The Lost Art of Hitch-hiking

Earlier this year I had the good fortune of scoring an offensively cheap flight anywhere in the world, at a time when my lab was closing for a month. I made the obvious choice for any financially challenged individual who’d read On the Road with a little too much enthusiasm. I jetted off to California to hitch-hike around and just, you know… see what would happen.

I ended up catching close to a dozen lifts and covering hundreds of miles. Here are some of the things I learnt about this ancient art form.

1. The First Time Feels Extremely Awkward. And Actually, Is This Even Legal?

“There’s no way you can wait by the road,” Neil told me with concern, adjusting his glasses.“You’ll absolutely get picked up by the Highway Patrol. You’ll have to get a lift at an on-ramp.” Neil was a 40-year old film studies tutor and part-time body builder. He was my couchsurfing host in Santa Barbara. At the time his generosity had baffled me. Looking back, it still does.

I had decided to go to to San Francisco to meet up with some old friends.

We said farewell and I trekked off. Eventually I found the on-ramp he had recommended, which came off a busy intersection. It was short and narrow, and had no emergency lane for cars to pull over. I grimaced, walked halfway up the ramp and hauled my pack over the outer barricade to wait behind it. Hundreds of cars driving through the intersection could see me there, smiling awkwardly with my silly thumb in the air. As car after car zoomed past, rejection blossomed in my heart. I prickled with embarrassment and anxiety. I was constantly expecting angry honks. Was this even legal? Would somebody call the police?

Thankfully, it was only about five minutes until a red-haired Scottish anthropology student pulled over. He tossed his skateboard off the passenger seat to make space and invited me to hop in.

So folks, stick with it. It gets easier each time, and pretty soon you’ll even be disregarding the “pedestrians prohibited” signs. As for the legality, I still have no idea.

Your attitude by the second or third wait

2. “The Good Thing About Hitch-hiking Is That the Assholes Drive Right on By”

Surely no truer words have been written about hitch-hiking than this quote of obscure origins (the best I could do was trace it back to a tweet from 2009).

The people who stopped to give me lifts – all of them complete strangers – are amongst the kindest I’ve ever met. An old hippie woman from Santa Maria rang her son to see if him or any of his friends were driving to San Francisco and could take me. A Chinese tourist invited me to stay with his family in their camper van overnight. A primary school teacher took me for freaking clam chowder with her son, and refused to let me pay anything. I was offered cheese and fruit and beer and weed. People drove miles out of their way to get me to where I was going. Everyone gave advice and helped explain their crazy country.

Hitch-hiking is also a doorway into humanity. You’ll meet people on the road, men and women, young and old, who you would simply never cross paths with in any other situation. I got a lift with an ex-Woodstock rocker cum CEO/evangelical Christian. I was picked up by a travelling circus performer in a van filled with fire sticks, costumes and a bird cage. I rode in a huge Corona delivery truck with a DJ from the Philippines. I met a biochemistry student my age – she’d just been robbed by a stripper in Tijuana and nearly arrested for peeing in an alley.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t meet a single asshole.

3. Other Hitch-hikers Are Your Enemies

The Scottish anthropology student was only going a few miles back to his college. He dropped me outside Isla Vista where, about two weeks later, Elliot Rodger would roll through the streets on his murderous rampage.

I walked to the nearest on-ramp. It was wide and almost deserted, save for a man in a dirty black dress shirt. He was sitting lackadaisically by the road with a sign that read simply, “NORTH.” The social convention in this situation was unclear to me, so I picked a spot to stand by myself. He came over and slumped down beside me.

The man was filthy and sullen. He told me he was a British programmer who’d spent the past eight months slumming around Mexico, designing venues’ websites in exchange for board and food. He said he’d been robbed in L.A. He had no plans for where he was going, and no idea where he was.

Cars passed every few minutes, but no one pulled over. It annoyed him that I kept putting my thumb in the air. “If they’re going to stop, they’ll stop,” he said from his ball on the ground. I gradually began to worry. It was hard enough to get picked up alone, but this guy was dead weight. He said he’d already been here a couple of hours. I couldn’t imagine anyone being saintly enough to stop for both of us, so I decided to bail.

I lied that I was going back to town to get a bus. I actually just wanted to find an on-ramp away from him. Somehow though, in the brief exchange, I accidentally convinced him it would be a good idea to walk to the next town, and with that he was off. I stayed at our spot, and ten minutes later a chubby grocery store manager was pulling over and opening the door for me.

