Monday, November 12, 2012

Thumbs Up

I read an interesting article in the New York Times over the weekend. Ginger Strand, the author, tackles the subject of hitchhiking and suggests that "hitching didn't die a natural death--it was murdered." She contends that in this depressed economy, and this polarized nation, hitching a ride just might be a way to reduce our carbon footprints and bring us together as a nation. An interesting notion, especially coming from one who has written a book on the interstate highway system with a most revealing title: Killer on the Road:Violence and the American Interstate. Strand is quick to point out that despite the fear, despite the sensational emphasis in media on serial killers and psychopaths on the loose, most people and most families are safe on their yearly road trips. Probably so...if one is careful and mindful and alert. Still, I don't think we're headed for a resurgence of hitchhiking anytime soon. If that remains to be seen, what is clear is that I've been thinking about that time when to hitchhike was fairly spontaneous and fairly safe. The 1960s and 70s was just such a time. Certainly even then, there was always a little anxiety, especially hitching a ride alone, or picking up a hitchhiker while driving alone. But, as I recall, that was rare, people hitched rides in pairs and picked up riders even with a car full of people. What's one more?
A couple of memorable experiences come to mind. Living in Berkeley in the 70s made hitching a ride a viable option. All manner of Volkswagen bugs and vans went up and down University Ave. or Telegraph Ave. all day and all night. I literally stepped off my front porch one early afternoon in 1972 and saw a car approaching up the street to the right of my house. I leaped off the stoop, jutting my thumb in the air, and had a ride to the campus before I hit the ground. Sometimes, it was that simple. Often, when friends and I scored concert tickets, while grad students without cars, we'd hitchhike to the venue. No parking fee, though we'd offer to pay the parking of our driver. Thousands must have hitchhiked to concerts by Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Boz Scaggs or the Stones. I remember driving back to the Bay Area from Denver, Colorado once. I was with my girlfriend at the time. When we got to the ungodly stretch that is Nevada, we chanced upon a lone woman hitching a ride on the desert Interstate. We offered her the back of my VW squareback and she piled in, relieved to be out of the sun. That was back in '75 so no air conditioning. Suddenly something flew in the open window and chaos ensued. First I thought it was a bat, but it turned out to be an enormous dragon fly. Turned out to be a good laugh too. Good thing not too many folks out there that afternoon on the road. We swerved a bit before that big bug went on his way. I even went on a date where hitchhiking was the only means of transportation. Her name was Kay, she was beautiful and we met at a party. She, like me, loved horses and we decided to go riding at Pt. Reyes on the Northern California coast. I told her I was a grad student with no car and I'd be willing to hitchhike. She never hesitated. The following day, we met up and headed toward the freeway. Two rides later we were riding horses on the beach. The hitched rides home were the most memorable. Our first, near the small town of Olema landed us in the back seat of a Cadillac. Our driver had recently lost his wife and was spending the weekend driving all over. He wanted some conversation. We listened all the way to San Francisco. As I recall, we were subsequently picked up by a harried young mother with three small kids in an enormous station wagon. I lost touch with Kay shortly after that. There were a couple more dates, and I once stayed the night at her place, but that Sunday afternoon, hitchhiking to Pt. Reyes, was one of the best days of my life. A simpler time?

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