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The Last Hitchhiker

A survivor weighs the lost art of forfeiting direction and control to the gods of travel

By Jeffrey Perso

The summer after graduation from high school I walked with my chum Chris to the outskirts of our home town and stood, thumbs up, near an onramp leading to Interstate 94. A state highway ran past us to the south, the interstate to the north. We stood 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 had 40 bucks each and, having just completed 12 years of formal education, 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 without a second thought. The hard highway miles rolled beneath us, 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 L.A., 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. We heard this from the cops as well as from truck drivers, construction workers and farmers.

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.

When looked back upon from today's distance and perspective, I see about those days an innocence that is cause for amusing wonderment. Were we really that young, that audacious, that naive? Did we actually do all those things? Happily exposing ourselves to natural elements as well as the human-wrought dangers of the road? 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 early 1970s, those raucous years of cultural upheaval and political dissent, when ideas of freedom were in the air and taking to the streets and to the roads of America was a natural occurrence.

During those decades, 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.

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Of course you also knew that it was a potentially dangerous world, too. Besides the racists, rednecks and yahoos who applauded the murder of Martin Luther King and supported the war in Vietnam, there were also the psychopaths and rapists who wanted to cut your hair or suck you off. 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 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 temper. The notion that "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose" is reason to schedule a counseling session.

Out on the highways, it is easy to imagine that Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer have their acolytes, 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.

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 and The Limited. "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. A female friend, now in her 30s, married and professionally successful in the communications industry, hitchhiked regularly from her teenage years until late in her college career. Besides intra-city hops, she took several warm-weather cross-country trips, always with a female companion.

The mood on the road was quiet and calm, she recalls, indicative of more benign times. She never experienced any hassles, at least not the kind that would have made her stay home. "Usually we just stood there and put out our thumbs," she remembers. "It was summer and we were wearing shorts, so maybe the ghosts of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, from It Happened One Night, were with us."

She hitchhiked, she says, "because we weren't bound by a car or anybody else's schedule. There was a feeling of freedom. We could stay as long as we wanted. We weren't hitching to get to anyplace in particular, we were just hitching to get somewhere." To ensure safety, she only took rides with families or female drivers, never with lone males. "Sometimes a guy would pull over and say 'I won't hurt you,' but we never took the offer."

As much as she felt comfortable doing so, like many others she eventually stopped hitchhiking. Now 32 years old, she isn't likely to do it again, either. "I might try with a male or with maybe two other females," she admits, "but I don't feel as reckless as I used to. It does seem harder now to get rides, whereas back then there were more people willing to stop." That hesitancy "goes with the rest of the cultural climate," she suggests, "where people feel less safe, for many reasons. People believe there is more danger out there now."

Of course hitchhiking has always involved risk. You knowingly took your chances. Every ride could have ended badly. That they didn't 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 45 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 recently by Loompanics Unlimited.

"I've spent more than a quarter of a century researching this book," he proudly asserts, "and I've discovered that there's a lot more to hitchhiking than meets the eye." When he's not hitchhiking, MacLaren works as a desk clerk at a hotel in Coca Beach, Fla. He's been laid off from his construction job building launch pads at Cape Canaveral, so during the slow times at the front desk he writes. That's how he composed The Hitchhiker's Handbook.

MacLaren says that among the many things his hitchhiking research has shown him, two things stand out. "What's different from 1965," he says, "is that there are not as many hitchhikers out there with you, and that is directly related to the increased number of assholes and brain police on television who have sufficiently terrified everyone into believing that you have to hide in the house. The media has done a wonderful piece of journeyman work 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."

That doesn't prevent MacLaren, however, from devoting a full page in his handbook to this terse hitchhiking advice for women: "DO NOT!" On the following page he amplifies. "This is one aspect of hitchhiking where the odds of getting in over your head aren't so infinitesimal. There's just too many fucking assholes out there who have this weird idea in their heads that if a girl's out thumbing, then she's asking for it."

MacLaren admits that "the concept of hitchhiking seems to scare a lot of people." Last summer, for instance, MacLaren hitched from Coca Beach to Chicago, where he promoted his book at the American Booksellers Association's 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 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), there has been a chill in the welcome.

This has another effect: The number of those willing to provide rides has dropped proportionately with those seeking rides. It may be a zero-sum game. Still, MacLaren says, "Once you get them out of the chrome capsule, 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 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 over the mountain. We all may be safer, but there is danger in that, too.

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From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of Metro

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