ON’T LOOK DANGEROUS. Don’t look dangerous. Smile like you’re slinging shafts of good spirit through their windshields.
There goes a car.
The boredom can be excruciating.
I’m alone on the East Broadway on-ramp to southbound U.S. 63. There’s no shoulder, but there’s a stoplight and a steady flow of traffic. My thumb is as big as I can make it.
I used to hitchhike a lot when I lived in France during college — more than 3,000 miles in all — but I never have here. I’ve missed the spiraling solitude and happy solicitations on French autoroutes. In the U.S., a place notoriously difficult for hitchhiking, it’s supposedly different. Supposedly, we no longer trust each other enough to open our doors to strangers. Supposedly, hitchhiking is dead.
I disagree, which is why I’m roadside, hitching from Columbia to Lake of the Ozarks to camp.
Hitchhiking has indeed declined since its golden age in the 1950s and 1960s, both here and in Europe. But the tradition lives on in many ways, and Internet networking has breathed sexy connectivity into what was once an inherently lone-wolf activity. Hitchwiki, an online resource brought to its current site in 2006, is an open-source hub of information on the best locations to hitchhike. There are annual hitchhiking meetups in Europe called Hitchgatherings, where people from across the continent thumb to a designated location. With interstates, GPS, the rise of sharing economies and websites, there are fewer entry barriers than ever. But fewer barriers doesn’t mean more rides.
C’mon, c’mon, c’mon baby, stop for me baby, God it’s cold, be nice, be nice, OK, nevermind, see you later.
I’m talking to myself because total isolation in the Age of Wires is intolerable. I sing Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up,” until I realize that talking out loud to no one might hurt my chances of not looking like a murderer.
Ten minutes is a very short period of time when you’re watching TV or complaining about the weather on Twitter. When your only occupation is to stand on a strip of concrete and stare at commuting traffic, it’s an eternity.
I’VE NOW BEEN HERE for six eternities. Missouri is one of the most hitchhiker-friendly states in the U.S., yet no one’s stopping. This yawning tedium represents one of the juxtapositions of hitchhiking. I make new friends constantly, as if the highway is a rolling social mixer. But I pass most of my time shatteringly inside myself, smiling politely at all the people laughing and passing in their leather-seated BMWs.
Then again, from their point of view, drivers have only a split second to decide whether they trust you. It’s a game of blinks. Some of the little things I do to persuade them: I make happy-lettered signs; I take off my aviators so people can see my eyes; I bounce around a little bit like I’m a puppy trying to get adopted; I wave and give a polite, scrunchy, corner-of-my-mouth smile as they pass, just in case they decide to turn around for me. I’ve spent untold roadside hours developing a finessed appear-harmless system. Who knows if these techniques work.
There’s a sort of preemptive guilt in thumbing, as if a sincere internal apology will convince drivers to stop. You’ll do a lot to convince yourself you’re doing more than just giving a thumbs-up to blazing-fast strangers: If you twist your thumb at the right angle, cars will stop. If you smile innocently, cars will stop. If you hold a short-distance sign (“Jeff City”), cars will stop. If you hold a long-distance sign (“Texas”), cars will stop. If you hold no sign at all, cars will stop. If you travel with a girl to look like a nonthreatening couple, cars will stop. If you stand a little farther around the bend, cars will stop. If the girl stands in front and takes her warm layers off, cars will stop.
Yet I’m still here.
Hitchhiking is where tedium and nerves fuse. To constantly try to hook people with transparent facial gestures is to inhale rejection continually. Pretty soon a soul-tiredness comes over me, and my faith in human kindness wanes. I will die here.
Finally, mercy. My first driver in America stops. It’s a Mexican guy who doesn’t speak English and his daughter. Thank you, my angel — they can only take me to Jeff City — whatever that’s great, angel — and we’re off to heaven in a beat-up red sedan filled with ranchera music. As I stuff my backpack into his backseat, neither of us has time to assess the other’s integrity, but that’s the magic of hitchhiking. There’s a tremendous moment of magnanimity and blind trust.
