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Thu

19

Mar

2009

Hitch-Hiker's Guide to a Better Society: Bring Back the Thumb!
Thursday, 19 March 2009 06:17
by Dave Lindorff

Back in 1966 when I was a 17-year old and just finished with my junior year in high school, I spent part of the summer working as a dishwasher and busboy at a couple of restaurants on Cape Cod. It was grueling and low-paid work, and by the time I’d done it for about five weeks, I was ready to give it up.

The road beckoned, and so I contacted a friend, Charlie Vidich, and proposed that we hitch-hike to Alaska, it being the most remote place I could think of that we could get to overland without a passport.

The idea didn’t sit well with our two respective mothers, but we prevailed on them with the help of our fathers, who I think were happy to see us out of the house, and so we packed knapsacks and bedrolls, went out on the road, stuck out our thumbs, and headed north and west.

It took us about 10 days to reach Tok Junction in Alaska at the northern terminus of the Alaskan Highway that coursed from Whitehorse, Yukon to the Alaskan border. We then hitched around the state visiting the sights and the cities of the nation’s last frontier region.

It was the beginning of a decade of hitch-hiking adventures that took me, and later my wife Joyce and me down the east coast to Florida, across the country to Washington, Oregon and California, and to many states and places in between,

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, hitch-hiking was both a way of life, and also a routine mode of transportation for more mundane purposes, like getting to and from work.

It was easy, relatively safe (as long as you took a good sniff before getting in a car to make sure there wasn’t a strong smell of alcohol), and also interesting, because of the wide variety of people one would meet.

It is also something that simply isn’t done anymore.

Lately, I’ve been asking myself why. On a few occasions, averaging perhaps once a year, I have hitched, mostly out of a sense of curiousity to just see if it is still possible to do. The results are dismaying. Once, when my son was just five years old, on a bitterly cold winter day when the wind chill was below 0 degrees, when one of our two cars was in the garage and my wife had already left for work with the other, I was late getting my son out to the school bus and he missed it. The prospect of having him home for the day, when I was busy with a story that was on deadline that day led me to try to come up with an alternate way of getting to school. Hitch-hiking was the only solution I could think of.


I bundled up Jed and myself, made a cardboard sign that read, “Help! Missed the School Bus,” and took my son out to the road. We walked a few blocks to an intersection so we could stand on the road that ran straight down two miles to his school, and then stood there. It was rush hour, so though it was bitingly cold, I figured some one of the endless stream of commuters heading to work would stop for us.

To my astonishment and growing anger, though, lone male driver after lone male driver, not to mention many lone female drivers, drove past us, usually turning their heads away so as to avoid looking at us. Some of them were people I know I had seen in the supermarket and the post office over the year we had lived in town. No one was stopping.

After 20 minutes of this, I decided it was time to leave, because it was so cold I was feeling like I was committing child abuse keeping my son out there.

Just then a van pulled up on the other side of the road, going the wrong direction. The woman driving it rolled down her window and asked if we’d like a ride to Jed’s school. I said “Sure!”, snatched up my son and ran across the road, jumping into the back of the van with Jed.

The woman said she had just driven her three children past us, taking them to a church-run school that was also down the same road. She said she had seen us but felt uncomfortable picking up strangers, especially with her kids in the car. But she felt sorry for us, and particularly my little boy, so she decided to ignore her fear and give us a lift. She drove us to the school and when I got out, she said she’d wait for me to come back, and would give me a lift home. I was impressed, I confess. After having well over a hundred gutless and selfish guys drive past us, here was a woman ignoring her fears and giving me a lift, not just to school but to my house.

Over the years, I have had other rides offered to me when I’ve tried thumbing. Usually it is some guy my age (I’m 59) who hitched around himself in years past, and who is now repaying some karmic debt from long ago. Occasionally it will be a car with some young people in it, though that is rarer.

One thing that strikes me is that nearly everyone who finally does offer me a ride—and hitch-hiking these days is not something to attempt if you have to get anywhere in a hurry, because the wait for a ride can be interminable!—immediately hastens to explain that they “never do this” ordinarily because it is so dangerous.

Why do people consider picking up hitch-hikers to be dangerous? I always felt as a hitch-hiker years back that it was I who was taking the risk—drivers can after all be inept, exhausted or drunk, and if it was a couple of guys in the car, there was also the risk of being mugged or worse. In fact, hitch-hikers in my experience, have tended to be nice people—often worldly-wise, though maybe a little down on their luck. In all the years I’ve picked up hitch-hikers as a driver, I have never been threatened, though I have had some scary experiences as a hitchhiker because of the people who have given me a lift.

In large part, I am convinced that the problem is our media, which exhibit a pornographic interest in violence and crime at the expense of any real news. Most Americans actually believe that the country is a much more dangerous place today than it was 30 or 40 years ago, filled with psychopaths, ax murderers and rapists. There is no way that Americans today are more violent and criminally minded than they were in the 1960s—in fact they may be less so--but the media barrage of violent news stories from across that nation has everyone convinced that this is so. This leads to a general sense of distrust of strangers, which makes thumbing a real challenge to the zeitgeist.

I’m thinking that with this new depression that we are entering, in which people are losing houses, jobs and cars, that it is time to resurrect the culture of hitchhiking, both as a way of providing needed alternative transportation to those without it, and as a way to challenge and undermine the prevailing debilitating national culture of fear.

