Whatever Happened to...Hitchhiking?

When's the last time you saw a hitchhiker? Better yet, when's the last time you picked up one? Crazy question, right?
 It's been many years since I've seen anyone sticking their thumb out on the side of the road to bum a ride, but I can remember seeing the occasional hitchhiker up through the 1990s (one was a guy so scary looking he appeared to be wearing a Halloween mask, not far from my house as I was driving home late at night from the hotel job I held during my college years.)

And that's pretty much the obvious answer as to why hitchhiking fell out of favor--who would be insane/careless/cavalier enough today to offer a ride to a stranger, or ask for one? Yet for everything that could go wrong with hitchhiking, apparently documented cases of U.S. murders that resulted from the practice in the 20th century are not as common as we would think. Still, I wouldn't take a chance...and that's why we have mobile phones and AAA today, to save us from thumbing a ride to the closest pay phone if our car breaks down. 

Hitchhiking was popular during the 1960s and 70s, although its origins actually go back further than that. Remember those old timey movies where the lady character exposes a leg to get her and her male companion a ride? There was also a time when anyone in uniform could get picked up within minutes--Dr. Wayne Dyer tells a story in his latest PBS special about how he hitchhiked home for the holidays wearing his Navy uniform and ran into his brother at a restaurant.  

But it was the baby boomers who popularized hitchhiking to get rides to antiwar protests, concerts and other destinations. Jack Kerouac's On the Road was published in 1957, and represented freedom to the book's fans. I had a friend who hitchhiked from Boston to San Francisco during the late 60s--and said he rode with a racist truck driver who spewed obscenities about every ethnic background under the sun. 

And let's not forget that Vanity Fare had a hit song in 1969/1970 with the catchy "Hitchin' a Ride" ("A thumb goes up, a car goes by...")

Law enforcement started to get nervous with this popular form of transportation, and began to educate the public on hitchhiking's dangers; the FBI produced pamphlets on why hitchhiking was dangerous, and some American cities started to debate passing laws that would make it illegal. A 1973 issue of Reader's Digest warned women not to put out a thumb, leg, or anything else: “the odds against her reaching her destination unmolested are today literally no better than if she played Russian roulette.” Scary movies that revolved around deadly hitchhiking scenarios started to get made in the 70s and 80s. 

At one time the Let's Go Publications of travel guides advocated hitchhiking; today, of course, the guides do not recommend it, no matter what part of the globe you're visiting. 

Occasionally, though, you do hear about successful modern hitchhiking success stories. Director John Waters' new book, Carsick, chronicles his hitchhiking adventure from Baltimore to San Francisco. Author Paul Samuel Dolman was picked up by Larry David on Martha's Vineyard a few years ago ("You're not a serial killer or something are you?" was David's first words to him.) Needless to say both survived the ordeal and Dolman wrote about it in the best seller Hitchhiking with Larry David. (And who wouldn't want to share a car ride with Larry David?)

I also remember a 20/20 special in the 90s where an ABC reporter hitchhiked from Massachusetts to California to see what kind of people he would encounter. The verdict: most people are good and perfectly normal (of course he also had a cameraman with him, so he wasn't alone.) 

Hitchhiking would be an interesting way to see some parts of the country and meet new people, if only one's safety could be guaranteed. As a common way to getting around, however, I think it's gone for good. 

Do any of my readers have some interesting hitchhiking stories to share?


  1. The likes of Ted Bundy and popular media probably killed it off. Even as far away as Ireland is from the states, people got paranoid over getting murdered, and this is a country where very few violent crimes happen. It's a pity, I've done plenty of it, and picked plenty of people up too. I think if you pulled over to offer someone a lift these days they would run off screaming.

  2. Hitchhiking is gone for good. Any man who tries hitchhiking will inevitably be assumed to be a rapist/killer and passed by. If you did pick up a hitchhiker and you told anyone about it they would immediatly tell you it was a bad idea. Women on the other hand would never even try to hitchhike because of fear.
    I do wish it was still possible as it was in the 70's and before because there is a sort of romantic notion of being free and travelling only relying on the good will of motorists.
    The TV show The Incredible Hulk comes to mind since every episode ended with the character hitchhiking to a new city or town with only a duffel bag across his shoulder.

  3. Yes even back in the "Good Ole Days" horrible things would happen from time to time related to 'hitching.
    My dad knew a man back in the late Fifties who was driving to Rome, GA to pick up his son who was on leave after Army Basic Training. He stopped to pick up a young man who was about his son's age on the way. He never made it to Rome.
    I've 'hitched a few times in my youth but even then some would say it wasn't such a good idea.

  4. Haven't done a lot, and not a lot of it successful. In 1969 (in New Zealand)I tried hitchhiking after my motorbike broke down. After an hour I phoned my Mum collect. At 10:00pm she was not especially pleased. In the late 1980s on a particularly disastrous motor racing journey, again in New Zealand, we got a flat on the van towing my race car. Spare was predictably flat (it wasn't my van) so I picked up the wheel and tried to hitch into town to get a new tyre. Some scumbag actually tried to run me over before a truckie took me into town. Damned if I didn't get the same experience when I hitched back to the stranded van. And now, thank God, I'm too old for such tomfoolery.


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