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A Hitchhiker's Guide to Danger

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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A lot of writers seem to be sticking their thumbs out of late.  

Recent pieces in VoxTalking Points Memo and the Week have lamented the decline of hitchhiking. The burst follows the 2012 publication of Ginger Strand's "Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate," the title of which hints broadly at one reason for hitchhiking's demise.

“When the interstate system was proposed, it was considered a beautiful thing, the American Dream coming to fruition at last,” Strand told Molly Osberg in Talking Points Memo. “But it very quickly went dark and became a metaphor.”

Or not so dark after all. The relative safety of hitching is a common, counterintuitive theme in these recent pieces. "When it comes to the great fear about hitchhiking -- i.e. running into a psychopathic murderer -- you're far more likely to be killed in a standard car accident," wrote Ryan Cooper at the Week. "And the great danger to women is and always has been intimate partners, not strangers in cars."

Actually, hitching a ride always seemed pretty dangerous to me. If it hadn't, I doubt I would've done as much of it.

Starting in ninth grade in the late '70s, I hitched a lot in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Later, in college, I made trips between the East Coast and Chicago. I often felt safe. And pretty often, I didn't.

Different kinds of people picked you up when you were a kid standing alone on the road with your thumb out. Some of them were creepy. They offered you drugs, pornography, money for sex, a phone number, a highly unlikely good time or just a ride, preferably straight, down the road. Sometimes they announced that they needed to take a detour, for some convoluted reason, from the main road that you so very much preferred to stay on. Where were they taking you? There was no way to know.

For me, hitching wasn't just cheap transportation. It was a way of putting myself in uncertain circumstances with unknown people and seeing how I fared -- a dark pool of unknown depths in which to sink or swim. Discerning levels of creepiness, evaluating intent -- whether to jump out at the next red light -- was a sort of education. Learning to appear unflustered and bold while being vulnerable was a kind of skill. At least that's what I thought. I occasionally used that dubious skill later in life -- in bad neighborhoods or situations -- but I have no proof that anyone was ever fooled.

No harm ever came to me hitchhiking (although I wonder what would have happened had I not bolted at that red light). But I relied on its forced contingency to fill the empty space in my imagination and open the continent to exploration. Without my thumb, there was no way to summon kinship with Huck Finn or Dean Moriarty, no way to flee into the arms of America and escape a far more dangerous, encroaching boredom. I hitched extensively in Europe, with a companion and without, but the experience there was never the same. Risk was muted. The air was too pretty, the asphalt too gentle, the drivers somehow too reliably sure.

I was not a staid teen. I practiced reckless abandon standing in place. But it had a different quality on the road, whether the mystery was manufactured or not. So I'm happy to join in the nostalgia for hitchhiking. I recognize what sends people hearkening back to its crude joys. Just don't tell me it was safe. That ruins everything. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net