The evolution of waiting on the road to waiting on Craigslist
By Isabel Braverman
Gone are the days of Kerouac-inspired hitchhiking frenzies and hippies driving VW vans, picking up teenage stragglers destined for San Francisco. In place of this we now have hitchhiking horror stories and a color-coded security system. If it is true that hitchhiking has become dangerous, where has that sense of trust and camaraderie gone?
Hitchhiking is a topic that many baby boomers discuss with a nostalgic lust for the “good old days.” The youth today, however, look down upon it as an outdated and dangerous form of transportation. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, hitchhiking was seen as not only an adventure, but also a practical way to get from here to there.
So it was for my dad, Larry Braverman, an avid supporter and frequent participator of hitchhiking. When he was 17 years old he hitchhiked from New York City, his hometown, to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Well, he almost made it to the Rocky Mountains. His plan was to go to the Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes, an annual meeting of people who share a like-mindedness for peace and community. But upon seeing the snow-covered mountains, he turned around due to a strong dislike for wintery terrain.
But the path is as exciting as the destination, he said.
“You get to see different cities and meet different people and experience different places,” he said.
This was back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when hitchhiking was the norm. In today’s age, it is becoming more and more frowned upon. Fewer people are hitchhiking, and it is a rare occurrence to see some lonely kid or straggler out on the highway with his thumb pointing west.
However, there are still some people in the new generation who are keeping hitchhiking alive.
One such revolutionary is Dylan Smith, a 20-year-old from UpperBeechwood, N.Y. Smith has been hitchhiking for the past few years and has some epic stories, to say the least. Upper Beechwood is a very small town—“backwards” as Smith explains it, where the people live simply and are friendly enough to pick someone up. Actually, they would probably know each other.
For Smith, hitchhiking was almost ingrained into his mindset.
“My dad was big on hitchhiking, and my whole life growing up he’d always stop and pick people up,” Smith said. “So when I started driving, I would do the same.”
One instance when Smith picked up a hitchhiker turned out to be an experience never to be forgotten. On a hot, 80-degree summer day, Smith stopped to pick up a hitchhiker near Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center, N.Y.—the original site of Woodstock. It was a concert night, so thousands of cars passed him. Smith was the one who picked the hitchhiker up. He was surprised to see what this stranger had with him.
“This guy was a trip, let me tell you,” Smith said. “First of all, he was some Christian guy, and he was telling me I’m a saint and I’m his friend for life. Then he pulls out this drumhead signed by Ringo Starr. I couldn’t believe it; he won it from some radio call-in contest.”
Smith had managed to pick up the kind of guy that religiously calls radio stations to answer trivia questions and win prizes.
“And he had also won two tickets to go see Steely Dan that night, thus why he was walking to Bethel,” Smith said. “Anyway, he said I could have the extra ticket. I couldn’t believe my luck.”
It is not unusual to form friendships when hitchhiking. My father made a friend for life on the off-chance that he picked up some guy holding his thumb out on a busy highway.
“On a highway exit I saw this hippie-looking guy with a sign, and I picked him up,” Braverman said. “We started talking, and we got along with each other. He was looking to live up in New England. I told him I live next to Connecticut. I said, ‘You can come stay with us if you want and see if you like it there.’”
He ended up staying for five years.
With this new age of technology that we live in, it is no surprise things have changed since the 1960s, and hitchhiking is no exception. Just as friendships can be formed online via Facebook and other such Web sites, so can hitchhiking connections. Craigslist offers a rideshare component where users post places they are going and see if someone needs a ride there and can split the gas—basically online hitchhiking. Smith used this service to hitch a ride from Ithaca to New York City when he was a student at TC3 in Dryden.
Smith said he started checking out Craigslist a week before he wanted to go, and got in contact with a man named Bryan who said he was driving down to the city in his VW camper.
“So I’m expecting a dude in his 60s, some hippy. I was wrong. The guy pulls up to TC3 and he’s about 30 and clean-cut—his hair was really short, shaven,” Smith said.
Smith said they hadn’t talked much until they stopped to get food at a diner in Pennsylvania. Fox News was on, and they started talking about the election.
“We talked about people and how we, the two of us, we’re kind of like crusaders in a way,” he said. “You know, not many people do what we were doing in terms of just meeting up and driving, two strangers. We talked about that for a long time. It was interesting and relieving for me. We both had the same thoughts about it, how people in our society in 2008 wouldn’t ever think about doing what we were doing. It was cool.”
Smith is right—not many people hitchhike in this day and age. Although there is no conclusive research to prove it, there is a generalization that hitchhiking is dying down, and the hitchhiking culture from the ‘60s is no more. Let Kerouac roll in his grave. And as my dad said, it just fizzled out. But why?
Horror stories of violence and rape happening to innocent and unsuspecting hitchhikers have been told around the world. David Sedaris wrote an essay in his book Naked about a time he was hitchhiking when a man held him at gunpoint. Sedaris escaped, but only after being chased through the woods by the maniac.
It is not only in modern times that hitchhiking dangers have occurred. When my dad was younger he said a man who picked him up tried to molest him. These two came away alive, but others have not been so fortunate.
A tragic case of hitchhiking gone wrong ocurred in the 1950s when William “Billy” Cook went on a mass murdering spree. He murdered six people, all of whom picked him up hitchhiking. His victims included the entire Mosser family—a husband, wife and three children. If true stories like these aren’t enough to scare people away from hitchhiking, horror movies can do the job. Texas Chainsaw Massacre anyone?
Hitchhiking laws vary from state to state, and although it is legal in every state to hitchhike, some laws make it seem like it isn’t. For instance, law UVC 11-507(a) states, “No person shall stand in a roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride.” However, a roadway is the driving lane of a highway, so it is legal to stand on the edge of a road and solicit a ride.
Although hitchhiking has a free and easy nostalgia about it that lures the likes of college students, it is not to be taken lightly. Precautions must be taken in order to ensure safety. For a guide to all things hitchhiking, check out the Web site digihitch.com.
Smith is an example of how people can trust each other enough to get in a car with one another, just like he did when sharing a ride to NYC with Bryan.
“It’s calming to know that people still can trust other humans,” Smith said. “How people can live their entire lives and not have much interaction with strangers, yet here we are, driving 250 miles together, complete strangers.”
When done properly and safely, hitchhiking and ridesharing can be an epic experience. The notion of sharing a car, a very personal space, with someone can be enlightening. The world may be a dangerous place, but there are times when strangers can peacefully share a slice of their lives together and it doesn’t seem so scary.
“People raise their kids telling them to never talk to, let alone trust, strangers,” Smith said. “We were both trusting each other with our lives. It was a feeling… I don’t know how to describe it, I really don’t.”
Isabel Braverman is a sophomore journalism major with the coolest dad on earth. Seriously. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.