It’s 7 a.m. I’m maneuvering along Route 199 and there’s not a soul on the road. The nearest town is 40 miles away in Oregon.
And then I see him, a lone figure, maybe just a couple of years older than me. He carries a cardboard sign with, “WILLAMETTE UNIVERSITY WILL PAY FOR GAS” painted in red.
Homeless? Nay, ’tis a hitchhiker. Man, the rocks this guy must be sporting, I think to myself, to be roughing it on his spring break in the northeast of California, relying on the hope a car will pass by to make it back to campus.
But wait, Willamette is in Salem. Does he know he’s facing the wrong way? Wow, maybe I should tell him to turn arou… Oops, too late.
Jack Kerouac makes the whole idea of hitchhiking in On the Road seem really romantic and badass, as if all of the hip, sensitive, man’s man types who want to see the real America bum rides. In today’s world, though, hitchhikers are rare and seemingly of very little brain, like my directionally disabled Willamette-bound friend. Chances are also that you immediately associate strangers on the road with pederasts and pig fetishists, because we’re taught from an early age not to accept rides from strangers.
Is it possible to hitchhike in this day and age and not come off like a total sketchball? Is Kerouac’s dream still alive somewhere out there? I decided to investigate.
Few objective studies are done on crimes and accidents associated with hitchhiking. Of the ones that have been done, however, none reveal any connection between hitching a ride and violent activity. Perhaps there has just been one too many movies made about psychopaths found on the side of the road? Think of that Budweiser commercial that aired during this year’s Super Bowl, the one with the chainsaw-wielding maniac with a thirst for the lite-est of beer. We are indeed a paranoid, insular generation – one that barely lets children play outside and unsupervised in a gated community.
However, I think the fall of the hitchhiker also has to do with the fact that too many hitchhikers are stupid about it. You can’t just stick out your thumb on any old road — some regions and highways are much more open to picking up people than others. The state of California has no standard legal procedure for nailing hitchhikers, so the laws are vaguely written and open to different interpretations by different areas. Sacramento, for example, busts anyone hitching a ride within 500 feet of an onramp.
Of course, one should think of why such laws exist in the first place. Ultimately, laws are for, you know, your own good. Preventing hitchhikers from doing their thing off busy freeway offramps protects them from being run over.
The general consensus of many within the hitchhiking community is that one of the best places to do it is in Northern California, specifically along the 1 or 101. Not only are the views great, but also, as my Codeoscope for 707s would attest, the people are generally a bunch of good-natured stoners and hippies. Highway 1 is also nice because the speed limit is low, there is always plenty of vehicle traffic, and, unlike most highways, it’s legal to stand on the curb while you’re sticking out your thumb.
Regardless of where you’re trying to hitch a ride, though, do it on the outskirts of town. This decreases your chances of being run over and also increases your chance of getting someone to stop that’s not a policeman.
Finally, there are many things you can do to reduce the sketchiness factor. Afraid of coming off like a rapist? Hitchhike with a female friend. Girl power ensures motorists that you’re not a predator. Afraid people will mistake you for a bum? Then don’t dress like one. How many bums and axe murderers raid the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue?
Or perhaps you’re trying to hitch somewhere far away? You’re just leaving yourself open to the “I’m not going that far” excuse. One hot catchphrase a lot of hitchhikers like to add to their place of destination is “any distance helps,” because it lessens the feeling of commitment on the driver’s part.
So yes, it would appear that hitchhiking lives on. The well-prepared pull it off all the time, in fact. But for God’s sake, face the right side of the road.