Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In Praise of Hitchhiking

I was lamenting last week the demise of hitchhiking and its negative effect on American literature, and it occurred to me there are probably not many left who have thumbed their way from one end of the country to the other.

My own hitchhiking adventures were not all that extensive, but they did produce some memorable experiences. In 1959 I undertook my first transcontinental trip, from Boston to Seattle. The 50's were perhaps the last era of middle-class social cohesion, which meant among other things that folks tended to trust each other, and even look after one another in public situations. As a young person, the trick was to dress neatly and do as much as possible to look like a college student, and success was assured.

Hitchhiking around Germany as a grad student in the 60's succeeded easily as well.When the driver noted that I was an American, I also deceitfully remarked that I was Jewish, which activated latent guilt mechanisms. Thus I got dropped off at the very best exits along the Autobahn for further travel.

Later in San Francisco there was for several years a vibrant community of young people recognizable by long hair and colorful costume, which ensured rapid pickups by drivers similarly adorned. So if you needed to go to Berkeley from the Haight, you could appear anywhere on Oak Street with a sign that read BERK, get a ride within minutes, and arrive at your destination, possibly stoned, some 25 minutes later. You saved considerable time getting to the F-Bus at the Trans-Bay Terminal, and met some fun people as well.

Transcontinental hitchhiking wasn't quite as efficient, but worked out fine if you were patient and on a budget. But there were sometimes problems, often involving unforeseen adverse weather, as articulated in one of my journal-poems* from 1971:


I promised myself this would never happen again
age 31, ten dollars in my pocket, standing
over an hour at an obscure entrance
to the New York Thruway which God Himself
has forgotten and where nothing passes except
an occasional carload of drunk, laughing skiers.
The sky turns leaden grey. At four
in the afternoon it is dark as night. I'm numb
to the bone. I hop up and down to keep from
freezing. Suddenly the wind shifts and
a blizzard begins. In ten minutes I look like
a snowman. Eventually a Volkswagen stops
and offers a ride to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
This represents a deviation of 200 miles
from my planned itinerary, but how can I refuse?
Reacting incompetently to the din of an AM
radio station, I sit for hours with my teeth
clenched, knees to my chin. I promise
myself this will never happen again

* I had the idea in those years to form my journal entries as poems.


  1. I think that hitchhiking is one area where there is a significantly different experience between men and women. I never hitchhiked because I didn't want to be beaten and raped. That happened to a number of women friends of mine - even in the summer of love, there was a whole lot of hate going down. As is often the case, that hate was visited on women.

  2. For short distances around the Bay Area I remember that women often buddied up with friends, male and female.

  3. I was lucky that a number of my friends had cars so I didn't have to hitchhike - well, I was too cautious to do so. But when I had to travel very far, if I couldn't find a friend to ride with, I'd take the bus. But, on recollection, it does seem to me that friends shared a lot more back then than they do now. Remember when you needed to move - you could always get a few friends to help. I remember letting friends crash on my couch between jobs and keeping a lot of them fed when the money ran low. Now, I can't even get a "friend" to drive me to Marin County when I had a painting accepted in a show over there. I guess the times are different now and not in a good way.