Wisdom from the ‘60s suggested that guys would get picked up quicker if they had a lady with them, and ladies might feel safer having a guy with them. So with the possible exception of that symbiotic arrangement, avoid other hitch-hikers. It’s just like in evolution – competition is always greatest between members of the same species.

4. Get Your Strategy On

There’s no such thing as a free ride – even in hitch-hiking. Although there’s no money involved, you are actually paying with your services. You’re offering conversation and companionship to people who are bored or lonely or friendly. You’re providing a bit of juice for their altruism meter and a splash of spice for their lives. A lot of people have never picked up a hitch-hiker before, so you might even be offering them a new experience.

It’s a thin market though. This means that you’ve got to polish your product and put in the effort to sell it. Otherwise, you risk waiting around for hours like our British programmer friend.

There’s an excellent site called Hitchwiki which has a bunch of psychology and advice for hitch-hiking. I highly recommend checking it out before you hit the road. Some of the best tools in my experience were:

– Make eye contact with approaching drivers, and smile! You’ve only got a few seconds to make a connection, and not much can beat a smiling face.

– Wear light-coloured clothes. The association of light with Good and dark with Evil is deeply entrenched in the human psyche, and people act on irrational associations when they only have a second to think.

One driver also pointed out a practical side to clothing colour – light colours show off dirt. If your clothes are light-coloured and still clean, it’s much less likely that you’re a murdering alcoholic vagrant, and drivers will feel safer about you.

– Have your hands and arms visible and, if weather permits, wear short sleeves. This exploits the same hard-wired human instinct that smiling works on, the instinct to quickly infer the intentions of a stranger. In this case you’re displaying that you’re not armed, which is something drivers subconsciously check for.

– Bring a light book (no Gone with the Wind or anything by Dostoyevski). Not only will it keep you entertained during the dull spells when no cars are going past, but it will show that you are a civilised and learned individual, exactly the kind of person a driver would want for a conversant.

The jury is still out on whether a sign is a good idea. Some people swear by it, but one driver told me it deters her from stopping because of the strong association between cardboard signs and “panhandlers”.

5. People Who’ve Never Done It Will Try to Dissuade You

I was in Davis, sweating it out in the hot sun as I crossed a bridge over the freeway. A couple of figures slowly approached from the other side of the bridge, pushing mountain bikes up the slope. They had crisp white shirts, name tags – Jehovah’s Witnesses. With big smiles they bid me good day and asked what I was up to. I told them.

“Hitch-hiking?!” They were aghast. “Didn’t you hear the fifties ended?” The irony of their statement surprised me too much to reply.

This is the kind of response that I got from everybody though. “No one does it,” “I’d be so worried about getting murdered,” “It’s not the eighties anymore,” etc. Even some of the lift-givers were in awe of my ostensible bravery. The reason is that everybody has a hitch-hiking horror story, and everybody knows how dangerous hitch-hiking is. Or is it?

Unfortunately it’s difficult to say, because there’ve been no reliable studies conducted into the safety or prevalence of the practice. However, one biased source (take a pinch of salt) has looked at FBI data and calculated that your likelihood of being killed or raped while hitch-hiking is a whopping <drum roll>… 0.0000089%. Whether or not this is accurate, it does seem clear that you’re far more likely to die from falling over than being murdered on the road, and you’re overwhelmingly more likely to die in a common road accident.

It’s well established that humans are exceedingly bad at assessing risk. I have a hypothesis that riskiness is perceived most strongly when situations are outside of our control. Think of shark attacks, airplane crashes, terrorist attacks and hitch-hiker murders. Ironically, the things that are most likely to kill us are all partially or wholly within our control – see: road accidents, smoking and obesity.

So why did the noble art of hitch-hiking atrophy? Some plausible theories have been advanced. All I would add is a speculation that the idea of hitch-hiking being dangerous may have become a self-reinforcing cultural trope. As we all know, rock stars trash hotel rooms, scientists trigger zombie apocalypses, and hitch-hikers get murdered. As fear of hitch-hiking grew in the ’80s and ’90s and fewer and fewer people were doing it, there were fewer positive stories circulating amongst social circles, leaving only the rare grisly tales of attacks to be heard.

So I say to you: shun the naysayers. Yes you’re taking a risk, but you do that every time you leave your house. The risk involved in hitch-hiking is quite low, and the potential rewards massive. However…

6. Be More Prepared than I Was

The Pacific Ocean roared and crashed on the rocks below, and to my right mighty hills climbed steeply away. I was hiking along the deserted Highway 1, guided by the light of the thousands of stars twinkling overhead. I had fucked up.

