Hitchhiking, as both an activity and a means of travel, fills you with a sense of liberation. Once you’ve done it, you know that any day, you can leave your present situation behind and just step out, stick out your thumb and go anywhere you can think of. While traveling, I spent a couple days in Paris with a girl from Scandinavia; at home, she told me, whenever she felt trapped, she would hitchhike cross-country and would then feel free again. However, this kind of liberation is hard to come by in a society that regulates behavior based on irrational fear.
Last weekend, my friend Tim and I attempted to hitchhike to Detroit for a little place-hacking. Multiple gas station employees threatened to call the police on us, and twice, cops picked us up. The second cop made us wait in a Taco Bell (where we were made to purchase something because we weren’t allowed to loiter) and then take a taxi to the Greyhound station in Toledo, Ohio. The taxi driver was surprised when he found relatively normal guys sitting in the Taco Bell waiting for him because the people at the gas station had told him that “some nutcases were asking people for rides.” This was the only time I’ve experienced these kinds of setbacks while hitchhiking.
I spent most of last summer hitchhiking across Europe. I met a French Foreign Legionnaire who spent a decade as a parachutist in the Congo; a Dutch carpenter who showed me parts of Holland I never would have seen otherwise; and countless other fascinating people. In all that time, my only interaction with the police was when officers offered to drive me from the side of a highway to a gas station where I would have better luck. Even when hitchhiking around the Northeast, the only time a cop bothered me was when I had to hitch a ride after getting dropped on the highway. (Disconcertingly, he told me he did this because it was “his highway.”)
The resistance to hitchhiking in the U.S., and particularly in Ohio, is based largely on an irrational miscalculation of risk. If we pause and think for a moment, we will notice that most of the people involved in hitchhiking are good people. Hitchhiking requires a great deal of faith in the good of humanity, and since we tend to base our views of humanity upon ourselves, most hitchhikers are good people. Furthermore, many of the people who pick up hitchhikers were once hitchhikers themselves, meaning that they are likely to be good people as well.
Interestingly enough, this systemic fear did not always dominate American life. Today, most people who pick up hitchhikers are doing it partly out of nostalgia and partly to pay back time they spent on the road with only their thumbs. They, however, can remember a time when it took five minutes to get a ride, a time when all sorts of people picked up hitchhikers without concern and without questions like “Are you crazy?” ever coming up.
Even before that time, there was a time when people could go across the country hopping trains. Oscar, a resident of the Detroit anarchist squatter commune where Tim and I stayed last weekend, recounted stories of making his way from Canada to Panama. He told us that every time he’s tried to hop a train in the U.S., he’s been arrested, but that he’s had great success with it in Mexico. Another resident of the commune, Scarecrow, had some success on U.S. trains, but he also had to serve a nine-day sentence after being found on one.
I can’t tell you what’s caused these changes, but something certainly has. America has abandoned the spirit of free exploration, with all its risks and romanticism, in favor of strict conformity. While waiting for our bus, Tim and I talked to Kingsley, a Ghanaian man employed at the Greyhound station. After hearing of our troubles, he drove this point home: “Everyone has to do the same thing, and if you’re not doing the same thing, you’re somehow bad.” He told us that in Ghana, where people don’t cling so hard to the status quo, people are not only more willing to accept strangeness, but also more willing to help strangers.
That’s the most painful thing about the resistance to hitchhiking. We’ve come to the point where it is considered both unusual and criminal to ask for help. Hitchhiking is a victimless crime. This activity is banned through legislation only because the people who partake in it, whatever they may or may not contribute to mainstream society, are not afraid to ask for help.