Hitchhikers Guide to the Planet
December 17, 2004 10:06 AM   Subscribe

What Killed Hitchhiking? Well, some people don't think it is dead.
posted by BrodieShadeTree (30 comments total)
i hitchhiked back in the mid seventies throughout the southeast and just recently i hitchhiked in the city i live because my car was being repaired and public transit is basically non existent. And some old hippie in an older model car picked me up....remeniscent of my times in the 70's. I have also heard of persons parking their cars and purposely hitchhiking to meet "interesting" people
posted by halekon at 10:15 AM on December 17, 2004

What Killed Hitchhiking?

I would guess all those people who killed hitchhikers.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 10:28 AM on December 17, 2004

I've hitchhiked form north to south and from coast to coast in my time, and one of the reasons I gave it up is because you get picked up by lowlifes, and have to spend 600 miles in a car with some guy who wants to a.) talk about drugs, b.) wants to have sex with you, b.) is a spectacular bore, and this is the only way he can get a captive audience to listen to him, etc. In the sixties and early seventies, you'd get picked up by fellow hippies, and it was all in the spirit of the times. But you'd have to be nuts to stick your thumb out today. You may as well hang a sign around your neck saying: "Murder me. I'm an idiot."
posted by Faze at 10:29 AM on December 17, 2004

I used to pick up hitchhikers whenever possible because they were always willing to buy my underage self booze. So, I stopped when I turned 21. Out of dozens of hitchhikers, only two were remotely interesting. But I wouldn't say any of the were threatening.
posted by poipill at 10:34 AM on December 17, 2004

I remember reading a chapter in Helter Skelter about the hippie community's response to the Manson murders. One hippie mentioned that once Manson was busted people started becoming a lot more leery of picking up that wooly-headed stranger on the side of the road, and on some level you couldn't really blame them.

I remember people saying "Don't pick up a hitchiker, he might be a psycho." OTOH, people also said "Don't hitchhike, you might get picked up by a psycho."

Maybe what needs to happen is all the psycho motorists can pick up all the pyscho hitchers and wipe eachother out, thus making the pastime safe again.
posted by jonmc at 10:37 AM on December 17, 2004

I hitchhike readily around my college campus when I'm too lazy to wait for the shuttle. Also, I picked up a hitchhiker on a whim and took her twenty miles out of my way to her house... I figured "she's hot, she's in a cocktail dress, she's not gonna hurt me" which was probably not the best logic.
She didn't actually kill me or anything- on the contrary she gave me twenty bucks for the ride- but spending a half hour car trip with a blond girl who thought she was psychic and could tell me the colors of my aura... let's just say it was an interesting drive.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:39 AM on December 17, 2004

Amazing: just yesterday I was in the car with my daughter, telling her about hitchhiking. She couldn't believe that you just stood by the side of the road with your thumb out and people would stop and pick you up. Then again, she doesn't believe that there was ever a time you couldn't sit in front of your personal computer and go to the Britney Spears web site.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 10:43 AM on December 17, 2004

Hitchhiking isn't dead. It's just evolved: Slugging.

(I'd never heard of this until last night.)
posted by ksmith at 10:51 AM on December 17, 2004

I usually bike to work, but in a snowstorm last winter I tried thumbing a ride on a fairly busy road to a nearby train station. I know people have reason to be scared, but I figured even cautious drivers would gladly pick up a shivering 40-something male in the middle of a blizzard. I mean, who but somebody who desperately needed a ride would stand in 12 inches of slush and snow?

It took me an hour to get a lift.
(Oh, and not to beat a dead horse, most of the drivers who passed me were driving SUVs. Grrr....)
posted by sixpack at 10:51 AM on December 17, 2004

John Waters still hitchhikes (it's somewhere towards the end in there)... but then, he also scares murderers, (scroll down just less than halfway) so maybe he doesn't have the same concerns as the rest of us.
posted by ibmcginty at 10:54 AM on December 17, 2004

I hitchhike short distances every now and then. I'm more likely to do it if I'm near a college campus, where I know there will be people around my age who I don't feel threatened by, and who I'm not very likely to threaten.

