What Happened to Hitchhiking?
Hitchhiking peaked in the sixties and seventies. Then, it just vanished.
If you’re an urban or suburban Philadelphian making a long drive west, to Pittsburgh and beyond, your first stop is likely to be the Valley Forge interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. With the ubiquity of EZ Pass, it’s usually an easy transaction to get on the cloverleaf to your destined highway.
Of course two or three lanes are still clogged with hold-out drivers grabbing toll tickets being spit out by the decrepit machines. Still, the scene is very business-like and uneventful.
It was quite a different scene back in the day…in my day in, say, 1969 to 1971. This was before EZ Pass, so each line of cars was long and restless. And who were those people off to the side of the interchange? There seemed to be dozens of them, young folks, individuals or in groups, men and women wearing bell bottoms and colorful garb, backpacks, sleeping bags, guitars and suitcases scattered among them. One woman was playing a tambourine.
State troopers drove by slowly, on alert for marijuana smoke, but probably enjoying the smiling women waving at the cars. These were hitchhikers, and sooner or later, each would be paired with a car for the journey west.
I know this because was among them several times. I wish I had photos.
A Short History of “Thumbing”
In the Great Depression, hitchhiking became another form of, “brother, can you spare a dime?” The second world war brought gasoline rationing and shortages of materials essential to operating a car. Ride sharing became a necessity of life.
Meanwhile, soldiers were thumbing it everywhere, which made picking up hitchhikers more acceptable.
America was reaching a golden era of hitchhiking in the baby boomer generation, according to Alan Pisarski, a consultant who studies travel behavior. “It was an era of good feeling,” Pisarski noted, “an era of people being very comfortable with each other, a ‘we’re all in this together’ sort of thing.”
Tales From the Road
Inspired by the siren’s call of Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road, long-haired men and brave women thought nothing of sticking their thumbs out and accepting rides from strangers.
Hitchhiking is hard. Once that car door closes, both parties are taking a risk. (I consider it dumb luck that I never came close to danger.) On long hauls, hitchhiking meant talking to a stranger for several hours. At first, I thought finding common ground and being cheery was my burden, since it was the driver’s generosity that brought us together in the first place. I eventually realized that there was something in it for him (or her…rarely), whether it was escaping loneliness or merely staying awake.
Sometimes there was total silence that didn’t seem awkward. I learned that companionship doesn’t always require conversation.
I suppose I picked up some valuable communication skills. Perhaps that made up for the many nights sleeping on the ledges below interstate highways.
Actually, I did most of my hitchhiking in my high school days on the Main Line of Philadelphia where I grew up. I remember being propositioned several times by older men, avoided some straying hands, but was always able to slither out at the next stoplight. Those were the days before power locks.
The Decline of Hitchhiking
Two separate occurrences led to the decline of hitchhiking: the dramatic increase in car ownership and movies like The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre. The website Vox gives us a good summary:
People who don’t have cars and are trying to hitchhike might be perceived as weirder, more deviant, or more dangerous. The more stigmatized it became, the fewer drivers were likely to pick someone up. Fewer wiling drivers led to fewer people trying to hitch, and the downward spiral continued.David Smith
It’s been many, many years since I last saw anyone on the roadside with a thumb out.
Bonus Round: Ten Songs About Hitchhiking
Popeye The Hitchhiker – Chubby Checker
Sweet Hitchhiker – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Hitch Hike – Marvin Gaye
Hitchin’ A Ride – Vanity Fair
America – Simon & Garfunkel
Every Day Is A Winding Road – Sheryl Crow
Icky Thump – The White Stripes
Highway Blues – Savoy Brown
Hitchhiker – Neil Young
This Land Is Your Land – Woody Guthrie
What did I miss? Please feel free to add your song below in the comments section.