Saturday, November 2, 2013

On "Riding with Strangers" by Elijah Wald ***

A big fan of Kerouac, especially when I was younger, I often had romantic notions of taking off on a hitchhiking tour of the country. But I knew that I would never dare such a thing. In reality, I suppose, I'd rather drive across the country--and would have preferred that even then. There is something that scares me a bit about getting into cars with strangers and also makes me feel a bit of an imposition. I'd have been more likely to hop a freight, had it been legal and halfway safe.

Nevertheless, I think I had higher hopes for this book than it could manage to deliver. It reminded me a bit of a book I own called Zen Driving. It's slick, written very clearly for a trade audience, and it delivers on that count. But I think sometimes trade books can be a bit too slick, such that they seem almost formulaic and glib, as if some editor went through and removed from it the interesting points of personality and made everything safe.

Which is not to say that Riding with Strangers is a bad book. I enjoyed it. It was a quick read. But I didn't find it very inspiring, and it's best sections--about the history and culture of hitching--were short and gathered in the middle of the narrative.

The book runs like this. Wald decides to hitchhike across the country, from his home in Boston to friends in Seattle. Over forty, he's done such trips many times. We get to go along for the ride, meeting his various compatriots, people who give him rides. We find out that hitching is much quicker than we might expect; he's rarely stuck anywhere for more than a couple of hours, and as he puts it, he gets across the country faster and more comfortably than he would on a bus.

In one of the more interesting asides, he discusses the ethnicity of those who give him rides. He notes that the ethnicities have become more varied in the past decade, that one can see the changing nature of the country just in who proffers rides. If he's on the Interstate, it's more than likely going to be someone who is not a white native-born American (at least, it proves so on this trip, picked up as he is by a Mexican and numerous recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia). If it's a country road, it's more than likely going to be a WASP. He almost never is picked up by African Americans (and never by Africans). He muses that this goes back to the long history of racism in the country, as well as the nature of where African Americans live (big cities). There's a notable difference when he goes South and finds that shared rides are actually more common. As he notes, as far as race goes, in the North, white people don't care if a black people get big as long as they don't get too close, but in the South it's just the opposite: white people don't mind how close they get as long as black people don't get too big. I thought it actually a very interesting observation, having grown up out West and moved to the South; I'd always felt the West more tense and racist--but less open about racism as well. This may be why

Interior chapters focus on the origin of the word "hitchhike," hitchhiking techniques, hitchhiking manners, and which types of vehicles make for the best or the most likely drives. Turns out hitching out of a large city is difficult, because most drivers are in a rush and aren't going far and don't want to stop. It's easier to hitch on a smaller highway. Truck and rest stops make good places to scare up a ride, which often consists of just asking around. One can also position one's self at an on-ramp. Signs are dubious but sometimes helpful. Women generally have an easier time getting rides than men (no surprise there), and more than two is a crowd. Big trucks are good for rides; SUVs, however, seldom offer a lift.

Also: it's illegal to hitchhike in many states. That was perhaps the most interesting thing to me, how the writer had to dodge cops or be careful with where he tried to get a ride, and it sort of makes the prospect of hitchhiking to me even less appealing. I might well be fine asking for a ride, but if I might get harassed by a cop for doing so, such isn't going to be to my liking.

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