I have hitched longer distances, but those have generally been high-tech hitching via craigslist's ride-share. I've done roundtrips to LA and back (from SF) at least two or three times. All of those experiences were pleasant.
posted by quasistoic at 11:00 AM on December 17, 2004

I remember hearing that hitchhiking has become institutionalized in Cuba. As in, if you drive a government owned vehicle you are required to pick up hitchhikers on the highway. Civilian cars are expected to do the same.
posted by fatllama at 11:01 AM on December 17, 2004

It's the media's fault. They've convinced us that hitchhiking and letting our kids walk to school alone are MUCH more dangerous than they used to be.
posted by callmejay at 11:06 AM on December 17, 2004

Is it Scotland where you can ride along with the post trucks?
posted by BrodieShadeTree at 11:07 AM on December 17, 2004

Hitching remains common in New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, and rural areas of Central America and China.

Damn straight, I've hitched all over Chile, Germany, Holland, Jordan, Norway, etc. Fun, cheap and you see places and meet people you'd mnever get to any other way.
posted by signal at 11:12 AM on December 17, 2004

When I was in college, a dormmate (Central Michigan University) lived way the eff up in Marquette so we would hitchhike up there every once in a while.
A couple of things that I observed was that having a nice cardboard sign with your destination neatly written on it got you picked up by somebody very quickly. That's as opposed to just sticking your thumb up and waiting for an eternity. I guess that maybe only nice, normal people would go through the trouble of writing up a sign and thus, was OK to pick up.
Another thing that I noticed was that hitchhiking is (was?) more acceptable in the U.P. than the lower peninsula. Hell, one Yooper even let me drive his car because he was too tired to drive.
One last harsh lesson that I learned about hitchhiking is that it's not the best of ideas to drop acid before hitchhiking home on a Sunday night in the winter.
posted by NoMich at 11:42 AM on December 17, 2004

I've hitched in nine countries, three solo (& female), and would recommend it to almost anyone. I've been lucky enough to be picked up by touring bands; whole families spanning 3 generations in Japan; a Sami radio journalist going to hunt moose in northern Finland; a family who let me stay at their house for two days at Hammerfest, Norway, the northernmost city in the world; a bus converted into a traveling store that visited asylum-seekers' camps all over northern Norway; truckers who volunteered to go out of their way to get me to better/safer spots all over the place; totally trusting & gregarious people who gave us maps & bought us lunch or coffee throughout France; and drunks careening around tight curves carved out of the moutains in the early Pyranees with their dog in the back.

The spirit of hitchhiking is much stronger in Russia & the former Soviet states. The St Petersburg Autostop League (in Russian) is a famous (among hitchers) school of hitchhiking that teaches safety/tactics to apprentice students (& even has a special uniform); there are also schools in other major Russian cities, including Moscow. A Lithuanian guy runs one of the biggest hitching mailing lists, focusing mainly on Eastern Europe. There's a global autostop race, with preliminary selection rounds taking place in the US soon, as well as Western Europe & probably other places as well.
posted by soviet sleepover at 12:06 PM on December 17, 2004

I agree with jonmc. I used to hitch a lot in the sixties, but Charles Manson singlehandly put an end to that freespirited "pick up a hippie, they're harmless" mentality. Thanks for nothing, Charlie.
posted by kozad at 1:09 PM on December 17, 2004

I was taught to read partly by a hitchhiker my Mom picked up on the way from our house in MA on the way to NJ. I pick up most hitchhikers who look like they're on the way someplace, who have a destination sign, or who look like I could take them in a fight.
posted by jessamyn at 1:24 PM on December 17, 2004

I personally am too young to have hit the hitchhiking thing myself, although I have done so to get back to a jobsite when my vehicle died. However, I scrupulously pick them up when I see them -- The way I figure it, it's something that I would want done for me if I were sticking out a thumb as well. I've got no objections to toting someone a few hundred km if they are going the same way as I am.
posted by ChrisR at 2:17 PM on December 17, 2004

Many folks - hitchhikers and non-hitchhikers alike- have a theory as to what "killed" hitchhiking.

But why do we believe hitchhiking is dead? Because it isn't raved about in pop culture? Because we don't see smiling hitchhikers along every highway we travel?

