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Thumb's down, not out: New book charts hitchhiking's rise and fall

Thumb's down, not out: New book charts hitchhiking's rise and fall

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The car was a clunker, a real lemon, bought cheaply and on a whim. Still, it was a car, a mode of transportation, a source of freedom and exploration. And that’s what mattered to a young Jack Reid, ready to embrace the romance of the road in his post-collegiate odyssey in far-off New Zealand.

It may have been the early 2000s, but part of Reid, always steeped in history, felt a hankering for the past. He had read Kerouac, listened to early Dylan. He sought adventure, experiences, on the road. And so there he was, sputtering along the highways of New Zealand’s North Island, when he came upon a curious sight, something alien to his modern American eyes.

A hitchhiker. A young guy, couldn’t have been older than Reid, then 22. Had a knapsack. Had long hair. Seemed harmless. Looked kind of like Reid himself. The guy had his thumb out. He wanted a ride. Reid was slightly taken aback, because you just didn’t see hitchhikers anymore in the U.S., at least not the type that looked as if he could be living next door in the dorm. So, he stopped, picked the guy—a German tourist—up and the two shared a conversation and swapped stories.

“By the early 2000s, hitchhiking was so off the radar that no one even talked about it,” Reid recalled. “That’s what struck me in New Zealand, all these people along the road. It’d never crossed my mind to ask a random person for a ride.”

Thus began for Reid an enduring fascination with hitchhiking as a cultural phenomenon and touchstone, and the result is his new book, Roadside Americans: The Rise and Fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation, which delves deeply into the history and mythos of a practice that formerly transcended class, gender and race but now has fallen into such disfavor that it is predominantly associated with indigency.

Reid, a 35-year-old Flagstaff resident who earned his doctorate in history from Northern Arizona University, spent years researching and reporting on the evolution and societal fluctuation of hitchhiking, how in times of domestic strife and crisis the practice became acceptable and common but in a more placid and expansive economic milieu becomes frowned upon, even demonized.

The book weaves together anecdote, interviews and historical record to present a nuanced look not just at hitchhiking’s ebb and flow but the socioeconomic and political reasons behind the shift in public thinking and behavior.

Though here in the second decade of the 21st century, hitchhiking is widely viewed as a sketchy, even dangerous, activity to be avoided by both a potential hitcher and a prospective motorist mulling whether to pull over, it flourished for several decades. Reid makes a direct link between American prosperity and attitudes about hitchhiking—namely, the better the economic and social conditions, the worse it is for those sticking out thumbs.

So, in the so-called Roaring Twenties, hitchhiking was seen as de classe and bad form, something left to tramps and sketchy types. But during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when lives and professions were in flux, even the most upstanding of citizens, men in suits and women in hats and gloves, were lurking roadside asking for a lift—and often received it. One notable thumb-wagger of the period: Ronald Reagan.

The advent of World War II, with concomitant gasoline and tire rationing, arguably saw hitchhiking’s zenith as a socially acceptable practice, not just for soldiers on leave but for women in the workforce. No less a social arbiter than Emily Post gave hitchhiking a thumb’s up, writing that people should give these “defense debutantes” a lift. Then came the flourishing Eisenhower years, the onset of a Cold-War mentality and the rise of suburbia, and suddenly hitchhiking fell out of favor once more, later resurrected in the counterculture era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, only to fade with the rise of Reaganism in the ‘80s and a renewal of a highly polarized populace with sharp class distinctions, which seemingly endures to this day.

If there is a through-line, Reid said, it’s the distinctly American clash of rugged individualism with the hope and need for collective action and sacrifice.

“There’s a very deep strain of individualism in the U.S.,” Reid said. “In fact, it’s a founding tenet in our society. But in certain scenarios when crises develop—and you’re kind of seeing it now with the coronavirus—there’s a sense of rallying together and a sense of civic cooperation. The individual doesn’t go away, but it’s tempered.”

The tone of Roadside Americans is academic more than elegiac, but it does address what society has lost in these days when hitchhiking has become so marginalized as to be considered taboo. Some 40 years has passed since hitchhiking’s last revival, and there are no signs that a comeback in imminent.

“Now, (hitchhiking) is just such a loaded term,” Reid said one mid-March morning in his office at NAU’s Academic Success Center. “It’s so associated with poverty and desperation that, even if you thought it was an interesting idea, you’d still never do it. It has all this baggage of murder and violence and sexual assault that all the kind of middle-class interesting stories have gone out the window.

“That’s what was so interesting writing this book [was] finding the older way of thinking about this. If you grew up in the ‘80s, it was, ‘Oh, never do that.’ Then, when I grew up, it was not even on my radar. But talk to my dad, he’d say, ‘We used to do that in the early ‘70s.’ I’m like, ‘Really, Dad?’”

What does it say about the current climate in America that even the most empathetic among us will think long and hard before pulling over to pick up a hitchhiker, even one who looks and dresses like them?

Reid hesitated before answering. He is a historian, not a social commentator. But his research into the American psyche has led him to some conclusions.

“Individualism has taken over from a sense of civic cooperation,” Reid said. “The conservative movement in the 1980s was able to rejuvenate the economy but also created larger gaps between the wealthy and the poor. Now we’re just more afraid of each other. That greater sense of individualism is fine, but it also has consequences. If we’re only on our own and don’t trust others, you lose something.

“That’s not to say the ‘30s and ‘40s were these perfect times—there were obviously race issues and other problems—but there was a greater sense of trust and cooperation. We’ve lost that. We still trust people, but it’s a much closer circle. If you see a stranger on the corner, you’re not thinking, ‘I bet they’ve got good intentions.’ It’s more like, ‘I don’t even want to look at them.’ So we’ve had breakdown.”

Public perception also has played a major role in hitchhiking’s demise. Throughout the 20th century and beyond, the media has stoked fears about the safety of thumbing for rides. As early as the 1920s, columnists and commentators have criticized hitchhiking practitioners as lazy or dangerous. The height of bad press, seemingly, comes in the 1950s and early ‘60s, in which media reports took a few anecdotes of roadside crime and turned it into an indictment. There were pockets of positive press, such as a 1966 Sports Illustrated story about hitchhiking as sport for young people, but mostly the media has been critical. This, despite there being little to no studies that proves hitchhiking leads to more crime than in the rest of society.

The lack of data “made it harder to write the book,” Reid said. “It’s red meat for some journalists to get swept up in this type of fear, especially after World War II, when anxiety levels rose.”

In the 1950s, the FBI began a campaign to warn people about hitchhiking’s supposed dangers, and, in the decades since, popular culture has cultivated the idea of hitchhiker (or the driver) as axe-wielding murderer.

Reid, who has never hitchhiked himself and admits he doesn’t routinely stop to give rides, isn’t sure another revival is on the horizon.

“It’d have to be new generation of people coming along saying, ‘What the hell is wrong with these people? Why are they so afraid of everyone?’” he said. “Something will have to happen. A crisis. This is not the time because [the coronavirus] is about social distancing. But say it was something similar about a major gas shortage, then I think you’d start to see it out of necessity and people would get more comfortable with the idea again.”

Then, he paused and smiled.

“But my guess, it’s going to be a long while before that happens.”

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Feature Writer, Community/Calendar Editor

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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