On The Road Again
January 15, 2013 | by Robert Moor
A dirt road scrolls beneath a pair of huarache sandals. In a flash, it turns from moonlit to sunlit, and the pebbly dirt smoothes to bleached, cracked concrete. The shot lingers three or four beats longer than it should, the camera gliding over the road as the sandals flop and their owner huffs. Cue title card. This sequence—the opening shots of Walter Salles’s wildly uneven, flickeringly vivid new film adaptation of On The Road—foregrounds the oft-overlooked double entendre nested in the novel’s title: it is both a romantic portrait of life “on the road” and a ruminative discourse on roads. Later in the film occurs a similar shot, this time of the highway’s surface streaking by like a meteor shower, as Sal Paradise intones: “The purity of the road. The white line in the middle of the highway unrolled and hugged our left front tire as if glued to our groove. And zoom went the car, and we were off again, to California.”
Throughout the book, Kerouac expresses awe at the vast interconnectedness that the American road system allows—an epiphany so common it barely registers for modern readers. But half a century ago, it still struck with a bright clang. Kerouac’s first cross-country hitchhiking trip took place in 1947, a decade before Eisenhower’s National Highway Act poured six-lane rivers of asphalt from ocean to ocean. And yet by the late 1940s, an aggressive highway-building project was already well under way, including the surfacing of more than 1.5 million miles of road. A Rand McNally road map from 1947 shows a dense arterial network of federal and state highways connecting every urban node. The old dirt roads—“Local inquiry may save time,” the map warns—were already becoming scarce. Those early postwar years were a halcyon era for hitchhikers: communal solidarity was cresting (before curdling into paranoia in the 1950s); soldiers, students, and migrant farmers had normalized itinerancy; hitchhiking had yet to be outlawed on the nation’s interstates or subjected to scare-mongering by the FBI; and most cities had designated “travel bureaus” where ride shares could be arranged. Under these conditions, with these sprawling highways, cross-country hitchhiking trips could be made with unprecedented ease.
Transcontinental travel, of course, was nothing new. What amazed Kerouac was the speed and the scope—two qualities he would stylistically twin in his novel, to famous effect—that the highway system allowed. He was not alone. At one point early on in On The Road, Paradise and his new friend, Eddie, catch a ride with a cowboy in a “modest half-gallon hat,” who allows Eddie to take the wheel. “No sooner were we out of town than Eddie started to ball that jack ninety miles an hour out of sheer exuberance,” Kerouac writes. The cowboy chastises Eddie, who replies, “Well, I’ll be damned, was I really going ninety? I didn’t realize it on this smooth road.”
Kerouac portrays America as a planetary thing, a continent; until you are hitchhiking across it, it is easy to forget that we live on a piece of land with more surface area than Pluto. On his very first ride, in a truck hauling dynamite, Sal Paradise ogles Route 66, which shoots west for “incredible distances” all way to California. Once in San Francisco, he stares back east at “the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent; somewhere far across, gloomy, crazy New York.” Returning again to Times Square, he marvels that he has traveled “eight thousand miles around the American continent.” (Indeed, he measures journeys in thousands of miles so frequently that transportation scholars should name a new unit of measurement after him: 1,000 miles=1 kerouac.) The book’s final passage begins: “So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it…”
Such continental vastness extends beyond borders, and Kerouac’s gaze follows. At one point, Paradise’s best friend, worst influence, and hero, Dean Moriarty, asks him: “’Do you know there’s a road that goes down Mexico and all the way to Panama—and maybe all the way to the bottom of South American where the Indians are seven feet tall and eat cocaine on the mountainside? Yes! You and I, Sal, we’d dig the whole world with a car like this because, man, the road must eventually lead to the whole world.’” These are not realizations a twenty-year-old man would have today, no matter how much Benzedrine he was on. (“It’s the world!” Dean crows. “Think of it! Son-of-a-bitch! Gawd-damn!”) The availability of cheap airfare has collapsed our sense of scale, and with it, the joy of defying spatial constraints.
There are few hard numbers on the prevalence of hitchhiking at any given time—a statistical blind spot that frustrates the hell out of transportation scholars—but it is widely believed that hitchhiking reached its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Kerouac seems to have foreseen this burst of youthful peripatesis. “I want to write about the crazy generation,” Kerouac wrote to Allen Ginsberg in 1949, “and put them on the map and give them importance and make everything begin to change once more, as it always does every twenty years.” He was more right than he knew: the Summer of Love would arrive eighteen years later. Flower children embraced hitchhiking as their transportation of choice because it was utopian, nomadic, and free. As a result, the act became associated with something larger—the holy hobo persona explicitly espoused by Kerouac. Like any preformed identity, that lifestyle began to lose its shimmer as it aged; any act of youthful rebellion, no matter how liberating, can be spoiled by a parental photo slideshow.
If you have ever wondered why the act of hitchhiking has dramatically waned in recent decades, this is the first reason: it became less sexy. The second reason is that personal automobiles and mass transportation became cheaper. The third—and biggest—one is fear.
