Thumbs Up for an American Past Time

You’re sitting on the shoulder of a highway, on your backpack, at the edge of some town. Maybe you’ve been there several hours, thumbing each passing vehicle. You know someone will stop eventually. When they do, a rush surges through you as the brake lights flash and you hear tires hit the gravel. You run up to the car. The driver asks where you’re headed and informs how far they can take you. You scope them out. If all seems cool, you hop in and hope for the best.

You’ll repeat this process as many times as it takes to arrive at your destination.

Hitchhiking remains popular throughout the world, with countries like the Netherlands posting signs indicating good spots to catch a lift. But American motorists are weary of the practice. Picking up hitchhikers, the wisdom goes, is risking your life. It’s surprising that despite these dire warnings enough motorists still offer enough rides to keep hitchhiking as a viable means of travel in America.

Growing up, I was warned about the dangers of picking up hitchhikers. They could be carrying drugs, could be a prison escapee or worse, they could murder. In Riders on the Storm, Jim Morrison sang about a serial killing hitchhiker. In the 1986 film The Hitcher, a man picks up a homicidal hitchhiker whom he is eventually forced to kill. In the 1974 slasher flick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a group of traveling friends pick up a sadistic hitchhiker, which leads to all but one of their deaths.

These menacing portrayals of hitchhikers have undoubtedly influenced me. Though I’ve hitchhiked numerous times, I’m leery of hitchhikers, even though every one I’ve ever given a ride to has been nothing short of pleasant.

Most people will never have that experience, on either side of the center console, let alone both.

A user of an online forum on a legal website recently posed the question: Should I pick up hitchhikers?

The answer from the hive was a resounding no.

“In this day and age it’s not a good idea to to pick up anyone that you don’t know,” answered one. “Unless you have a death wish or something!”

The irony of this public fear is that hitchhikers more-often-than-not are victims rather than the aggressors. Successful criminal acts rely in large part on anonymity. Highway hitchhikers are very visible to passing motorists and become immediate suspects of any shenanigans. It’s unlikely fugitives highway hitchhike much, given the likelihood of being questioned by local law enforcement. The likelihood of police encounters also discourages hitchhikers from carrying weapons or drugs.

Motorists, on the other hand, are better positioned to exploit their passenger’s vulnerabilities. The motorist knows the area, can conceal weapons and his intentions easier, can easily lure the hitchhiker with promises of room and board, and can count on no one knowing the traveler’s exact whereabouts. In this regard, hitchhiking represents greater risk for the traveler than the hitchhiker is to the motorist.

The issue of hitchhiking and crime has never been studied so claims such as these are based on my own experiences, observations and discussions with others.

Since perceived connections between hitchhiking and crime have never been studied makes all the more interesting an article published today in the conservative American Thinker, which urges lawmakers to re-frame arguments against immigration issues in a context of hitchhiking.

Hitchhikers need transportation, sometimes desperately. However, the needs of the motorists to be safe in their property and their persons, overrides the hitchhikers economic need for a free ride. Similarly, most illegal immigrants need economic opportunity, sometimes desperately. However, the needs of the nation and the individual states to be safe from the economic burdens and social problems brought about by massive uncontrolled immigration override the illegal immigrants’ need for a “free ride.”

Hitchhikers make the news more often than you’d expect. It’s often grim, yet doesn’t make much of a splash.

Last month Tennessee authorities identified the remains of 32-year-old Andrew Joseph Bluitt, a hitchhiker picked up and murdered in 1997. Bluitt had been killed by two men, one of whom had successfully used the body in staging his own death. The plot unraveled in 2000 and both men were convicted of murder. Last month, Bluitt’s sister recognized a police sketch posted on a website.

Prosecutors in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, dropped charges against two men accused of murdering a Colorado hitchhiker who’d come to Wyoming to snowboard, when doubt was cast on the truthfulness of their incriminating statements.

Last month a woman shared with CNN her close call with Washington’s Green River Killer while hitchhiking in November 1982.

Baptist minister James McCollough, who has spent 32 years hitchhiking for Jesus, received his first ticket for soliciting a motor vehicle, but insists that his thumb wasn’t raised when the officer found him sitting at an on-ramp.

Some times hitchhikers are celebrated in the news or their communities.

In early October, the National Library of Wales made a plea for information about what became of an area hitchhiker who left home in 1958. The museum was soon inundated with information about Islwyn Roberts, an eccentric man who spent his later years recounting his adventures for children. His travels took him to Egypt, Algiers, South America, Patagonia, South Africa and Canada. Roberts eventually returned home and died in 1993.

