WASHINGTON — Nowadays it's rare to see a dusty
traveler standing roadside with his thumb sticking out
— a gesture that's evolved from a signal of soul
searching and wanderlust to a cause for suspicion in
But security concerns are only partially to blame for
why hitchhiking lost favor in the American
imagination, challenging true believers to keep the
spirit alive decades after Jack Kerouac's "On the
Road" inspired a generation to thumb their way
somewhere, anywhere, on a journey to self-discovery.
Americans' growing wariness with people they don't
know well is one reason you don't see many hitchhikers
(or maybe just no longer notice them) on the road,
says Erve Chambers, chairman of anthropology at the
University of Maryland, College Park.
"We're just an anonymous kind of society,"
Mark Holmberg, a 35-year hitchhiking veteran who began
in his teens, agrees there is a general lack of
empathy for those standing on the side of the road. As
a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he
occasionally heads to the highway with thumb extended
and writes a recurring series of columns about his
In hitchhiking, he's found, empathy must go both ways.
"You tend to get picked up by people beat up by
life and (who) had to live through hard stuff,"
Holmberg said. And though he's had to fight his way
out of threatening situations, the camaraderie has
been worth the trip.
"You're a listener a lot of times. And once
you're talking, the miles just disappear."
In some ways that empathy is characteristic of a
generational divide, says William Falk, chairman of
sociology at the University of Maryland.
"People with a recollection of the Depression
realized you could be affluent and be touched by hard
times, that you yourself were one bad break away from
. . . losing everything you worked for," he said.
At the same time, the affluence Falk refers to is
largely responsible for a decline in hitchhiking.
Cars' increased affordability over the past couple of
generations has helped make hitchhiking something to
be met with suspicion.
"Now if you see somebody hitchhiking, the level
of trust has so changed, you think, 'What is this
guy's scenario?'" Falk said.
Or as Sgt. Rob Moroney of the Maryland State Police
put it: "In today's society, most normal,
contributing people have automobiles, can support
themselves and not have to hitchhike."
Meaning, "Someone involved in criminal activity
may use that as a ruse."
The proliferation of automobiles in the United States
— to the point where there are now more cars than
drivers — also begat the rapid expansion of the
interstate highway system, where in almost all cases
it is illegal to hitchhike, except for the on-ramps.
Yet hitchhiking lives on in the Washington, D.C.,
area, albeit in a form little resembling its
After all, a guy's gotta commute.
Enter "slug lines", a practice exclusive to
metropolitan Washington, where city workers living in
Northern Virginia anonymously carpool with other
workers along designated pickup spots throughout the
region so that drivers can use high-occupancy lanes
that make rush-hour traffic tolerable.
Slugging, at least two decades old, is remarkably
well-organized — maps and pickup points can be found
on the Internet — is supported by city officials
and, by anecdotal estimates, moves 10,000 people.
According to local lore, they are called slugs after
bus drivers' term for fake coins, when drivers pulled
into stops expecting to make a pickup but instead
found everyone waiting for the next carpool.
So why no hullabaloo about the dangers of randomly
hopping into a different person's car each day of the
work week? Falk has one theory:
"Here there's some sort of screening mechanism, a
sort of fraternity . . . where you are presumed to be
OK because you're a city worker," he said.
"I'd guess that everybody doing this looks like a
semi-well dressed person, they're probably getting
almost entirely 8-to-5 workers and that's why this
ride system is possible."
Meanwhile, Holmberg plans to continue the traditional
hitchhiking route, so to speak, for the same reason
he's been doing it for nearly four decades.
"Get to know your fellow countrymen, step out of
your comfort zone, experience something totally new
and different," he said.
But even he realizes that in today's world, it's a
tougher and tougher sell.
"I don't think everybody's built to do it,"
Holmberg said. "We've changed so much, and things
are so comfortable: We all have food to eat and a
place to sleep. And people don't like asking for