News & Politics

Can Hitchhiking Save the Country?

The author of a new book about hitchhiking says all the myths about the dangers of thumbing it are just part of our culture of fear.
Hitchhiking is dangerous. We've all seen the made-for-TV movies about innocent youths who either blithely step out on the highway for some Kerouackian fun or naively pick up a stranger on the side of the road. On either side of the equation, the result is the same: death, mayhem and murder.

Clearly, the highways and byways of this land are filled with crazies. Everyone out there must be waiting to do evil at the first possible opportunity. Everyone, that is, except you. And everyone you know. And pretty much everyone they know.

Is it possible that maybe strangers aren't as scary, or hitchhiking as dangerous, as we've been told?

That's one of the driving factors behind Elijah Wald's new book, Riding with Strangers: A Hitchhiker's Journey. The book follows Wald's most recent cross-country hitchhiking trip, from Boston to Seattle, and forms a sort of travelogue of life on the road's shoulders.

But this is no travel book. Wald has been hitching for 40 years, across this country many times and on pretty much every hitchhike-able continent. In that time, he's watched hitchhiking in the United States decline from a commonplace activity among people of all stripes to today's prevalent belief that you'd have to be crazy to thumb it on the road.

During this same time frame -- and the kind of cause-and-effect involved here is certainly up for debate -- the country has become much more polarized, much more isolated and substantially more fearful.

I talked to Wald over the phone recently, as he was gearing up to start his tour for the book. (Unfortunately, I forgot to ask if he's hitchhiking from city to city on the tour.)

Matthew Wheeland: Tell me a little bit about how you came to write this book. Did you leave Boston knowing you were going to write a book about it?

Elijah Wald: Absolutely. Basically what happened was, as is clear from the book, I've done an awful lot of hitchhiking, and naturally when I started writing, everybody on Earth said, "You really ought to write about your adventures." But the problem was, by the time people started saying I should write about hitchhiking, I had done so much of it that it no longer seemed particularly unusual to me. It was like anybody being asked to write about what they do full-time.

For a while what I felt like I should do was take someone along with me and write about their impressions of it, since that would provide a fresh take on it. And then I realized that was the book I wanted to write: the book about how it's not this wild, heroic, amazing, strange thing full of astonishing adventures. It's this really quite small, intimate experience of meeting all these different people in this unique way. And I realized what I really wanted to write about was not the exciting rides, but the sort of normal experience of being inside it and into the cars of quite normal people who you never get to meet normally.

With that in mind, I decided I would just head across the country and just write about all the rides. Just one trip across the country, who stops for me and what it's like.

MW: How did this trip stack up? How many rides did you have in how many days …

EW: I haven't added it up. Let's see, Day One is something like five rides, so that means it's gotta be another five or six just from St. Louis to Iowa City. I'd guess it's probably 15 or so rides.

And as far as how long it took, I count it by the nights. It was essentially two and a half days into Iowa City and then two days from Iowa City to Portland.

MW: So how does that compare in terms of either the time it took, or the number of rides or even the quality of the rides you got?

EW: It was not particularly unusual. If I had done a straight shot across on Route 80, it would have been a lot fewer rides. It's the nature of the beast: You get a bunch of small rides, and then you get a huge one. And I mean the first time I ever crossed the country, it was Reno to Boston in three rides, and that's not really all that unusual if you're doing trucks, because they do that! [laughs] And they don't want to do less than that really. By and large, a truck driver doesn't want to pick you up and take you a hundred miles, because it means they have to stop.

On the other hand, if you did the whole thing on small roads, which I've done sometimes, obviously it's a lot more rides and takes a lot longer. And frankly, had I done this trip in August, which I had originally thought about, I would have done it on smaller roads.

This one I stayed on the interstates because as I say in the book, when I hit Cheyenne there was a cold front coming in. And I had wanted to weave through the Rockies at a more leisurely pace, but the weather just wasn't looking great.

One thing about hitchhiking is, as I guess is pretty obvious, is that you can't make too precise plans. You have to be ready to change.

MW: From my perspective, it seems like a dying mode of travel: We've gotten so used to doing our own thing, to being in our car, alone, traveling for long stretches and being able to plan everything. Do you think that's part of the beauty or the draw of hitchhiking?

EW: Absolutely. It's that combination, and I just love meeting the people. Quite honestly, in some ways I love it more when I'm in a strange place, because I have much more of a need for it.

If I'm in a foreign country and travel for a couple of days not hitchhiking, it begins to drive me nuts, because I just feel like I'm not meeting anybody, I'm traveling without any idea of what to do, and I just feel like if just stood out on the side of the road and stuck out my thumb, I'd be meeting people, and they'd be telling me where I should be going.

