Hitchhiking

by Timothy Lutts

This was originally published February 3, 2009. It brought a lot of positive responses and no negative responses. I hope you like it, too!

Driving in my car yesterday, I was listening to a song by J.J. Cale titled “Homeless,” which includes these lyrics:

“I’m not a homeless man
I’m a gypsy by trade
And I’m travelin’ this land
I’m not a homeless man”

hitchhikingOver three decades ago I was homeless, too, but I didn’t call it that.  I was in my early 20s and I was “traveling this land.”  If I chose, I could have returned to the safety to my parents’ house.  But I chose to travel, to seek new experiences . . . and I’m glad I did.  I still love to travel.

Being chronically low on funds back then–and low on responsibilities as well–I did a lot of hitchhiking.  My father was a hitchhiker in his youth, too.  In fact, he was hitching a ride once in a car that tipped over.  He still has a photo he took–of the car lying on its side–to prove it . . . luckily, no one was hurt.

But you don’t see many hitchhikers anymore–in fact, my kids have never hitchhiked (at least, to my knowledge)–and I think there are several reasons for that.  Yet I think it’s possible we may see a resurgence of hitchhiking in the years ahead.

I’ll explain why below.

But first I’d just like to reminisce a bit, thinking back to my journeys of over three decades ago.

I remember hitchhiking north one autumn Monday morning, returning to college after a weekend of work, and getting a ride outside Portland, Maine, from a young man driving a bright blue Lotus Europa.  The car was snug and fast, and so close to the ground I imagined we could go under tractor-trailers.  Best of all, the same driver picked me up again the next Monday!

I remember riding in an ancient red Mercedes–with the vertical speedometer–over the mountains of Pennsylvania when a sudden snow squall reduced visibility to less than 50 feet, and cars started crashing into each other.  My middle-aged good Samaritan pulled over, got a box of flares out of his trunk, and I ran back down the road, lighting them as I went and placing them to warn oncoming traffic.

I remember standing on the side of the road in Ohio, freezing cold, and jumping for joy (inside) when a big RV pulled over.  Opening the door I found a very kind young couple returning from Florida . . . and no heat.  The vehicle was an icebox, but I took the ride.

I remember the policeman in West Virginia who pulled up to me on a dark highway onramp and warned me, “If you’re here when I come back I’ll have to arrest you.”  Luckily, I wasn’t.

I remember rolling through the red clay fields of Georgia, heading for Florida, marveling at the miles and miles of tobacco and thinking, this stuff is killing the people who use it but feeding the people who grow it.

I remember the fellow hitchhiker in Florida who hid his LSD tabs in the hollow aluminum frame of his backpack, confident the police would never think to look there.  I distanced myself from him as soon as possible.

I remember being caught in a deluge in New Orleans, and realizing that while water flowed downhill in New England, there was precious little downhill to be had in New Orleans.  The water mainly rose up.

I remember riding in a Chevy van over the Grand Tetons of Wyoming in the springtime.  As the road rose higher, the snow deepened, and eventually, the van’s tires refused to grip.  The driver didn’t fight; he calmly backed down, turned around, and took the long way around, extending the journey by at least an hour.

I remember another van. We were crossing the Mississippi River at night. Traffic was light. And right there in the middle of the bridge, going sixty miles an hour, the driver and his friend swapped seats!

I remember the eerie lunar landscape of Idaho.  Not the car, not the driver, just the landscape.

I remember the longhaired trust-fund couple in Southern California, who gave me a ride and then let me stay a few nights in their trailer on the beach, where I enjoyed warm strawberries and warm sunshine.  They took me on a forgettable night to Tijuana, too.

I remember a few days in the U.K. with a dark-haired French girl named Christine who asked if she could accompany me as we hitchhiked from hostel to hostel.  I think she wanted the security of a male companion and judged me harmless . . . and she was right.  It also helped that my French was better than her English.

I remember the many professional truck drivers who picked me up late at night just to have someone to talk to . . . to keep them awake.

And I remember being fooled, again and again, by the Doppler effect, which makes it sound like a car that has passed is slowing down, even though it’s not . . . especially if it’s an old Volkswagen with an air-cooled engine.

So why do I think hitchhiking might become popular again?

One reason is the pattern of generational changes, a topic I touched on two weeks ago.

In the 1940s, when my father hitchhiked, the country enjoyed a uniformity of purpose.  The war effort had made materials scarce.  People trusted other people.  So it was only natural that, lacking a car, a young man would hitchhike.  It was also natural that other people would stop to pick him up.

In the 1970s, when I did my traveling, the country’s uniformity of purpose had been replaced by a search for enlightenment.  The old rules no longer applied–or at least some of us young people thought they didn’t–and Americans in general were tolerant of our explorations.  Admittedly, the road wasn’t quite as safe as it was for my father, and the authorities were less supportive, but the traveling did teach me some wonderful lessons, the most important of which was that the country was full of good and interesting people.

In the decades that followed, Americans turned from the search for enlightenment to the search for material wealth and comfort.  Selfishness took precedence over community, while a desire for safety (and the ability to pay for it) meant we erected walls around ourselves–often in the form of big SUVs–and warned our children to beware of strangers.

So what comes next?

If it’s a future limited by scarce, high-priced gasoline, growing numbers of people will be unable to fuel their cars.

If it’s a future characterized by high tolls and other user fees–a special tax on Hummers has been proposed–fewer people will be able to afford to drive.  (Here in Massachusetts the governor just decided to raise the gas tax by 19 cents per gallon.)

And if it’s a future defined by a growing sense of community, particularly if the community is focused on minimizing the burning of fossil fuels, it will be patriotic to hitchhike, and patriotic to pick up hitchhikers.

 

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