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February 06, 2007

Geezer Hitchhikers

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Saturday I did another one-day long-distance drive from Hollister, California to Seattle. (This time it took 14 1/3 hours total to drive 886 miles, and I averaged just under 62 mph, stops included.) I doubt I'll be making that run more than another time or two because the Hollister house found a buyer and we'll be living in Seattle for the next few years starting mid-March.

I seem to do the Puget Sound - Bay Area drive in spasms dictated by circumstances. Around 1970 I had a girlfriend who lived in Cupertino. During the 1980s I made a lot of sales calls in California. Nowadays it's related to having two houses.

Episodic though though my Interstate 5 road-warrioring has been, one thing about the journeys has remained fairly constant -- the hitchhikers.

No, no. Not the fact that I see people hitchhiking whenever I do the run. It's that I suspect I've been seeing some of the same people all these years.

I can't prove it, of course: it's just an impression.

Nevertheless. Back in 1970, the hitchhikers mostly seemed to be pretty young -- in their 20s, let's say. My impression at the time was that they were happy-go-lucky dropouts. Dropped out of college. Dropped out of the labor force. And maybe dropped a bit of acid, too.

In the 80s it seemed to me that the hitchhikers tended to be older, perhaps around 40. And male: not too many 40-ish females gathered along the on-ramps. Besides being older, the hitchhikers were shabbier than the 1970 version. The earlier crew's shabbiness struck me as being something of an affectation. The 1985-ish bunch's shabbiness was ingrained. And they seemed trapped in the hitchhiker role, whereas in 1970 hitchhiking had a voluntary sheen to it.

Nowadays many hitchhikers look just about old enough to be on Social Security, though I wonder how many were employed long enough to qualify. And they are a sorry-looking lot, farther down the slope from where they were 20 years before.

Time to clarify. I'm not saying that all the young hitchhikers I saw in 1970 never straightened out their lives. Most of them probably bummed around for a year or two and then got a job or returned to college. But a few strayed too far over the line and became the geezer-hitchhikers I've been seeing lately.

A few remarks about the Pacific Coast might be helpful to readers from elsewhere. The climate tends to be mild west of the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon. This means that one can wave one's thumb or hold one's cardboard sign most of the year in the northern reaches of I-5.

There are colleges along the route. In the far north is Western Washington University in Bellingham and at the other end of the freeway are UCSD, SDSU and USD in the San Diego area. Between are such "college towns" as Seattle, Olympia, Portland, Eugene, Ashland, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara. Such towns tend to be handy stopping-points for young hitchhikers because there might be friends or acquaintances attending school who might be willing to donate a pad for crashing. And for geezer-hitchhikers, college towns are likely to be more tolerant of vagrants than elsewhere. Why? Probably because students can vote in local elections and their votes are often for liberal city council candidates.

When I lived in Olympia I'd breakfast a couple days a week at a colorful restaurant called The Spar. It was on a street where drifters young and old did their drifting -- right outside the window by my favorite table. I didn't much care for them and I suspect the local merchants didn't either. But the city government never seemed to make a strong effort to be drifter-unfriendly.

I'll close by noting that there have always been old drifter-type males. Seattle had plenty when I was young. They hung out along First Avenue near the docks and, especially, in the Skid Road (what became "skid row" elsewhere) area near Yesler Street. Skid Road was a mélange of taverns reeking of stale chili, pawn shops and gospel missions. No doubt some of the denizens arrived by hitchhiking, but others might well have done their traveling by riding the rails.



posted by Donald at February 6, 2007


Perhaps you have seen the same hitchhikers as they get older......

Posted by: Gavin on February 6, 2007 10:00 PM

Hitchhikers must have become a West Coast phenomenon. Here in the East they've nearly disappeared.

Posted by: Peter on February 6, 2007 11:17 PM

Up here on Vancouver Island the hitchhikers still fit the general demographic they had back in the 70s - a lot of young, alternative-looking kids (somewhat rough - treeplanter types), plus native people of all ages. The last pair I picked up turned out to be (soft) drug dealers, which didn't thrill me, but they weren't scary or threatening.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on February 7, 2007 7:48 AM


The Kingston Trio (Terry Gilkyson)

As I listen for the whistle, lie awake and wait, wish the railroad didn't run so near,
'Cause the rattle and clatter of that old fast freight keeps a-makin' music in my ear.
Go bum again...
Go bum again...

Hear the whistle blow...
Hear the whistle blow...
Clickity clack, clickity clack, the wheels are saying to the railroad track,
Well, if you go, you can't come back...
If you go, you can't come back...
If you go, you can't come back...

Well, I wouldn't give a nickel for the bum I used to be,
Work as hard as any man in town.
I got a purty gal, she thinks the world of me,
Man would be a fool to let her down.
Go bum again...
Go bum again...


So ev'ry night I listen, wonder if it's late, in my dreams I'm ridin' on that train.
I feel my pulse a-beatin' with that old fast freight,
And thank the Lord I'm just a bum again.
Go bum again...
Go bum again...


Posted by: ricpic on February 7, 2007 7:59 AM

I have four younger brothers and a son who's about ten years younger than my youngest brother. We've all done some hitchhiking. Based on family reports, hitchhiking was a lot easier in 1967-72 and has gotten steadily worse. Partly there was a higher level of trust back then, but there also was a greater willingness to take risks.

Partly as a result, the remaining hitchikers are often people with pretty severe problems, as you described. And as someone suggested, some of them are the same people 30 years older.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 8, 2007 2:20 PM

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