Author Interview: Jack Reid on Roadside Americans

In this Q&A, Jack Reid discusses his book 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.

Roadside Americans is now available in hardcover and ebook editions.

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Q: Did people really hitchhike for enjoyment and leisure “back in the day?”

A: For some, hitchhiking was simply a way to get from one place to another when they lacked transit options. Still, there were others—especially white middle class youths—who saw hitchhiking as a path toward adventure and a taste of authentic Americana. For instance, after reading On the Road and listening to the music of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan hitchhiked to New York from Minnesota in search of the “hydrogen juke box world” he read about in Beat literature. Also enamored with On the Road, Hunter S. Thompson hitchhiked across the country in 1960, writing romantically along the way about the open road, later captured in the edited volume The Proud Highway.

It was affordable to travel by thumb, making more ambitious trips possible for youths on summer break. Traveling across the country, they got to encounter and talk to a cross-section of Americans they’d likely never otherwise meet. They got a thrill from doing this, and felt like they were earning a worldlier disposition beyond that of their suburban upbringing. Even so, it wasn’t always about enjoyment as there was a lot of hardship on the road. Yet, this too was part of the allure. Surviving these difficult moments was a rite of passage of sorts.

Q: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is one of my favorite books. Why was the beat generation so preoccupied with hitchhiking?

A: Well the beats were a varied lot, but for folks like Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, hitchhiking represented spontaneous movement and raw experience. It was kind of like jazz, a musical medium they were obsessed with. You couldn’t really have a structured hitchhiking experience, one had to constantly improvise, similar to a jazz musician, and see where the moment took them. Kerouac loved the characters he encountered on the road, all of them seemed to be right out of a Steinbeck novel. In On the Road, he waxed poetically about sipping spirits with a group of strangers turned friends in the back of a truck under the “tragic American night.” Kerouac was also very interested in the American hobo, so he had a nostalgia for the road and the sense of independence from mainstream responsibilities that it offered.

Q: Are there other historical misconceptions that people today have about hitchhiking?

A: Many today see hitchhiking as something that was always practiced by drifters or tramps. But the more I researched the practice, the more I found that it was a common middle class form of transit. Most folks made a point to be well-dressed to attract rides. They did not consider themselves social outsiders by hitchhiking. Indeed, most Americans related hitchhiking to college and high school students as well as soldiers in uniform before the 1970s.

Likewise, many people suggest that hitchhiking used to be safe and now it is simply too dangerous. In some ways that is accurate, with fewer well-intentioned individuals willing to offer rides or hitchhike themselves, the ratio of dangerous or desperate individuals participating in the hitchhiking relationship is higher, making the practice more dangerous. Still, hitchhiking always carried a degree of risk and Americans in previous decades were willing to look past this periodic violence in ways that later, more affluent and risk averse generations could not.

Q: You begin your book with the story of a certain U.S. president who hitchhiked in his younger days. What did you find most interesting about this historical factoid?

A: Ahh, yes, the story of a young Ronald Reagan hitchhiking in the Depression era. He hitched a lot going back and forth to school and later in search of work. I guess I was struck the most by the dissonance between the way many Americans today romanticize Ronald Reagan—framing him as an icon of wholesome, traditional, conservative and individualist values—while at the same time dismissing a practice like hitchhiking, which is seen as marginalized, dangerous, and a form of mooching off of others. That contrast really captures the transformation in attitudes towards the practice in American culture. This was a widely practiced and accepted form of mobility that most people don’t even think about as an option today.

Q: Many early hitchhikers were young, male, and white—and many were middle class. But there are documented cases of women, racial minorities, and the less affluent hitchhiking. What is revealing about their accounts?

A: Well, you do not always see the same romantic qualities associated with “the road.” Women and racial minorities recognized that they had to be more careful as they were operating in a social setting that was less forgiving for them than, say, white men of some financial means.

If a woman was hitchhiking during the Great Depression and encountered a police officer, for instance, she would often be turned over to her closest male relative as a form of patriarchal protection. As a result, some dressed as men in an effort to maintain independence. At the same time, because it was less socially acceptable for women to be on the road during the Depression and for decades afterward, many viewed female hitchhikers as more promiscuous and sexually available, meaning that they had to constantly resist sexual advances by motorists and other men on the road. If they were sexually assaulted, many critics suggested they were “asking for it.”

Racial minorities, especially African Americans during the Jim Crow era, saw the road as a path towards a better life, but they did not often associate it with the same sense of romance due to the harsh realities of the nation’s racial order. Upon leaving the South and a racial hierarchy they understood, many felt exposed in unfamiliar communities. In most cases, the word of a white man would be trusted over that of a minority, so they were in a vulnerable situation if any foul play occurred.

Q: Is there one particular account that you found especially interesting?

A: There are so many to choose from, but Frederick Hoerger stands out. He was a young man trying to find work during the Depression who wrote a detailed account of his hitchhiking travels. His writing about daily life offers insight into the tactile experience of human interaction in the US back then. In rural North Carolina, Hoerger bumps into a stranger in the darkness while walking along a country road and rather than this spiraling into the plot of a horror film, the man simply offers to carry the exhausted Hoerger’s bag before inviting him to stay with his family for the night. Likewise, you can see how commonplace hitchhiking was with each ride he gets—a driver pulling over to pick Hoerger up and asking, “do you know how to drive this make? I need to take a nap.” And then they’re off. It is fascinating to see the contrast in levels of social trust between that era and ours.