MW: What is hitchhiking like in other countries? Is there any kind of baseline experience of hitchhiking, or is it dramatically different from country to country or continent to continent?

EW: The baseline experience is people do stop for you …

MW: More so abroad than here?

EW: No, not so much. It really depends. And honestly, it really depends on what you look like. For years I said that Spain was a terrible place to hitchhike, and then learned that it was just that I looked too Spanish. I had a blond English friend who was going through Spain like lightning.

MW: So is part of it that people are approaching it from both sides with the same intention, that they want to pick up someone exotic, and get a different perspective on something that they don't already have?

EW: By and large, yes. The regular advice people used to always give is to have your country's flag on your pack so people know you're a traveler. I never did that, partly because the American flag is a pretty ambiguous symbol in some countries.

But certainly in the U.S., any time I've talked to foreigners who've hitchhiked around the U.S., their experiences is completely different from mine. They always tell me, 'Oh, it's amazing, everybody takes you home, and they put you up for days …' and that's never happened to me in the States.

MW: Do you have a favorite country to hitchhike in? Or a country that you've had the best experiences hitchhiking in?

EW: I wouldn't say for the hitchhiking, per se, but different countries all have their advantages. I really liked hitchhiking in France, which I would mention just because France has such a lousy reputation among Americans. You keep hearing how unfriendly the French are, but it sure isn't true if you're standing on the road with your thumb out.

MW: Have you been hitchhiking abroad lately, I'm thinking since 9/11, and have you seen any change in attitudes towards an American?

EW: Oh yeah, I've been abroad since then. You once in a while get somebody, but you always do. I was hitchhiking with a friend in France right after the Gulf War began, and one of our drivers just went into a rant about the Americans. He apologized down toward the end, but I have to say that what surprised me, considering that it was the height of "freedom fries" and all that silliness, which the French did write up in their papers. They thought it was immensely amusing.

But I have to say most surprising was that almost nobody mentioned it at all. I would have thought hitchhiking in France right then, being an American, that it would be a subject that would come up much more often. But I think people were probably being polite.

MW: Going back to the U.S., how has hitchhiking changed in this country since we started doing this? Obviously you've been doing it for long enough to see some changes.

EW: Crazily enough, I think the main difference is how much easier it is. I think that's largely just because there's so few people doing it now. The big change is that the roads used to be packed with hitchhikers.

One of the weird things about having done this book is that I think all of us -- at least everybody my age, and I'm about to be 47 -- think of hitchhiking as something that young people do. But what I've noticed since starting this book is that wherever I am the people that say they love hitchhiking are all people my age. [laughs] I know from the internet that there are teenagers and 20-year-olds doing some, but I never see them. And as I say, any American in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, they all hitchhiked. There's simply no exception to that rule.

MW: Yeah, when I started reading this book, I began informally polling everyone I knew to see if they'd ever hitchhiked, and it absolutely reinforces your point: Nobody my age -- I'm 30 now -- has hitchhiked, and just about everybody older than me, in their 40s and up, has.

EW: I had never really thought that one through until this project, but that is bizarre. Obviously, I'm mixing cause and effect here, but there's part of me that just wants to say, "That's why we've got the government we've got." [laughs] It suggests to me that even liberal, lefty young people are living with a degree of isolation that, whatever their politics, simply wasn't true for older people.

When I was first doing this in the 60s, there's the myth that that was the height of the culture wars, but a lot of us were out there hitchhiking. We might have been lefties -- I didn't have long hair because I cut it before I hitchhiked -- but people were meeting truck drivers. And we may have disagreed violently, but we at least knew each other. And I have the feeling that today, that is much less true.

MW: I think you're on to something; obviously the cause-and-effect is very muddled, but our current government is in some ways the federal embodiment of this culture of fear and alienation that has been building for the last 25 or so years. And it is a cycle that feeds on itself and increases, which is why I was so delighted by your book. It shows that the path really is not already fixed; it's something that we can change and reverse, if people would just open themselves up in some way to strangers.

EW: That's right, and although I tried not to bang on the political points too heavily, I have to say I get very irritated by people on the left who have this sort of blithe America-bashing. To me it smacks very much of intellectual elitism. It seems to me like it's a lot of people who have never in fact talked with the average sort of person driving a truck out of Omaha, so they find it very easy to say that person is an idiot who believes everything the preacher and the politician say, and that's just not true. Those people are no stupider than the people at Harvard.

