Hitchhiking was a way of life for young people in the Sixties and was still a fairly common practice in the Seventies, when we were old enough to do it. Andrew and I had many memorable experiences hitchhiking around England in 1971, the summer after we graduated from high school and, back in the States, we regularly picked up hitchhikers in our old milk truck, whose bench seats could—and often did—accommodate up to eight passengers as we trundled up and down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston on our way to and from work.
Both as hitchhikers and as drivers, our rides were overwhelmingly enjoyable. When people picked us up they shared food and fellowship with us, and, in the privacy of their vehicles, also shared their hopes and dreams with perfect strangers. We did have one hairy experience, though. Once, in that Summer of 1971, a lorry driver picked us up on a cold, rainy afternoon somewhere in Cambridgeshire, after we had been waiting for a long time. Overjoyed to be taken in out of the rain, we bundled into the lorry’s cab with him, dripping wet, and listened politely as he talked.
Or rather, ranted. As he got into full spate, we became progressively more uncomfortable, since he was soon on the topic of “these long-haired layabouts,” all of whom ought to be taken out and shot. I stole a look at Andrew, who was squeezed right up against our hospitable hippie-hater on the front seat, and was relieved to find that his long, damp locks were safely tucked into the collar of his turquoise corduroy shirt. Still, it would only be a matter of time before the jig was up and we could only breathe freely again when he dropped us off at last, his run taking him in a different direction.
As the decade wore on, horror stories about the dangers of hitchhiking took hold of the popular imagination. Strangely enough, although I would have thought that the dangers for hitchhikers themselves, especially women, were far greater than the dangers for the motorists who picked them up, most of these stories featured attacks on hapless motorists and people became afraid of picking up travelers thumbing a ride at the side of the road. Whether or not they were urban legends (and in those days before the Internet, there was no snopes.com to verify or dismiss such rumors), stories circulated in which motorists stopped to pick up a lone woman only to be jumped by her male accomplice hiding behind a bush, and these deterred many people even from giving rides to women. In many states, laws were passed prohibiting hitchhiking on all public roadways, and even in liberal Massachusetts it is now illegal to hitchhike on turnpikes and highway ramps. In many states with particularly tyrannical car cultures, just being a pedestrian renders one suspect.
In this increasingly forbidding climate, the women’s movement in the mid-Seventies came up with an inspired campaign to protect both female hitchhikers and female motorists: a bumper sticker campaign with the slogan, “Sisters, Pick Up Your Sisters.” If women picked up women, the reasoning went, both parties would be safer, since the perpetrators of violence on either side were almost exclusively male. I don’t know how widespread the campaign was, but for several years the bumper sticker was quite a common sight around the Greater Boston area. It was a terrific idea, and one that I would like to see revived.
One would think that with gasoline prices rising again, hitchhiking would be making a comeback, along with carpooling and ridesharing, but after all this time it would require a change in our individualistic culture. I still pick up a woman occasionally, if there’s room in the car, if it’s safe to pull over and stop, and if I’m not in a hurry; a lot of ifs, but every time I take the trouble to do so, the experience turns out to be such an interesting one that I ask myself why I don’t do it more often.