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The Lost Highway

Robert Scheer

Streets Paved with Goals: Once a rite a passage for twentysomethings of the '60s and '70s, hitchhiking now bears fond memories and frightening prospects for today's road warriors.

Specters of modern life have frightened Americans away from hitchhiking, but there also is danger in not taking the road less traveled

By Jeffrey Perso

THE SUMMER AFTER GRADUATION from high school, I walked with my chum Chris to the outskirts of our hometown and stood near an on-ramp leading to Interstate 94. A state highway ran past us to the south, the Interstate to the north. We waited there, raising our thumbs to the cars as they passed in both directions. It did not matter to us which way we went. All that mattered was that we go.

We were bored and hungry for adventure, young and ambitious and full of schemes and dreams. Eventually, we were offered a ride north to Canada, which we accepted with 40 bucks in our pockets and without a second thought.

The hard highway miles rolled beneath us, assuming a forward-propelling cadence, and we steered west on Trans-Can 1, bathing in the clearest, coldest lakes we'd ever seen and staying in overcrowded youth hostels in gray Winnipeg and cowboy Calgary and effervescent Vancouver. Then we hitched back down into the States, to foggy Seattle and sunburnt Santa Cruz, then east to dusty Reno, sleeping under the stars or, when it rained, beneath train trestles and highway bridges.

We were often cold and wet, and we were always hungry, but it was of little concern. What occasionally intruded upon our otherwise peaceful minds was the politically polarized wheelmen who'd give us the finger, shout obscenities, call us communist pinko fags and strongly advise us to cut our hair and get jobs.

In Reno, the police roughly shoved us into the back seat of a patrol car ("We don't like your kind here in Reno," the stern-faced men in blue said) and drove us to the city's border, where we found that a group of similarly dressed, wandering youth had established a sort of drifters' colony alongside the highway.

Just as dusk was closing in, the desert-horizon talk moved toward paranoia and self-preservation. Of course, we'd all seen Easy Rider and knew what those brutal swinging bats did to Jack Nicholson's head as he lay wrapped in a sleeping bag, and we knew too well what happened to hitchhiking deviants in the Vietnam Woodstock Altamont Hells Angels Charlie Manson Love It Or Leave It America--so we were about to move back off the road and post sentinels when suddenly a pick-up truck screeched to a dusty halt in front of us.

"Anybody headed east of the Mississippi?" the driver queried. Hell. Was he kidding? Shouting countless affirmative "Yeahs!" and "All rights!" the entire ragtag group jumped up as one into the angelic pick-up, which then lurched off, staggering across the Sierras in the middle of the starry night. A whiskey bottle passed among us as the mountain chill worked its way into the sleeping bags and blankets cloaked around us. We laughed and told stories about our fabulous journeys, the hard bed of the pick-up bouncing us all the way back into the welcome Midwest.

Freedom in the Air

WHEN LOOKED BACK UPON FROM today's distance and perspective, those days have an innocence that is cause for amusing wonderment. Were we really that young? That audacious? That naive? Hubris was not hard to come by. Certainly the thrill of absolute abandon, of forfeiting direction and control to the gods and to one's fate, was honest and authentic, the desire for raw experience a feverish and constant companion.

Even now, many years later, when reason and forethought often contraindicates acts of spontaneity, those moments in my personal hagiography still bring great pleasure. But would I do it again? Would I recommend that anyone do it? Today?

These are not the 1960s and 1970s, decades when hitchhiking was a rite of passage, a way of breaking out of your parochial environs and into the larger world. You didn't need to own a car or secure the price of a bus ticket--you could simply make a sign and hit the road, take off, embark upon a heady trip to the Coast or Canada or Mexico. To anywhere. Somehow, some way, you inherently knew it would all work out, you would find shelter, food, a community of like-minded souls. The world seemed a friendly place, and you were at home no matter where you landed.

