In 1971, Associated Press writer James Gertstenzang drove coast to coast picking up hitchhikers along the way to bring us this picture of America’s youth in the days when a thumb was as good as a passport.
They are as familiar along America’s highways as road signs. Wearing bluejeans and carrying knapsacks, their hair often reaching to their shoulders, they are youth on the move, hitchhiking from here to there, three miles or 3,000.
They travel for different reasons and use different methods. They have different feelings about hitchhiking, different lifestyles and different problems while on the road.
Their only common denominator is their dependence on one person – the man, and once-in-a-while the woman, who gives them a ride one step closer to their destination....
“Hitchhiking is the cheapest, friendliest way of traveling,” said Chris Chanlett, a 23-year old thumbing his way from Boulder, Colo., where he has lived on-and-off for two years, to his parents’ home in Chapel Hill, N.C. “It’s a good form of communication. It’s a chance encounter.
“Mostly you just feel how much people need each other and how much they take care of each other,” he said while riding along interstate 70 west of Kansas City, Kan.
At a different time and in a different place, Peter Tobin knew that feeling.
Tobin, a 19-year-old from Brighton, England thought he was stranded at about 11:30 one night at a roadside restaurant near Toledo, Ohio. He was heading for Ann Arbor, Mich.
Three old ladies having dinner regarded me with suspicion,” he said. “A few minutes later one of them timidly asked me where I was going. They dropped me at the freeway entrance and then came back three minutes later worried I was going to be run over.”
And a few minutes later, the trio returned and gave him a ride to Ann Arbor.
“They drove me 100 miles out of their way,” he said.
A tall, bushy haired youth was standing on a street corner in Berkeley, hoping for a ride to Los Angeles.
“When you are hitchhiking, only friendly people pick you up. The uptight ones keep on going,” he said....
Chanlett said his first long hitch was from Chapel Hill to Cape Cod and then to New Orleans six years ago when he was graduated from high school. He has made the 2,000-mile trip between Chapel Hill and Boulder five times by thumbing. He said he tries to stop only at major highway intersections or rest areas along turnpikes and freeways.
He said he was stuck for a full day in a small town in France, but made the 1,000 trip from Chicago to Cheyenne, Wyo. in one ride.
On his most recent trip from Colorado to North Carolina, Chanlett got a ride from Boulder to just east of Denver – about one hour distance – and then a middle-aged woman picked him up and drove him more than 400 miles across Colorado to Manhattan, Kan. His third ride came after only two cars had passed and it took him nearly 400 miles to the junction of Interstates 55 and 70, in Illinois.
Over the more than 10,000 miles he has hitchhiked, Chanlett said the worst trouble he experienced came when he was arrested in Colorado.
“I’ve never been threatened, assaulted or ripped off.”
His advice is “just never be let off in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, unless you have a good sleeping bag.”
Each hitchhiker seems to have his own theory about the best ways to hitch and the best places to look for rides.
Chanlett has found that on superhighways, “the main thing is to be at a service areas.”
“I just solicit rides from people who look like I’d like to ride with,” he said.
He recommended hitching in a heavily traveled area where cars are driving slowly and drivers have time and space to stop for the hitchhiker.
When a car slows up for the hitchhiker, there is no telling who may be in it. The traffic may be moving fast and the hitchhiker just throws his pack into the car and climbs in after it.
Chanlett said his rides came most often from men traveling alone and “mostly kids.” They offer rides because they want companionship, he said.
Tobin said he was offered rides from all sorts of people.
“Although hitchhiking is thought of as a youth culture thing,” for both the hitchhiker and the driver, he said, “I’ve often been picked up by people over 50-years-old – unemployed laborers, a nun, housewives.”
He said that he was once picked up by a man who identified himself as an FBI agent and by another who said he was a deputy sheriff of Cook County, Ill.
“He said ‘Hello, I’m a fascist pig.’” The N&O 7/11/1971
Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/pasttimes.