Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Death of Hitchhiking, the Death of Trust?

In the short time of twenty-five years an entire cultural phenomenon has disappeared in America. I grew up seeing hitchhikers on the road in California. I'm not old enough to be a real hippie, I didn't graduate from High School until 9 years after the "Summer of Love," but still in 1976 I could stick my thumb out, and hitch a ride to the beach.

I didn't begin to attend church for another 4 years. When I did attend church I remember discussions with friends who felt guilty for not picking up hitchhikers. This was fairly common to talk about after a church service, and in fact in came up in an occasional sermon late as the early 80's.

How is it that a culture which once freely offered rides with little fear and great hospitality lost the institution of hitchhiking in a short 25 years?

People say that this is due to society growing more dangerous. I am not sure that people are significantly more dangerous than they were in 1967, 1976, or 1980. Perhaps the release of the HBO series The Hitchhiker shown from 1983 to 1991 was instrumental in creating fear through its chilling tales, as well as the 1986 movie The Hitcher. Maybe a few real life examples like the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders, or a few urban myths about hitchhikers (like the hairy armed hitchhiker) helped kill the practice of standing by the roadside, and thumbing a ride.

I for one am saddened by the loss of this simple, and noble institution of the Hitchhiker. He has gone the way of the Hobos who ran the rails from one side of the country to the other.

At some point hitchhiking became an anti-social behavior, and consequently most of the hitchhikers were anti-social individuals. Has it therefore become a self-fulfilling prophecy that hitchhiking has become more dangerous?

I wonder what hope such a fearful society has in passing love from person to person. The 60's brought freedom and the "Summer of Love." How is it that since then society has grown more sexual, less loving, and less trusting?

My desire to share God's love means I need to find a way to develop relationships of trust in a society of growing mistrust. Have I got my thumb in wrong place thinking that it might still be possible?


Agent B said...

Yeah, real shame about the vanishing hitch hiker culture.

But rest assured...riding the rails (ie: hobo culture) is alive and well.

Maybe not "well". But alive. It's more insane and dangerous than hitch hiking will ever be.

But riding the rails is still a form of transportation amongst the homeless culture. Of course, it's illegal (trespassing) and you can get killed easier than hitch hiking. Then there's FTA (Freight Train-riders of America), a gang that would gladly gang up on you and throw you off the tracks into the desert just for your backpack.

I'm not making the FTA part up.

How's that for fear mongering?

Pastor Phil said...

Hey B Buddy,

Yeah I know there are still railriders around, but not as many as there used to be. The same is true for hitchhikers as well. They are out there, but few and rare.

There are also some more honest train hoppers - check out

There's a good basic history of hobos at:

Shiloh Guy said...

I noticed this same thing not too long ago. When I was attending Long Beach City College in 1971-72 I hitchhiked to school. I just walked a couple blocks to the main drag that ran straight to the college and stuck out my thumb with my briefcase in the other hand. I never stood there more than five minutes.

I remember when it was a patriotic duty to pick up a serviceman who was hitchhiking.

I had a cousin who was murdered by a hitchhiker.

When my dad was 12 (1943) he and his 14 year old brother hitchhiked from Flint, MI to Cambridge, OH. Can you imagine allowing your 12 year old to hitchhike cross country?

Talk about stream of consciousness!


Pastor Phil said...


Your life experiences run the gamut of good to grossly evil in the arena of hitchhiking. You, and your family are an example of the transition of our culture, and the loss of trust modeled thorugh the hitchhiker.

Thank you for being willing to share your stories.

Steve Hayes said...

It's the same in South Africa, and perhaps worldwide. I can't remember exactly when it disappeared, perhaps some time in the mid-1970s or 1980s, but it's gone now.

I think it's the rising crime rate. There are more parts of town where people just don't walk any more either. In my youth i used to walk around downtown Johannesburg or Durban, alone or with friends. Now people would think you are mad to do that. Mugging is on the rise, so is hijacking, and I think the latter is the reason people don't pick up hitchhikers.