MW: To some extent, we live in a nation built on caricatures, where everybody perceives somebody as fitting perfectly into this bloc of 'typical red stater' or 'typical blue stater' or whatever, but obviously there are shades of gray, or shades of purple, as it were, and that's why it's important to get out there and meet strangers like you did.

EW: It's not so much our country, it's any place in the world where people are isolated from other people. It's the nature of stereotypes. They substitute for personal experience, and I don't think that there's a place where lacking personal experience there aren't stereotypes. It's probably no more typical of us than anybody else.

MW: You have a quote in the introductory section of the book that serves as such a great motto or justification for hitchhiking: "If you trust everyone you meet, you will occasionally get robbed, but if you distrust everyone, you spend your whole life surrounded by thieves." Tell me a bit about that quote.

EW: Well, in a way it's my response to people who are saying, "Isn't it dangerous?" But you know, I am hoping that somebody is going to read this book and tell me where that quote comes from! [laughs] I know that I read it in the American Library in Lubumbashi, Zaire, within the same month I read Howard's End, and somehow I attached it to Howard's End, but it's not in there. Hopefully someone can tell me where that's from.

But I'm not saying that's the only right attitude to have, but it's certainly the only attitude that's gonna make anybody into a hitchhiker.

MW: The whole book is tempered with this pragmatic approach: Here's how hitchhiking was for me, on this trip, but it's going to be different if you're a woman, or it's going to be different if inexperienced …

EW: … it's going to be different if you're black …

MW: Exactly. But for all of that, it's still almost proselytizing, saying, "Let's get out, just try it. It's not going to hurt you."

EW: Absolutely, and I resisted saying that. I know that as soon as I get out on tour, all sorts of people are going to ask me if I'd recommend it to a young woman, or whatever, and my short answer is: It doesn't really matter. A young woman who's going to read this book and feels like she wants to go out hitchhiking doesn't much care what I think. [laughs] But the slightly longer answer is that there are women out there hitchhiking, although obviously it's a different situation in a number of ways. Like everything in life, it's all trade-offs.

MW: I've been trying to think of ways people could be convinced to hitchhike in some form or other, and it hit me just the other day on my way in to work. Here in the Bay Area, we have a system called "casual carpool." And it's not even a system, really, it's a self-organizing, totally unregulated phenomenon.

Essentially I get up in the morning, leave my house and walk two blocks and stand by the curb. A line of cars are waiting, and a line of people are waiting to get in. You hop in, the cars get to go through the toll booth on the Bay Bridge for free, so they get over much faster and save three bucks, and we riders get in to work in 20 minutes instead of 45 minutes. But I hadn't even thought of it as a form of hitchhiking until I read this book, which it clearly is.

So are you interested in getting more people to hitchhike, and is there anything you can think of that would encourage people to get out there, like taking a short trip first or hitchhiking around their town first?

EW: Oh, I'm absolutely interested in getting more people to hitchhike. But really, I suppose if people want to hitchhike with training wheels, I'd say go to any rural area. Any small road in a rural area is where people do still hitchhike.

People still hitch places like Martha's Vineyard, or you go up to the islands offshore from Seattle, people are still hitchhiking all over the place up there. And forgive me for being completely cynical, but I think it's because these are areas that are all-white, middle-class, and drivers figure anybody out on the road is somebody else who lives there and they feel safe.

MW: So it's sort of hitchhiking with training wheels for everyone -- both the drivers and the passengers.

EW: Sure. But the other thing is that foreign countries are fun. Europe has always, always been where Americans who are nervous about hitchhiking in America went to hitchhike, and that still holds true. I would not just without thinking suggest that two young women head across the U.S. hitchhiking. Plenty will and will get by without any trouble, but I would without hesistation suggest that same thing in Ireland.

Just as one final thought, my worry for this book is that it might end up being treated as a travel book, so I was certainly very clear that I am trying to fit into the "culture of fear" dialogue. I do think that the lack of hitchhikers is a disturbing symptom, and I do think that the left in America -- and a lot of young people in particular -- have allowed themselves to get cut off from people who aren't like them.

They define people who "aren't like them" as people of other races who live in the same neighborhood and go to the same school, and live in essentially the same world, and because of this they feel that they're hanging out lots with people who "aren't like them." But in fact, the people who really aren't like you are the people with whom you profoundly disagree, and crucial thing to be aware of is that they're very very often just as smart and just as decent as the people with whom you agree with. You can still think that you're right and they're wrong, but it's worth noticing that you're not a tiny island of intelligent people in a world of idiots.
Matthew Wheeland is AlterNet's managing editor.