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?


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!

There were some difficult times, to be sure, like in Moab late at night when some rowdy teenagers with nothing better to do than race up and down the main street in pick-up trucks, decided to pitch some empty beer bottles at us (that experience led us to opt for the freight hopping to get out of town). But in general, as long as you stayed out of the cars that reeked of alcohol, thumbing was a pretty safe way to travel, especially by twos. Same for picking people up. I haver never had a problem myself giving people rides who were thumbing, though a couple of times I admit I’ve had qualms — but never if there were two of us in the car.

Are things crazier today?

No! They are safer. That’s what is so weird about people’s unwillingness to give a hitcher a ride these days. All the crime statistics show that crime is about where it was in the ‘70s (total crime in 2009 was the same as in 1968, with homicides down to the lowest rate since 1964, while violent crime in general has been falling since 1990 and is now at the level it was in 1973). What’s way up is fear. We have a media that live and breathe crime reporting, and always as lurid as possible. The more gruesome the story, the better. And we have a government that is all about generating fear — fear of crime, fear of immigrants, fear of terrorists, fear of poor people, fear of the 99%, fear of hitch-hikers, you name it.

My grandfather, back in the Second World War, was a traveling salesman. One night on a long intercity drive, he picked up a hitchhiker in uniform–a sailor. It was at night, and the guy, dog-tired, fell asleep almost right away in the passenger seat. As he drove along, my grandfather turned on the radio for company, and heard a news report about a killer who was hitchhiking, last seen in a Navy uniform. My grandfather drove on, and left the guy off at the nearest restaurant lying that he was turning off the highway. The poor sailor was probably not a criminal — just one lonely guy trying to make his way home on leave.

It was probably a prudent move on my grandfather’s part, but it shows that there has always been an element of risk in hitching or in picking up hitch-hikers, and yet people used to do it easily, so that hitching was a viable way to get around if you didn’t have a car.

In fact hitch-hiking was a way of life for people without cars for nearly a century, before fear took over this country. Now, with the exception of some isolated pockets like rural communities where everyone knows each other, or certain parts of the US like the Pacific Northwest or parts of Northern California, where people tell me hitching still is done and rides are still offered, almost nobody will pick up a hitch-hiker.

It’s gotten so that in most of this country almost nobody even thinks to hitch-hike. What that means is that the people who still travel by thumb tend to be real down-on-their-luck types, often winos and homeless folks. I generally pick people up, figuring that I owe a lifetime of favors to such people for all the thumbing I did over the years, but there are times I wish I’d put down a newspaper before the rider sat down! The odor of urine can be overpowering.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of our society that today most–or nearly all– Americans in cars will not stop for anyone trying to hitch a ride, however well dressed or coifed, or however miserable the weather.

I did finally get a ride Sunday. It was a big SUV that stopped. When I got in, I found myself seated in a vehicle among three immigrants from India. I was sitting in back with the teenaged son. The father, who was driving, said he had “only stopped because my wife said she was afraid you were one of those people with dementia, who was lost. I was afraid if I didn’t pick you up, I’d be hearing about it from her all day long!”

The wife, my benefactor, sitting in the passenger seat, laughed in embarrassment.

It took this family from a whole different cultural background from our own fear-crazed American society to see the human need before them, and to act out of generosity or concern, offering a fellow human being some assistance.

I thanked them, but ended up thinking: how sad for us that we’ve come to this as a nation.