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Thumbs Up: A Very American History of Hitchhiking

Historian Jack Reid, author of ‘Roadside Americans,’ says that strangers catching rides on highways was essential to the building of 20th-century America

Last July, my father died of cancer after a four-year battle. Fortunately, our Gotham family of three made it back in time to spend five days with him in my hometown of Billings, Montana. Having spent a tragic spring a few blocks from the morgue trucks of Brooklyn Hospital, the wide open spaces were a balm. Since school was done and my wife’s work virtual, I reached out on social media hoping to extend our stay somewhere in the state, preferably on the cheap. Thanks to the overwhelming generosity of old Magic City friends, we ended up with, free of charge, a condo in the brilliant mountain town of Red Lodge, and a green 2003 Mercedes E-Class wagon. We spent the better part of six weeks tooling about the state, clocking more than 3,000 miles best I can tell, taking in living Charlie M. Russell vistas everywhere we went. 

Along the way, I fell hard for one song in particular: Bruce Springsteen’s “Hitch Hikin’,” the first track on his 2019 album Western Stars

Thumb stuck out as I go
I’m just traveling up the road
Maps don’t do much for me, friend
I follow the weather and the wind

I’m hitchhiking all day long
Got what I can carry and my song
I’m a rolling stone just rolling on
Catch me now ‘cause tomorrow I’ll be gone…

Then the Boss says “I’m hitchhiking all day long” a bunch more times, which is funny because the last time the then 70-year-old Springsteen probably stuck out his thumb was to join The Castiles at “Cafe Wha?” Still, the sentiment and the landscape reminded me of my youthful Montana days. Before diving into the history of a thousand silhouettes holding out their thumbs, I should start by saying yes, I have. Twice. 

The first time was on a subzero New Year’s morning in Red Lodge, guessing 1991, after a long night’s revelry at the infamous Snow Creek Saloon. I woke up in a hotel across town from the one where I was staying. I walked out into the freezing pre-dawn air and flagged down the first and only car out at that hour. A shaggy old dude in a wagon packed to the gills picked me up and asked if I wanted to drive down to Mexico with him. He was done with winter for good and thought we could take driving shifts. Did my fuzzy brain ponder it for 30 seconds? You know it did. 

The second time was with my wife on our 2003 Grecian island-hopping honeymoon. We visited Tinos, a sacred island near Mykonos that’s home to the Holy Church of Panagia Evaggelistria. (Where pilgrimages to “Our Lady of Tinos” are made by the devout, who crawl 1,640 feet on hands-and-knees to kiss the Virgin Mary icon.) Atop the island, at around 2,100-feet, the massive Marble Cross of Exomvourgo towers over Tinos amidst the remains of a Venetian castle dating back to the Middle Ages. We got dropped off thinking we had overcome our extreme “come back in one hour” language barrier with a local cabbie during a slow month. It was as the Greeks say, a major stupid American tourist mistake. After a long wait, we started down the steep road until two super stoned dudes pulled over. They giggled the entire 10 mph ride back down, pointing out the dead “snaaaaaaake” laying on the floor of the car. 

Hitchhiking was a trip, but both of my oddball experiences were of the “I really need a fucking lift” variety, not Aquarius Age wanderlust. However, thanks to Roadside Americans: The Rise and Fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation by Jack Reid, a historian of American culture who works at Northern Arizona University, I came to find out practicality and proximity is how hitchhiking got a foothold on America’s byways and highways in the first place. 

“I wasn’t old enough for the last great era of hitchhiking, but I’ve always loved the music and culture of the 1960s and 1970s,” Reid tells me. “Bob Dylan and Hunter Thompson are two of my lodestars, so that’s where my interest in hitchhiking began. I wanted to understand why sticking out your thumb and meeting a random cross-section of Americans vanished from our culture. The idea of hearing different stories, learning about unique experiences, the whole freedom of the open road ideal is very romantic to me.”  