Back in San Luis Obispo I had hopped into a camper van with the Chinese family mentioned earlier. They barely spoke any English. I soon figured out that the reason they’d picked me up was so I could share driving shifts. I felt pretty guilty when they discovered that I was Australian and not used to driving on the right-hand side of the road.

I had been figuring on getting a lift directly to San Francisco via the 101. They were taking the scenic coastal route though and planning to spend the night in Monterey. What the heck, I thought. It was an adventure, and the scenic route wasn’t too much further.

Four hours later the sun had set and some of the group had become worried about driving in the dark. After a complex debate in Mandarin which I understood nothing of, they pulled over at a tiny roadhouse in the middle of nowhere to spend the night. We shared dinner, and I declined the man’s invitation to share his tiny bed. You can only accept so much hospitality. I cheerfully headed off into the dark, assuming I’d flag someone down.

Almost two hours of later, only three northbound cars had passed by, and I was somewhat glad they hadn’t stopped. I looked so scary hiking alone out here in the middle of nowhere, surely only a murderer would’ve taken their chances with me.

Luckily, just when I was about to give up and sleep in the ditch by the road, I found a camping ground and got to spend the night on my towel under a tree. That should be a separate point: always know where you towel is. It was so cold by the ocean though that, even cocooned up in all the clothes I had, I was shivering and miserable within an hour. I didn’t sleep a wink that night, and I left the next morning with a much greater appreciation of how awful it must be to be homeless.

So, be prepared! There are lots of things I could’ve done better in retrospect. Starting early in the day is a big one. Obviously most people driving long distances get an early start, so if you wait til even midday, your chances of a nice long ride drop significantly.

Bring water. Bring a sleeping bag if there’s any chance of getting stranded. And if you’re somewhere unfamiliar, get a map! I relied solely on Google maps and 3G. This, combined with my crappy phone battery, ensured I had plenty of stop-offs at roadside McDonald’s to charge my phone and eat shameful, shameful, delicious $2 cheeseburgers.

7: Craigslist: Bringing Hitchhiking into the Twisted 21st Century

Or: Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures.

While it’s not technically hitch-hiking, I feel this modern iteration of the ancient art form deserves addressing. Although rideshares are organised in advance, and the driver typically asks to split petrol costs, you’re still essentially riding with a stranger.

Toward the end of my trip I’d wound up in Portland and had two days to get to L.A. to catch my flight home. I weighed up the variables and decided that hitch-hiking was just too risky. I couldn’t afford to get stuck in some desolate stretch of wilderness again. Greyhound buses were an option, but they’re surprisingly expensive not to mention slow. So a friend suggested the dark third option: the rideshares section of Craigslist.

Craigslist is 100% anonymous, meaning it’s 100% dodgy. If you were a maniac who wanted to murder someone, I guarantee that you wouldn’t bother roaming the roads looking for one these days. You’d just stick a rideshare ad on Craigslist.

I posted a friendly ride request, remembering to include a photo of my smiling self and plenty of details. The clientele soon revealed its reliability as offers rolled in for wrong days and even different destinations to what I’d specified. Eventually though some guy got in touch and he at least had the basics straight.

As the planning conversation unfolded, the anonymous messenger revealed an increasingly creepy side. Things culminated in him suggesting we get a motel room together. Ahh, petrol money AND free gay sex. Ambitious, sir.

I abandoned that option and instead agreed to a ride with a girl about my age who said she was a friendly and seasoned hitch-hiker herself.

Seasoned she was. She had spent the last eight years of her life with no fixed address, endlessly criss-crossing the country with friends and strangers, going wherever life and the road took her. She had recently gotten out of jail in West Virginia for possession of weed. With her newfound freedom she had immediately driven to Oregon to get work at the weed harvest, then had headed up to Portland to break into the stripping scene (with great success).

I recognised the valuable life sample size that she represented. I asked, in all her time hitch-hiking, had she had any scary or bad experiences? Steering down the freeway with one hand, taking a puff of her joint, she considered for a moment. “There was this one truckie guy who made an inappropriate suggestion. I just said I wasn’t interested though, and he let it go.” So there you have it from the horse’s mouth. Hitch-hiking could even be nicer than public transport.

I ended up becoming Facebook friends and penpals with several of the colourful and crazy people whom I hitched lifts from. Honestly, it was one of the best parts of the entire trip. So I say to you, as long as you come prepared, and make sure you always know where your towel is, hitch-hiking could just be the highlight of your next unexpected journey.