, even though at the time I didn’t think it was a big deal.  But you know what?  Just writing about it got the juices flowing again.  Who says a 70-year-old can’t do this?  My niece is getting married in Colorado next year, and I’ve really come to hate airports in this country.  From my home in upstate New York, I could walk to Route 52, hitch to Route 17 (or I-86, if you want to call it that), then pick up I-90 in that northwest nipple of Pennsylvania just over the state line.  I-90 and I-80 converge a little past Cleveland, then split up in Gary, Indiana, from where it’s I-80 for 800 miles to the I-76 split, a stone’s throw from the Nebraska-Colorado border.  What do you think, four days?  I’m thinking five days at most.  The only thing that’s holding me back is my cat.  Cats don’t make good travelers, so I’ll have to find someone dependable to take care of him.  The call of the open road — ya just can’t breed it out of me.  We’ll see next year.