As someone who has hitchhiked more than a thousand miles, spanning dozens of rides, over the past six years—a lonely anachronism out on there on the roads—one of the first things I noticed when rereading On The Road recently is Sal Paradise’s utter lack of awareness about his appearance, his posture, or his stench.
As a result, Kerouac fails to capture the core irony of hitchhiking, which is that it privileges exactly the people one would not suspect to be hitchhiking: those who dress well, those who bathe, those with expensive-looking luggage. There’s a reason hobos—and their crusty, cynophile offspring, found panhandling and nodding off on St. Mark’s Place or Haight Street or Camden Road—traditionally ride the rails. Hitching is at its heart an exercise in superficiality, and necessarily so: there’s literally no time for depth; to the people blurring by on the highway, the hitchhiker is flattened into a Polaroid.
In 1948, The New Yorker published an essay by Walter Bernstein, in which he recounted hitchhiking from Milton, Vermont, to Danbury, Connecticut. Bernstein does a better job of capturing the feeling of sticking out one’s thumb for the first time—at once fidgety, self-conscious, and personally affronted at the rejection of passing motorists. “Cars passed. Trucks passed. Even a horse and wagon passed. Nobody stopped,” he writes. “I varied my attack. I smiled, and then, in turn, looked pleading, noncommittal, and insouciant. Nothing worked. The cars roared past and around the curve unheedingly, and after a while I began to think how nice it would be to have an antitank gun, even a small one.”
This is precisely how it feels: you try smiling, then suspect that smiling looks maniacal, so you stop, but then you fear you look sulky, so you try smiling only with your eyes, which you fear makes you look shifty-eyed. You arch your eyebrows naively. You puppy pout. You look exhausted. The best trick I’ve learned so far is to smile a sad, understanding smile and wave graciously at the precise moment it becomes clear that a driver has decided not to stop—as if to say, Hey, I understand, you’ve got places to be. I’m not bitter. And I’m certainly not seething with uncontrollable rage. Sometimes cars, registering my graciousness, would pull over and back up along the shoulder.
Methods vary, but the appearances game does not. “Of late experienced members of the fraternity [of hitchhikers] have avoided the thumb system as much as possible,” wrote Chapman Milling in Forum in 1938. Instead, “they walk down the shoulder at a leisurely rate, cast one or two wistful looks backward toward an approaching car, then proceed on as if in advanced stages of combined sunstroke, caisson disease, carbon-monoxide poisoning, and fallen arches. Another method … is that of hanging around a filling station in groups of two or more and politely asking for a ride when a car is being checked. The man of neat appearance and pleasing personality seldom has much difficulty in obtaining a ride in this way.”
Appearance is everything—and not merely that one look “neat.” One must also inhabit a recognizable social role, otherwise the Polaroid blurs. During Kerouac’s time, the most recognizable figures seen on roadsides were hobos, soldiers, farm workers, and college boys. Each had his distinctive costume. For predictable reasons—primarily the (impolitic) presumption that class and wealth are an inoculation against thieving and homicidal impulses—college boys were considered the safest. As a result, hitchhikers would often disguise themselves as collegians, donning freshman skullcaps and plastering their suitcases with pennants to secure rides. Milling recalls, “On one occasion I myself picked up a verdant-looking youth whose cap proclaimed him to be a member of the class of ’40. Noting, however, the mature and careworn lines of his face, I made bold to ask him when he had graduated and learned that he had been battling the cruelties of an acquisitive society since 1932. The freshman cap, he admitted quite honestly, was a surefire trick, always good for a ride.”
The dynamics of hitchhiking remain largely unchanged, if the roles have altered somewhat. Today, the four roles most likely to procure a ride are (1) mountain hikers trying to get to or from a trailhead, (2) local residents whose cars have just broken down, (3) perky blondes on holiday from their Scandinavian university, or (4) John Waters. I always opt for the first costume, even when it’s not strictly the case. Before I stick my thumb out, I take off my baseball cap, I comb my fingers through my hair, and I put on my shimmery, ultralight Montbell puff jacket, which was expensive and, more importantly, looks expensive. I keep my pack propped up in front of me in plain sight. Finally, I pull out my Benchmade lock-blade—the one with the ambidextrous thumb stud for snikt! quick opening—and secrete it in my right-hand pants pocket. In other words, I make myself look as little like a murderer as possible while mentally and logistically preparing to stab someone if necessary. This is the way we hitchhike now: mutually distrustful, always in the shadow of some great malevolence that has yet to materialize.
Hitchhiking is—or at least once was, and some say, could be again soon—a beautiful thing. It introduces strangers to one another, fosters a culture of communal trust, and fills empty cars. (Roughly 80 percent of car seating capacity currently goes unused, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.) And for the better half of the twentieth century, hitchhiking allowed for unprecedented mobility among the young and the poor. Cheaper than a bus and safer than hopping trains, hitchhiking efficiently shuttled countless young people from their hometowns to urban centers or onward to foreign landscapes.
