I stuck my thumb out into the sweltering heat of an August noon at the border of Prague. My belongings, all that I'd need for the next nine months, were packed neatly (or as neatly as I could manage) into my backpack, which sat alone on the side of the road, just a few meters before a dirt turnout that seemed as likely a spot as any to flag down a car. A few sandwiches sat nearby "” I swear they were sweating, too.
It was my first time hitchhiking, so I'd done my best to prepare: read up on all the tips and tricks provided by the kind folks of the hitchwiki community, wrote out my destination (Munich, or Nuremburg, or anywhere in Germany, really) on a big sign, even wore "light-colored, non-threatening clothing" to make sure that I looked friendly. Cars rolled slowly by for 90 minutes before, finally, a young couple stopped to give me a ride.
Over the course of the next few days, I had many conversations with men and women in their forties and fifties who assured me that, "When I was your age, hitchhiking was my only form of transportation. You could hitchhike all over Europe without a problem. Not like today." And indeed, it wasn't an easy experience, by any means. Even in busy, accessible areas like gas stations, wait times were long.
Still, hitchhiking was extremely enriching. Rarely have I been so directly aware of my dependence on other people, and rarely have I had such interesting conversations with complete strangers. And, pretty much every one said something along the lines of, "The times have changed. Hitchhiking is not what it used to be."
Now, I'd like to ask: why? What happened to the days of Kerouac? Or are all these stories just glorified visions of the past?
Emile Hirsche in Into the Wild, River Road Entertainment
As it turns out, hitchhiking used to be a commonly acceptable social practice for people at all levels throughout the western world. In America, thumbing a ride to work, or across the country, was thought of as completely normal during the Great Depression. Old Hollywood films feature stars like Clark Gable waiting for a ride on the side of the road. Meanwhile, everyday people were encouraged to pick up soldiers throughout the wartime period.
Shortly after WWII, something started to change. Or, rather, many things started to change. One major shift, a revolution really, that decreased the number of hitchhikers on the road was a massive spike in car ownership. As the American Dream clarified into a vision of a home with two cars in the garage, more and more people just didn't need to ask for rides: they had cars. Even students of modest means could often pick up a used model.
At the same time, and perhaps directly related to the increase in car ownership, the U.S. developed an extensive highway infrastructure. Gone were the accessible roads of earlier decades; the new concrete beast was set off from population centers by walls, often traversing miles between exits. Hitchhiking on these new roads was illegal, and a growing fleet of highway patrol agents were on the prowl to enforce the new laws.
For some reason, during the '50s, law enforcement agencies started warning drivers and travelers about the dangers of hitchhiking. I say for some reason because according to the admittedly limited evidence currently available, hitchhiking does not qualify as a dangerous activity. Hitchhikers are far more likely to be killed or injured in a car accident than become victims of a malicious crime such as murder. For example, according to one study, the likelihood of being killed or raped while hitchhiking in the U.S. is 0.0000089%.
Statistics aside, officials decided that thumbing a ride was no longer acceptable sometime in the decade after the second world war. Awareness campaigns targeted both drivers and hitchhikers, trying to drive down acceptability of the act. An oft-cited poster from the early '70s depicts a well-dressed hitchhiker standing on the side of the road while the caption reads "Death in Disguise?"
Law enforcement efforts aside, hitchhiking remained popular during the 1960s, when students and hippies found their ways to festivals, protests and San Francisco in vans, bugs and sedans. However, for the average, law-abiding American, this may have only confirmed the nefarious associations of hitchhiking pushed by law enforcement. As the wave of love and interdependence broke and scattered, America was left with an increasingly fragmented society.
And, of course, there were some highly publicized murders involving hitchhikers that scared people away. In California, seven unsolved homicides involving female hitchhikers made headlines in the early '70s, and similar events took place in other states. As with many cases of highly publicized murder, the public perception of danger far outweighed the statistical facts (see: danger of dying from shark attacks vs. danger of dying from snack machine accidents).
Would you pick up this penguin? Getty Images
As with any social action, for hitchhiking to be acceptable, especially in the face of fear, a large pool must be present to assure people that yes, that guy sticking his thumb out is a normal human being, not an ax murderer. However, by the time the 1980s rolled around, the hitchhiker was in decline. Today, in many states (and countries), you'll be hard-pressed to see one in a blue moon.
Yet, efforts are being made to bring hitchhiking back to the west. People still hitchhike in many Scandinavian countries, and the Internet is providing a way for hitchers to share knowledge. Hitchwiki, mentioned above, along with hitchhikers.org, carpooling.uk, and a number of other sites, are great tools for beginners.
And, as some authors point out, hitchhiking is an effective way to cut down on greenhouse gases. Perhaps more importantly, though, hitchhiking is a way for people to connect with strangers within their communities. We spend enough time sitting alone in air-conditioned boxes, staring at screens, and listening to recorded noises. Why should our cars be vehicles of alienation?