The Tide has Turned: Reflections on American Negativity

By: Bernd Wechner
© October 1, 2002

The Tide has Turned: Reflections on American Negativity

The Tide has Turned: Reflections on American Negativity

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: October 1, 2002

After my plans for an extended visit last year failed me, I’m suddenly back home in Australia with nose to the grindstone again, on the professional set, designing and delivering commercial training courses. My first job has me on edge, there’s an awful lot to learn and do in preparation - but where should it be but the United States?

So, I’m on the verge of first trip to the States in a decade, and have very little time to squander - with enormous commitments and opportunities on the Australian side of the Pacific before and after the course. All the same, I’m excited at the opportunity to catch up with some of the old acquaintances I’d meant to track down last year, in the short few days I have in Seattle.

I find myself reflecting on the state of hitching of the States – the rather extreme views I consistently hear about it. I’ve never hitched in the States, may never do at this rate. And yet over the years I’ve engaged in some of the most unusually biased discussion on the matter with all manner of American’s, in person and on-line.

There’s a near ubiquitous feeling that that it’s just plain suicide, and more curiously, that it doesn’t work anymore. In my scrap book I have some notes which epitomise these feelings. They were posted by the webmaster at some while ago, but have disappeared now. Their author, Scott A. Moore has pulled those pages down, but according my notes on the site he wrote:

    The first time I left Montana for an extended trip, I spent a summer hitch-hiking around the country. This got me excited about traveling, so the following spring I decided to take a semester off and do it again. This time I did it for a year. The trip took me to Boston, and California, and Georgia, and all over the damned place. I hitch-hiked through over 40 of the 50 states before I got back to Bohemia, in Bozeman, Montana. Of course I stopped to look around a few times, and even worked a few jobs.

    Hitch-hiking is weird, especially in America. Hitchhiking in America is definitely much weirder than in Europe, perhaps because America is a little more on the edge, a little more extreme. At any rate, I met a lot of interesting people, and did a lot of interesting things. I'm sure you've heard that cliché adjective before, which is really a euphemism for "bizarre and trying". One thing I can say for sure; it's a good thing I did it then, because I sure as hell wouldn't do it now!

It’s amazing how common these sentiments are. There is a transition in personal perspective that parallels the perceived (or imagined) transition in cultural perspective. What was a wild adventure, has become "bizarre and trying" in retrospect, itself a kind of euphemism for "downright stupid". Europe of course is stereotypically seen as less bizarre, and it may well be, for all my doubts (having experienced my fair share of the bizarre on European roadsides). But perhaps that is because the writers from whom I glean thse sentiments are predominantly American? I’ve a dearth of European writings on America to compare with alas - only informal anecdotes. They seem all the same to be generally convinced that hitching in the States is still an wild and interesting adventure.

I can recall Jacob Holdt’s vivid descriptions on my last visit to Copenhagen. He’d hitched the States for many years in the 1970’s and today, on his drives across the States would pick them up. Most American hitch-hikers today, he tells me, are either groupies (dead-heads, ferals, whatever you like to call them) or criminals, and he prefers the criminals – they don’t smell as bad. It’s easy to imagine if most hitch-hiker’s you pick up are so beyond the pale that the drivers who pick them up are not your average joes either.

In "The Lost Highway" Jeffery Perso sums it up brilliantly with his interview of James Maclaren:

    James MacLaren has been hitchhiking for 30 years. He's 47 now, so that means that for most of his adult life he's traveled by thumb. He considers himself an expert on the subject. In fact, he's written The Hitchhiker's Handbook, published in paperback by Loompanics Unlimited.

    "What's different from 1965," MacLaren says, "is that there are not as many hitchhikers out there with you, and that is directly related to the increased number of assholes on television who have sufficiently terrified everyone into believing that you have to hide in the house. The media has done a wonderful job of frightening the populace."

    MacLaren takes the line that, counter to popular perception and media myth, hitchhiking is relatively safe. "If you look at a statistical abstract," he says, "the risk- assessment factors for hitchhiking are so vanishingly remote that information on hitchhiking is almost impossible to get, but statistics are there for falling off a roof."

    Two summers ago, MacLaren hitched from Cocoa Beach to Chicago, where he promoted his book at the American Booksellers Association national convention. Along the route, he encountered just two other hitchhikers. Besides the diminished number of fellow travelers, MacLaren also detected a change in attitude among those zipping past in their late-model autos. While he notes that there is some sort of fundamental constant at work between hitchhikers and the type of people who will offer rides--and it is probably that those who once hitchhiked now stop for those who continue to hitchhike--there has been a chill in the welcome.

    This has another effect: The number of those willing to provide rides has dropped proportionally with those seeking rides. Still, MacLaren says, "Once you get them out of the Buick, people are nicer now than they used to be. Ironically, this may be a backlash to the fear-mongering climate we are in. You can meet neat people," MacLaren says. "The buttholes blow on by, and that leaves the characters, those with a bit of a slant on life, with wit. Those are the people I would prefer to ride with, anyway."

An interesting and far more trustworthy perspective (in my view) than most I read or hear. MacLaren speaks with clear insight.

I reflect on my impending departure to the States with no shortage of professional stress alas, but an underlying enthusiasm for the opportunity to see however briefly some of the folk I cherish, and a land about which, in the end, I know so very little … I’ll hopefully report on a gathering of hitch-hikers in Seattle in early November, no matter how modest …. Keep posted.

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