Hitchhiking brought Bob Dylan to New York. It ferried Richard Brautigan to San Francisco, escorted Thomas McGuane across Europe, and transported Laurie Anderson from her flat in in Alphabet City to (damn near) the North Pole. As a boy, Werner Herzog would run away from his home in Munich for weeks at a time and hitchhike across the European countryside, reaching as far as Greece, where he would later make his first feature film. Athol Fugard—carrying “ten tins of sardines in a haversack”—hitchhiked from South Africa to Sudan. Mary Karr once hitched twelve hundred miles just to play a game of pool at the American Legion bar in her hometown. Andy Kaufman hitchhiked to Las Vegas, hid in a broom closet for days, and then jumped out to surprise his hero, Elvis Presley. Hunter S. Thompson told an interviewer he had “set what I insist is an all-time record for distance hitchhiking in Bermuda shorts: 3,700 miles in three weeks.”
Richard Wright hitchhiked to New York City. Ian Frazier hitchhiked to New York City. Jim Harrison hitchhiked to New York City. Jeff Koons hitchhiked to New York City. Henry Roth hitchhiked (and hopped trains) to New York City. Axl Rose hitchhiked to Los Angeles, as did Hal Ashby, Stephen Elliot, and Rip Torn. Billy Joe Shaver tried to hitchhike to Los Angeles, but caught a ride only as far as Nashville, where he began writing songs for Waylon Jennings. Bonnie Jo Campbell tried as well, but only made it as far as Phoenix, so she joined the circus. In high school, Edward Abbey hitched from Pennsylvania to Seattle, gaining his first glimpse of the High West. Tom Waits hitchhiked to Arizona, where he was invited into a Pentecostal church and witnessed a full service, which included a small band (tambourine, electric guitar, and drums) and congregants speaking in tongues. Phillip Glass hitched across North Africa and South India. Lawrence Ferlinghetti hitched to Mexico. Woody Guthrie hitched everywhere.
The utility of hitchhiking was not just confined to artists and bohemians. Ronald Reagan, Dan Rather, and Ralph Nader all had formative experiences hitchhiking. Jacque Chirac hitchhiked across the U.S.; Bill Clinton hitchhiked across Great Britain; Steve Jobs hitchhiked across India; Henry Louis Gates hitchhiked across Africa. Henry Kissinger hitchhiked from Pennsylvania to Manhattan to see the opera. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, the famed psychologist, hitchhiked from Germany to Switzerland. Along the way, she contracted typhoid and was discovered lying half dead in a forest. There, she had the first epiphany that would lead to her writing the seminal tract On Death and Dying.
Within the fabric of the space-time-money continuum of travel, hitchhiking is akin to teleportation. Provided one has enough time, one can cross a continent on (actual) peanuts. The road was a free space, in both senses of the word. It was here that Whitman’s misfits—“the black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas’d, the illiterate person”—could travel unmolested, where “none can be interdicted.” It was here that charity twinned with practicality, where a driver’s desire to be entertained while driving neatly combined with a hitcher’s desire to get somewhere for free. “Until human nature changes for the worse,” Milling wrote, “rides are going to be given to decent-looking people who ask for them.”
Human nature, presumably, has not changed, but by the late 1970s, the practice of hitchhiking began to decline. The transportation scholar Alan Pisarski theorizes that this decline was caused (or at least exacerbated) by a drop in the need for hitchhiking—more cheap cars on the road meant fewer people without means of transportation. The U.S. currently has the second highest per capita car ownership in the world, just behind the Principality of Monaco. But with gas prices rising to historic rates, we could well see another boom in the demand for hitchhiking, as we saw during World War II, when per capita car ownership was high but gas rationing made the price of driving prohibitive.
The major impediment to such a revival is the pervasive, society-wide fear that hitchhiking is dangerous. This fear has become magnified out of all proportion by decades of alarmist news reports, public service announcements, AAA pamphlets, and B-movie depictions, which demonized both hitchhikers and the drivers who picked them up. One popular PSA in 1958 warned would-be hitchhikers of the dangers of predatory homosexuals; another in 1974 cautioned young women that 75 percent of all rapes committed in the United States were a result of hitchhiking. A poster from the time, distributed by the FBI and signed by J. Edgar Hoover himself, showed a smartly dressed young man thumbing beside the road. It asked readers: “Is he a happy vacationer or an escaping criminal—a pleasant companion or a sex maniac—a friendly traveler or a vicious murderer?”
“Given the nature of Hoover’s scare tactics on hitchhiking, his known animosity toward the beat artists who made the notion of nomadic travel on the road famous, and the explicit connection he made between youth, civil rights, and Communism,” concludes Jeremy Packer in Mobility Without Mayhem: Safety, Cars, and Citizenship, “it is obvious that … forces like the FBI were not solely invested in the safety of America’s driving public.” The goal (or at least, a highly desirable upside) to the FBI’s campaign was to restrict the free flow of young radicals—to sit-ins in Selma, to be-ins in San Francisco, and to Aquarian Expositions in the Catskills. The FBI received an assist from many state and local governments, especially college towns like Santa Cruz and Berkeley, who attempted and often succeeded in passing laws outlawing hitchhiking. This meant that police could interrogate and search any suspicious young person found skulking alongside the road—“stop and frisk” for student radicals.
