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.
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.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.