Let's take the U.S. for an example. There are still thousands of hitchhikers on the road year-round. As a hitchhiker I meet them wherever I go. We tend to stick to on-ramps and truckstops more often now, but I also get up on that highway shoulder and smile wide whenever I can-- as a reminder to all of you.

In the late 60s, Charlie Manson was hitchhiking around California and gathering up his cult of freaks. They were a fleck of salt in a big sea, but -yes, they did manage to poison a part of that sea with their atrocities for a while. Did hitchhiking die then?

Of course not. Four years later, California Highway Patrol estimates that there were over 5 million hitchhiking trips that took place in the state of California in 1973. The report was the result of a California Senate resolution, requiring that hitchhiking be thoroughly studied (likely so they would have grounds to make hitchhiking illegal).

What were the findings?
"The data do not suggest that hitchhikers are a major cause of accidents. They are only a small fraction of pedestrians injured, and only a very small proportion of accidents resulting from picking up hitchhikers."
-- California Crimes and Accidents Associated with Hitchhiking, California Highway Patrol, February 1974.

Also in the above study, it was estimated that hitchhikers were involved in 0.26% of the accidents and 0.63% of the crimes in California during the study period. (It was as dangerous to ride a bicyle as to hitchhike!) About half of the "crimes" were tickets for hitchhiking at prohibited places, or being under 18 on the road.

If hitchhiking was PROVEN to be low-risk in its most popular era and most popular state, why then was there a major downshift in hitchhiking pop culture shortly after? I believe there are three big reasons, all blending into one another:

Opposed by the transportation industry (bus companies, tourist, rail and automobile industries). Companies were losing millions and millions of dollars due to the popularity of hitchhiking. This same issue had come up in the 1920s, when anti-hitchhiking legislation was going into effect [E.E. Whiting, "On Thumbing," Essays of Today, ed. Rose A. Witham (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931), pp. 265-268.]

Opposed by legislation (State and local laws/ statutes).
Identical to the late 1920s, more regions in the US were caving in to industry, small business owners and concerned parent demands to stop hitchhiking in the early 1970s. Most people do not realize that hitchhiking was banned in many parts of the country in the early 30s. But the Depression and the coming war couldn't stop it. More recently, many states repealed or revised their anti-hitchhiking laws (bordered on unconstitutional). But of course you were never informed. You can find current US hitchhiking laws at digihitch USA

Opposed by popular media (newspapers/ tv/ radio, drama/ books/ film)
Hitchhiking was so popular among young teens and even women during the 1920s, that every possible "horror" story that could be dredged up was put prominently in the newspapers (and automobile newsletters, of course) to make hitchhiking more difficult and less desirable. In the 1930s, there were radio programs with dramatic episodes of hitchhiking maniacs and killers. In the 1950s, magazines and newspapers warned you to watch out for reefer addicts and pill poppers begging lifts and stealing cars. In the 70s, TV, film, radio and newspapers all came together to try to kill hitchhiking once and for all.

We often forget that most of our pop culture goodies are produced by industries with a very particular interest in promoting a product/ consumer lifestyle -- or destroying opposition to a product. Hitchhiking has long been opposed by all service-based industries, because it takes money out of the transportation industry's pockets. The only 'usefulness' it has ever served big business is in its cultural spinoffs -- music, film, tv shows, t-shirts, etc. We have let the media define hitchhiking for us for decades.

But hitchhiking, at its essence, is simple transportation. It is a shared, personal experience that teaches us a bit more about life and our fellow humans while getting us further down the road.
It is about trust and mobility-- why does that scare us so much? There is a chance of getting burned, yes. And even a very small chance of fatal injury. But is our main concern really about the risk? Do we not take great risks in other areas of our lives and yet promote these?

If we choose to oppose hitchhiking outright, we have to ask ourselves which of these statements we believe most...

Everyone is dangerous or guilty until proven otherwise.

Any undertaking where -through careful assessment and control- the elements of risk cannot be completely minimized, is bad.

The world and everyone in it was better, safer, more naive, friendlier, etc....... in the past.

I would like to believe that there is still great hope for all of us-- individually and collectively. Hitchhiking gives me a glimpse of a better world, and so I hitchhike- and promote it.

