THE ART OF HITCH-HIKING
WITH THE return of summer, that curious American phenomenon, the hitch-hiker, has reappeared on all the automobile highways of the United States. Automobile clubs warn their members not to pick up pedestrians who wave hopefully from the roadside; state legislatures pass laws against requesting rides from unknown motorists; drivers exchange anecdotes of hold-ups when they meet in tourist camps and hotels, and explain that they never pick anybody up; and the hitch-hikers go right on riding wherever they want to go in spite of all the chatter.
Any experienced hiker can travel three hundred miles a day in the West or two hundred and fifty miles a day in the East, if he stays on the main highways and avoids walking through the suburbs of the big cities. That is rather better time than is made by the average automobile tourist, but the hiker is not wearied by continuous driving and does not have to wait for repairs to tires or engine. If he grows tired of riding he can always get out and walk for a few miles, and if the driver is slow or has engine trouble, he can leave him at the next crossroads and wait for a faster machine.
Unless he wants to get out of a city, or remote country with little traveled roads, the hiker who wishes to reach his destination quickly should never allow a truck or slowly driven car to pick him up. It is always worth walking for a while until the really fast conveyance appears. For in these days when all the world is on wheels, the greatest menace to the hiker is the snail who crawls along at twenty miles an hour, or the local salesman who makes frequent stops en route and is so pleased with the idea that he is saving his passenger from trudging along the dusty road that it would be unkind to explain that he is really impeding progress.
The most essential part of a hitch-hiker's equipment is a razor, toothbrush and soap. In order to get lifts, it is absolutely necessary to keep shaved and clean. And nothing is easier, for no farmer or filling-station proprietor will refuse the use of a water faucet or washbowl and pitcher. It may not be possible to bathe every day, but there are so many rivers and lakes throughout the country that one seldom travels for more than two days without finding a chance to swim. The man who lets his beard grow immediately begins to look tough, and motorists fear they may be slugged on the head if they give him a ride, or that he may be fleasome or lousy and leave some of his vermin in the car.
It is not wise, though many books recommend it, to carry a pack, for it creates the impression that you want to walk. If you carry a small and light suitcase, you not only look as if you were walking by accident rather than intent, but it also makes it appear that you are traveling a long distance and not just wanting a ride for a few blocks. Moreover, drivers are sorry for a man who has to lug a suitcase and there is something respectable about having baggage with you. Motorists often think you are a salesman who has got stranded and is headed for home.
In bandit country, such as the environs of Chicago, Toledo or Los Angeles, it is a good dodge to carry a fairly large book. Gunmen don't carry books and people who would fear a man emptyhanded will feel safe if they see him reading. The rest of the equipment for comfortable road travel is simple: ordinary business clothes with a light raincoat, several shirts, suits of underwear, socks, handkerchiefs, a towel, toilet paper, shoe polish and rag, comb and a small clothes brush. To avoid being picked up by the police as a vagrant, especially in the South, it is well to carry identification papers of some kind. I have found a letter on official stationery from a Southern Senator wholly satisfactory in this respect.
With regard to selection of automobiles, it is best to choose one man driving alone: he drives faster than if he has company in the machine and is apt to be glad to have someone to talk to. Waving at drivers from the roadside is unnecessary and seldom brings results. The best technique is to walk along the right-hand side of the road with the suitcase in the left hand. When you hear a car about two hundred yards behind you, glance round and see if it is a machine you wish to ride in; if so, turn your head again when the car is about thirty yards behind you and catch the driver's eye as you step to the right to get out of his way. If he is the kind of man that picks people up, he will stop and ask if you want to ride. As you thank him with appropriate surprise at his kindness, he will probably ask why you didn't signal him. He has no idea that you were really asking him to stop and you are in the advantageous position of accepting overtures rather than making them. Never expect a woman driver to give you a lift: it may lead to complications of various kinds, as well as increasing the probability of your getting into a wreck, alleged statistics to the contrary notwithstanding. During week-ends, nearly all the cars have families in them, and as most of them are only going short distances, it is advisable to arrange your schedule so that you don't have to travel on Sundays.
The last time I traveled in this manner from coast to coast, it took twelve and a half days to cover a route of nearly four thousand miles. I wished to see one or two people on the way, so I left the Santa Fe Trail at Trinidad, Colorado, and rode north through Denver, Chicago, Fort Wayne, Cleveland and the Susquehanna River Valley. The trip cost just $17.63, mostly for food, though the unnecessary extravagance of a phone call from Chicago to New York is included in that modest budget. In order to travel so inexpensively, one must sleep out of doors whenever it is not raining. Anyone who finds it difficult to sleep on the ground need only walk fast for two or three hours before lying down for the night and he will be astonished how quickly he falls asleep. If the night is cold, there are few places where it is difficult to gather material for a fire. In the West, the highways usually run parallel with the railroads and piles of old ties will be found at regular intervals along the tracks. Nothing makes a better fire than railroad ties laid like a capital A, and they are thick enough to last till morning. There is something about sleeping on the earth which is more refreshing than sleeping in a bed, so that one awakens at sunrise filled with new life, although in the city it is often difficult to rise before ten o'clock.
Most people intending to camp out will start by carrying cooking utensils, a blanket and other unnecessary junk. Every pound of extra weight decreases the pleasure of walking; and the business of unloading baggage each time one enters a car outweighs all the comforts of a formal camping outfit. It is scarcely cheaper to cook than to eat at farms. If you feel you must eat by the fire at night, buy ready-cooked package foods. A blanket is useless if it rains and in fine weather a fire is better for warmth and comfort. However tightly a blanket is folded, it remains an infernally bulky nuisance the very appearance of which tends to discourage drivers from offering rides. On the deserts in the West never carry water. If you are scared of thirst, put a fresh lemon in your pocket before starting over the long dry stretches. No car will pass you up on the desert if you have no water. The hardest-boiled driver will enjoy saving the life of anyone so ignorant and innocent as to start walking over the sun-scorched desert trails without a flask.
Always have cigarettes ready to offer the driver in return for his hospitality. It is pleasant to offer to pay for his lunch, though he will seldom permit it. Usually he will insist on paying for his passenger's midday meal or at worst agree to go dutch, but he appreciates the gesture, whatever the ultimate arrangements may be. Even more important is an adequate supply of matches. Somewhere in an inner pocket or the suitcase there should be an emergency reserve in a waterproof tin box. Nothing is more exasperating than to run out of matches on a cold night when there is fuel available for a fire. The next settlement may be miles away and you must either walk or shiver until morning unless some undeserved good fortune turns up in the form of a straw pile, barn, cabin or camp.
For those like myself who cannot afford an automobile, hitch-hiking offers the easist and most economical means of transport between points anywhere in the United States. It is an excellent way to "See America First" and in its enforced contacts with drivers of all classes is highly educational. It involves none of the dirt, discomfort and danger of riding the rods or traveling "blind baggage," though it affords the same freedom of movement and irresponsibility as the life of a hobo in the Jack London epoch. It provides all the fascination of a game of chance in the uncertainty as to whether the next hitch will be four miles or four thousand (I once got a 4,000-mile hitch after sundown in a New Mexico pueblo). And it gives motorists the pleasant feeling of doing a kindness which costs little and serves to relieve the tedium of solitary driving.
The New Republic, July 29, 1931