After college, Reid moved to New Zealand for a few months and did WWOOF-ing (an acronym for We’re Welcome On Organic Farms), which meant going farm-to-farm helping out for a few days before moving on to another. He bought a cheap car and ended up picking up all kinds of young longhairs armed with nothing more than their backpacks. “I met all kinds of interesting people, including a kid from Germany who was snorting coffee grinds, but it had never dawned on me that hitchhiking as a way to get around America was an option,” Reid says. “When I got back home, I told my dad about it, and it turns out he used to hitchhike in the 1970s. His first trip was from Springfield, Illinois to Chicago in a limousine, but on the way back, he got stuck on the expressway for four hours waiting for a lift. That pretty much captures the highs and lows of thumbing it. The fact that it wasn’t that long ago hitchhiking was a common everyday thing fascinated me, and I came to find out how vital it was to the creation of modern America.”

So, with Reid as our tour guide, let’s take a quick hundred-year trip to understand how hitchhikers helped define this country beyond pop-culture ubiquity, and why it no longer exists. But first, always remember: Ass, Gas or Grass, Nobody Reads for Free. 

The 1920s: ‘Look as collegiate as possible. Wear your knickers, be always neat, well shaved and have a clean shirt.’

This was the trenchant advice an experienced hitchhiking dorm-mate gave Swedish exchange student Max Houseman as he set out from St. John’s College in Annapolis on a three-week adventure to California. (Shorter version: Be a clean-cut white.) It’s a solid tip because at a time when there were less than 30 million cars and trucks on what passed for roads, one of the primary motivations for hitchhiking was to get laid. 

In the Roaring Twenties, dapper men and flapper women of means went to find one another, seeking thrills one hitch at a time. News accounts of the time said the most popular routes were the same spring-break paths of today — white Northeast frat guys pointing their pollices and boners south toward Florida. (This was naturally followed by the Puritan moralists mewling about the “breakdown in traditional morality.”) For the most part, “Thumb Waggers” were considered a novelty, seen in the flesh by few, and not part of the American fabric until the end of the decade when the Citizen Hobo headed out in hopes of finding a job. 

The 1930s: ‘Brother, can you spare a ride?

By the time Claudette Colbert showed 1934 moviegoers, in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, that when it comes to securing a lift, shapely gams top a floppy thumbkin every time, the practice was no longer a lark. It was a means of survival. In 1933, before the effects of the New Deal took hold, the unemployment rate was a staggering 24.9 percent, a quarter of Americans in need of a gig and a lot of people criss-crossing the country trying to find it. Hell, the first time Clark Gable’s sodden Peter Warne is seen on screen he’s just been shitcanned.

“The FDR administration was asking citizens to have a more unified sensibility, to look out for your fellow man, so picking up hitchhikers becomes almost a civic duty,” says Reid. “I found that air of cooperation refreshing because there’s always a baseline of individualism in American culture.” 

In Roadside Americans, Reid notes that during the Great Depression most people viewed hitchhikers as “doers” who were trying to forge their own destiny instead of wallowing in self-pity. Except, of course, for those conservative business guy assholes who called for the down-on-their-luck to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, even if they’d already worn out their shoes. Right-wingers like national columnist Dr. Gary Myers lumped literal free rides in with their hatred of social welfare programs. Myers declared that hitchhiking “corrupted American self-reliance and turned the nation’s youth into a group of entitled beggars.”

Those same entitled beggars, however, soon thumbed it to save Western civilization.  

The 1940s: ‘When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler!

During World War II, picking up hitchhiking soldiers was more than patriotic, it was part of the communal effort to get American fighting men to-and-from military bases quickly and cheaply. Average motorists helping to defeat the Nazis from the homefront. To further aid the cause, gasoline and rubber rationing measures were put in place, and the federal government enacted a “victory speed” of 35 mph and limited “pleasure driving” to 90 miles a trip. In an actual spirit of unity, a Texas high school football team hitched to all their away games, and the local newspaper encouraged true fans to go out and deliver ‘em to kickoff. 

During the massive war mobilization, 15 million men and several hundred thousand women — one in nine Americans — left home for military camps, so “hitchhiking became respectable as never before,” writes Reid. American Legions and Boys Clubs built shelters at strategic points around the country with painted slogans like “Stop! Give Service Men a Lift.” It was a heady time for hitchhikers, at least as far as white soldiers were concerned. Crime was minimal, although not nonexistent, as “Hitch-Hike Slayer” James W. Hall confessed to six murders and was looked at for 11 more. Overall though, it was an era of “thrift and self-sacrifice” as Reid puts it. 

