My 1950 trip from New York to Yuma wasn’t my first long-distance hitchhiking experience, but it was just about my last. Hitching was a common way to travel without money, and in spite of warnings about the hazards of that kind of travel, one could see hitchhikers everywhere—people out of work, soldiers and sailors, and lots of college boys, which is what I was just then.
My first long hitch was in 1948, when I hitched from my college in southern Ohio to Los Angeles for a month’s cheap vacation, and then back again to Connecticut for a college-related job. All in all, that year I hitched 10,000 miles. Sometimes the going was easy; I made the trip by thumb from New York to the Chicago area in the same time as a good passenger train. It was on a showery spring day and the rain would quit just often enough and long enough for me to snag my next ride without getting wet.
Hitching across country was a sort of cheap-thrills adventure in those days, when travel from coast to coast wasn’t as common as it is today. In addition to the changing landscape, there was a kick in getting to know people—whole classes of people—who one would otherwise never know. Occasionally the unfamiliar driver posed a threat, although never a deliberate one in my experience. But some drivers were better—or worse—than others. Drunks, exhausted and sleep-deprived motorists, monologuists, and religious fanatics who cared more for my soul than my life—and occasionally just plain poor drivers—all made for a few exciting moments on long stretches of dull highway.
Hitchhiking was a competitive sport; it paid to dress right, wait in high-visibility locations, carry just the right amount of luggage—and smile the right smile. Some days I had it, and once in a weary while many hot and dusty hours would drag by without a ride. I think my worst day—or rather night—was in the Texas Panhandle, when an entire night went before someone took pity on me. I swore then that someday, when I had a car of my own, I would be kind to the hard-luck hitchhiker—but it didn’t happen that way. I was just as wary of picking up strangers as everyone else.
On the other hand, many drivers were exceptionally kind, occasionally going out of their way to help me in my journeys. Even the police were more of a help than a hindrance. One of the advantages of dressing right was that police officers figured that college boys were harmless. From time to time they would provide the hospitality of an unlocked jail cell for a few hours of shade and rest.
I can’t remember what I used for maps. By and large, between the Midwest and the West Coast, there weren’t many alternatives. If Los Angeles was one end of a trip, Route 66 could be the only route number one followed, and that was pretty much the case with me. There were really only a couple of feasible detours to avoid exceptionally hot and lonely stretches of Arizona and Nevada desert. And it occurs to me now that you could lose track of anything that wasn’t related to your travels. I never read a newspaper from coast to coast. The Korean War started while I was hitching in 1950, but I didn’t know it. Radios were for music, and many cars weren’t equipped with them anyway. And auto air conditioning was unknown then. A desert water bag that kept water cool by evaporation was one of the few concessions to creature comforts.
End of the Road
As soon as the scale of the Korean War made itself known, my fiancée, Dot, and I decided to speed up the date of our marriage. She made only one heartfelt request of me before I returned to the Midwest: I was to take a regular bus back, and not hitchhike. It was an easy request to honor. In later years, when I wore a uniform, I hitched again—but never far and never again on Route 66.
When hitchhiking it often paid to dress neatly. Pete Koltnow remembers police officers being helpful to well-dressed college boys. A police officer gave Pete a ride up to an overnight camp site above Hoover Dam and comondeered a lift for him the next day.
Neither of us would have dreamed that the hitchhiking postcards she saved would someday end up in the Smithsonian. Today we enjoy visiting the American history museum to learn about how Americans have lived over the years. It’s a kick to see that even the lifestyles of the less-than-rich and not-so-famous are part of our country’s history.