Roberts, like most hitchhikers, was probably spilling with tales of human kindness and generosity of a kind only hitchhikers know.

Media loves a good hitchhiker tale, but it seems academia is averse to studying this dynamic subject. Who hitchhikes and why do they do it? Who picks them up? What percentage of hitchhiking events end in violence or other crimes? How often do people open there homes to these strangers? What does polling reveal about peoples’ attitudes toward hitchhikers? How does this vary around the country? What is its history?

In his Informal History of Hitchhiking, published in 1958, the late-John T. Schlebecker observed, “Begging rides from passing motorists, or hitchhiking, is an American contribution to world civilization which has been largely unexamined by historians. And this is strange because hitchhikers first became familiar figures on the American scene in the middle 1920s, and have been more or less ubiquitous ever since.”

Almost every study since has cited the lack of previous studies.

In 1975, a legislative committee in Connecticut commissioned to study hitchhiking wrote in their findings, “If the report appears to lack detailed information it is because very little valid research regarding hitchhiking has been done.”

Little has changed since. The people over at DigiHitch.com have compiled an amusing timeline of the scant appearances hitchhiking has made in the academic record since Schlebeker published his Informal History more than 50 years ago.

Just who are these motorists that allow strangers inside their vehicles in these freaky modern times?

Well, they’re anyone.

When I hitchhiked in 2000 and 2001, I was always struck by the diversity of people who pulled over for me, men and women alike. Many confessed they always wanted to backpack around. Regrettably, I never asked anyone why they picked me up, not even the woman who asked only half-jokingly as I got in her car, “You’re not going to kill me, right?”

I assured her I wouldn’t and for the length of the ride she relayed conversations she was having with her dead friend, via her pyschic. It might have been comical had not the death been so recent and obviously traumatizing.

Some would offer money and food. One guy told me I reminded him of his son, whom he hadn’t spoken with for many years.

In Oregon, a guy picked me up outside of Medford and drove me all the way to the California border. He’d been evacuated after lightening sparked a forest fire near his home earlier that morning.

Over the course of some 60 to 70 rides, in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Oregon and California, I never felt like my life was in danger. Other hitchhikers I’ve met never talked about running into trouble except for hassles from the cops.

Why these people chose to pick me up I can’t say. But I suspect it’s owed in part to a trust that people are fundamentally good. Will American hitchhiking ever again be as popular as it was between the 1920s and 1970s or is currently in Europe, Australia and many developing countries? Unlikely. Americans are naturally suspicious of strangers, even when they’re neighbors. And most motorists, upon spotting a hitchhiker, will be deterred from offering them a ride because of an irrational perception of danger.

A trucker on the forum I mentioned earlier put it this way, “Life is not a horror film, and a handful of murder stories that hit the news with big hype does not mean all people in a ‘certain category’ are bad. There are more mothers who kill their children every year than there are hitchhikers who kill motorists….yet we’re not warily eyeballing that soccer mom with our doors locked, are we?”

Then he adds, “Use your common sense and good judgement. I have run across a lot of harmless young people hitchhiking – squatters, runaways, modern-day hippie wannabes, who are happy to have a ride, some company and maybe a hot meal. I have also run across older people with obvious substance abuse problems and no doubt a shady past. That’s the nature of the transient human population; it embraces all kinds.”

Sounds like something that ought to be studied.

2 Comments

  1. Posted January 14, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    It all seemed so innocent in the 60′s and the 70′s — the only ones continuuing to keep up the scares were the media, the primetime networks.  Hitchhiking, though it used to seem so tame, now scares me to no end.  Call me sexist, but it is true, as a boy hitchhiking around the Southern Califonia surf-party scene, was rather fun, but now that I have a young daughter, turning a teenager as of her birthday today, will never get my blessings. In fact I can’t ever see it for her even older.  Just one of those things that I can say it was fun while it lasted, but a thing of the past!

  2. mplo
    Posted March 3, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Good point, Beach Resorts!  As someone who also lived through the 1960′s and the 1970′s, I hitchhiked afew times in the early 1970′s, when I’d already reached young adulthood, and, although nothing bad happened to me, I’d always worry about whether or not I’d get to where I was going.  When a slew of young women here in the Boston area disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again,  while hitchhiking, and a couple of young men were picked up by a pair of white toughs and driven to a rough and tough white workingclass Boston neighborhood and brutally murdered, I vowed never to hitchhike again, and haven’t since.The fact that there are so few people who do hitchhike nowadays indicates what it’s all about.  It’s too risky.  I also might add that from the mid 1960′s on, the whole situation was already starting to get bad.  More than half the incidents that occur during hitchhiking fail to make the evening news, or even the papers.

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