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Lament for the hitchhiker

Posted: October 9, 2014 4:08 p.m.
Updated: October 10, 2014 1:00 a.m.

What’s your first thought when you’re driving down the road and you spot a hitchhiker?

You don’t even have to tell me your reaction. I already know: “Geez, who’d be stupid enough to pick up a total stranger? That’s just asking for trouble.”

That’s the same thought I have. And that’s too bad.

For millions of young Americans who came of age from about 1940 to 1980, hitchhiking -- or thumbing, as it was more commonly called -- was a terrific way to get from place to place, even if those two places happened to be thousands of miles apart.

Dress neatly, stand beside a heavily traveled road and you’d be sure to get a ride pretty quickly.

But not anymore.

Times have changed. We’ve become a more violent society, for one, causing both motorists and potential hitchhikers to exhibit caution. And we’re more affluent; most young people have their own cars, eliminating the need to thumb.

For those of us who lived through that simpler time, there was no fear of a crazed killer picking us up. For starters, there weren’t too many crazed killers around back then. And we knew that if we dressed properly -- sometimes even wearing a tie -- and carried a posterboard sign with our destination lettered on it, we wouldn’t have to stand by the  roadside very long.

Truckers in big rigs, farmers in pickup trucks, kindly grandfathers in sedans … they’d all pull over to pick up neat-looking young men who were thumbing. (Women? Never saw them thumbing back then. Not the ladylike thing to do.)

If you were lucky, you could cover a couple hundred miles with a single ride or two. Other times, it might take six or eight short hops. But you always knew you’d get there.

And along the way, you’d meet some pretty darned nice people. There was a sort of unwritten rule back then: if someone was kind enough to pick you up, you owed them a conversation, even if you didn’t feel like talking. That was the price of the ride.

In the early days of thumbing, young hitchhikers were inspired by Jack Kerouac, the hip “On The Road” author who led people to a carefree lifestyle and a sense of adventure. Thumbing from South Carolina to California, or from Michigan to Florida, was one big hoot.

But times changed. Robert Thompson, a popular culture expert and professor of media and culture at Syracuse University, was quoted a while back as blaming three factors for the death of hitchhiking, one of them being the “paranoid horror tales” of what can happen if the wrong person picks you up -- or you pick up the wrong person.

That’s a natural fear in our violent world. And it’s especially true here in the 21st century, when most hitchhikers you see look like walking advertisements for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You just don’t see many tie-wearing students standing out there waiting for a ride.

Even the “Let’s Go” travel publications, which originally featured a logo of a thumb because the books advocated hitchhiking as the easiest way to get around this country or Europe, now have forsaken that philosophy.

“There’s no safe place to hitchhike anywhere in the world,” a company official said.

So a way of life has died. Well, maybe “way of life” is exaggerating. But not too much.

I can't help feeling a tinge of nostalgia for the old days, when taking to the open road with nothing more than a thumb and a destination sign was a rite of passage.

That, however, as singer James Taylor once crooned, was long ago and far away.

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