Hitchhiking’s Dead End (repost from ’88)

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I wrote this article in 1988 for the Washington City Paper. Shortly thereafter I was invited to appear on Charlie Rose’s CBS Nightwatch show (which literally aired at 3am) on a segment he did on hitchhiking. 

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Hard as it is for ex-hitchers to admit, thumbing in these United States is all but dead. A middle-class passion in its heyday and a serious competitor to Greyhound and TWA, hitching has gone the way of the horse and buggy. The hitcher–save for the destitute, a few adventurers, and college students in small rural towns–is as anachronistic as the milk man.

Since hitching’s birth in the ’20s, the era in which automobiles became common, its death certificate has been filled out many times over. But in a sprawling country with good highways and lousy public transportation, hitching has made several comebacks, more thumbs popping up each incarnation.

To some, like the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover and the editors of Reader’s Digest, hitching was no less than a resilient disease, more virulent strains marking each mutation. Violence and hitchhiking, they warned, were blood brothers. The early ’70s, when hitching made its last great stand, may have proved them right.

Others claim that the risks have been exaggerated and say hitching’s latest death is attributable to a glut of cars, a growing passion for auto-privacy, and a lost lust for the mystery of the road.

At the height of hitching’s ’70s glory, the family of hitchhikers included everybody and his uncle. Runaways, divorcees, draft-dodgers, and Vietnam Vets. Brothers, sisters, the inner-directed, the environmentally conscious. Free-wheelers and easy riders. Like it or not, hitchhiking became part of the American way.

The media celebrated it. One story told of a 77-year-old who cruised Columbus, Ohio, hauling hitchers wherever they wanted to go. Another reported that a man hitched around the world in a wheelchair. Then there was the hitcher who gave Green Stamps.

How-to manuals offered advice on every aspect of thumbing: “”[I]f you are holding, it is a good idea to keep your stash away from you while awaiting a ride.” The Air Force launched an observation satellite called “”Hitchhiker I.” Hitchers even started sky-hiking rides on small planes.

Hitching spilled onto the airwaves, too. Vanity Fare’s “”Hitching a Ride” hit the top of the charts (“A thumb goes up/A car goes by”) . Creedence Clearwater released “”Sweet Hitchhiker” (“Won’t you ride on my fast machine?”). Janis Joplin sang “”Me and Bobby McGee” at Woodstock (“Bobby thumbed a diesel down”). The Eagles stood on the corner in Winslow, Arizona (Come on baby/Don’t say maybe”). Lou Reed’s Candy came from Miami, F.L.A. and hitchhiked her way across the U.S.A.

But while Candy safely took her walk on the wild side, the Doors were singing a different tune in “”Riders on the Storm”: “There’s a killer on the road/His brain is squirmin like a toad/Take a long holiday/Let the children play/ If you give this man a ride/Sweet family will die.”

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Bumming a ride may reach back to biblical times. “”Go near, and join thyself to this chariot,” reads Acts: 8:29. The term “”hitchhiking,” according to a 1978 American Motorist article, only dates back to the American West, where it was used to describe a strategy for traveling with two men and one horse.

“One man would start walking while the second man rode the horse to a predetermined spot,” explains the article. “”He would hitch the horse to a tree and walk on. When the first man [arrived], he would take the horse and ride past the other man to another predetermined spot.” And so on.

When the Civil War ended, thousands of uprooted veterans hit the road, riding the rails, working odd jobs and eventually evolving into a brotherhood of “”hoe-boys” (hoboes). At the end of WWI, American GI’s came back and taught these hoboes the art of “”lorry-hopping,” which they had picked up from the Europeans. The war’s end coincided with the boom of the automobile, and the battle for the road’s shoulder–between hoboes, ex-GI’s, and thrill-seeking college students–was on.

By 1925, “hitch-begging” was so popular that authorities were already starting to complain about it. “”Motorists are constantly annoyed by persons standing by the road,” an official of the New York YMCA’s automobile school told the New York Times. “A few have become so bold that they stand in the middle of the road…they practically demand a lift. [Hitching] ought to be considered a nuisance with elements of both physical and moral dangers.”