A questionnaire in Rotarian Magazine from 1950 neatly charts the erosion of trust and growing paranoia that would steadily be exploited by government agencies to quash the practice of hitchhiking. Rotarian—the official magazine of the Rotary Club—had a worldwide readership, and the question (“Pick Up Hitchhikers?”) drew varied responses. Some fully supported it as a practice in keeping with the Rotary Club’s motto of “Service Above Self.” Some made subtle distinctions. “My rule is to pick up young travellers in preference to old, and ones with luggage in preference to those without,” wrote one member. Another wrote that he would only pick up hitchhikers during a time of war, when the practice was needed to get soldiers home. Others felt it should be outlawed “absolutely,” citing the (almost certainly concocted) statistic that “two out of every five hitchhikers have criminal records!” Most notable, though, is the erosion of public trust as it pertains to appearances. It seems many people felt they could no longer trust their eyes. “Anybody can plaster a suitcase with college stickers,” wrote one reader. “Anybody can obtain an Army uniform. Clothes may be just a camouflage.”
“I read somewhere recently about a motorist who thought he could judge hitchhikers by their clothes and picked up two fine-looking youths wearing neat slacks and tweed jackets. They slugged and robbed him. I came out of a similar situation more luckily one time. The youths had looked like gentlemen!”
Sal Paradise, strangely, never registers this paranoia in On The Road. His trust in people, like his belief in Dean, is so total that it feels put-on, blinkered. Kerouac did pen a poem while on a bus trip from San Francisco to New York in 1954—one wonders what had transpired that required him to bus, not hitch—entitled “Hitchhiker.” In it, he imagines the conversations of passing motorists as they speed past, declining to pick him up. “He looks like he's got a gun underneath that I. R. A. coat," says one driver, while another speculates that he is likely “some sexfiend.” Clearly, Kerouac was aware of the public concern over the safety of picking up strangers. However, in his Archimedian task of shifting a generation with a single book, he chose to elide those concerns.
Last November, I read two articles about hitchhiking in the same week. The first was an op-ed piece by Ginger Strand in the New York Times in which she boils down many of the lessons of Packer’s book—that hitchhiking never increased the crime rate, that the reasons for its decline were motivated as much by politics as the desire for safety—and urged people to revive the noble tradition of sharing rides. She raises semiotic concerns as well as environmental and human ones. “What if we could remake the original landscape of alienation—the highway—into a place where Americans could once again reach out to help one another, to share space and time with a stranger?” she asks. Her thoughtful argument expertly plucks the strings of a progressive heart.
Days later, I read a feature article in GQ by Vanessa Veselka, in which she recounts in stomach-knotting detail her near run-in with Robert Ben Rhoades, the Truck Stop Killer, back in 1985. Rhoades was a long haul trucker who was known to pick up young female hitchhikers, many of them runaways, many of them in their early teens, at truck stops. He would then drive them out into the woods and force them into the back of his truck, where he would shackle them to the floor, shave their heads and pubic hair, and torture them for a matter of weeks, taking pictures all the while. He is suspected to have killed fifty young women in roughly this manner.
Here is the heart of the problem: even if there was never any statistical rise in crime due to hitchhiking (which there is no evidence to suggest one way or the other), the potential disaster, no matter how farfetched, is simply too terrifying for most. Many will point out that driving a car is also dangerous, as is riding a bus or an airplane, but none of those choices automatically summons the possibility of a bind-torture-kill scenario. The terror is moreover deepened because of the breach of trust such a crime entails. This dynamic is fleshed out in Matthew Bright’s wonderfully ham-fisted 1996 film, Freeway. In this dark retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story, Reese Witherspoon’s character, a troubled teen named Vanessa Lutz, is picked up on the side of the freeway by Bob Wolverton (get it?). Wolverton, a therapist, coaxes Lutz into confessing all of her darkest secrets to him, before asking her if he has her “absolute trust.”
“I guess I trust you more than I’ve ever trusted anyone in my whole life, Bob,” she replies earnestly. At this point, Wolverton’s interrogation turns ugly, as he pulls out a knife and reveals his true intentions with her. (“What, are you gonna fuck me when I’m dead?” Lutz asks, with characteristic bluntness.) It sounds darkly comical, but when I first saw this movie, late at night at the age of thirteen, it terrified me. The horror is doubled because of the attendant betrayal.
Perhaps worse still is the feeling, however irrational, that whatever crime befalls a hitchhiker is the hitchhiker’s fault. (An obvious parallel exists between this and the logic of rape apologists.) Wolverton uses this excuse with Lutz, calling her and her family “garbage people”—those who can justifiably be disposed of. A Reader’s Digest article from 1973 quotes a detective who says that police give low priority to rape cases that occur while the victim was hitchhiking. “Most juries figure that if the kid put out her thumb, she was asking for it.”