When cellphones were new here, people used to stop on the side of the freeway, pretend their car was broken down, and when someone stopped to help ask if they could borrow their cellphone to call a friend/towtruck, and then they were into the car and gone.

Anonymous said...

I hitch-hiked often in 1978-79. Went from Atlanta to DC in one ride. Took three days to go from Atlanta to Key West on a different trip. My last trip was in 1979, Boone, NC back to DC. Took about six rides and a long 16 hour day.

The hospitality thing? I pick up folks walking around town who don't have their thumb out--especially if they are walking away from a car on the side of the road or are a college student walking in the rain.

Two years ago on a cross-state driving trip, I picked up a man who spoke as if hitchhiking were his profession. He was clean but very weathered for his stated 45 years. He looked the part. I enjoyed his company during the last two hours of my trip. He didn't mind going where I was going. It didn't matter to him.

However when we pulled into my town about an hour before sundown, he wanted to go on to the other side town and a main road out. He said our town looked too wealthy and it would be hard for him to stay the night. He wanted to catch another ride before dark and get to the next town in the next state for the night.

Funny how the wealth of my town looked unhospitable to him!

Maybe the lessening of trust is related to the increase in affluence, eh? We have more and are more guarded because our trust overall has nothing to with a loving God and everything to do with accumulating more of the stuff that rusts and gets stolen, or worse, we lose by death.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Steve,

I see a rising crime rate from the 60's and 70's but I also wonder if it is related to our improving abilities to track such information.

I think pculture is getting more violent, but can it be true? The 20th century was the bloodiest century in the last 700 years. Are we getting worse, or just finally recognizing the violence which has been in our culture for the last 100 years?

Perhaps good people doing things like hitchhiking (or similar activities) is the only way to make these lost cultural experiences return. But, of course, that won't happen.

Pastor Phil said...


I love your observations on the lessening of trust connected to our growing wealth, and our attachment to the things we own (or own us.)

May the Hitchhikers for Jesus unite! Okay we could get rid of the Hitchhikers for Jesus title, and come up with something cooler name - any ideas?

Steve Hayes said...


I don't think it is just a general crime increase, but specifically an increase in vehicle hijacking.

I believe the term "hijacking" first appeared in the 1930s in the US, when it was usually done to grab consignments of bootleg liquor during prohibition -- the thieves weren't after the vehicles themselves.

In the 1960s it was used for air piracy, but again, that was not after the aircraft itself.

But it has increased markedly in the last 25 years or so, and I suspect that it goes hand-in-hand with the development in technology of anti-theft devices. So I think that what goes through drivers' minds is "Hitchhiker or hijacker?", and they don't take chances any more.

Dave Lynch said...

'Thumbing a Ride' is still alive and well in the Highlands of Scotland, especially during the summer months, I sometimes use it myself.

Good tip to stop a crazed knife man chopping you into little bits and feeding you to the hedgehogs (British spiky mammal) is to let them know when you get in the car that you are texting their plate number to a friend, if it is a genuine driver they will not mind, whereas if it is Angus the Axeman he will have second thoughts.


Pastor Phil said...


I like your little poke at the Sinner's Prayer on your Micah78 blog.

I think if I don't move to Wales someday, I'll have to move to the Scottish Highlands so I can return to hitchhiking.

I thought you'd were going to tell me to carry a broad sword into the hitchhiking experience you Highlander. ;-)

Steve Hayes said...

Hey Phil, I recently moved my "Notes from Underground" blog from Blogger to WordPress, and ewas checking some old posts to see what was worth keeping, and found this post The vanishing hitchhiker | Notes from underground that linked to yours, and was so glad to find that the link worked. So many now don't, and many blogs have been deleted, so I was glad to find that yours is still here. What happened to JJ the Smu - he's still around, but no longer blogging. And so many others too.

Pastor Phil said...

Hi Steve,

I talked with John Smulo (JJ the Smu) a few weeks back. I miss his blogging as well. Just before he stopped, he had changed his blog address. I saw something recently, and was wondering if was ramping up some energy to write again.