Stick A Thumb
I wish there was a way to get from “here” to “there” without any assistance. An easy fix for that: buy a car. But with a car, you need gas and tires and insurance. “Well, then you can walk ‘there’”. What if your legs fail you though? What if you have no feet? But we all [most of us] have a thumb. And throughout the past few centuries, our thumb has found a way to be a bridge between having and not having: our feet and a car. “You walk on your thumbs?” I wish, but no: I can get around with it though.
Preceding the burst of the Roaring Twenties in America, hitchhiking became necessary (and therefore created) as workers wanted to be able to get across large areas of land without needing a train or an automobile; or, at least, an automobile that they owned. This is why hitchhiking never became quite as large a practice until cars were first being used (although in Abe Lincoln’s time, a carriage would have worked in a pinch).
Even though it is very difficult to actually pinpoint the etymology of the word “hitchhike”, the term was first widely coined in 1918 in an article written by an anonymous author named “the Drifter” who was then writing in the New York magazine, The Nation, “The Drifter stopped and beheld three young women - dusty Valkyries in gray knickers and sweaters and thick stockings, stout-booted, with small gay caps, knapsacks and cameras slung over shoulders shapely even under the rough, knitted stuff. They wanted a lift.”
Later he would say, “It's a great way of seeing the country. The road’s full of ‘hitch-hikers’”. This is where the practicality of hitchhiking for work-intended purposes started to haze into a different motivation behind the process of hitchhiking: the thrill of adventure.
From there on, the small and practical hobby became an “in” of sorts to society. To hitchhike meant to be free, and as the Twenties shifted over into the 30’s and 40’s, the idea became more and more of a mindset adapted by the American generation, but much more specifically, the youth of the nation until it’s climax in the 1960’s. Authors and songwriters such as Jack Kerouac and Marvin Gaye idealized hitchhiking so that it wasn't just a transportation method but was a way to be free, “The physical act itself had little impact in the 1950’s in America as much as the lifestyle it represented. This generation fulfilled the desire to go off the beaten path by stepping on the beaten path.”
Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road introduced the new idea to the open minds of young people during that generation, and many hitchhiking terminals started to bloom up along the scattered byways across America. Hitchhikers weren’t few and far between as the hippie movement sprinted out in the late 1960’s to early 70’s. In fact, the music of that era mirrored the freeloading spirit of the open road:
"Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I've gone to look for America
Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said ‘Be careful his bowtie is really a camera’
Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat
We smoked the last one an hour ago
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field’”
The dreamy euphoratic lyrics that were sung out in choruses like these and written about in magazines or college papers shaped, in part, the hippie movement that came out of it. The reality of being able to travel anywhere that someone wanted, oftentimes for no money, became engrossed into a self sense of liberty and independence: the teens didn't need their parent’s car to drive them to the party, they didn't need to go with them on their vacations, they could hitch a ride wherever wanted. Hitchhiking in the 60’s became almost as common as buying a cup of coffee at a nearby coffee shop and in that shop, on one of the tables, you could've seen a copy of one of the many articles written on the increasingly popular subject such as 1964’s April edition of Time Magazine™.
As time went on, however, this independence started to slowly become a dangerous thing. Reports swung open about hitchhiking experiences gone wrong and the addition of warnings portrayed through TV show situations began to startle the conscience of traveler and driver alike. One horrifying incident was the case of Thor Nis Christiansen, a man who targeted female hitchhikers and subsequently murdered 5 young women who fit his profile in Isla Vista, California during the late 1970’s. Resulting from this and other instances like it, states began to crack down and create laws as in the case of five states in the Southern Tier who outlawed the practice completely. The part of history that involved trust and a free passage to adventure gave way to the danger of trusting strangers in the present day, forcing the hitchhiker to unpack his bags and settle down.
However as dangerous as hitchhiking was portrayed to the American people, the brave still ventured on, as the stories of adventure and wonder of the sights in America inspired them to pack their bags and stick out their thumb. “The one thing I miss is hitchhiking. Now there's no more of that. It's not that I consider it a great sport, but it was my way of seeing the country. The open road, especially in the western United States, is still very pristine, but everything else around it has changed.” (Ruscha, Edward). The wonder of travel is still traced around the heart of many fearless and trusting 21st century folk.
Some people made it such a lifestyle that they received media attention, such as the German-born Stephan Schlei who, in a matter of 36 years, encompassed an unthinkable total of nearly 49,000 miles. Schlei was a hitchhiker who made his hobby more of a job, as his knack for statistics and business aided him in his many trips. For instance, his main passion was to see soccer [football] matches and to see these matches he would hitch a ride. After years of freewheeling, he decided to settle down long enough to study business at a local university. When there, he learned of a man who had made a career of begging in highly populated places. The cleverness of Schlei not only makes for a good story, but you could say it led to an almost comfortable life, and definitely an exciting one.
Likewise, Devon Smith of rural Pennsylvania set a then-record of 33 days to travel through all forty eight of the United States in 1957 by solely thumbing it. From this trip and around forty recorded other ones, he grossed a total just shy of 300,000 miles (about the life of a ‘04 Honda Civic). The story of Devon Smith is yet another example of how a very intelligent man used hitchhiking to shape an incredibly interesting life.
After serving in the Second World War, he legged to California’s southern coast to work and in his off time traveled the coast. The more he traveled, the more he was motivated to dump his job and become a full time journeyman by thumb. With that life change, he did incredible (non-justifying and unbeneficial to the society as it is) things with his life, “traveling 41 times across the U.S., across Europe to Siberia, and all through South America, the ‘World's Slowest Post Office’ hand-delivered letters between cities with similar names: Paris, Texas, and Paris, France; Moscow, Idaho, and Moscow, Russia, and many others. The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times noted his adventures, as did Groucho Marx and Art Linkletter by hosting him on their shows. He also involved tens of thousands of ordinary people, gathering signatures for his World's Longest Birthday Cards to the Constitution of the United States, to Bob Hope and others.” (Mickens, Julie).
He spent the rest of his life recycling to the max and making robots, and even though his record was surpassed years later by a Stephen Burns (completing the trip in nearly a week shorter than Smith) he remains a truly interesting man.
Flashback to the present day, the digital age has provided Americans with more safer and precautionary methods to carry on venturing the open roads through websites such as backseatsurfing.com and zimride.com which allow their users to post rides and for other users to review them as to tell whether the driver is safe or not, reviving a part of the travelling spirit. In present day Europe, annual hitchhiking relays have been organized such as the Route du Soleil in Belgium, which, in 2011, attempted to set the record of highest number of organized hitchhikers with a guest list of 900 participants.
There are many dangers for the hitchhikers of America or any country for that matter, but adventure was always meant to be slightly dangerous. For all the freeloaders out there: thumb on dudes.
© 2015 Sammy Proia