Hitchhiking the USA, 2013 Style

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Hitchhiking a shadow of it’s former self.

“Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”
Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

Hitchhiking just got worse in America.

The murder arrest of America’s most famous hitchhiker, Kai the “hatchet hitchhiker,” casts a different light on my own coast-to-coast hitchhiking trip that ended last week.

There are a number of coincidences between the drama that unfolded this week with Kai and my own 12-day thumb from San Francisco to New Jersey.

Kai became famous earlier this year for a wacky, viral TV interview he gave after using a hatchet to protect a utility worker in Fresno, Calif. from the driver he was hitchhiking with. I began my hitchhiking journey in the greater San Francisco area, near Fresno, and ended in New Jersey, where the murder occurred.

Sometime after the murder for which he is charged, he allegedly fled to Asbury Park, New Jersey. I also spent a couple days this week in Asbury Park visiting, among other people, a homicide prosecutor.

I hitchhiked from a traveling carnival in California to a New Jersey carnival as part of my year of following traveling carnivals and writing about it on www.EyesLikeCarnivals.com.

With so few hitchhikers out there these days and his proximity to my own route, Kai’s arrest prompted thoughts about risk, thrill and hitchhiking.

All along my cross-country hitchhiking trip I was being asked if I felt safe. What are other hitchhikers like? Who would ever pick up a hitchhiker?

Thumb out, red flag up

I estimate that I’ve hitched almost 50,000 miles through the United States, Canada, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. My hitching began in the 1970s, when I had a prediction.

“The people of the future will say hitchhiking was safer back then.”

However, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s first victim, Steven Hicks, was a hitchhiker in the 1970s. He eventually lived near my house in Milwaukee. Hitchhiker Colleen Stan was kidnapped south of San Francisco in 1977 and held captive for seven years. And Eastern Europe and the Middle East weren’t exactly danger-free zones when I hitched them either.

During that time of my prolific hitchhiking, I developed categories for people who pick up hitchhikers.

Drunken and high people. Born-again Christians. The mentally ill. Vietnam Veterans (in the ’70s and’80s). Gays on the make. Lastly, mainstream folks who didn’t fit into the other categories.

In those days, I was subject to numerous unwelcome homosexual advances and attempts to convert me to Jesus.

Unwelcome too were the drunken drivers and truck drivers high of speed or cocaine.

And the mentally ill often showed a distinct lack of attention to their steering wheel and brakes.

Almost needless to say, I never got picked up by a beautiful Penthouse forum gal. I told one driver this and he laughed.

“That’s just too much to ask God for.”

The adventurous aspect of the journeys has always been heightened by the drivers.

However, never once was I threatened nor I did feel in danger of losing my life.

Still, by the late 1970s, a widespread fear of hitchhiking already emptied the roads in America of other hitchhikers to the point that I rarely saw another.

I was a relatively strong young man in my 20s and I carried an open Swiss Army knife in my right pocket.

I practiced how to swing it toward a driver and I practiced not hesitating. I feared that I would hesitate and lose the advantage of being armed with a small knife.

My swing of the knife was going to the head and I figured it would cut, disfigure and delay my attacker. Just enough to get away.

My weapon was for self defense, not murder.

Hitchhiking 2.0

I’m now 54 years old and the widespread fear of hitchhiking seems greater than it was in the ’70s and ’80s.

Yet this time, less strong and able, I did not carry a weapon.

I estimate 30-to-40 drivers picked me up and they crossed demographics.

The hitchhiking categories I set up in the ’80s didn’t hold up perfectly this time.

High truck drivers, drunken drivers and born-again Christians picked me up. My Vietnam Veteran category I would now replace with an ex-hitchhiker category (I did what you’re doing when it was safer).

I rode with several mentally ill people but mostly they spent their time talking in an agitated way about their own delusions.

I was hitchhiking out of gay-friendly San Francisco but it wasn’t until Tennessee that a homosexual driver hit on me.

For three-quarters of the country, I joked with friends, I felt I had lost my youthful appeal to predatory homosexuals out for random sex with strange hitchhikers.

Nevertheless, the mainstream folks were the bulk of the drivers. Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, young and old, rich and poor picked me up.

My first ride was from an successful San Francisco-area inventor, with several patents to his name. I had three rides from grandmothers in their 70s.

A Pizza Hut driver delivered a pizza to a broken down hotel room while I waited in the car. An under-employed musician took me on a tour of Beale Street before dropping me off for an overnight stay on a floor mat at the Memphis Union Mission.

Standing with thumb out in front of US Interstate onramp signs saying “Pedestrians, Bicycles, Motor Driven Cycles Prohibited,” I was picked up by an Army combat medic, a former Army ‘intelligence officer,” a fruit tree nursery owner, a Mayflower mover, a longshoreman, an international environmentalist, a hang glider, a Scottish Highland Games wrestling coach, a Protestant pastor, a retired petroleum worker, two state troopers and a former “meth cook” who just finished his 26th year in prison.

They all took a risk on me and me on them.

My last ride – who deserves a separate essay – was a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University’s Lepidopteran Genomics at Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. He is studying climate change on Tiger Swallowtail butterflies.

That conversation ranged from genetics to wandering Virginia and North Carolina with a butterfly net in the Great Dismal Swamp, an experience the young scientist described as magic.

Statistics don’t tell Canterbury Tales

As a former journalist, I noticed that dangerous situations often feel like peaceful situations. The cafe is normal before the bomb blast.

Nothing bad happened to me between the Pacific and Atlantic but that isn’t an indicator that hitchhiking is safe for either driver or hitchhiker.

Freakonomics did a great piece on this, which suggests that the dangers are overblown but even their statisticians were unable to find hard data either way.

I doubt Nate Silver would be able to profile the 2013 hitchhiker or driver.

Freakonomics writers suggested that movies such as “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” in which the hitchhiker is a gruesome murder, contributed to an unreal view of the actual danger.

Now, Kai comes along with a narrative arc that swings from hitchhike hero to accused hitchhiker murder.

Kai’s ravings to a Fox TV station went viral and got him on late night TV shows. An entire line of t-shirts with his logo carried sayings such as “Smash Smash Smaaaaaash.”

At the time, Stephen Colbert mocked the seeming lack of common sense it takes to pick up hitchhikers.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled up my windows and sped past a hobo sharpening a hatchet. Not even considering picking him up. But I have come to realize the error of my ways after seeing this news story about a young man named Kai. He showed me that axe-wielding hitchhikers are people too – people who sometimes stop madmen running loose on California freeways … So nation, I encourage you to pick up axe-wielding homeless hitchhikers whenever you see them.”

As someone fresh off the nation’s interstates, I can tell you that Kai isn’t the norm any more than Dahmer was in the 70s and 80s.

I can also say I met other hitchhikers so hitchhiking isn’t dead.

I’ll even go further and recommend hitchhiking. It’s not for people who want to get where they are going on time. It’s not for the faint of heart.

I recommend it for those in dire need of a free ride and for those desperate for adventure, life experiences and to be an eyewitness to Canterbury Tales.

It’s a place where writers, dreamers and those hungry for life have gone for inspiration in hopes that, as Kerouac thought, “somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”

Unknown switchbacks and risks are the price of the open road.

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