Driving with strangers is an ambitious and inspiring contribution to how we think about travel and ourselves, in an age of climate breakdown and social isolation. It uses a global history of hitchhiking as a touchstone to explore larger political and ethical questions about how to live more cooperatively and empathetically, to share the road and the Earth's resources more equitably, and to embrace the freedom of social encounters rather than to fear those who are different from ourselves. Each chapter tells ‘sociological stories’ of the motor age, from the very first ‘intentional’ hitchhike by Mr Charles Brown Jr in the summer of 1916, to the ‘sports hitchhikers’ and hitchhiking clubs of contemporary Europe and Russia. The book encourages the reader to ‘think like a hitchhiker’, to embrace the view from the margins, whether one has chosen to be there, has been propelled by circumstances or is in need of a stretch of the imagination. Driving with strangers proposes a ‘vagabond sociological’ perspective which can inform how we deal with the social and ecological crises of the coming decades, drawing on proven practical examples from around the world and the thoughts of inspirational travellers and their songs, poems, artwork and recollections.
A ‘romantic and gallant and even brilliant adventure’
Many hitchhikers experience a moment of revelation the first time they do it, regarding its possibilities for cooperation in the wider world. This overview of the themes of the book, contrasts the more Romantic view of travel with its Hobbesian counterpart and suggests that the (largely hidden) history of hitchhiking provides us with a critical position from which to examine how we look at one another and why we organise our societies the way we do.
This chapter offers a clear position on the beginning of hitchhiking by contrasting the early twentieth-century rambling gentleman vagabonds of the likes of Tickner Edwardes and Vachel Lindsay with the 'first hitchhiker' of the motor age, Charles Brown Jr, whose 800-mile journey from Fort Wayne to New York City in October 1916 marks the moment when a new form of lift-seeking became possible. Brown’s journey is a touchstone for looking at the place of hitchhiking in the history of mutual aid and transport: how the basics of signalling have evolved and differed across particular cultures, as sharing the road has moved from pragmatic economic experience to an ‘art’ or ‘science’ worthy of guidebooks and cultural commentary, to online ‘twitch-hiking’.
Being on the kerbside affords one a different view of the time and space through which one is travelling. It has led many hitchhikers to write, paint, sculpt and photograph the world in a unique, direct and arguably more overtly political manner than might be achieved by other forms of mobility. Such a position warrants more research, one might think, yet hitchhiking has rarely had much in the way of systematic academic or even popular analysis, beyond the specialist article or generalised news feature. Using Jacob Holdt’s notion of a ‘vagabond sociology’, the author proposes a way of building up an understanding of the nature of power in a society as viewed through the eyes of the hitchhiker as a prospective roadside theorist.
This chapter examines the politics of the travelling song – in particular, the struggles of different marginalised groups or sections of society, moving from Woody Guthrie and ‘Memphis Minnie’ during the years of the Great Depression, to how ‘the road’ became central to the politics and culture of the civil rights campaigns during the 1960s. Many of the same themes are reprised in the 1980s, with a short case study of the moral panic about New Age travellers (whom the author stayed with on one of his hitchhiking journeys) and the closing down of some ‘public spaces’ to control alternative lifestyles. Today, activists and musicians sculpt their own songs of the open road via more niche web-based communities that overlap with a globally connected resurgent hitchhiking culture, some of which is a result of enforced migration.
All conversations about hitchhiking dovetail on the subject of human nature. Where better then to examine the topic in truly challenging sets of circumstances, when people’s best and worst sides come to the fore? This chapter starts with the story of Ida and Maurice Piller, two Jewish Belgians hitchhiking across occupied France in 1940 trying to find enough kindness and hope en route to ensure a passage away from the Nazis. The chapter suggests that the experiences of those on the road during times of conflict allows us insight into the realities of human cooperation and are lessons in terms of how we organise our societies to prevent the slide into what Zygmunt Bauman called the 'ambivalence' of modernity or Hannah Arendt called the 'banality of evil'. The anthropological record offers much cause for optimism if we humanise one another and see less 'like a state' and believe more in our potential for mutual aid (as occurred with the massive reorganisation of transport in Britain between 1939 and 1944 – although history seems to have omitted the narrative of a 'nation of hitchhikers'). Many of these arguments are reprised at the end of this chapter in terms of responses to the ongoing 'border crisis' in Europe, with some remarkable examples of mutual aid shown by contemporary hitchhiking organisations towards their refugee and asylum-seeker counterparts.
