What killed hitchhiking?

/ Source: Special to msnbc.com

In Douglas Adams’ hilarious “Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” fictitious characters thumb a ride through space to meet Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed president of the galaxy; Marvin, a depressed robot; and the Vogons, a warlike race who compose poetry about whatever they find in their armpits.

Down here on Earth, hitchhiking was never quite so colorful. But talk to some baby boomers, and their eyes roll back with delight remembering the joy of soliciting free rides.

Clifford Popp, a 49-year-old public relations professional working in Pittsburgh, hitchhiked throughout high school and college. What was the allure?

“The freedom of being on the road, man,” Popp said. “Jack Kerouac was one of our idols, and ‘On the Road’ was our bible.” It was thrilling to climb into a car with a perfect stranger and chat. “It often provided inspiration for short stories, songs, and poetry,” he said.

Gillian Christie, the 52-year-old president of Christie Communications, Inc., in Santa Barbara, Calif., found hitching during the 1970s the perfect way to escape a cloistered youth and meet the real people of America. During a college break, she hitchhiked from Colorado to Alaska.

“The experience was more than eye-opening and humorous in retrospect,” Christie said. When French Canadian hunters picked her up in the Yukon territory, she climbed into the back seat next to something warm, which turned out to be a freshly killed elk.

Thumbs Down
Nowadays, hitchhikers often worry about becoming the hunted. While you’ll still find folks like Ben Boscia, a 26-year-old cook boldly thumbing from his home in Coudersport, Penn., to California and back, the phenomenon is about as popular today as an “Impeach Nixon” bumper sticker.

Society has given hitchhiking a big thumbs down. Just look at Let’s Go Publications. This best-selling budget travel series, founded in 1960, caught its own ride on the success of the hitchhiking movement. Its 1962 Europe edition carried tips like this: “Boys will get rides faster if they pair off with girls; girls welcome the protection.” By the 1970s and 1980s, however, the books were more frank about the dangers. In 1991, the Europe guide stated a new, official position: Let’s Go does not recommend it.

“When we implemented our latest redesign of the books last year, we finally got rid of the thumb logo, which had become a relic of an earlier era,” said Tom Mercer, an editor and writer with Let’s Go Publications. “Though Let’s Go readers might still choose to hitchhike in certain circumstances, we felt that the logo was no longer emblematic of budget travel.”

Along For the Ride
So, what killed hitchhiking? The answers may be as complex as that swirly pattern on your thumb.

Robert Thompson, popular culture expert and professor of media and culture at Syracuse University, believes three things are responsible.

“The interstate highway system took over as the principal route of long-distance travel, and hitchhiking was forbidden on these well-patrolled throughways,” Thompson said. “Law enforcement in many communities began taking a less casual approach to hitchhikers.” And finally, he said, “a generation of paranoid horror tales of what can happen if you hitchhike scared the bejesus out of most people who might otherwise have taken up this unique form of ad hoc carpooling.”

Gillian Christie, the hitcher who once shared a ride with an elk, has her own horror story. While thumbing from L.A. to San Francisco, she was picked up by a man in a restored truck painted bright yellow.

“I complimented him on his truck, which I guess he took as a compliment of his maleness,” Christie said. “He pulled off on some old back road in the middle of nowhere and tried to attack me. I hauled off and hit him in the face and told him never to do that again to me or any woman and to take me back to the main road.”

No ‘Safe’ Place
While parents everywhere, including Christie, now admonish their children not to hitchhike, the debate continues as to why this American pastime got a flat tire.

Phil Reed, automotive expert and Consumer Advice Editor for the Edmunds.com automotive site, doesn’t think the expansion of the freeway system killed hitchhiking.

“It was the demise of the ‘60s mentality of love and trust and the belief in community,” Reed said. “Hitchhiking hippies were replaced by hitchhiking ex-cons. Even I wouldn’t pick up a hitchhiker today.”

Hitchhiking was once part of the American dream of movement and getting on the road. If America can no longer safely satisfy the dream, are there any countries that can?

“There is no ‘safe’ place to hitchhike anywhere in the world,” said Tom Mercer of Let’s Go Publications, “but travelers still find success hitching their way from town to town in certain countries and regions of the globe.” In Europe, it’s still easy to catch rides in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia. Hitching remains common in New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, and rural areas of Central America and China.

So, if your great American dream includes hitchhiking, perhaps it’s best to proffer your passport.

Robin Dalmas is a freelance writer based in Redmond, Wash. She is the former travel editor and producer for MSNBC.com.