The lost art of hitchhiking

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A recent re-watching of the film Into the Wild – the true life story of Christopher McCandless, who hitchhiked his way from one end of America to another trying to escape modern society – as well as a conversation with my editor, provided me with an epiphany of sorts the other day: Nobody hitchhikes anymore.

I can’t even remember the last time I saw someone on the side of the highway with their thumb pointing up, looking for a ride.

For the life of me I can’t recall seeing anyone like that when I used to commute from London to Sarnia every day on the 402.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone hitchhiking along the 401 during my many years driving along that stress-inducing, rage-intensifying thoroughfare.

Nor do I recall seeing any hitchhikers at all along the Trans-Canada Highway when I moved all my stuff on a truck eastbound from Saskatchewan to Ontario about 10 years ago.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Many decades ago, when I was a kid sitting in the back seat of my dad’s 1973 white Mercury Marquis as my parents took my brother and I on road trips, hitchhikers were a rather common sight on the side of the road. Not that my parents ever picked anyone up – every hitchhiker was potentially a murderer, an escaped convict, a serial killer or a cannibal, as my mom used to frequently remind my brother and I. But it wasn’t at all unusual to see people trying to hitch a ride to a different city or town. It was simply part of the landscape.

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When I lived in Europe for a period in the late 1990s and again in the early 2000s, hitchhiking seemed much more common there than it was here. Maybe it’s the shorter distances between cities, though it could be due to the exorbitant cost of gas not to mention owning a car.

In France, as my then-girlfriend and I were walking from the city of Arras to Canada’s Vimy Ridge memorial (a two-hour walk), a French couple pulled over and actually picked us up without blinking an eye (not for the first time in my life that my mom’s over-the-top warnings did not come to fruition as the couple did not murder and/or eat me).

And while I lived in Ukraine, people regularly flagged down cars in cities to get from one place to another, though technically speaking it wasn’t hitchhiking since you had to pay a buck or two to the driver for gas. It was like a Slavic pre-Uber, though the only people who ever stopped to pick you up were usually the ones with the tiniest cars, which really, really stinks when you’re 6’2”.

Nowadays, not only is hitchhiking illegal in most jurisdictions but even if you felt the sudden urge to morph into some bizarre Canuck version of Jack Kerouac and travel the country with your delinquent friends reading poetry, going to jazz bars and getting dysentery, you probably wouldn’t even get a ride to the end of the block while people are paranoid about interacting with strangers during this global pandemic we’re living through.

But hitchhiking has a fairly noble past and began, like most things, with the best of intentions.

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As soon as there were cars and roads in Canada, hitchhiking began. Even with crude, rudimentary roads and early, often unreliable and slow vehicles travelling along them, people walking on the side of the road looked for a lift.

In the early portion of the 20th Century, cars weren’t plentiful and to boot they were pretty much luxury items so there was a pretty big imbalance – far too many hitchhikers and far too few vehicles to carry them in. Hitchhiking was actually apparently referred to as ‘road begging’ during this era, kind of a reflection on the posh drivers in their rare, fancy cars looking down their noses at people trying to hop a ride.

According to historians, hitchhiking took off during the 1920s and reached its zenith in the 1930s and 1940s, as highway infrastructure got better, more cars were on the road and horror movies about serial killers posing as hitchhikers weren’t yet a staple of popular culture.

Apparently college students and soldiers popularized the practice and during the Great Depression drivers almost felt duty-bound to pick up stragglers on the side of the road, people like the folks in Steinbeck’s the Grapes of Wrath who were simply looking for a better life somewhere else.

As amazing as it might seem today, there was a sense of egalitarianism among people during that period of time – I guess an economic depression and devastating world war does that – so folks had no qualms picking up strangers on the side of the road and letting them sit beside their children, pets, etc.

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The practice continued during the fifties, sixties and seventies, but increasingly alarmist messaging from police about the dangers of hitchhiking (not always based in fact), film and television and book depictions of hitchhikers with uncontrollable bloodlust (which my mom apparently devoured) coupled with more affordable and increasingly reliable cars for people of all incomes meant that hitchhiking’s popularity began to wane in both Canada and the U.S.

While hippies hitchhiked their way to Woodstock, Christopher McCandless hitchhiked all the way to Alaska in 1992 and fictional Arthur Dent hitchhiked his way across the galaxy, by the beginning of the 21st Century hitchhiking was more or less done and dusted.

With COVID, I’m not sure hitchhiking will ever be a thing again, not for many decades to come at least. Perhaps a generation of future youth will nostalgically revive the practice when we’re all driving in well-ventilated flying cars like the Jetsons. But at this point hitchhiking does seem like a practice lost to the ages.

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