Hitchhikers sometimes reflect on their road days as being the 'freest' moments of their lives. Arguably the most unburdened cohort of roadside travellers was the immediate post-war generation, able to explore places which to their parents were just names on a map. In doing so, they glimpsed an optimism and sense of internationalism forged out of new roadside alliances with the young of other nations also looking beyond the era of war and austerity. This chapter assesses the broadening social as well as geographical horizons of a handful of diarists and authors whose perspectives steadily challenged the liberal democratic assumptions of freedom that the new Cold War politics tried to impose upon them. Rather than seeing liberty as a quality defined by the 'political contract' between State and citizen, we see the evolution of new narratives of freedom – firstly questioning the sexism of hitchhiking culture and then the assumptions of post-war consumerism as an end in itself – with some choosing to broaden their political horizons on the so-called ‘Hippie Trail’ in the 1960s.
According to one American study of the psychology of long-distance hitchhikers, using the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), there was a tendency for their personality type to be inclined towards the empathetic, intuitive, adventurous and flexible. Such people often continued their hitchhiking well into their twenties and beyond, believing it to be part of a political attitude towards the world – respecting nature, challenging injustice and trying to make a fairer society. This chapter uses the daunting 1,500-mile Alaska Highway (and an imaginary visitors’ book at Watson Lake) as a real-life metaphor for following pioneering women of the 1940s and 1950s (Gertrude Baskine and Lorna Whishaw), eccentrics like ‘extreme twitcher’ Kenn Kaufman and legendary world travellers such as André Brugiroux and Benoît Grieu and their often eternal quest for ‘authenticity’ in human cultures and interaction. The discussion touches briefly on the cult appeal of the ‘tragic’ adventurer Chris McCandless, before looking at contemporary eco-activists campaigning against the Tar Sands development and other despoiling projects in northern Canada and how hitchhiking fits into their world view.
Economics and tourism work best when they involve the participation and respect of those they impact on the most. As the ecological consequences of unlimited growth economics become ever more evident, it is helpful to think about alternatives to it, from the point of view of the 'experience value' of trade and our connection to others – as evidenced by the rise in interest in 'gift economies' and alternative indices to gross domestic product (GDP). Drawing on the anthropological ideas of Marcel Mauss and David Graeber, the chapter uses a number of hitchhiking situations in a variety of African nations to take a more people-centred way of solving complex problems outwith the top-down solutions proposed by the World Bank or International Monetary Fund. This is similar to how to think about travellers and their connection with the cultures they visit. The chapter follows a number of exemplary 'responsible travellers' over the last half century and argues that a 'slower' approach to travel facilitates a more ecological and just set of economic transactions in the future.
Hitchhiking and the increasing levels of trust in the world
Hitchhiking and the Fall! Everyone has a theory about why hitchhiking declined in many parts of the world, from the practical to the conspiratorial. Some of these speculations have been facilitated by the concurrent rise of litigation culture and the globalisation of the media. The roadside realities are the massive increase in private car ownership and cheaper public transport which has impacted on the capacity of hitchhiking to continue from one generation to another. The narrative of declining trust, often linked to nostalgia, belies a more pronounced and positive democratic shift within societies rather than the reverse, largely down to the emergence of new social movements and critiques of power that have emerged in the last half century. The chapter suggests that trust ties have become stronger in a global age and that the kind of trust underpinning hitchhiking can be seen in many local transport or hospitality organisations outside the formal economic sector. The millennial generation, responding to the climate crisis, are better placed to see this than the baby-boomer generation, and the renewed interest in hitchhiking through global television series such as Peking Express, the ongoing realities of hitchhiking in Cuba and the rise of 'casual carpooling' in the USA suggest a more positive future for trust relations.