Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Vanishing Thumb

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’ Why Is It Always This Way from the end of the decade:
            “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)


  1. Oh man, cyclists drive my wife nuts. Of course most of the ones around here don't use the bike lane, always ride side by side sometimes three or four across so they can talk (!?!) and don't know anything about hand signals. So they do get on my nerves too, but only they just ignore traffic rules.

    I think Lance Armstrong at his peek really inspired adult cycling. It really seemed to boom around that time (late 90s?). Up to that point, yeah, it was mostly kids without drivers licenses on bikes. Not sure if kids even get bikes any more. When I was a kid getting a bike was a huge deal. Kind of like a mini-rite of passage. You tested your skill to keep balanced and once you had it, the whole neighborhood was your new world - away from your parents. I ended up with three bikes in my childhood. The earliest was a Spiderman bike that came with training wheels. The next was a mini-dirt bike that was black. Looked pretty darn cool. The last was a Mountain bike that was really maneuverable. I remember doing some really stupid things on that bike. And this was back when no one wore a helmet, ever, while cycling.

    When I was a kid the dangers of hitchhiking were hammered home early. It just wasn't considered safe at all. I even remember seeing PSAs and those little morality messages at the end of cartoons and in-between Saturday morning cartoons warning the young viewers to avoid hitchhiking and entering a car with a stranger.

    Then there was usually some kind of irony when they followed this with an episode of Bugs Bunny hitching a ride. :)

    1. Just as an experiment I recently asked several 22 y.o.'s if they knew their hand signals. They got the left and right (with a little thought) but none remembered the "stop" signal. I don't know when was the last time I saw anyone using a hand signal on a bike or in a car, but it has been a while.

      As a kid and teen I multi-purposed my old three-speed for road and trails. It did the job. My friends and I biked everywhere in a 20-mile radius. Beyond that would make it difficult to get home before dark.

      I seldom hitched, but many of my friends did all the time. Even in the 60s there were lots of warnings about hitchhiking, but kids did it anyway. We didn't worry much about it. At least in our mental image, it was a different world.