Jack Reid: Once Upon A Time…In the History of Hitchhiking

Today we welcome a guest post from Jack Reid, author of Roadside Americans: The Rise and Fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation, out now from UNC Press.

Between the Great Depression and the mid-1970s, hitchhikers were a common sight for motorists, as American service members, students, and adventurers sought out the romance of the road in droves. Beats, hippies, feminists, and civil rights and antiwar activists saw “thumb tripping” as a vehicle for liberation, living out the counterculture’s rejection of traditional values. Yet, by the time Ronald Reagan, a former hitchhiker himself, was in the White House, the youthful faces on the road chasing the ghost of Jack Kerouac were largely gone—along with sympathetic portrayals of the practice in state legislatures and the media. In Roadside Americans, Jack Reid traces the rise and fall of hitchhiking, offering vivid accounts of life on the road and how the act of soliciting rides from strangers, and the attitude toward hitchhikers in American society, evolved over time in synch with broader economic, political, and cultural shifts. In doing so, Reid offers insight into significant changes in the United States amid the decline of liberalism and the rise of the Reagan Era.

In this post, Reid looks at the portrayal of hitchhiking in the Oscar-nominated film Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood.

Roadside Americans is now available in hardcover and ebook editions.

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Quentin Tarantino’s 9th studio film Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood pays careful attention to rendering a (largely) accurate depiction of life in Los Angeles circa 1969.  Although Tarantino takes creative liberties in some respects, most notably the film’s final act, the movie as a whole wonderfully captures the look and feel of L.A. at the height of the counterculture’s influence in American culture—whether it be costume design, driving scenes grooving to period-specific music, or the visual aesthetic of the city’s neon-drenched streets.  Beyond these historical points of reference, though, the film also highlights another oft-overlooked aspect in American culture: the once-popular act of hitchhiking.

Three youths hitchhike in 1966 on the Sunset Strip, Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives [Collection 1429], UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA)

Although common in the Depression and World War II eras, hitchhiking reached its height in popularity during the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially along the West Coast.  Much of this enthusiasm for soliciting rides grew out of the fact that the practice complimented the era’s countercultural sensibility—offering not only free transit, but also a way to breathe life into a vision of a more cooperative and spontaneous existence.  For a teenager or college student without a car, hitching a ride transformed what would otherwise be a mundane bus trip into a potentially memorable experience, often spurring a fleeting connection between two strangers.  While popular, the practice was also highly controversial.  Growing numbers of youths thumbing rides translated to increased criminality, inspiring concerns for the safety of those on the road, especially young women.  Indeed, news agencies reported in graphic detail a host of hitchhiking-related sexual assaults and shocking murders from across the country.

Tarantino’s film ably captures the tension surrounding hitchhiking in 1969, highlighting the youthful spirit of trust and cooperation among many hitching, but also the ways that the practice became closely connected with risk and violence.  Although hitching is referenced throughout the film, two scenes capture this dichotomy the most clearly.  In the first, Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, is seen driving on an L.A. roadway serenely listening to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “The Circle Game” on the radio.  Tate spots a young woman hitchhiking in hippie attire and without hesitation pulls over to offer a ride.  With Sainte-Marie’s calming voice as the soundtrack, we see Tate and the young woman driving along talking, laughing, and seemingly forging a genuine connection.  Revealingly, the scene ends with Tate wishing the hitchhiker good luck on her upcoming adventures as the two hug and bid one another farewell.  Here the utter casualness with which Tate decides to offer a lift highlights how commonplace doing so was at the time.  Perhaps more importantly, though, the scene also captures the special blend of practicality and meaningful social engagement that made hitchhiking appealing for many youths in the sixties and seventies.

As we leave Tate, the film shifts to another hitchhiking encounter happening at nearly the same time within the film’s narrative.  This story, however, plays to the more sexualized and dangerous reputation of hitchhiking and the counterculture more broadly.  Brad Pitt’s fictional character, Cliff Booth, a washed-up stunt actor in his fifties, sees a scantily-clad young woman thumbing along an L.A. intersection while he waits at a traffic light.  Within moments of picking her up, the young woman, suggestively nicknamed Pussycat, offers to give Pitt’s character oral sex.  Observing that the girl is clearly under eighteen, Booth declines. Here Tarantino flips the script on a common, though complicated, sexual fantasy (present within both pulp fiction and documented history) in which a woman hitchhiking is characterized as lustfully wanting to swap a ride for a sexual tryst.  In reality, most women simply wanted a ride and men often played the aggressor, with some even sexually assaulting their passengers.  In this sense, Tarantino opts to reimagine history in more uplifting terms in much the same way as the film’s explosive conclusion. Regardless of Booth’s discretion, the revelation soon after that Pussycat is a member of the murderous Manson Family cult nevertheless cements the connection between hitchhiking and danger.

In highlighting hitchhiking as a once-common form of transit, Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood sheds light on the complicated history of the practice in American culture.  Booth’s scene speaks to common characterizations of the practice in today’s popular imagination: a bygone form of transit that is no longer worth the hefty risk.  Yet, it is also instructive to note why so many young people once found the practice alluring.  As the Sharon Tate scene evinces, the spontaneous encounters that hitchhiking nurtured represented a pathway toward a sense of genuine human interaction in an increasingly alienating society.

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Photo by Ethan Abitz

Jack Reid is a scholar of American culture. He lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Follow him on Twitter.