Thumbin' It: The Evolution of Hitchhiking

“Hey buddy, you lookin’ for a ride?”

With his thumb pointed skyward, saying ‘no’ would be an insult to the speaker’s intelligence. He was looking for a ride, just not from this bearded monstrosity of a man.

“I’m headed east on the 10 to Juntura,” the driver continued.

In his 22 years, Keenan Recker had heard enough gruesome campfire stories to know the fate of hapless hitchhikers. He imagined the horrors in store should he join this stranger. Torture. Decapitation. Ritual sacrifice.

“Be dark bout’n hour or two,” offered the grizzly. Keenan looked at the horizon, looked at his watch, and opened the car door.

The act of bumming a ride has existed ever since people discovered modes of transportation superior to ambulation. The history of the word ‘hitchhike’, however, is as bewildering as the identity of those who pioneered the tradition.

One popular, though highly disputed, theory traces these origins to the 18th century. In 1737, David Garrick and Samuel Johnson completed a 150 mile journey with only one horse between the two of them. Because of this transportation constraint, they were forced to devise a system that wouldn’t overburden the creature.

They concluded that one man would ride a certain distance, hitch the steed to a tree and begin hiking, thereby allowing his companion—once he reached the horse—the opportunity for a restful ride before switching off again. This practice was likely as old as the domestication of horses, but Garrick and Johnson were the first recorded travelers to employ the method.

Though delightfully quaint, many etymologists find this anecdote too tailored to be true. The journey itself is not doubted, but its direct connection to the word ‘hitchhiker’ certainly is.

A more plausible, albeit less rustic, theory suggests the term was coined in the first years of the automobile era. The earliest models were so slow that a hiker could literally “hitch” himself to the running board of the car, thus prompting some clever observer to create the word we know today. There is also added linguistic appeal in the double meaning of ‘hitch’; in defining the action of attaching oneself to a moving vehicle, it also describes the gesture of raising one’s thumb to indicate intention.

The origins of this pastime may be uncertain, but what is clear is that the phrase and tradition gained popularity in the 20th century. Hitchhiking was a necessity during the Great Depression, as depicted by Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath, but it wasn’t until Kerouac’s On the Road that its appeal found new meaning. The physical act itself had little impact in 1950’s America as much as the lifestyle it represented. This generation fulfilled the desire to go off the beaten path by stepping on the beaten path.

And that lifestyle is exactly what Keenan Recker wants. It is no surprise, then, that Kerouac is his favorite author and the inspiration for his new hobby. “I want to see the world in a way that few experience,” explains Recker, who spent three days hitchhiking from Portland, Oregon to McCall, Idaho. “At first I thought it was stupid and dangerous, but now I’m hooked.”

Indeed, hitchhiking has rarely enjoyed a balanced reputation. It is polarized either as a guaranteed bloodbath or a state of nirvana, with little in-between. It is at once overly romanticized and the stuff of horror stories. In fact, both aspects contain elements of truth. Most travelers never experience physical harm (though any good hitchhiker is capable of weaving a tall tale at the snap of a finger).

Some stories, however, are chilling. Troy Barnes, veteran hitchhiker of 20 years, was once forced to pull a knife on a truck driver and his companion. “They were saying some pretty uncomfortable things,” says Barnes, “so I took my knife out and told them to pull over and let me out.” As unsettling as this story may be, it is the only frightening encounter in his two decades of thumbing it. And Barnes confesses that the incident was entirely avoidable. “I had a weird feeling about it, but I was desperate to get moving.”

Risk is an inherent element of hitchhiking, something Recker glossed over for his friends and family. “Of course I was scared, but that is part of the reason for going in the first place, to confront that fear and grow from it.” Recalling the man headed east to Juntura, Keenan laughs about how terrified he was. “He was the friendliest guy in the world, but all I could think at the time was, ‘this guy is going to murder me.’”

While moments of fear are not uncommon, they are well compensated for with the more pleasant aspects of hitchhiking. Aaron Rouza recalls the time a large family stopped to offer him a ride, shoving their daughter onto the lap of the eldest son to make room. When they deposited him thirty miles later, he had gained $20 and a new appreciation for humanity. “It’s easy to be cynical about the world,” says Rouza who spent June and July on the road, “but I also saw a lot of kindness that summer.”

Seventy year-old church deacon Larry Sample recalls his memories of hitchhiking in the 1960s. Long hair and short winters; warm breezes and cool nights; loud music and quiet self-reflection; many friends and few plans. “The [hitchhiking] community was strong,” says Sample, “we looked out for each other.” This sense of community was a defining aspect of the counterculture. Like most minority groups–they were literally ‘against the culture’—unity was essential. “Those were good days,” he reflects, “they were the golden days of hitchhiking.”

Sample may be more right than he knows. Numerous states have outlawed hitchhiking, and growing paranoia limits the once casual attitude America had towards the activity; indeed a noticeable decline in hikers has been observed. What was once a carefree means of transportation has been vilified as a dangerous activity, all in the span of two generations.

Researchers Chester and Smith argue that hitchhiking has been nearly eliminated thanks to well publicized acts of violence of and by hikers, and their Hollywood adaptations, such as the films Hitcher and Kalifornia. The Lonely Planet series went so far as to state that “these are not the Kerouac days of old . . . we feel it is so dangerous that we would rather people didn’t take the risk.” With such vivid arguments against the free-spirited tradition, it is no wonder people avoid hitchhiking.

But while the physical act of ‘thumbing a ride’ may be an endangered pastime, the value behind the gesture has grown stronger than ever. The desire to travel on the cheap while meeting new people has spawned several resources that could exist only in the 21st century.

Online hitchhiking may seem like an oxymoron to many, but the synthesis of technology and community has produced websites developed solely for that purpose. The creation of rideshare opportunities is a testament to this symbiosis. Craigslist offers a popular rideshare forum where people can post offers and requests for traveling partners. Every day there are over 25 listings in Portland alone. While this may lack the glamour of traditional hitchhiking, it espouses the philosophy with an efficiency that only technology can offer. is another example of alternative travel made accessible online, and in fact transcends the limits of ridesharing and even hitchhiking. Members create a profile, select their home city, and choose their hosting availability on a spectrum that ranges from ‘free for coffee’ to ‘available couch’. Hosts can also become travelers by simply searching their destination city of interest, browsing profiles, and chatting with potential hosts. The website is free and immensely popular. The golden age of hitchhiking may have disappeared, but it has been replaced with the chrome age.

Though a cultural emphasis on technology has upgraded our generation to hitchhiking 2.0, it has not eliminated the original. There will always be those who view such virtual trends with suspicion, who favor the thud of pavement over the click of a mouse. For these people, hitchhiking is an art, a lifestyle that has never been in fashion and therefore can never go out of fashion. You can still see them, from time to time, with a bag on their back and their thumb in the air.