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Riding with Strangers: A Hitchhiker's Journey Hardcover – 1 May 2006
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This fascinating tale of the author's cross-country hitchhiking journey is a captivating look into the pleasures and challenges of the open road. As the miles roll by he meets businessmen, missionaries, conspiracy theorists, and truck drivers from all ages and ethnicities who are eager to open their car doors to a wandering stranger. This memoir uncovers the hidden reality that the United States remains hospitable, quirky, and as ready as ever to offer help to a curious traveller. Demonstrating how hitchhiking can be the ultimate in adventure travel - a thrilling exploration of both people and scenery - this guide also serves as a hitchhiker's reference, sharing the history behind this communal form of travel while touching on roadside lore and philosophy.
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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."
Instead of summarizing the entire book, I'll leave that to the reader, and rather, quote some things that Wald writes and make my reflections upon them.
"But, like so many of the pleasures of life, both the choice to hitchhike and the choice to pick up hitchhikers are based on the assumption that there are more precious things than safety, and those things may be lost if we give way to paranoia-- and the country becomes less free than it used to be."
The book is full of some of Wald's anecdotes for nostalgia, and this is one of them, that rings absolutely true to me, even though I didn't live in the era of his prime hitchhiking. If we based our lives off television and the media (which we often do), we'd stay inside watching TV endlessly, afraid to even venture into our own backyards. Fear culture is a huge reason why many people pass by hitchhikers nowadays.
"... Hitchhiking is sort of like living in a dodgy neighborhood: if you get mugged the week you move in, you might move right out again, but if you've been living there happily for a long time, one robbery doesn't define the place for you."
"The real danger involved in picking up a hitchhiker is that he or she will interfere with the pleasures of the drive. Americans,more than any other people on Earth, see their cars as extensions of themselves, steel suits they put on whenever they go outdoors. That is why so many of us drive alone, despite an abundance of high-occupancy lanes and admonitions to carpool. In general, when people say they would be afraid to pick up hitchhikers, the truth is that they simply don't want to stop, but think that fear is a more acceptable excuse than selfishness....As someone who enjoys traveling solo, I completely sympathize. Drive on, wrapped in your private thoughts, and only stop when the urge moves you. If you don't pick me up, others will. Unless, of course, it's raining, in which case you should sacrifice your precious goddamn solitude and pull over."
"Television, movies newspapers-- but television overwhelmingly-- have fed us such a diet of murders, rapes, kidnappings, and assorted mayhem from across the country and around the world that we tend to forget how little of this we know form personal experience."
"Hitchhiking is a gamble, and security is not what draws anyone to the side of the road."
"Hitchhiking is an exercise of faith, and the more you trust it, the more it rewards you."
"We stopped only once that night, and after a while I heard the crunch of boots on gravel and saw a flashlight beam a dozen cars up, but whoever it was never got back to me, and after another half hour we rounded Mount Shasta, and anyone who would not have fallen in love with the freights at a moment like that should just get a job in a bank and be damned."
"Young people have been so pounded by reports about violence, hate, and danger in the world around them that very few will even consider trusting their lives to the kindness of a random motorist. But anyone who takes reassurance in that fact should think long and hard about what it means, for them and for us, and for the future of humanity. I am glad for my driver's children that they were brave enough to trust their lives to some nylon webbing, a silk canopy, and the intangible buoyancy of air-- but I wish I could assume they would feel safer on solid earth, in the company of a helpful stranger like their dad."
"One excellent maxim for hitchhiking is 'speak when spoken to'... there is nothing more annoying than an insistently chatty hitchhiker."
I highly recommend reading this book, and someone is carrying Jack Kerouac's torch high and proud, through the dark cloud and gloom of pop culture.
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