Soon, though, “material abundance and spikes in automobility would complicate this dynamic in new ways,” and the country would come to grips with a new breed of criminal — the juvenile delinquent. 

The 1950s: Death in disguise? Don’t pick up trouble! Is he a pleasant companion or a sex maniac? Don’t take the risk!’

In the 1950s, U.S. car culture was, as Automobile magazine put it, “An Orgy of Excess.” Americans purchased 58 million vehicles over the course of the decade, one for every three people in the country. The economic boom, the growth of suburbs, the construction of the Interstate Highway system and the birth of the Happy Days-esque teenage consumer who needed wheels to take his best girl out for a malted and a make-out session all contributed to the original demise of hitchhiking. It was more than affluence though, it was also the paradox that, in Reid’s words, “as Americans became less reliant on one another, they also became less trusting and more suspicious of one another.” Welcome to the age of paranoia. 

During the height of the Cold War, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation got hopped up on goofballs, hitchhiking the country as a shot at the bow of consumerist squares who would never see America’s underbelly Sal Paradise-style. In the 1950s, the Beats were a small rebellious minority, but they laid the groundwork for the counterculture to come. At the same time, however, a national fear of the commie down the street and the murderer behind the wheel emerged out of the fog of Cold War paranoia, conjured by ole’ J. Edgar Hoover himself. In the extremely low-crime 1950s, the FBI felt the need to start an anti-hitchhiking campaign with the subtle idea that there was no way of knowing if the picker-upper was a “friendly traveler or a vicious murderer.” That goes triple if you happen to be a woman. 

“Cracking down on hitchhiking became a way of cracking down on the counterculture, particularly on women who were claiming new rights of freedom and mobility. Because until the hippies embraced it, hitchhiking was considered a form of public good,” says Ginger Strand, author of Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate

1960 to 1976: ‘Stick out your thumb and immediately receive a ride, a smile and a lit joint… Little reason to go any other way

The last great era of hitchhiking coincided with the civil rights movement, the peacenik era and the emancipation of women from stringent 1950s patriarchal roles. You needed to get to the March on Washington, Woodstock or the Summer of Love? Surely one of your brothers or sisters would smile on you, so long as you bring a little something to the party. 

In 1966, Sports Illustrated of all places had a story by Janet Graham, “Rule of Thumb for the Open Road,” which made hitchhiking out to be an adventurous rite-of-passage. (She included 10 important tips for women such as, “Take a companion, or a hatpin,” “Never accept a ride if your first instinct is against it,” and “Learn in five languages: ‘I’m going to throw up.’”) And as guidebook author Paul DiMaggio observed in the popular Hitchhiker’s Field Manual, quoted above, there was always weed to be had, and whatever far-out journey the sexual revolution might take you on, man…

Prior to the counterculture, hitchhikers were mainly young white men. Cops didn’t see those kids as adversarial until activists, marchers and hippies set out to overthrow Buzz-Cut America. Longhairs became the enemy. As part of his research, Reid tracked newspaper archives to see how often hitchhiking stories appeared by decade. It’s a steady build in the 1930s and 1940s, dips in the 1950s, accelerates in the 1960s and hits its peak in 1975. By 1980, it was barely mentioned at all. 

1977 to Today: ‘My mother told me never to do this’

The end of hitchhiking coincided with the 1970s/1980s rise in crime rates, but were the fears grounded in reality? Or was there something more to it? In Killer on the Road, Strand notes that there are almost no studies of the question, but one bit of California Highway Patrol research from 1974 found hitching to be “hardly more dangerous than walking down the street.”  

It didn’t matter, though — perception won the day. By the end of the 1970s, it was conventional wisdom that anyone out there hitchhiking was nuts, more or less asking for their torsos to turn up in a landfill. 