JACK KEROUAC, our culture’s most famous hitchhiker, launched America into a subculture of hitchhiking frenzy in the 1950s with his novel On the Road. Kerouac’s tale of wanderlust inspired vast numbers of American youths to hit the road in search of the vague spiritual freedom promised by many of the Beat Generation writers’ head-spinning, jazz-stomping, balling, howling chaos. The Beat Generation in turn helped inspire young hippies, who borrowed the Beats’ penchant for hitchhiking. The practice all but died in America, however, around the end of the hippie movement.
The rise of interstates, increased law enforcement and horror stories in the media are often to blame. But interstates make travel convenient for anyone using vehicles, including hitchhikers. GPS gives deeper-pocketed hitchhikers the ability to know exactly when they’re going off-route.
Interstates do facilitate anti-hitchhiking law enforcement, however.
In the late 1950s, the FBI began an anti-hitchhiking publicity campaign by distributing images of hitchhikers with captions such as “Death in Disguise?” Local police outfits followed suit and increased enforcement. A 2012 New York Times article references Rutgers University police handing out cards to female hitchhikers in the 1970s that read, “If I were a rapist, you’d be in trouble.”
The media was seduced. No one publishes the headline: “Hitchhiker successfully reaches destination.” Serial killer Robert Ben Rhoades, though, made endless headlines for his joyride string of hitchhiker murders in 1989-90. Hitchhiking tales in film since the 1950s include titles such as: End Play, The Hitch-hiker, The Hitcher, Roadgames and The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting. You get the drift.
Look at the number of vehicles on the road now; it has more than tripled since 1960. Adjusted for population growth, there are twice as many vehicles per capita now, a fact that theoretically is good for hitchhiking. In reality, it means that cars are now much more the norm. Those who don’t have access to one are outsiders.
If we zoom out, we can see the larger social trends. There’s evidence that suggests generalized trust between strangers rose from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s before hitting a long decline, according to Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. That coincides directly with hitchhiking’s rise and fall. Putnam also writes that crime rates in America rose quickly in the mid-1960s and that both police enforcement and the number of lawyers soared after 1970.
We now live in an “era of insecurity,” wrote Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in In Search of Politics. We constantly feel unsafe — in our TSA-guarded airplanes, in our ADT-protected homes, in our triple-locked smartphones, in our gated neighborhoods.
University of Waterloo’s Samantha B. Meyer, who holds a doctorate in public health, partially attributes the erosion of social trust to the Internet for overwhelming us with information. A hitchhiking murder on the other side of the world wouldn’t have made local news 30 years ago. Today, we can read about it online.
Still, there are signs we’re actually becoming more trusting as a society. Hospitality services like Airbnb and taxi apps like Lyft and Uber unite strangers for profit. Lyft, for example, is a service where strangers can pick up other nearby strangers in their personal cars. Both services have exploded in popularity.
But Lyft drivers — and riders — are buoyed by the comforts of capitalism. If someone takes advantage of a driver’s hospitality, he or she already has that person’s verified identity and credit card number and a massive amount of Lyft-provided insurance. Riders know that the drivers’ backgrounds, driving records and vehicles are all checked. It’s a business model. You’re trusting an organization and its structural supports, not a human being. The trust required for hitchhiking is very different than that of paid services.
America is deeply rooted in privacy-centered, isolationist, air-conditioned qualities — NSA be damned. We have good fences here. We live on a former frontier, in sprawling yards and in disconnected buildings. Our national literary heroes include Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. We like our solitude, unless we’re paid otherwise.
It might be that the characteristic that makes our country ideal for hitchhiking — its vast spaciousness — is part of what makes us uncomfortable with hitchhikers.