Veselka reports that Robert Ben Rhoades was drawn to girls for whom this sense of earned victimhood (of “not being credible”) was internalized. One of his victims, who had escaped and been found “running naked, screaming down a street in Houston with DNA all over her body, her head and pubic hair shaved, still with his chain around her neck,” later declined to press charges, explaining to the police: “I don't see any good in filing charges. It's just going to be my word against his.”
In Naked, David Sedaris recounts a series of harrowing run-ins with drivers, some of whom wanted sex, others who merely treated him like a garbage person. One man pulled over into a car wash and forced Sedaris to wash his hubcaps. “Me, I’m what you call a ‘taxpayer.’ Tax, it’s a … tariff that working people have to pay so that someone like yourself can enjoy a life of leisure. How does it feel to be giving for a change? Not much fun, is it? Hurry up now and buff those hubcaps, I want to see them shine. Buff, boy, buff!”
Another man, a redneck named T. W., pulled out a gun and pressed it to Sedaris’s head; Sedaris scrambled out of the car and hid in the woods. “I continued to hitchhike for the next few years, but after the incident with T. W., something seemed to have changed. It felt as though I’d been marked somehow. I had always counted upon people to trust me, but now I no longer trusted them … My suspicion was a beacon, attracting the very people I’d hoped to avoid.”
Why, then, would someone hitchhike in these postlapsarian days? For all of the reasons listed above, and others: it’s cheap, it’s energy efficient, it allows one to go to places public transportation does not, and it feels good to revive a bygone communal practice in the face of government, corporate, and parental disapproval. When I come to the end of a long hitchhiking trip, as when I hitchhiked seven hundred miles up and down and across the island of Newfoundland last year, it feels like an accomplishment. Which is odd, because hitchhiking is not difficult. It requires very little cleverness and almost no physical stamina or athleticism. (In fact, as Milling indicates, a pair of fallen arches might actually help one catch a ride.) What hitchhiking currently shares with other adventures is, essentially, the looming, electrostatic presence of danger. The artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, while hitchhiking back to New York, became an unwitting party to a twenty-four-hour robbing spree. “Oh gee! Adventure! That’s all it really is sometimes,” he later wrote of the incident to a friend. “Sure I get afraid, but somewhere in the midst of the action of following through an experience, there comes a sense that’s incomparable to any other. Ah, that’s what I strive for.”
Hitchhiking offers other, less self-destructive joys as well. It is difficult to elaborate these to someone who has never done it; Kerouac made his editor, the uptight Robert Giroux (editor of T. S. Eliot, opera aficionado, and “big NY Ignu”) go hitchhiking with him in Denver “so as to understand On The Road.” It is no coincidence that most of the people who’ve picked me up were once hitchhikers themselves: the act of trusting a stranger with your life initially requires an almost hymeneal break, a loosening up.
With this trust comes a strange sort of intimacy. This—awkward conversations with people whom you share no tendrils of connection, no common friends, no common interests—is something most people avoid, but they shouldn’t. Inside of the warm closeness of a car, pressed to fill the time of a long drive, the dynamic resembles almost that of a first date. (The courting process begins when the car pulls over; you lean down and peer through the car window, coyly. The driver smiles. “Wanna go for a ride?”) The driver, by the very act of picking up a hitchhiker, has indicated a measure of openness. The conversation flows. As Kerouac recounts, this can become exhausting at a certain point. “One of the biggest troubles hitchhiking is having to talk to innumerable people, make them feel that they didn’t make a mistake picking you up, even entertain them almost, all of which is a great strain when you’re going all the way and don’t plan to sleep in hotels.”
While hitchhiking I have communed with countless people I would otherwise never have met: oil workers, actuarial analysts, moose hunters, farmers, poets, mailmen, a carpenter who told me that he hides secret messages inside every cabinet he makes, a family of Polish tourists awed by the garishness of Gatlinburg, a camper van full of marine biologists, and, once, a guy in a Porsche. My very first hitchhike was in Queenstown, New Zealand, having just sold my beloved Nissan Bluebird and needing a way back to Dunedin, where I had to take a final exam at three o’clock. I stood on the roadside with a cardboard sign reading:
PLEASE! NEED TO GET TO
TODAY FOR MY EXAMS!
My first ride was with a stoned Maori who drove me a hundred miles in the wrong direction and dropped me off in a valley full of gray mist, where ice crystals collected on my eyelashes as I shook and regretted everything. My next ride was with a trio of jolly, heavyset women who warmed me with hot chocolate and drove me directly to my door, with plenty of time to spare.
People always surprise me with the strangeness of their interior lives and the depth of their generosity. They are forever handing me things: food, cans of beer, cigarettes, joints. One guy in a Cadillac even pressed twenty dollars into my palm, saying I needed it more than he did—perfectly inverting the presumed ass-grass-or-cash economics of hitching. Economics which, by the way, I have found wholly false. Every single time I have offered to pay for a driver’s gas, I have been refused. Perhaps it would have cheapened the driver’s charity, sullied our real (if ephemeral) moment of humanity.