“Moral dangers” referred to the increasing number of females who were joining their male classmates out on the road. Thousands descended on New York City by thumb, just as their granddaughters would head to San Francisco for the Summer of Love 50 years later.

“The woman hitchhiker is an interesting symbol of the feminist movement,” the Times said in 1926. “Hers is the role of a pioneer in what may someday be a great outdoor sport for women. She has dared to break with taboos and step out of the circle of thou-shalt-nots.” A few years later, two 60-year-old women made news by hitching from Montana to Washington to see the president.

A 1931 New Republic essay, “The Art of Hitchhiking,” sang the praises of “the curious American phenomenon, the hitchhiker.”

“For those like myself who cannot afford an automobile,” wrote TNR‘s Hugh Hardyman, “hitchhiking offers the easiest and most economical means of transport between points anywhere in the U.S.”

Hardyman, who boasted that “any experienced hiker can travel 300 miles a day,” offered scads of tips. “In bandit country, such as the environs of Chicago, Toledo, or Los Angeles… carry a fairly large book. Gunmen don’t carry books. On the deserts in the West never carry any water. The hardest-boiled driver will enjoy saving [your] life. And never expect a woman driver to give you a lift: it may lead to complications of various kinds, as well as increasing your probability of getting into a wreck.”

As the Depression set in, droves of unemployed began hitching to find jobs; the government’s Federal Transient Bureau often gave the hitchers room and board. Even Eleanor Roosevelt took to giving people lifts.

WWII’s gas-rationing and car shortages kept hitching popular. The government set up special “hitching shelters” for soldiers. The “Thumb Waggers Association” at the University of California at Berkeley, 200 members strong, staged a hitching marathon to Seattle. A Gallup poll showed that almost half of all Americans had picked up a hitcher.

“Swinging the duke” became so legitimate that a Republican slate of candidates in Colorado, including the incumbent U.S. senator, actually campaigned by thumbing its way across the state. And a grade-school biology textbook–“Hitchhiking With Jimmy Microbe”–used thumbing as a metaphor to explain the migration of bacteria.

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You don’t need a Freedom of Information Act request to see the FBI’s fat file on hitchhiking. The bureau’s all too happy to share its collections of clippings that recount tales of horror and blood. Shuffled in with the clippings are J. Edgar Hoover memos, stern warnings from the man who kicked off the government’s anti-hitchhiking crusade. Add the FBI file to the other horrific hitching tales in the press, and it’s not a pretty picture.

During in the Depression, bandits began to pose as hitchers to rob and sometimes murder their hosts. There was the string of murders by Victor Lindsay, “The Mad Hitchhiker of Oklahoma.” Another killer, Sheryl Chessman, was apprehended with the word “HATE” written across his knuckles. Pretty Boy Floyd was shot dead while attempting a getaway by thumb. Hitchhikers also sued drivers for damages resulting from accidents–and won.

Truckers responded by posting “No Riders” signs, and 14 states enacted anti-hitching laws, some aimed at more than safety. New Jersey’s, for example, was designed to thwart Catskills-bound hitchers who caught rides at the Jersey ferry terminals. (Tom Robbins, in his novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues–the story of a woman hitcher with thumbs so large they “could reach across four lanes of heavy traffic, and draw the vehicle of choice to her side”–claims the New Jersey law’s purpose was “to keep city-bred flapper-freeloaders away from selected resorts and rural paradises.”)

By 1937, these crimes and laws led the New York Times to write one of hitching’s many epitaphs. “[T]here are many for whom there is no satisfactory substitute for the crooked thumb, the pleading eye, the reluctant feet at the roadside,” the article gushed.

Though the thumb got back on its feet in WWII, its reputation sank even lower as the ’50s rolled in with a sensational crime. A man named Billy “Mad Dog” Cook went on a hitching rampage along U.S. 66, locking one driver in the trunk of his own car, abducting a family and dumping their mangled bodies down a mine shaft, and then thumbing down and killing another motorist to snatch a getaway car. The next few years saw several murders and robberies by hitchhikers on this cross-country artery, echoed by headlines like “Boy, Girl with Razor Terrorize Area Driver” and “Driver Wounded After Wild Ride at Point of Gun.”

