Nobody has yet taken up Elijah Wald on his Phileas Fogg-shrouded wager: He bets the cost of a cross-country bus ticket that he can hitchhike across America faster than a bus can drive it.
That means Wald, a wandering minstrel who's thumbed rides all over the world, is confident he can start in his hometown of Boston and arrive in San Francisco in less than three days, one hour and 55 minutes - the time it takes Greyhound. Think he's bluffing?
Don't bet on it. Judging from "Riding With Strangers," he knows every trick in the road-dog book. And if you thought hitchhiking was just for drifters, rodeo cowboys and the occasional serial killer, you might be surprised to learn that hitchhiking's Hall of Fame - if it had one - would include Charles Dickens, Janis Joplin and Ronald Reagan.
But more than knowing the tricks - like making eye contact with every driver who approaches - Wald embraces the history and the rhythms of this random, often serendipitous, form of travel. Wald began thumbing rides when he was 16, and never stopped. At a moment when most Americans are shriveling toward isolation from and suspicion of their fellow man, Wald still believes in the kindness of passing strangers. It's his religion.
"Hitchhiking is an exercise of faith, and the more you trust it, the more it rewards you," Wald writes. "Faith is a beautiful thing, if it gives you strength to do what you know you should be doing anyway. The more certain I am that if I take the less secure and more adventurous course the rides will arrive, the better my experiences on the road."
OK, but didn't Ted Bundy kill hitchhikers? Wasn't The Doors' "Riders on the Storm" about a hitchhiking killer? Yes, but Wald argues the dangers are exaggerated by urban mythology and the road is a relatively safe place. He believes neither drivers nor hitchhikers face exceptional risks, and America's new "culture of fear" has turned every potential adventure - not just hitchhiking - into a risk not worth taking. Danger is, after all, what defines adventure, isn't it?
At its heart, "Riding With Strangers" is an easy-to-read travel story about one cross-country journey on which Wald meets a motley assortment of people who take him a little farther down the road. They are missionaries and merchants, musicians and conspiracy theorists, salesmen and truck drivers, and more truck drivers. None is painted in great detail, but more in the abbreviated, impressionistic brush strokes that relatively short rides require.
The journey he describes couldn't easily be replicated by a pedal-pushing, impatient motorist hurtling down the highway, dependent only on conveniently spaced gas stations, AAA and a compliant bladder. Whether it's listening to popular Russian mafia rock with a Moldavian trucker, or sleeping in the garden of Mark Twain's house in Hannibal, Mo., or enjoying the special comforts of modern truck stops (a perk generally reserved for big-rig drivers) - Wald gives an extraordinary spin to ordinary moments.
And like hitchhiking itself, it's the contemplation between rides that is part of this book's beauty. Wald's westbound narrative is richly layered with the veteran hitchhiker's reflections on religion, music, law, boredom, paranoia and race relations. Best of all, it's told in a songwriter's uncomplicated style.
In a chapter entitled "The Art and Science of Hitchhiking," Wald offers a useful primer for the newbie thumber, from where to stand (where you can be seen and where a driver has plenty of room to stop) to the hitchhiker's responsibilities in conversation (speak when spoken to).
"The whole purpose in doing the book is to get people to realize this needn't be something in the past, that it's as much of an option as it ever was," Wald recently told ShelfAwareness.com, a book-related Web site. "I don't expect everyone to fall in love with hitchhiking, but they should have the experience and be open to it."