Sunday, February 13, 2011


Note: Commenting fixed

Thumbing a ride was already considered low class by my teen years. Not too long before, servicemen regularly hitched rides and no one thought the less of them for it, but by the late 60's, middle class parents had the double horror of both danger and "looking like some bum" regarding hitchhiking. College students, especially those of a hippie bent, still engaged in it, and it was almost required of actual hippies. Unless you had a VW of course, in which case it was your duty to pick up hitchhikers. Additionally (though overlappingly), lowlifes of various sorts also hitched.

In the context of another story I recalled my hitching back and forth from Virginia to Massachusetts during college, remembering something of the practical knowledge one simply acquired by experience and word of mouth. Distance hitchhiking was different from thumbing to work or within your own region. Different strategies, different rules. Locally, you could display some easily-recognised identifier that you were a counselor at a local camp, attended a local college, or worked at one of the ski areas or local tourist venues. Hikers in the White Mountains still hitchhike back to their cars and locals pick them up. Such identifications improved your chances of getting a ride, as they were a reassurance.

For traveling any distance, there were decisions to be made about appearance and especially signs. Pieces of cardboard had two sides, and you wanted the best two destinations out as choices. If you were trying to get out to the interstate, your sign that said "Boston" might actually be a put-off in rural Virginia. You needed over 600 miles in all, but the first fifty and the last fifty were often the hardest. Like the train, actually. Locals wouldn't figure that their ten-mile lift was going to help you much, so they wouldn't bother. And you were a damn Yankee college student, probably a faggot from William and Mary anyway. "I-95" would work better. But that wouldn't do you much good once you got to Richmond and I-95, would it?

Once on I-95 you had two pools of potential lifts, and a different sign would work for each, so you just took your chances. "Boston" was a place people recognised as a long way off and up north, even if they had only the vaguest idea where it actually was, so you could get rides that told you "I can get you to the other side of DC," which was great. Progress over a hundred miles was always good news.

But even "Boston" could put you out of the running for a really solve-all-your-problems ride to eastern Massachusetts, because there were folks who would stop for someone closer to their actual town, like Sudbury or Newton, but not for a generic "Boston," because then you could be from just anywhere. Lawrence or Revere or something else unseemly. But if your sign said "Sudbury," nobody in Maryland knew where the heck that was and would drive on.

There were people who would pick up anyone, even if they were only taking you a few miles on, just for pity or for company - or some annoying pathology of their own. And it was standard knowledge that girls got rides more easily - because of pity, company, or pathology - so having a girl along was an advantage. Or so I'd heard. None of my female friends were hitchhikers, except for the one shyest, most overprotected girl, who hitchhiked all summer the mile back and forth to the beach where her family vacationed. I still can't picture that, really. Whole 'nother story. Regarding female hitchhikers in general, I only rode with them when some magical person would stop and pick up a whole slew of people standing at an exit.

It offended my sense of honesty, but I found that a sign reading "New Hampshire" worked better, even when I was actually going to Massachusetts. I was actually from NH and identified more with it - my family had moved to MA right after my highschool graduation and I had few ties to Sudbury. Twice in the four years I got a long ride from someone who ordinarily didn't pick up hitchers, but saw that NH sign and figured I must be all right. Wanted to know right away exactly where I was from and both times, we identified people we knew in common quickly. (Even then I knew people from all over the state and remembered their geography.) One ride from outside Wilmington, and one in north Jersey. Our tribal instincts kicking in again. I went more than an hour with both before I confessed I really wasn't going all the way to NH. And heck, if they had somehow signaled that it was important, a ride from Wilmington to Manchester would have been great and I would just have kept my mouth shut.

Still lots of stories to go about thumbing, but I don't think I'll tell them. The psychology of signs was really all I wanted to cover.


Dubbahdee said...

I am the youngest of 6 brothers. I recall some of the older boys having to hitch a ride to school if they missed the bus (late 60's early 70s). My own experience with hitchiking took place when I was 33 walking from GA to ME on the Appalachian Trail. I would regularly hitch a ride from the trail into town to resupply. My wife and I walked together for the first 500 miles and I can attest that it was easier to get rides when she was with me. To compensate for her absence, I always took off my bandana, sunglasses, and kept my pack in front of me to identify myself as a hiker. In addition, I developed a special dance to attract attention and a smile. It may have put off some, but it attracted others -- if you want I will describe further.
Among my most memorable -- on Rt 4 east of Rutland VT directly across from the Long Trail Inn, I took my longest stand of 1/2 hour waiting for a ride just down the road to the Post Office. A lady picked me up, and when asked where I was headed, I pointed to the PO, a mile away down the hill and within site. She said, "You're kidding. You could WALK there." I replied, "Ma'am, I have walked 1800 miles to get to this point. I really don't feel like walking that particular mile if you don't mind and I really don't feel like I have anything to prove to you. Would you mind giving me a lift?"
I was feeling a mite testy. She gave me the ride anyways. A bit grudgingly, but a ride is a ride.
I pick up hitchikers whenever I can. I have a special empathy.

Gringo said...

I did a lot of hitching.It was my primary form of transport for years. I have hitched cross country in 3 days. Driving 90 MPG in Nevada cuts down the driving time! Time was you could average 40 MPH hitching.

The most noteworthy sign I made was in West TX. I got let out at night where I-10 and I-20 split. I slept the night and after several hours in the morning in 90-100 degree heat, without having had any water for about 12 hours, I was getting mighty thirsty.

There was no water for miles, as it was in the middle of nowhere. There is a lot of nowhere in West TX.

I made a sign that said "WATER." In a short time, someone stopped and gave me a bottle of water. They couldn't give me a ride- lack of space IIRC- but I surely appreciated the water.

With the same sign I got a ride fairly soon, for 600 miles.

A family friend told me that in the 1930s, everyone in their rural area hitched, females included. Not everyone had a car back then.

Gringo said...

That would be "driving 90 MPH in Nevada."

Texan99 said...

I hitched quite a lot when I was a kid. I don't think I had any real understanding of how dangerous it could be -- but in any case I never ran into anyone who didn't treat me right. Most often I hitched with others, boys and girls. I like picking up hitchhikers myself, but I'm somewhat afraid. I won't do it if I'm alone.

Kitten said...

OT, other than speaking of comments being fixed, I wanted to thank you for linking to my post earlier but wasn't able to on the post in question and wasn't sure of the etiquite regarding such things.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Sorry I haven't linked more, but I've not linked to much of anyone recently. Brain just not working right. When son #4 is safely in Norway and working, I may get myself back.