For the last 30 years, we as an American society have become increasingly isolated socially. Not only do we spend all our time outside of work confined in our homes or in our cars, but when we circulate socially, it is almost exclusively within our own narrow class circle of acquaintances.

Hitch-hiking, and picking up hitch-hikers, can be a way of breaking down that wall of isolation.

So here’s a suggestion. If you need to go into town on an errand, and you’re not in a hurry, try hitch-hiking for a change (all the better if you live in a small community and the people passing by on the road are people who know you by sight). If you’re driving and you pass a hitch-hiker, pull over and offer him or her a ride. Who knows? It might be me.

Addendum: I just tried it out and...

...it looks like hitch-hiking might be able to make a comeback.

Figuring that if I was calling for a return of the thumb, I should practice what I'm preachin', I walked out the driveway at rush hour this afternoon and headed five miles down the road to our local Whole Foods market. It's a straight shot, the weather was a warm, sunny 60 degrees, and I had on clean jeans and a button-down blue shirt. I happen to have done my spring clean-up, so my normally big beard and shaggy hair was gone in favor of a close-cropped look (still bearded, though).

Initially some 50 cars passed me by, but the road near my house doesn't have any shoulder for easy stopping, so I walked the quarter mile to an intersection and stood on the far side, after the stop light. Within minutes, a guy in a fairly new sedan stopped. He was about 60, and told me he had hitched a lot in the '60s, when he was in the service. I asked him why he picked me up, and he said, "I figured I owed a few rides, and besides, I sized you up and you looked like a decent guy. Besides, I figured I could take you if it came to that."

He said he was only going half way to my destination, but ended up driving me the whole way. Pretty sweet.

On my return, I had a full paper bag of groceries when I stuck out my thumb. I again picked a spot where there was an easy pull off. For about 10 minutes, people drove by. The women looked at me. Then men mostly looked away to the left, as though they wanted to pretend they hadn't seen me (maybe they were afraid to appear afraid to stop?).

Then, to my surprise, a woman driving a late-model SUV who was stopped just down the road from me in the line of cars stretching back from the light signalled me to come over and get in her vehicle. I ran over with my bag and hopped in. She was, I would guess, in her 40s--some gray in her hair. She said she was on her way to a computer class in a town further down the road from where my house is, and that she was taking the class because she was "about to be laid off" from the large firm where she works.

I told her I was surprised to be picked up by a woman driver, and she replied, "Well, maybe I'm stupid, but I figured it's broad daylight, and there are lots and lots of other cars around. What could happen?"

She's right of course, but how many people think that rationally?

Anyhow, she dropped me right at the driveway, so I made the whole trip in two rides, in not much more time than it would have taken me to drive.

It would appear that hitch-hiking is feasible. In recent years, I've tried this before, and with much worse luck every time, which leads me to think that perhaps the current economic crisis is having a salutory effect on people's thinking, making them more empathetic to those who appear to be in a harder situation than they are. If so, that would be wonderful. Maybe we are moving away from the dreadful selfish era that was heralded in with the arrival of Ronald Reagan's "Greed is Good" presidency in 1980. (Then again, my more cynical wife suggests that maybe with so many middle class and even upper middle class people losing their jobs, drivers may think that I and other new hitch-hikers are of a higher class, and thus are safer to offer a ride to. I hope it's not that.)
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Steve Gould said:

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...
Thanks for your great article - ride sharing is really the way to go. I am a little younger than you, and did a moderate amount of hitchhiking (Cape Cod to Boston and New York many times)and quite a bit of picking up of hitchhikers (including on cross country trips) during the seventies and early eighties. I certainly think that the continuing increase of the car culture along with the increasing pace of life are significant factors - once I had a full time job and family I pretty much stopped hitchhiking. Unfortunately the more people who have cars, the more "marginal" hitchhikers can seem.

I certainly have many hitchhiking stories, both as hitcher and driver - almost all positive! I will admit that in the last couple of years hitching I felt that the creep factor increased - and I am a guy - I can only imagine how it must be for the women. I still pick up hitchhikers, although generally not if I have any one else in the car. Unfortunately even on Cape Cod with a single (non-divided highway) artery and limited bus service, I doubt if I see more than one hitchhiker a month.

A last aside: A Suburban with four passengers gets mileage than a Prius with one.
 
March 19, 2009
Votes: +0

Michael Edward Loftus Sr said:

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Webmaster
Having devoted my life to crime deterrence, I am appalled at such dangerous compassion. The isolated confines of a vehicle provide a huge advantage for a predator, whether driver or hitchhiker. Please refer to my page at http://www.crime-safety-securi...ng-cj.html to see why you should NEVER pick up ANY hitchhiker. Gamble in Vegas, not in your life.

Michael Edward Loftus Sr
www.Crime-Safety-Security.com
 
March 19, 2009 | url
Votes: +0

Project Humanbeingsfirst.org said:

0
The milkman at the door -

The milkman at the door – A Response to Dave Lindorff's Hitch-Hiker's Guide to a Better Society: Bring Back the Thumb! March 20, 2009

http://print-humanbeingsfirst.blogspot.com/2009/03/response-lindorff-hitchhiking-mar202009.html

 
March 21, 2009 | url
Votes: +0

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