Hitchhiking is something that is simply not done these days, at least where I live, but back in the olden days of the 1970s, I used to hitch rides on a regular basis. Lots of us did, as a matter of fact. And I'm not aware of anyone I knew, or that they knew, hitching a ride to their death… or even to an assault.
Hitchhiking was still fairly common in those days. It had begun long before, in the days when few people owned cars. That was a less tormented time of course, before we were trained to see strangers as roving monsters.
To hitch, you'd stand in a safe but visible place at the side of the road, then stick out your thumb and make yourself look harmless. You'd give the person who stopped a good looking over, then get in and go… or occasionally, not.
A typical roadside encounter went like this:
The car stops, and either the driver rolls down the window (not terribly common because a lot of windows had to be manually rolled down) or you open the door.
"Where you going?" asks the driver.
"Peterson and Pulaski," you might say.
"Hop in" the driver says. "I'm going past there."
"Thanks!" you say while climbing in.
Rarely did I fail to get ride within 10 minutes on a busy road. You were especially likely to get a quick ride on days when it was cold, snowy, or rainy.
Hippies were always great rides. They were as likely as not to offer you a smoke, but they really didn't care if you said no. More than that, they were talkative and interesting, and if you were friendly they might go out of their way and take you directly to your destination.
And as I say, I never knew of anyone who had a dangerous ride. I'm sure it must have happened somewhere at some time – among millions of people it could hardly be otherwise – but it was certainly not common. What we learned – and my friends and I definitely compared our experiences – was that most people were fairly cool, if you gave them a chance.
And once we started driving more regularly, we were fairly likely to give people rides as well. We were judicious of course. If there was a large, questionable-looking guy hitching, we'd give him a ride only if there were two or three of us in the car, for example. But we regularly gave rides. In fact, we often slowed down when we saw someone standing in the rain or snow and asked if they needed a ride. And I still do that from time to time, even in the present state of paranoia.
And if you'd like to confront a shocking fact, consider this: Things were a lot more dangerous in my youth than they are today. Take a look:
I haven't seen a hitchhiker in a long time now, which is kind of sad. People trusting and helping one another is a good thing. The reason hitching dried up, of course, is that people are bombarded by fear 24/7 these days. We weren't nearly as traumatized "back in the day."
And given that violent crime was significantly worse in the 1970s, the difference between then and now is pretty clearly attributable to dark propaganda.
Far more important than crime stats is the fact that we learned at a fairly young age to work without a net.
Hitching required you to choose, to act, to judge quickly, to take responsibility for your own safety, and to hold a pallet of options open in your mind. It was to engage yourself fully with other human beings and even more importantly, with strangers.
And there were hurdles to get over. Not only were our parents unhappy about of us hitching, but cops could arrest you for it too. The legal underpinnings for those arrests were pretty shaky, but cops arrested teenagers whenever they liked back then (in some cases still), fearing nothing and with no consequences that I ever heard about.
And so we had to risk the wrath of our parents and the cops, on top of any other dangers.
Before I close, I want to mention a final benefit we gained from hitching. We learned how to trust and how to be trusted. I think those are very important lessons, and I fear that a lot of people miss them these days, under the reign of permanent fear.
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As it turns out, history was never too hard to understand; they just told you the wrong story.
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