Many of the roads in my home town are narrow, winding, hilly, lined with trees, and without sidewalks. (I travel the one in the picture every day.) They are rife with blind curves – the vertical kind as well as horizontal. On summer weekend days, such as today, they are also rife with bicyclists. This means much local travel by auto is at bicycle speed, for passing a bike tempts a head-on collision with a vehicle suddenly appearing around a bend. I don’t begrudge the cyclists – or at least I begrudge them less than the impatient tailgaters behind me who want me to provide a fast-moving shield for them by veering around the bikes into possible oblivion. I’m in no hurry. Besides, I spent much time bicycling on these very same roads myself back before I got my license, so it is fair payback. There were no fewer bicycles on the road then than there are today, but I do notice that the cyclists have changed. Back when I pedaled my way to and fro, they were nearly all kids; the median age was 11 and they were unsupervised. Now they are nearly all adults wearing specialized bicycling clothes – in fact I almost never see a kid on a bicycle unless he or she is with an adult.
Pedestrians are less problematical, except for the occasional jogger who insists on jogging well into the lane. One type of pedestrian is not a problem at all: the hitchhiker. I no longer see any of those. They used to be common.
Hitchhiking grew popular in the 1920s, the first decade when enough cars were on the road to make it practicable. Teens did it regularly. My mom (who grew up 2 miles from where I currently live) and her friends commonly hitchhiked as kids and teens to Morristown 7 miles away in the late 1930s and early 1940s to go to the movies. Film director John Waters in his book Carsick notes, “It is hard to imagine today, but in the early sixties my parents expected me to hitchhike home from high school every day. All the kids did.” This being John Waters, he adds, “Of course perverts were out there, and I hitchhiked every day with a hard-on hoping one would pick me up and give me a blow job.” Well, we seldom get all that we want in this world. The peak of hitchhiking, though, was in the late 1960s. One reason was that the hitchers, by and large, were so unmenacing. Overwhelmingly they were hippies or (more often) pseudo-hippies in their teens and early 20s, who, underneath the shaggy hair and beads, were middle class kids raised by Dr. Spock (not the Star Trek guy) and Disney. Drivers felt safe picking them up, so they did. They were everywhere.
Several of my friends in the 1970s spent summers hitching around the USA in order to see the place on a budget. All returned alive and pleased with their experiences. (My budget was a little larger at the time, so I drove – see one leg described in The Roxy Caution at my Richard’s Mirror site.) Others did the same in Europe. Yet the 1970s was also the decade when fear about the activity began to rise. Compare the easygoing 1970 hit Hitchin’ a Ride (clip below) with the Ramones’ :
“She was outside hitchin' a ride/
Now she's lying/
In a bottle of formaldehyde/”
In the ‘80s and ‘90s the paranoia of drivers and pedestrians alike escalated due to well-publicized horror stories, both real and fictional. Fewer and fewer people risked hitching. In the 21st century hitchhikers are rare sights. So are drivers who will stop for them.
Were the roads really safer for (and from) hitchhikers in decades past? Probably not. But, while hitching may have been no safer then, it’s probably not more dangerous now. John Waters actually put this to the test in 2012 by hitching at age 66 from Baltimore to San Francisco. Carsick is an account of that journey. He spent many hours standing by the roadside as cars cruised past, but sooner or later someone would stop. No doubt he was helped by the fact that about half the drivers recognized him. But the ones who didn’t were just as helpful. One farmer thought he was a homeless man and tried to give him $10 for a meal when he let him out of the truck. In Pennsylvania a 20-y.o. Republican town councilman in a Corvette picked him up and unexpectedly drove him hundreds of miles out of his own way – both graciously avoided politics as they chatted. He was given rides by a cop, a male nurse, an indie rock band in a van, and truckers, among others. All were at least polite. Most were kind. He made it to SF alive. This is pretty much what I would have predicted, but it says something about modern expectations that the experiment was worth a book.
Vanity Fare Hitchin’ a Ride (1970)