THE HEYDAY OF HITCHING in the U.S. might be long gone, but it lives on in Europe. There, too, it has declined since the 1970s, but in many areas it’s still a vibrant culture. There are hitchhiking organizations and hitchhiking races, and one university in France has a popular club called Stop & Go that hitchhikes on school breaks. One French hitchhiker, René Pigier, theorizes that Eastern European states such as Romania have habits of sharing that are vestiges of a communist mentality. This instinct might lend its people to more social trust.
Last year, I was traveling in France from Paris to Poitiers with a girl I’d met. After waiting interminably in freezing rain, we crammed into the front seat of a shady-looking delivery van with a round, swarthy Romanian man. The man introduced himself as Maximo, all the while eating my female companion with his eyes. You become a lot less choosy for rides when it’s hailing.
We learned Maximo had been a big-time loan shark in Romania before it joined the European Union in 2007, after which customs police forced him to flee the country. “You can have anything you want (in Romania),” he said. “Anything. Luxury hotel, with two women. Your woman cause a problem, get a new one.”
But Romania was changing, he said later. There was a time you could pay off the police for any crime, if you had the money. Real freedom. Now, with the influence of the EU, that was over. With a grin, he added, “Moldova is the place to go now.” Maximo had the insider information on which Balkan countries you can play around in and which police were for sale. But he missed his homeland, and he couldn’t really return until the heat was off.
Maximo let us off near Tours, but I wondered why he even picked us up in the first place. If his past was as sordid as he claimed, he had a lot of reasons not to trust people. Regardless of whether he was trustworthy, he trusted us. One Romanian is not a statistically significant sample size, but Maximo at least seemed to fit French hitchhiker René Pigier’s description of Romanians with a deep sense of general kinship, sordid past aside.
PRESENTLY I’M IN A DITCH in Jefferson City. I’m thinking less about the socialist legacy of former Soviet nations and more about the cosmic implications of pissing in a culvert, and the near certitude that as I do so, I will miss the only friendly car driving in America. But I couldn’t ignore the consequences of the complimentary Coke from my Mexican driver.
While I’m remounting the shoulder in a fluster of zipping pants, an SUV stops. A large woman leans toward me.
“Show me some identification, and tell me your story!” she says, way too loud. She takes a picture of me with my driver’s license and sends it to her sister. Then she interrogates me and finally lets me in. She’ll take me until Eldon. People are nervous, man. That’s the same everywhere, though.
“I actually passed you earlier,” she says. “I turned all the way around on the highway to come get you.”
Why didn’t you just stop the first time? I think.
“You look just like my son, were clean-shaven, and I saw you with all your worldly possessions, so I figured you must have some kind of story.”
In other words, I looked white and clean.
This brings up some interesting racial, class, age and gender biases in hitchhiking. There are similarities among every hitchhiker I’ve talked to: young, white and middle to upper-middle class. That’s hitchhiking’s dark secret, and it’s very believable. If someone is going to trust you from behind a car window in less than three seconds, there’s very little to go off besides: Is he/she holding an axe, and what does he/she look like? People fall to profiling because it’s all they have time to do. That’s not to say you won’t get a ride if you’re black or 50 or not wearing shoes. But the unfortunate truth is that the line between hitchhiker and hobo is very thin for drivers.
“People with jobs and power … they’re the ones for whom hitchhiking works the best,” says Belgian hitchhiker Grégoire Leeuwerck.
It can work regardless of class, race or gender, but keep in mind it’s not technically safe. It might not be as dangerous as we think (numbers from the American Heart Association and the FBI indicate you’re 200 times more likely to die this year mid-coitus than by a highway serial killer), but it’s still climbing into the car with strangers. A 1974 California Highway Patrol study found that hitchhikers were two-and-a-half times more often the victims of crimes than the perpetrators of crimes. As for sex crimes, most of which were against women, 115 out of 116 were perpetrated by the drivers. The drivers, more than hitchhikers, are the ones in control.