The military, which had been heartily encouraging hitching, suddenly issued orders denouncing it as “unmilitary, dangerous, and undignified.” (As late as 1954, however, President Eisenhower ordered his motorcade pick up hitching servicemen.)

The FBI launched its anti-hitching effort in the early ’50s with posters, press releases, and memos to local police officials headlined “Death in Disguise” and “Hitchhiking Can Be Fatal!”

“Is he a happy vacationer or an escaping criminal–a pleasant companion or a sex maniac?” asked a poster caption beneath a drawing of a Cleaver-like family stopping to offer a lift. “Don’t pick up trouble!” In his memos, Hoover compared “the hitchhiking menace” to Russian roulette, and asked Americans to help him “stamp out the popular misconception that courtesy of the road demands giving a lift” to the “ruthless members of the hitchhiker clan.”

“It is almost unbelievable,” Hoover wrote, “that the average citizen…will frequently give so little thought to picking up trouble. Paradoxically, it seems that the darker the road or the more deserted the locality, the more sympathetic attention these free-travelling individuals receive.”

A hitchhiker horror movie, The Hitchhiker, was released in 1953. A 1955 Reader’s Digest story, “Thumbs Down on Thumbs Up,” asserted that “for a quarter of a century the raised thumb has been causing an ugly waste of life, blood and property. You can safeguard yourself by ignoring this invitation to disaster.” The article debunked the notion that picking up a hitcher was an act of kindness with such reasoning as “the claim that it doesn’t cost the motorist anything to let a hitchhiker have the empty seat is childish. Most homes have an empty bed, but it isn’t turned over to unknowns.”

Yet it’s not as though the early ’50s were boom years for hitching. As the Washington Star reported in 1971, the children of that generation were “listless.”

“Apathy was cool, so the middle class stayed at home,” the Star reported. “Bums and hoboes and a handful of gypsies (the regulars) continued to rule the sport of hitchhiking.”

Still, officials wanted to bury hitchhiking once and for all, and they had a new weapon: the federal interstate system. Designed to prevent stopping and starting, the interstates, authorities hoped, would dissuade drivers from pulling over, as had increasing car speeds and the disappearance of running boards and rumble seats. But the plan backfired.

“Instead of pissing away two miles the first ride and four miles the next,” explains Daniel Garrison, a classics professor at Northwestern University who gives informal seminars on hitching, “you’d have a better chance at a straight shot.”

The FBI campaign hadn’t killed the hitchhiking contagion, either. Jack Kerouac published On The Road in ’57, picking up where Walt Whitman, Jack London, and Woody Guthrie left off with their songs of the open road. Kerouac told of the “whoopeeing of the soul”–rocketing coast to coast by thumb or stolen car, fueled by drugs and wanderlust.

The late ’50s saw articles romanticizing hitchers-for-the-hell-of-it like DeVon Smith, who took one thumbing trip around the country visiting towns with foreign names like Moscow, Idaho, and another traveling to those with celestial names like Pluto, West Virginia.

Locally, schoolboy hitching became the rage in the early ’60s. Despite warning pamphlets and the threat of demerits, the Washington Star reported, “Any week day at 3 o’clock, groups of 20 or 30 boys can be seen near schools, churning through a sea of halted cars, asking ‘going my way?'”

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Hitchhiking never saw a better climate than the late ’60s and early ’70s.

“Nixon ought to take a week off and do some thumbing,” one hitcher told the Washington Star in 1971. “It’s fantastic.”

“They get stoned on travel,” the Star article continued, “on motion, on names like The Coast, Berkeley, Cape Cod, San Francisco, Taos, The Big Sur, New Orleans or the Baja.”

Many also got stoned on D.C. “The initials D.C. have had a magic significance within the national underground pipeline for more than a decade,” the same article said. “Civil rights and anti-war activists have firmly established D.C. as a hitchhikers’ mecca. The letters D.C. on a hunk of cardboard are usually an instant ticket to ride free.”

“They say they are doing it for kicks,” an Alexandria cop told the Washington Daily News in 1971. “Most of them could afford to pay the bus fare or drive their parents’ car. They hitchhike because they believe everybody loves everybody else.”

