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Holding a Thumb to the Wind: America, Land of the Fearful, is No Place to Hitch-Hike

 

Yesterday, I hitch-hiked to the gym.

If I tell that to any of my friends, they look at me like I’m crazy.

Yet if I had said the same thing 40 years ago, it would have been like saying, “I just drove over to the store” or “I just had lunch.” No one would have batted an eye.

Actually though, it was a remarkable experience. The day was pretty cold, with a biting dry wind, and I had planned to walk the three-mile distance, because my wife had one car and my son had the other, my bicycle had a flat tire, and I was happy for the extra exercise. But then, when I got into the little market center of Maple Glen, about a quarter mile from my house, I decided it would be a good time to stick out my thumb and take a reading on the state of American community-mindedness. It’s a week before Christmas, after all, so people should be in an especially friendly, sympathetic mood, right?

Wrong.

I watched in wonder as over 100 cars drove past me, most of the drivers averting their faces or staring stonily ahead so as to appear not to notice me. Some of the cars were driven by women. Okay I get that. Everyone’s a potential rapist when you’re a woman alone, but then again, it’s daytime, and I’m a 62-year-old guy with a Santa-like white beard. And how about two women in a car or three? Well, I’m a forgiving guy, so I still get that.

But what about all the guys who drove past? Big guys in pick-up trucks. Often two guys or even three guys in a car. What are they afraid of? Really nothing. It’s more about not wanting to let anyone else in your bubble, I think. Having to converse with a stranger. Having to be a minute or two later getting to the mall (this was a Sunday afternoon).

Remember too, Maple Glen, PA is a small town. Certainly some of the people passing me had seen me in the local stores. But because they were so intent on avoiding my gaze, they weren’t really looking closely.

Hitch-hiking, once commonplace in America, is no longer easy in a land of mindless fearHitch-hiking, once commonplace in America, is no longer easy in a land of mindless fear and self-absorbtion

I found myself musing on all this, and thinking about how, whenever I’ve mentioned hitch-hiking, the immediate response is, “Oh, that’s really dangerous. People are crazy these days.” That’s immediately followed by a line about how, “I never pick up hitch-hikers.” (I had lots of time to muse.)

My own background with regard to hitch-hiking is, I confess, a bit extreme. I hitched everywhere as a teenager and into my 20s, criss-crossing the country several times, making one trip at 17 with a friend from high school all the way from Connecticut to Alaska and back over the sumer of 1966. My wife and I, back in the early 1970s, hitched a lot of places together too -- from New York to Florida, all over the northeast, and from Aspen, Colorado to the Grand Canyon and back (with one stretch on a freight train from just north of Moab, Utah to Grand Junction, Colorado).

Hell, we hitch-hiked to our own wedding, from Cambridge, Mass. to Middletown, Connecticut!

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