My current driver, unaware of these statistics and still quite nervous, gets to talking about her job in Jefferson City and her youth in Osage Beach. Eventually, her frenetic eyes loosen up, and she decides she likes me enough to take me all the way to my campsite in Lake of the Ozarks, a full 20 miles past Eldon.
ON THE WAY BACK from Lake of the Ozarks, I find myself in hitchhiking purgatory again in Osage Beach. I’ve walked 4 miles just to get here, and I’ve been stranded without a ride for two hours. I’m not exactly feeling the hitchhiking “connectivity” right now. Rather, I’m starting to understand Kerouac’s infinite white void and his golden and eternal loneliness. I’m going to die here a skinny, ugly loser.
The on-ramp to U.S. 63 in Columbia is not Lake of the Ozarks, and it’s not the Pyrenees of France, but I’ve learned by now to stop caring or worrying where I am and to be comfortable with the idea that I might only be here for another second, or I might be here forever, and I might as well not think about it and appreciate the serenity it lends. I watch cars, semitrucks and delivery vans, and I wave at each and smile.
That you will get there, always, somehow, is the one thing I’ve learned hitchhiking. A retired old bub I remember meeting at Lake of the Ozarks State Park pulls over, and I’m saved. The hitchhiking life is one of many tiny redemptions.
After that I catch another ride with a drug court judge out of Eldon, and from there I’m taken all the way to my front door in Columbia.
It doesn’t really feel any different here in America than it does in Europe.
Maybe that’s not entirely true. Hitchhiking is hard to measure; it changes from car to car.
You can visit every museum in America, but a culture is not its relics, its tour guides, its visitor-center aides or the people who consume the culture. It’s the people who are the culture.
In my time in other people’s cars, I’ve hitchhiked with Muslim families, journalists, Dutch fishermen, paisanos, hippies, pastors, a movie star, an artist and drunk teenagers. Although cultures change from border to border, people — on fluid levels of kindness, generosity and pity — are universal. In the end, hitchhiking is not really hitchhiking. There is romance and there is excruciating boredom, but it’s nothing more than a tiny pact with a complete stranger. There’s no implicit exchange of goods and services as with Lyft and Uber. The friendships are transitory, and usually you won’t remember people’s names so much as glimpses of their vehicles and faces. When you get in their cars, you are riding kindness, hitching to the backseats of saints, completely at the mercy of strangers. Nothing is vetted. You’re on your own but for those passing angels.
Location, Location, Location
One misconception of hitchhiking is that you can stand on the side of the highway like a superhero, magically stopping cars moving 70 mph. This is not the case — unless you want to become human paste. In reality, there are three primary locations from which to hitchhike, and none of them risk cleanup with a roadkill shovel.
Toll roads: Missouri doesn’t have a lot of toll roads, but when you find them, they’re a gift. Every single car on the highway gets funneled directly to you. But technically, they’re still on the interstate, and it’s not always legal to stand there.
Gas stations: These require the most work but give the quickest payoff. It’s easy to pass a hitchhiker on the highway; it’s harder to take off from a standstill next to someone asking for a ride.
On-ramps and roundabouts: Definitely the most common, most stereotypical, most brutal option. This is a good place to feel like a romantic hitchhiker, but whether it’s a good place to actually be one depends on the traffic flow.
Hitchwiki.org has an interactive map that users can edit and pin exact locations where they’ve hitched, along with a ranking on its efficacy. Prospective hitchhikers can use the collaborative site to explore possible hitching sites ahead of time.
missouri, the final frontier
If there’s a good place in the U.S. to hitchhike, it might be here in the Show-Me State.
Missouri, South Dakota and Wyoming are the only states in the U.S. that don’t have statewide restrictions on hitchhiking, as far as proficient hitchhiker Kyle Matthews can tell. Matthews, a 23-year-old who has hitchhiked in all 50 states and aggregated state statutes on Hitchwiki, says Missouri is one of his favorite states in the country to thumb. It has wide shoulders, allows walkers on the interstate, the police don’t hassle much, and the people are nice. A very hitch-friendly state.