Q: In general, how did you conduct research for this book?

A: Early on, I researched what else had been written and who was talking about hitchhiking online. Thankfully, I came across a gentlemen living in Australia named Bernd Wechner, who had done a fair amount of research himself. He was friendly enough to hand over an annotated bibliography of some great resources he had compiled. So that was a fantastic starting point. Then, I began diving into online newspaper archives and doing targeted searches for specific themes and time periods. That was really significant, because it offered insights into what the main talking points were during a given time, allowing me to see how they evolved over time. I also looked into the journals and memoirs of figures on the road from different eras, because they offered valuable details about the often subtle things that bring life to a story. I should also note that there were a fair amount of conversations with individuals in taverns, VFW Halls, and record stores about their own hitchhiking stories, which helped me to see the subject in new ways.

Q: What got you interested in the history of hitchhiking in America?

A: Well, starting in high school, I developed a fascination with “the road.” I planned a cross-country road trip with three other high school buddies: camping across the country’s mountain west. My favorite musicians and writers were typically from the 1960s and early seventies, and the road was also romanticized in their work—Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Tom Robbins, Hunter S. Thompson. So in some ways, I’ve been gathering information for this book for decades.

After college, I worked for a bit and then went to New Zealand to travel around and work on farms through a program called WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). Upon arriving, I bought a cheap car that was about to fall apart and hit the road, trying my best to live out my own novel of sorts. When I was traveling the country, I noticed that many young people were hitchhiking over there. It had honestly never crossed my mind, but it made quite an impression on me. Here I was, calling strangers so I could show up on their farms, work, and live with them for a couple weeks, but the idea of getting into a stranger’s car had never crossed my mind. After a number of months, I returned home and started preparing for grad school. I talked to my dad about the hitchhikers I saw in New Zealand, and he started telling me about how he hitched in the 70s and how his father had hitched in the 30s and 40s. What had happened? It struck me as a fascinating topic that brought together a lot of my interests: road narratives, popular culture, and social history.

Q: How did World War II change the practice of hitchhiking?

A: Well, for one, it made it far more acceptable. The era’s debilitating gasoline and tire rations made hitchhiking a practical necessity for a wide swath of Americans—including GIs in uniform who had a short leave to escape their bases and try to go meet friends or family. Rather than be associated with out of work depression victims, hitchhiking became associated with virtuous American soldiers in uniform, making the practice instantly more reputable. Volunteer organizations, in fact, built hitchhiking shelters across the country to assist soldiers in getting lifts and so they could wait for a ride and not be exposed to the elements.

Two Mexican American sailors attempt to hitch rides from the Navy Training Center to their homes in Chavez Ravine, near present-day Elysian Park and Dodger Stadium in Los
Angeles. (Courtesy of Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives [Collection 1429], UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA)

Beyond soldiers though, everyone was impacted. All manner of people trying to get to work or school had to adjust their travel habits. Sports and recreation were also impacted. Students weren’t supposed to take up valuable space on buses to attend sporting events, so for the opening football game between Texas A&M and LSU, a thousand students hitched five-hundred miles to Baton Rouge for the game. In other scenarios, the players themselves had to hitchhike to away games! This was especially true for high school, where a coach in Paris, Texas, asked “real honest to goodness fans” to give players a lift to their game if they saw them on the highway.             

Q: Why did Americans stop hitchhiking?

A: It is a complicated question, because there are a number of factors working together, but generally, the practice lost traction as the country became more affluent, regimented, and risk-averse. The cover of my book captures this well, featuring a young man hitchhiking beside a modern superhighway entrance next to a sign that reads, “Hitchhikers will be arrested.” Decades before, standing along a roadside and hitchhiking would not have been a problem, but people traveled at greater speeds on these limited-access superhighways, inviting more accidents, and thus more regulation to increase safety.

In other ways, the cooperative culture and social trust that had animated American society during the Great Depression and World War II began to break down during the more affluent post-WWII era. Rather than rely on cooperative mobility, like public transit or hitchhiking, people could now afford personal automobiles. This phenomenon promoted tighter social circles and less comfort interacting with strangers. Social trust eroded over time. The idea of a twelve year old hitchhiking to school, or even the next town over, once fairly common, was eventually considered criminal negligence by the parent. As the country’s post-war economic boom sputtered and entered a period of decline in the late 1970s, the nation turned away from the New Deal model of cooperative individualism, and began celebrating a more individualist social contract with the rise of the Reagan era. This mixed with a more risk averse society meant that hitchhiking was less romanticized than it had been during the sixties and seventies. Instead, many Americans associated the practice with desperate individuals unable to cope with the changing economy during the 1980s.

Q: Do you think that ridesharing programs like Uber and Lyft are the modern-day equivalents to hitchhiking? Why or why not?

A: Ride sharing apps definitely share some qualities with hitchhiking, but they are also different in some crucial ways. Ultimately, when you order a ride through Uber and Lyft, you are in many respects, hitchhiking. You are getting into a stranger’s personal car who, unlike, say, a cab driver, does not have a chauffeur’s license. That said, it is obviously a commodified version, so the spirit of the exchange is different. You are paying the driver to pick you up, so it is more transactional and less informal. The app also adds a level of safety, allowing both parties to see a rating of the other before pickup. Regardless, safety remains an issue, evidenced by reports of sexual assault associated with ride sharing apps.

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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.