“It’s like not wearing underwear,” said a Georgetown psychologist in the News. “A satisfying free informal type of thing.”

Other experts had more obtuse theories. “The road is a means of alleviating dissonance through the self-delusion and fantasy life of marginal economic survival,” said sociologist Abraham Miller in a 1973 Society magazine article, “which demonstrates one’s ability to sever the needs that link one to the trap of adulthood.”

Whatever.

More and more women hitched alone. “Any hour of the day or night young women can be seen standing on busy thoroughfares in the District,” said the Washington Daily News in June 1971. “This fad of girl hitchhiking has really caught on like wildfire,” said one policeman. “Five years ago you’d never have thought of seeing a young girl on the street with her thumb out,” said another. “Then two summers ago you started to see a girl hitchhiking, with her boyfriend at the side of the road. This year the girls are out there all alone. It’s deplorable.”

A few female hitchers shopped for men. “Let’s face it,” one woman told the Star in 1971, “[D.C.] is full of gorgeous young things with the same idea, and the odds are something like five girls for every guy. I’m selective about my hitching… I walk until I see a guy I might like to meet.”

Plenty of male drivers shopped for women. “The prime asset in the [hitching] contest is an attractive girl friend,” wrote sociologist Miller in Society. “The biggest handicap is a dog. Few [females] ever wait more than 30 minutes, while men sometimes wait two or three days.” One couple shared their secret with the Washington Star: “”He reads the maps, and I wear my hair down and try to look interesting but noncommittal.”

Two high school girls conducted an experiment for the Greater San Diego Science Fair in 1977 and proved “conclusively” that females snared rides quicker if they wore revealing clothing. Dressed alternately in a “control costume” of baggy overalls and a blouse, and a “test costume” made up of a knee-length skirt and a “revealing leotard top,” they solicited 356 rides–declining them all, but handing the motorists leaflets explaining their experiment.

Shortly after female solo hitching caught on, there was a sharp surge in hitching-related crimes in D.C. and other college towns like Boulder, Boston, and San Diego. But this time around the hitcher was typically the victim and rape was the motive.

Rapists often trapped their victims by removing the interior door handles from the passenger side. Gruesome stories like that of Edmund Kemper cemented horror to hitchhiking in the nation’s mind. Kemper, who confessed to slaying eight women hitchers in 1972, had intercourse with the bodies of five, beheaded seven, and ate the flesh of two.

In the first six months of 1971 alone, the D.C. metropolitan area had 73 reported sexual assaults on women hitchhikers. A Daily News story told where they had been picked up–familiar Northwest locations like the corners of Wisconsin and P, 21st and Massachusetts, 22nd and Pennsylvania, and 18th and Corcoran.

“Our biggest problem is these female girls with this women’s lib,” one police official told the Star in 1973.

Reader’s Digest re-joined the chorus with two early ’70s anti-hitching diatribes, “Thumbs Down on Hitchhiking!” and “If you Don’t Stop, I’ll Kill You!”

But hitchers continued to defy the risks. “Because the voices of authority in this society have proclaimed hitchhiking dangerous,” wrote hitching expert/author Tom Grimm in the New York Times, “many young people who believe themselves to be in rebellion feel compelled to embrace that danger to prove it harmless.”

The voices of authority began turning up the heat. In Los Angeles, 10,000 signed a petition calling for a ban on hitching. People threw garbage at hitchers, and truckers tried to run them off the road. Cops purposely arrested hitchers on Friday afternoons, putting them out of commission until the courts reopened on Monday morning.

Most states had outlawed hitching “in the roadway,” but the definition of “roadway,” was subjective, sometimes including the gravelly shoulder, sometimes not. Standing on the interstate itself was generally a no-no, but hitching from an on-ramp was OK. (A Tennessee government researcher in 1981 tallied 42 states with “roadway” statutes. In D.C., it is illegal to hitch from the street, but not from the curb.

The next step was to ban hitching altogether, but as one California D.A. found, “everyone jumped all over us on the grounds that this was a violation of their civil rights.” The Montgomery County student youth group denounced a hitching ban proposal as “hassling” that would “further disintegrate police-juvenile relations.” An official of the American Youth Hostels went so far as to suggest that hitchhiking with a sign ought to be protected under the First Amendment.

