AMERICANS DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS ANYMORE
A college friend inspired this thought/memory: there was a time in my life when hitchhiking was a viable option. When Americans were not intrinsically fearful of strangers. Was it dangerous for both parties? Of course, it was. But in a sense, it was a leap of faith. One that some Americans took by nature.
My best friend and I thumbed rides home from bars in Providence countless times as teenagers. Occasionally we were even picked up by people we knew!
Personally, I hitched home once from Chicago to Attleboro, MA at the end of a Grateful Dead tour. My rides ranged from a nervous housewife who admitted she wasn't sure why she pulled over for me and then admonished me to get my life together to a man who admitted to me he’d been the first to find his wife after a failed suicide attempt. He just wanted someone to talk to.
I had to threaten one man with causing a crash when he told me the only road to salvation for me lied at his church in Memphis and that was where he planned on taking me. We shook hands at a rest area when it was he who saw the light when he finally pulled over and let me out. He said he’d pray for me. I hope that he still does.
My last ride on that trip from Chicago was from three girls at the New York- Massachusetts border on Interstate 90. They were heading for Great Woods in Mansfield, MA (essentially home for me, a mere 3 or 4 miles away from where I grew up) to see Crosby, Stills & Nash. I told them I'd just seen CSN open a bunch of shows for the Dead and they not only gave me a ticket to the show and got me high but the driver left the keys to her car under her bumper so I could get my backpack out if I caught a ride before the show ended.
I called my Mom - collect from a pay phone in those ancient pre-cellular days - and told her where I was. I gathered my gear and put the keys back under the bumper, then left a gift for those generous girls that I'd been handed on the Great Woods lawn. My Mom came and fetched me, getting out of the car to give me a hug, telling me she loved me and that I smelled awful.
I walked into the house and my Dad rose from his chair with a book and a baseball game having occupied his attention. With a smile he greeted me. "The happy wanderer!,” he proclaimed. "Want a beer?"
I gave him a hug and he reasserted my Mom's evaluation that I truly smelled bad as she reheated some sloppy joes (always incredible under her hand) and I recounted my nearly 1,000-mile trip. He laughed at my anecdotes, shook his head in stunned reaction to some of the characters I'd encountered and pointed out big events in the game he'd been watching.
The reason I recount this - the reason I go back to this now - is that my Dad's underlying sentiment was simply: "Glad you're home. Glad you had fun." And, he trusted I could do both in that America.
Americans did not fear other Americans then. I fully understand that it was a dangerous gambit. Fuck, I traveled with a screwdriver readily accessible at all times should somebody mess with me on a ride or a roadside nap. I knew what I was getting myself into. I did it willingly, with my thumb up on the side of the road.
We have not only divided but we have defined one and other. Who do we pick up? Who do we leave by the side of the road? Who is worthy of a ride? Who do we fly by and smugly define as unworthy of a little help?
I am not advocating that hitchhiking come back into vogue. For anyone who might possibly romanticize it I can assure you it also involved literally miles of walking, though that was also a time for introspection or shared recollection (on long hauls it was always easier to hitch solo). It was a dangerous gamble: I know that now and I knew it then.
But, I also knew my nation was more willing to take an admittedly risky chance on a stranger then. And, today that is gone in more ways than just some long-haired kid standing on the side of the road looking for a lift.
That scares me more than any stranger's car I ever got in.