Only twice have I felt truly in danger. The first time was back in 2009, while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail. (Most thru-hikers on the AT have to hitchhike into towns to restock on food every week or so.) It was raining one afternoon in New Jersey, and I stood on the roadside for a long time before anyone would pick me up. Finally, a yellow Honda hatchback pulled over. In the front seat was a squat mole man named Martin (he very closely resembled Vinnie the Dweeb, a character from an old computer game I used to play called Shufflepuck Café; google it). His car smelled bad in a dark, unnamable way, and in the back seat was a pile of strangely outdated sports equipment. “So, you hike, huh? Yeah, I’m real outdoorsy myself, real athletic,” he said, gesturing the same tennis racquet McEnroe used at Wimbledon in 1984. “Play a lot of sports.” He had the oddly forceful self-delusion of a man who spends a lot of time convincing people online that he is someone he isn’t. His hatchback had three hundred thousand miles on the odometer, a fact of which he was justifiably, but inordinately, proud.
He drove me to the grocery store, where I thanked him and headed in to restock on supplies. When I emerged twenty minutes later, he was waiting for me. “Need a ride back to the trail?” he asked. It would have been hard to hitchhike back to the trail from this busy intersection (it’s always easier to hitchhike into town than out of it), so I got back in his car. As he drove me back to the trailhead, he made repeated attempts to get me to sleep at his house that night. “Oh, looks like it’s really coming down out there. You sure you don’t want to just spend the night at my place? I got plenty of room …” I will never know whether he was just a run-of-the-mill lonely, chubby guy or whether he intended to chain me up in his basement, but either way, when I finally insisted that he pull over and I got out into the rain, I shivered. I could feel alternate versions of myself wandering down different forks in the path and suffering grievous harm, like when you're running drunk through a park at night and just miss breaking your kneecap on an unseen park bench. The body physically shakes off the memory.
The other worrisome ride occurred last summer, somewhere outside of the town of Corner Brook in Newfoundland. A rust-pocked green-and-white utility van pulled over to pick me up. I shouldered my pack, jogged up to the truck’s window, and glanced inside. The back of the van was snowed over with white paper bags and polystyrene fast-food containers. The passenger-side foot space too. The cup holder was mounded with cigarette ash, like the world’s worst cupcake. Something crimson and sticky was splattered across the dashboard, ketchup probably. The driver was squirrel-meat scrawny and wore a collapsed baseball cap and was doing a weird cud-chewing thing with his jaw, a lit cigarette seesawing between his lips. He ashed the cigarette, spouted a stream of smoke out the puckered corner of his mouth, and asked with a smile, “Where ya going, b’y?” When he spoke, I saw that his teeth were dandelion yellow, phantasmagoric in their decay.
Never have I seen a car so flagrantly bristling with red flags. And yet for some reason—honestly, to this day I do not know why, besides the fact that I have a Midwestern fear of turning away the kindness of strangers—I hopped in. As he pulled back onto the road, ash floated up out of the ashtray and swirled around the cabin like gypsy moths. We talked. His name was Eric. He had two kids and a girlfriend. His job involved heaving fish around—not catching the fish, but moving them around on the boat once they had been caught. At some point, he turned to me and asked if I wanted to “take a draw.” Not knowing what that meant and fearing the worst (meth, Russian roulette, anything involving his or my mouth), I said no thanks.
“Never met a city person dat doesn’t smoke weed before,” he said, with that strangely hooked Celtic lilt that Newfoundlanders have. He checked his rearview. “If it’s all right with you though, I do be pulling over and rolling me one.” (Yes, Newfoundlanders do say “do be.” Theirs is a strange, isolated dialect.)
Again I did not protest. He pulled onto a dirt road and began veering at high speed around rainwater-filled potholes. My right hand tightened around the knife in my pocket. This was it, the moment I had been warned about my whole life.
Eric pulled the van over. As he bent over his joint-rolling with the deftness and blank attention of a sushi chef, he informed me that if he doesn’t smoke once every couple of hours his hands get to shaking something awful. Because I couldn’t resist, I steered the conversation around to dental care—something about how I didn’t have dental insurance, because our healthcare in the states is so screwed up. He told me that dental wasn’t covered by the Canadian government, either. And anyway, he wouldn't go anyway because he hates those sumbitches.
“You never go to the dentist?” I asked.
“Not for eleven years,” he said, with a proud nod.
“Wow,” I said. “Don't you ever get a cavity?”
“Oh sure. It’s no big problem,” he said. “I just chew on the other side of my mouth for a while until it comes out.”
I told him that my father had had a similar experience as a boy. A dentist in Fort Worth had drilled two of his teeth without any painkillers, because he was in a hurry. (He´d charitably advised his young patient to “be a man about it.”) Today, my dad has to be given a heavy dose of nitrous just to have his teeth cleaned.
Eric took a long drag.
“My way’s cheaper,” he said, with a sad, rotted smile.