A California appeals court ruling in 1977 warned that women who hitchhike should expect sexual advances. The court also held that an “amorous overture” to a hitchhiker is not in itself a threat of rape. “The lone female [who hitchhikes] in so doing advertises that she has less concern for the consequences than the average female,” read the decision. Officials at the National Organization of Women called the ruling “[a]n affront to males as well as females” for assuming sex is the only reason a male driver picks up a woman.

Regardless of the legal debate, by the late ’70s, hitchhikers were fewer and further between. In California, for example, the number of citations issued to hitchers–the only barometer available–fell from 22,000 in 1978 to 11,500 in 1983, and to 5,500 in 1987.

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You’ll still spot raised thumbs in state and national parks, rural college towns, and small secluded communities like Martha’s Vineyard or Aspen, Colorado. Emergencies, such as the winter 1987 Metro fiasco, also bring hitchers out of the woods. (In Alaska, it is illegal to pass hitchers in foul weather.) But the sides of most roads are empty enough to make J. Edgar Hoover dance in his grave. Hitchers are on the endangered species list.

Even though there’s no good data on hitching risks–hitchhiking isn’t listed as a separate category in national crime databases–the grisly events of the ’70s convinced both drivers and hitchers that it could be fatal. Better to be safe than raped, hacked into little pieces, and stuffed into a trunk.

Hitchhiking crimes continue to make Page One. Testimony recently began in the trial of Randy Kraft, a California computer programmer who is accused of drugging, sexually mutilating, and strangling up to 60 young hitchhikers in three states between 1972 and 1983. Other famous hitcher-killers of the last decade are Gerald Stano, William Bonin, and the drivers of the “Murder Mac” van, Lawrence Bitteker and Roy Norris. Most of the killings took place in California and most of the victims were females, hitching alone. Kraft preyed on males, including several U.S. Marines.

Paul Psychas, who hitched his way around the country a few years ago while doing research for Let’s Go, U.S.A., says that people are too paranoid about hitching. “It’s a dramatic risk,” he says, noting that he worries more about bad drivers than vicious killers.

“It’s like fear of being eaten by sharks,” adds Skidmore psychology professor Robert Oswalt. “If you don’t stop and pick up somebody you have no chance of having any problems.”

Duke Wilson, a Washingtonian who claims he hitched 50,000 miles in the late ’60s, says Americans have lost their guts. “We’re all immigrants here,” says Wilson, who still makes the occasional hitch down I-95 to visit relatives in Florida. “Our ancestors all rolled the big dice to get on the boat. What happened to those genes?”

Another cause of death may be the cocooning syndrome–people insulating themselves from the unknown. The automobile, as Marshall McLuhan espoused, is an “interior sacred space,” one of the only places where individuals are in total control of their environment.

“We’re in a cycle where we need order and control, because the chaos of the world–nuclear weapons, terrorism, Third-World wars–is more real to us,” says Dr. Michael Marsden, a professor of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University. “We’re not as interested in reaching out to people.” And in our tape-deck equipped, air conditioned cars, we don’t have to. Studies of failed carpools show that people quit not because of logistical inconveniences, but because they loathe having to keep up casual conversations in the morning.

Marsden also points that the business trip has changed the attitude toward travel. “The idea of a corporate overlay on the vacation–organization and destination–has become the norm,” he says. “That’s why this generation gets their itineraries in advance.”

Marsden goes on to explain that during “insecure” periods, hitchhikers are viewed as “invaders,” and thought to be “morally inferior.” “We have a paradoxical attitude toward people who live on the edge,” he says. “It’s gone back to the way it was in the days of the hoboes. People resent people who are walking, because they haven’t ‘sacrificed’ to buy a car. So if it’s not splashing on [pedestrians], its honking at them, and if it’s not honking at them, it’s running them down.”

Marsden doesn’t believe hitchhiking has reached the end of the road. He compares the fear of hitchhiking with uneasiness about trick-or-treating and says they both may regain their former status. “When and if the society feels secure again.”

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