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eNews 42: Lauren Daniels' interview with Simon and Tom about The Hitchers of OZ
Mention hitchhiking in any social situation, and be prepared for a myriad of stories and points of view. Some people might recall setting out on the highway, heading any way the wind blew, with little money or forward planning, motivated only by curiosity and the promise of adventure. Others may have hitched out of necessity, hopelessly lost somewhere until they stuck out their thumb. Others might never have hitched, and yet still tell stories second or third hand. Everyone has an opinion about the notion of begging a lift from a stranger on the open road, since it might not seem like the wisest thing to do. The same applies to anyone responding to a hitcher. But one person’s risk is another person’s adventure or even civic duty — or is such an act fuelled by boldness or faith in human nature?
That hitchhiking had apparently gone unrecorded for posterity seemed a great pity. So in 1999, we began collecting material for a book. Our research gave us a brief insight into the history of hitchhiking around the world; evidence suggests it is as old as transport itself. But it is in North America where hitchhiking culture was really established. In the early 20th century, as automobile ownership became more commonplace, the practice of motorists giving lifts to complete strangers became widespread. Indeed, during the Depression of the 1930s, the US Federal Government established over 300 Transit Bureau Centers to assist usually poor and often homeless hitchers.
From the 1950s onward, hitchhiking became associated with youth culture in the developed world, especially in North America, Western Europe and Australasia. The romantic motif of ‘The Road’ as a means to spontaneous, long-distance travel was equated as much with practicality as with expanding one’s
mind. Where the notion of ostensibly free travel spread, so did the practice. Countless young Australasians travelled within and beyond the vastness of their own continent to join with their counterparts from other nations, hitchhiking to the four corners of the earth. Before the days of mass transit and cheap air fares, hitchhiking was the only practical way to tour the world.
Hitchhiking, of course, has come to be represented in the arts: in novels such as On The Road by Jack Kerouac, movies like Easy Rider, and in the music of Woody Guthrie, Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, Ani DiFranco, and Green Day. Not all representations are positive — think of the many cinematic antagonists who have used hitchhiking as a means to fulfil some murderous intent. Such movies could be seen as reflecting the few yet all too well-reported incidents linking hitchhiking with murder, rape, and robbery. The resulting climate of fear coincided with the rise of the cult of selfish individualism in the West: the notion that every person is an island and their automobile a steel bubble not to be intruded upon. People quickly became suspicious of strangers in general, and in particular of those standing, thumbs outstretched, on the roadside. Hitchhiking requires a cooperative spirit, of which there suddenly seems to be a shortage.
Fortunately, hitchhiking seems to have survived and even evolved to conserve resources and protect the environment. Contemporary initiatives such as carpooling rely on a sense of mutual assistance which appears directly related to the ethos of hitchhiking.
It was always our intention to make this book a page-turner crammed with a wide variety of stories and observations. We hope it will be a fair and interesting record of the kind of interactions, good or bad, which take place between strangers who find themselves heading in the same direction — not just in terms of the highway, but also in terms of the human condition.
Our aim is to continue collecting views, stories, and essays on hitchhiking. Any comments or feedback from readers is welcome. Please contact us at email@example.com or through our website.
– Simon Sykes and Tom Sykes
Portsmouth, England, 2009