The economic constraints of travel have changed since Kerouac’s day, but not much. Kerouac writes that it cost him $25 to buy a bus ticket from Denver to Los Angeles, which is equivalent to $225 today. A standard day-of fare on Greyhound now costs $195; with some planning, one can get a plane ticket for around $80.
A hitchhike from Denver to Los Angeles during Kerouac’s time, adjusted for inflation, cost $0.
Today, it still costs $0.
For years, people have been trying to find a way to make this freeform, free form of travel at once popular and safe—in essence, tackling the question of how to rekindle people’s trust in strangers. Back in 1938, Chapman Milling recommended that each state begin issuing hitchhiking licenses, which would file away the hitchhiker’s fingerprints and require him or her to meet certain basic requirements (age, lack of a criminal or dangerous psychiatric record, etc.). When pulling over to pick up a hitchhiker, a driver could ask to see his or her license. And, in the unlikely event of a robbery or murder, the criminal hitchhiker would be easier to locate. “Any law which is openly by nullified respectable people breeds disrespect for law in general,” Milling concluded. “Yet people, since laws began, have always nullified, whenever possible, laws which inhibited their personal liberty. Shall we, then, continue to pass ineffective laws to solve this problem or shall we dignify the custom of hitchhiking by surrounding it with sane regulation and control?”
Milling’s recommendation is emblematic of its time, in that it presumes that the hitchhiker will necessarily be the culprit. By the 1970s, a number of high-profile, car-owning serial killers (particularly those targeting hitchhikers) changed that perception. So in 1975, a Republican state rep from Connecticut named Herbert V. Camp Jr. proposed a state-wide system of legal hitchhiking in which hitchers would carry cards featuring a strip of magnetic tape that they could swipe to display their destination on an electronic sign up ahead on the highway, giving motorists more time to make a decision. The card could also presumably be used to locate the hitchhiker’s last known whereabouts in the event that he or she disappeared. “With identification it would certainly be no more dangerous than, say, riding with a cab driver in New York City,” Camp said.
More recently, people have taken to Craigslist, cooked up apps for “real-time ridesharing,” and organized “slugging” areas (where drivers can pick up strangers in order to use the carpool lane, or to cross a congested bridge, as they did in New York City during Hurricane Sandy). The web forum digihitch.com features a wide array of advice from experienced hitchhikers. In her Times op-ed, Ginger Strand recommends that hitchhikers take pictures of their driver’s license plate and text it to a friend, or upload a picture of the driver to a social media site. Of late, I’ve begun following Strand's advice, discretely taking pictures of each driver with my iPhone and texting them to a loved one. One can easily envision a vastly more advanced system, combining social networking, smartphones, and onboard computers so that both driver and hitchhiker would be able to check one another’s safety record before agreeing to ride together, and could leave feedback for one another afterwards—not unlike the system implemented by couchsurfing.org, which I’ve been using with great success for years. In this way many of our fears of technology—its surveillant tendencies, forever probing ever-smaller pockets of privacy—can be inverted. Technology can do all the things people say it can’t: it can get us out of the house, facilitate conversations with real-live humans, and keep us safer. Provided we have the guts to try.
When I heard they were finally making a film adaptation of On The Road—a dream that has been in the works for decades; Francis Ford Coppola finally bought them in 1980 for $95,000, and then let the project die on the vine—with a cast of sexy young actors like Twilight’s Kristen Stewart and Tron’s Garret Hedlund, I had a fleeting thought that perhaps it would revive interest in hitchhiking, in the way that Easy Rider inspired motorcycling, Forrest Gump inspired people to run across the country, and Fight Club inspired people to punch faces and blow up Starbucks. As far as I know, it has not, and it will not. Critical reception to it has been chilly; they dinged it for being too faithful to the book (“if there were an On the Road museum, this could be the elaborate diorama at its center” [Time]), too tedious (“exhausting, as opposed to exhilarating” [Christian Science Monitor]), too nostalgic (“another ‘primitive’ postwar antique repurposed for boutique sale” [the Village Voice]), and most commonly, and most absurdly, for lacking direction (“The narrative lacks a strong heartbeat; you keep wondering why the spectacle isn't as affecting as it is picturesque” [the Wall Street Journal]).
Many of these complaints can presumably be attributed to the fact that the critics watched the film in the wrong way. It is not a film to be watched in a theater or on a TV, on deadline, at the age of forty-five. This is a movie to be watched while curled up in bed, on a laptop, with the lights turned low, perhaps stoned, at the age of fifteen or seventeen. I imagine if I had seen it in that manner, it would have become one of my formative films, one of those movies I would not just watch but live in, watching repeatedly and in no particular order, like Dazed and Confused, Basquiat, or (yes) Fight Club. The workings of romance on the adolescent heart are alchemical, unpredictable. The critics’ most bitter complaint seems to be that Salles is incapable of resurrecting the warm, giddy throb they felt as teen boys (out of twenty-two reviews I read of the film, twenty-one were by men) while reading On The Road. But if they were to go back and read the book today, I suspect they would have precisely the same complaints.
