The rides they as scarce as the rain
When you’re down to your last shove with nothing to sell
And too far away from the train.
— Billy Joe Shaver, “Ride Me Down Easy”
Here’s a bit of trivia for you.
In 1937, roughly 1-out-of-10 American men had hitchhiked at some point in their lives.
Despite efforts by the Roosevelt administration, the Great Depression was still on the land and men looking for work were standing by the road with their thumbs out, hoping for the ride that would take them to a job.
Hitchhiking was how poor folks got about. Tom T. Hall sang it.
Snowed the night before and it had frozen on the ground
We didn’t have a car and we lived seven miles from town.
I can hear my Daddy’s voice so many years ago, saying
“Don’t forget the coffee, Billy Joe.”
“Mama needs her medicine, she’s got that real bad cough.
We’ll get our check on Monday, tell ol’ Sam we’ll pay him off.
You can catch a ride when you get to the black-top road.
Don’t forget the coffee, Billy Joe.”
For others, hitchhiking was a matter of convenience.
Our “farm” was about 12 miles west of town. During the winter when the pasture was brown and dry, it fell to me to ride the school bus out to see that the cows had hay, sweet feed and such. Then I would walk out to the highway and hitchhike home.
Because everybody up and down the road knew us, and we knew them, I never had trouble catching a ride.
When I got to college, it was another matter. I did not have a car and could not expect my parents to drop everything and drive up to get me every time I wanted to go home. So I would head for the highway and hitch.
In time, other destinations beckoned and I began to calculate what it took to get someone to pick me up. What you wore mattered.
When in military school, I discovered that folks would pull over for a guy in uniform — “give a serviceman a lift” was for some, like my World War II veteran father, a patriotic duty. Even though my uniform made me look more like a member of a high school band than a soldier, drivers still stopped. Once, one asked me what the MMI (Marion Military Institute) on my collar stood for, and I told him “Marine Military Intelligence.” Not sure he believed me, but he did not put me out.
After military school I continued to dress neatly — often a coat and tie. I learned to pick my spot carefully, making sure that there was a place past me where a driver could pull over. A location in a lower speed zone also improved your chances.
Often, it was not possible to make the whole trip with one ride, so a hitchhiker had to piece together rides to get to where they were going. Once, a trip home from Birmingham took me only as far as Monroeville. There the rides dried up and with night approaching I had no choice but to find a pay phone. Daddy drove the 30 miles to get me.
Another time I got stranded in Biloxi (a long story) and was forced to hitch home. The first ride got me far as Mobile. There a family from my town recognized me standing by the side of the road and stopped. They were in a pickup and the cab was full of parents and the kids. About two hours later they delivered a wind-blown me to my mama.
Looking back, I can say that I met some interesting people, only one of whom ever made me feel uncomfortable — not threatened, just, well, glad when we got where we were going.
You don’t see many hitchhikers today. Not sure why. Maybe because more people have cars. I’d be willing to bet that there are more two-car families than no-car families.
Maybe the highways are to blame. Hitchhiking is prohibited on the interstate. On other roads, folks drive faster and there seem to be fewer places to pull off to give a guy a lift.
But mostly I think it is us. Hitchhikers have been demonized, and maybe they should be. We have been told that it is dangerous to pick up someone you don’t know. On the other hand, getting into a car with a stranger doesn’t seem wise, either.
Maybe it is just as well that this part of the American past is, well, past.
Would I want my son to stand on the side of the road, thumb out, waiting to see who or what might stop?
And I wonder how my parents would.
But back then, they did.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson was Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University. Though retired, he continues as a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.