To be fair, there were horrific murders tied to the practice. There are eight unsolved cases in what’s known as the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders. (Ted Bundy was once considered a suspect; the guy David Fincher believes is the Zodiac Killer still is.) And Ed Kemper, aka “The Co-Ed Killer,” was as gruesome as they come. In the early 1970s, he murdered and dismembered six female students around Santa Cruz, throwing their bodies into ravines. Kemper, who is still alive in a California prison, blamed the young women for hitchhiking in the first place. A hideous belief that unfortunately went far beyond the sick mind of a serial killer, it was mainstream because hitchhiking in the hippie days became a source of female empowerment and sexual freedom. 

“As in the case of all serial killers whose stories went ‘viral,’ Ed Kemper’s MO wasn’t just sensationally interesting, but it touched on something that was going on in the culture,” says Strand, who knows from darkness. “So as the authorities were interested in policing and ending hitchhiking, his story was a useful tool. The threat of violence was overstated, and then merged with a desire to police the movements of young people, especially women. In our long, sad history, the threat of rape and murder has been real, but has also been used as a means of limiting the actions and behaviors of women and certain men as well.” 

Ironically, as hitchhiking faded away in practice, it remains a staple of pop culture. Goodreads lists 50 books with the obvious writers like Jack Kerouac and Douglas Adams, but also authors like John Waters (ever the iconoclast he went Baltimore-to-San Francisco at age 68, alone) and Tony Hawks whose Round Ireland With A Fridge is the charming story of a drunken bar bet that’s pretty much spelled out in the title. Then there are famous individual hitchhiking scenes in movies like Into the Wild, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Scarecrow — a forgotten 1973 story of two drifters (Al Pacino and Gene Hackman) who traverse the country pursuing their dream of opening a car wash — jump to mind. 

And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Hitcher. The 1986 film starred Rutger Hauer as a hitchhiker given a lift by an overmatched C. Thomas Howell, who quickly learns his passenger is a maniac, proven by his off-screen slaughter of a family. A cat-and-mouse kill-or-be-killed car chase flick ensues. Along the way, a kindly waitress played by a nubile Jennifer Jason Leigh suffers a “death by two semi trucks ripping her in half” that while not shown, is needlessly brutal in design and misogyny in that Reagan-era way. As Roger Ebert put it in his scathing zero-star review, “This movie is diseased and corrupt… it is reprehensible.” 

The movie flopped, earning only $5.8 million, but it became a late-night sleepover staple in the VHS age. Due primarily to Hauer’s creepy personification of pure motiveless evil, the movie has its defenders and has become something of a respected cult classic in ways the 2003 sequel The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Watching and an even more gory 2007 remake never did. Whatever its horror merits, the original film did feel like a nail in the coffin for actual hitchhiking. The ominous trailer “once you’ve met the hitcher, you will never pick up another” voiceover came to fruition. Other than in shady/desperate/criminal situations, nobody opened their car door to strangers again.  

Today, it’s hard to imagine hitchhiking ever returning as a way-of-life. That said, Reid notes that in some ways, Uber and Lyft have monetized and legitimized the act of hitching a ride. “Three decades into this neoliberal experiment, hitchhiking has been commodified by ride-sharing apps,” says Reid. “The instinct to get a lift from a nearby stranger is still there, but it’s filtered through technology, a market-oriented landscape where everything has to be efficient and paid for up front, as opposed to free people helping each other out for the sake of it.”

Otherwise, thanks to our nation’s car ubiquity, overblown fears of crime and workday angst, stress and constant worry, hitchhiking has been reduced to a quirky vestige of an earlier age. As Reid writes in Roadside Americans, “Ultimately, the mainstream national culture currently lacks the requisite level of social trust, and the cooperative desire, needed to transcend the negative reputation of hitchhiking.” 

Whatever future peace-and-love possibilities there might have been were wiped out by the pandemic anyway. Ain’t nobody thumbing it (or picking up) with the chance of ending up in a COVID Caddy. It’s too bad, because for half a century, hitchhiking was as central to the American experience as highways jammed with broken heroes. And lord knows this country could stand a more cooperative spirit. 

At least tramps like us will always have the songsmithing of a septuagenarian Jersey devil:

Family man gives me a ride
Got his pregnant Sally at his side
Yes indeed, sir, children are a gift
Thank you kindly for the lift

I’m hitchhiking all day long…