The problem may not just be age. The moral atmosphere of American life has changed considerably over the past half century; we have moved towards Kerouac’s liberal ideals, which has slackened the tension between the lived and the imagined. Salles tries hard to provoke the reader and to reclaim the rawness of Kerouac’s prose by culling many scenes directly from the original, prebowdlerized version of the book, the famous “scroll” (reprinted by Viking for the first time in 2007). Salles amps up the sex and drugs, zooming in on crushed Benzedrine inhalers and lingering, boldly, on the many graphic sex (particularly, homoerotic) scenes of the scroll, but all to little avail. At a screening of the film, Salles tried to explain to a Manhattan audience why he, a Brazilian, was the right person to direct the quintessential American road movie. When he first read On The Road in the 1960s, Brazil remained under a military dictatorship, and all forms of entertainment were strictly censored. “The first time I read On the Road, I fell completely in love with those characters who were allowed to search for all the possible forms of freedom that you can envisage. Those characters that you see in the film became the heroes of my generation in Brazil, which is quite unexpected, perhaps, for some of you.” The film was destined to fail, because the questions of freedom it addresses—sexual, personal, and spatial—are those we’ve largely been granted. Perhaps it will become a black market hit in Pyongyang.
Externalities aside, the film has its own inherent flaws. The casting, as has been noted elsewhere, was well intentioned but disastrous. Sam Riley, who plays Sal, looks like a young DiCaprio gone dark and puckered around the orifices, as if he’d been left out on the counter for too long. He entirely lacks the puppy-like vigor the character demands. Garret Hedlund, playing Dean, is worse still. Tall and blonde and deep voiced, the actor is superhumanly seductive, but not in the oozing, human-quicksand way of Dean Moriarty. He also plays the character far too cool, with none of the manic stream-of-consciousness energy that inspired a generation of speed freaks. Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction in The Master more closely approximates Dean’s feral vigor; he was a man to be feared as well as loved. As if aware of Hedlund’s shortcomings, the movie tries to impress qualities upon him that Hedlund does not evince. At one point, Old Bull Lee (aka William S. Burroughs, as played by Viggo Mortensen), says to Sal: “Dean does not feel responsibility toward others. He does not know the concept. Then again, he feels others have some mysterious obligation to support him.”
This is something we often, for one reason or another, lose sight of. When he is not viewed through the hazy veil of youth and the humid eyes of Sal Paradise, the character of Dean Moriarty, based upon the real life Neal Cassady, is kind of a scumbag. A juvenile delinquent and former male prostitute, he stole without compunction and took turns abandoning his wives and children. For someone who claims to be enlightened, he often displays a shocking lack of empathy for people unlike himself: at one point in the book, a man entrusts Dean and Sal to drive his Cadillac to Chicago, and Dean proceeds to smash the thing up, then drops off the car in unrecognizable shape at the man's apartment garage, without apology, and runs away.
Dean is also, by today’s standards, statutorily raping fifteen-year-old Marylou. Worse still, at one point he recounts losing his virginity at the age of nine, then turns to Marylou and says, “Oh honey Marylou, if I'd only known you then! Wow! How sweet you musta been at nine.” This comment would be less worrying if we did not also know that Cassady had written to Kerouac in 1948, of William S. Burroughs’s girlfriend's then four-year-old daughter, Julie: “Julie will really be something when she grows up. She’s already hep now to many, many things. I want to keep an eye on her & when she’s about 8 or 9 see just how far she’s gone. “
To the modern eye, Moriarty/Cassady is repellent. But Kerouac overlooked his many failings, choosing to view him as a glorious anomaly and potential curative to the starched conformity of the time. He trusted Cassady completely, sleeping in the backseat as Cassady veered recklessly across mountainous terrain. In return, Kerouac was given the inspiration to write an American classic and to warp the grain of a generation into new shapes.
It occurs to me that the psychic exposure of being a hitchhiker—the opening of oneself to awesome risk and almost divine judgment—is also the key to good writing. Kerouac knew this as well. His thirty rules for writing, entitled “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose”—which include tips both abstruse (“Blow as deep as you want to blow”), non sequitur (“Try never get drunk outside yr own house”) and just downright incorrect (“You’re a Genius all the time”)—includes the very astute suggestion that a writer be “submissive to everything, open, listening.”
This is the crux, and this is the glory, and this is the tragedy of both writing and hitchhiking. They demand of a person a potentially painful, potentially fatal openness: You are standing on the side of the road with thumb outstretched. A car approaches much too fast, then stops sharply ten yards in front of you, sending up a volcanic bulge of dust. You walk to the window. You peer inside. You can tell, even in a glimpse, that the driver is a rhapsodist, a sex addict, a charmer, a convicted car thief, and perhaps some new kind of American saint. Would you take that ride?
Robert Moor is an essayist, journalist, and editor-at-large for the Wag´s Revue. He is currently writing a book of essays about trails—from tiny insect trails to footpaths that span continents—due out from Simon and Schuster in 2014.