Of course, you knew that it was a potentially dangerous world, too. But still you went, still you packed your knapsack and rolled your bag and raised your thumb. You were adventurous, but you were careful. Because whether it was intended or not, hitchhiking helped create character, and after you had some experience, hitchhiking helped you test what you had become.

You learned courage and stamina and how to go without food or water for longer periods than you had ever had to endure before. You learned how to handle difficult, scary situations. You faced down danger and became a stronger, more mature person along the way. Sometimes your life depended on it.

But today it is a different world. The screws have been tightened, the wire stretched taut. Nervousness dominates the national temperament. The notion that "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose" is reason to schedule a counseling session.

The psychic jitters are upon us--and with probable cause. Our media-saturated consciousness is daily bombarded with graphic tales of robbery, rape and murder of never-before-encountered number and intensity. Our cities are war zones echoing with sniper fire, and schools resemble maximum security prisons. And those are the good neighborhoods.

Frightened Populace

OUT ON THE HIGHWAYS, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer have their acolytes, and they are hungry for burnt offerings. When it comes to thumbing a ride, Jack Nicholson's Easy Rider hippie paradigm has been replaced with Rutger Hauer's demonic Hitcher. It is thought to be a nightmare on the road, and not even Jack Kerouac would give up the comfort of a double scotch in his mother's kitchen for a visit with Neal Cassady in San Francisco.

At least that is the conventional wisdom, one shared by parents and cops, as well as by the boys and girls who, instead of hoisting a rucksack on the open road, now journey to malls and spend their allowances at The Gap. "It's too dangerous," they say. "You could get yourself killed." That is also the assessment of many who once hitchhiked but no longer do so.

Of course, hitchhiking has always involved risk. You knowingly took your chances. Every ride could have ended badly. But mostly they didn't--and that perhaps had as much to do with luck as anything involving the decline and fall of Western civilization.

But what's the likelihood of such unhappy endings now? Has the risk--to both hitcher and driver--dramatically increased? James MacLaren has been hitchhiking for 30 years. He's 47 now, so that means that for most of his adult life he's traveled by thumb. He considers himself an expert on the subject. In fact, he's written The Hitchhiker's Handbook, published in paperback by Loompanics Unlimited.

"What's different from 1965," MacLaren says, "is that there are not as many hitchhikers out there with you, and that is directly related to the increased number of assholes on television who have sufficiently terrified everyone into believing that you have to hide in the house. The media has done a wonderful job of frightening the populace."

MacLaren takes the line that, counter to popular perception and media myth, hitchhiking is relatively safe. "If you look at a statistical abstract," he says, "the risk- assessment factors for hitchhiking are so vanishingly remote that information on hitchhiking is almost impossible to get, but statistics are there for falling off a roof."

Two summers ago, MacLaren hitched from Cocoa Beach to Chicago, where he promoted his book at the American Booksellers Association national convention. Along the route, he encountered just two other hitchhikers. Besides the diminished number of fellow travelers, MacLaren also detected a change in attitude among those zipping past in their late-model autos. While he notes that there is some sort of fundamental constant at work between hitchhikers and the type of people who will offer rides--and it is probably that those who once hitchhiked now stop for those who continue to hitchhike--there has been a chill in the welcome.

This has another effect: The number of those willing to provide rides has dropped proportionally with those seeking rides. Still, MacLaren says, "Once you get them out of the Buick, people are nicer now than they used to be. Ironically, this may be a backlash to the fear-mongering climate we are in. You can meet neat people," MacLaren says. "The buttholes blow on by, and that leaves the characters, those with a bit of a slant on life, with wit. Those are the people I would prefer to ride with, anyway."

With the cultural signposts pointing down, someday there may be no one left to pick up the likes of MacLaren, no one to offer the back of a dusty truck to a scraggly group of kids from the Midwest. They will be the last hitchhikers, the last things seen out a rear-view mirror as the streamlined power machines from Detroit speed down the coast.

We all may be safer, but there is danger in that, too.

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From the May 1-7, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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