Why don't you see for yourself what hitchhiking is? Come join us at the New Year Hitchhiker Happening in Slab City!
posted by digihitch at 2:51 PM on December 17, 2004

Funniest thing I saw during my hitchhiking days was at a popular hitchhiking location near my college.

Afternoons, there would typically be a line of up to a couple of dozen students holding up signs with local beach destinations (PB, MB, OB) scrawled on pieces of cardboard. I was in that line myself a few times. One day I glanced back to the end of the line and there was a guy (no backpack, no books) holding a large sign up that read, Czechoslovakia. Never saw that guy again.

I had some great experiences during the glory days of American hitchhiking.
posted by redneck_zionist at 2:53 PM on December 17, 2004

Hell, I'm 24 & I've hit the hitchhiking thing, ChrisR!

For potential hitchers scared of the dangers of getting in an anonymous car, an easy solution is to hitch from gas stations or service stops along state highways: you can approach people after they've gotten gas or stopped for a bathroom break, and if you're clean-cut & friendly, they'll consider your request much more seriously than if they've got 5 seconds to decide when they pass you at an on-ramp.. (Of course, this only really works for long-long distance trips where your goal is making speed, not seeing the sights..)
posted by soviet sleepover at 3:15 PM on December 17, 2004

Ride the rails. Get faint hungry. Share your three day old bread and cheese with that stinking one-eyed wino looking at you from beneath the swaying piggybacked trailer, as you crest diamond snowfields in a summertime Sierra.

Taste freedom once again, or for you others, once before you die.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 8:21 PM on December 17, 2004

I'm sure hitchhiking would be a fantastic way to meet people you would never otherwise meet. But you can enjoy exactly the same experiences catching a train and being a little friendly, without having to worry about the rope burn.

I can't help whenever hearing the word "hitchhiking", immediately associating it with the words "last seen".
posted by DirtyCreature at 9:07 PM on December 17, 2004

Google hits for "last seen hitchhiking": 397.
Hits for "last seen walking": 5,030.
Hits for "last seen driving": 5,880.

Maybe you walk and drive more than you hitchhike. Doesn't mean that hitchhiking is necessarily more dangerous. My solution? Stay in bed and surf all day. And keep bathroom breaks to a minimum - slips and falls can be fatal, you know.

obligatory disclaimer: I am not a hitchhiker.
posted by skoosh at 7:27 AM on December 18, 2004

Well said, skoosh. It's a dangerous world through any door, if that's all we choose to see. In fact, in the year 2001, each American had a one in 2,808 chance of dying due to an accidental injury.

How many Americans in 2001 died of assault? 20,308

Sounds damn high, doesn't it? Until you look at the other statistics...

How many died due to falling? 15,019
... in an auto-related accident? 47,288

... suicide-related? 30,622

More than any other statistic, the one that frightens me most is how many people kill themselves each year. But then, for all the soothsayers and fearmongers in America-- it sadly doesn't surprise me.

I for one would rather inspire others than scare them into orthodoxy.
posted by digihitch at 6:53 PM on December 18, 2004

I like Jessamyn's regulations.

Personally, I've only hitchhiked once, and that was in Austria, so I'm not sure it completely applies in the US. My father hitched a lot during his hippie days, cross-country sometimes.

I've noticed that it's still popular in "small" sorts of areas. Alaska, for example, still has a lot more hitchhikers than I've seen in most places, and I think it's mostly because all of Alaska, aside from Anchorage and maybe Fairbanks, has sort of a small-towney feel.

All things considered, I'd probably rather hitchhike than try to hop a train. Seems like it'd be more comfortable.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:02 PM on December 18, 2004

I live up by where the Appalachian Trail is, and so during the time the hikers are there, I try to pick up the hikers and give them lifts.
posted by apathy0o0 at 1:50 PM on December 19, 2004

I've been wondering ever since Numero Uno opened the membership to the paying public when someone would join to respond in a particular thread, including just moments before reading this thread when I read the latest comments in the Nik's prison art thread, and, well here's digihitch. Which is in no way meant to dminish digihitch or his contribution. Just saying...
posted by billsaysthis at 4:31 PM on December 20, 2004

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