9/11/12 - the danger of hitchhiking

In today's excerpt - in the early 1970s, the conservative, older residents of the quiet coastal California town of Santa Cruz began to be overrun by hippies. To control them, they tried to crack down on their uncomfortable and often dangerous practice of hitchhiking:

"To the older, long-term residents, Santa Cruz's new hippies were an 'undesirable transient element.' In the sum­mer of 1970, the city attempted to reduce their numbers by limiting their transience: prompted by several conservative council members, town legislators considered enacting an antihitchhiking ordinance. Noisy young longhairs stormed a city council meeting, chanting 'Sieg heil!' and 'Power to the people!' The hippies saw the proposed ban as an outright attack on their way of life. Hitching was not only central to their low-budget, freewheeling lifestyle, it was the perfect expression of countercultural ideals. It was a way of expressing trust in one's fellow man. It was living in the moment instead of obeying a rigid schedule. And it was ecological and antimaterialist, because hitchers didn't need to buy cars. In short, it was 'a beautiful, groovy way to travel,' as one nineteen-year-old girl told Newsweek in 1969.  Frequent news articles on the burgeoning phenomenon all cited the hippie commitment to using highways for impromptu human connection. As one hitcher put it to the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 1971, 'Mostly you just feel how much people need each other and how much they take care of each other.' ...

"Hitchhiking was not invented by the counterculture. For many decades after the introduction of the automobile, hitching rides was perfectly mainstream. In the days when few people owned cars, giving a ride to someone who needed one was simply the decent thing to do. During the Depression, a lift was a means of helping out the less fortunate. And once the war broke out, picking up hitchhikers became nothing less than patriotic duty, since soldiers often thumbed their way to or from their bases. Emily Post even sanctioned the practice for young women who had jobs in the defense industry—though she suggested drivers and hitchers restrict their conversations to impersonal topics, like the weather. ...

"Antihitchhiking campaigns began around the time the inter­state highway system did. In the late fifties, the Automobile Association of America launched a campaign called 'Thumbs Down on Thumbers.' It aimed at dissuading drivers from pick­ing up hitchers by suggesting they might be dangerous felons or con artists. The FBI—impelled in part by J. Edgar Hoover's hatred for student activists who were hitching to civil rights and antiwar demonstrations—joined the campaign, issuing scary statistics and creating a poster titled 'Death in Disguise' that featured an ominous hitchhiker. 'Is he a happy vacationer or an escaping criminal,' the poster asked, 'a pleasant compan­ion or a sex maniac—a friendly traveler or a vicious murderer?' The Saturday Evening Post had the answer in 1957: 'The Hitch­hiker You Pick Up May Be a Dangerous Criminal!' The maga­zine reported that 'Drivers have had their heads bashed in with stones, have been dismembered and have been disemboweled by strangers they picked up on the highways.' ...

"In spite of early scare campaigns, hitchhiking continued to grow in popularity. In the sixties, articles published in maga­zines as varied as Life, Harper's, the National Review, News­week, and Scholastic all viewed thumbing in a positive light. A 1966 Sports Illustrated feature was typical: it recounted fun stories about hitching, described as 'a valid ticket to adven­ture for uncountable thousands every year.' Author Janet Gra­ham—a practiced hitcher—even included a perky list of 'Tips to Girl Hikers.' They included 'Take a companion-or a hat­pin'; 'Be neat but not gaudy—no low-cut blouses'; 'If he's tipsy or wolfish, say you are heading elsewhere'; and 'Learn in five languages: 'I'm going to throw up.' '

"Part of why the practice persisted was that early campaigns against hitching presented the hitchhiker as the threat. Early hitch-horror films like Felix Feist's The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) and Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker (1953) cast the hitch­hiker as villain, a story line that continued even in later films like Roger Corman's The Hitcher, made in 1986 and remade in 2007. In these films, the hitchhiker never has a backstory; he simply looms into sight by the side of the road and opens his campaign of torment. ...

"The Hitcher was partly inspired by Jim Morrison's song 'Riders on the Storm,' from the 1971 Doors album L.A. Woman. Morrison's lyrics -- whispered and sung at the same time for added effect -- describe a hitchhiking murderer and warn the driver not to give him a ride, but here, too, the image feels like a metaphor. Morrison was not writing a public service message about picking up hitchers: to be a rider on the storm is sim­ply to be a person on the turbulent journey through life, with the hitchhiker standing in for any bogeymen who can ruin the trip. ... The hitcher-killer felt no more real than the zombies, werewolves, or aliens who stalked the nation's dreams. And in fact, the real danger of hitchhiking was almost never to the driver; it was to the hitcher."

By 1973, Santa Cruz was subject to a series of grisly murders committed by Ed Kemper, who cruised area highways giving rides to unsuspecting hitchhikers.


Ginger Strand


Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate


University of Texas Press


Copyright 2012 by Ginger Strand


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