Jack Reid’s Roadside Americans: The Rise and Fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation posits the role of (im)mobility in American culture as foundational to the construction of identity. From the privileged quest of white suburban youth for „authentic“ experience to instances of altruism, joy and mutual interpersonal satisfaction, Roadside Americans is a timely meditation on personal mobility and changing understandings of risk and trust between members of various U.S.-American communities. Reid parses the meanings and practice of hitchhiking in the United States in the shifting landscapes of American liberalism and neoliberalism, pointing the reader to consistently racist, gendered understandings of belonging in mainstream American automotive culture.
Roadside Americans is the first comprehensive history of hitchhiking in the United States. Distinguishing his work from related studies on tramps and hobos, Reid writes at the intersection of several historiographical conversations, from that on the foundational role of mobility in American culture to “shifting understandings of modern selfhood and gender in the twentieth century,” and “subcultures that populated the nation’s roads” (p. 9). Focusing on people hitchhiking and those offering rides, on regulatory officials and on print media narratives, Reid crafts a hybrid social-cultural-legal history broad in geographical scope and temporal focus. Reid follows the discursive trajectory of the hitchhiker in U.S.-American society from the race-based economic solidarity of the 1930s through the patriarchal militarism of the 1940s and 1950s, the lustful youth and freak cultures of the 1960s and early 1970s, and the ostensible gutting of trust in the economic downturn of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Reid convincingly conveys that fault lines of belonging within hitchhiking practices in the United States from the 1930s through the early 1980s were both largely consistent and in flux. In 1938, for example, 43 percent of Americans reportedly approved of hitchhiking, and at least several hundred thousand women were transient in the United States in the mid-1930s (pp. 25–27). These facts indicate broad-based support for the practice of hitchhiking. Yet by World War II, twenty-two states and Washington, D.C. had legislated anti-hitchhiking laws, likely derived (though not elucidated by Reid) in part from historical restrictions on the mobility of Black Americans (p. 67). In keeping with state-sanctioned discrimination against hitchhikers, the U.S. War Department banned hitchhiking in 1941, only to reverse course a year later, as groups like the Boys Club and the American Legion began building shelters for hitchhiking servicemen (pp. 61, 66). By 1943, the U.S. government commissioned carpooling advocacy posters such as one designed by art deco illustrator Weimer Pursell, which read, “When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler! Join a Car-Sharing Club TODAY!” (p. 49) American motorists of the era were encouraged to limit their rationed “pleasure or family driving” miles per month, but could share additional “occupational driving” miles in the company of hitchhiking strangers, all while exhibiting an apparent commitment to responsibility, self-reliance, patriarchy, and nominal anti-fascism (pp. 48–49).
Significantly, Roadside Americans investigates the racialized contours of the pursuit of “authenticity and meaningful human encounter” that, according to Reid, shaped experiences of mobility for hitchhikers in the United States during what is commonly understood as the heyday of the practice in the 1960s and early 1970s (p. 112). “[W]hite suburban youth often looked at those in the civil rights movement as guides toward authentic living,” Reid asserts, highlighting “instances of breathtaking peril, violence, and exhilaration” white suburbanites accessed both through consciously politicized identities and via the practice of hitchhiking to marches and demonstrations (p. 115). This interpretation of the anti-Black terror that engendered the civil rights movement as generative of an exciting, „authentic“ white countercultural identity reveals grotesque historical discrepancies between white and Black Americans in access to mobility, pleasure and adventure.
Reid points readers to the consistently discriminatory application of anti-hitchhiking laws over the period of time he investigates, emphasizing that police “officers typically ignored enforcement in the case of hitchhikers they deemed worthy, such as clean-cut [i.e. “white,” HG] male college students, while at the same time targeting vagrants, women, and minorities” (p. 5). Yet Reid frequently mediates the hitchhiking experiences of members of Black and other minoritarian communities through the discursive lens of white male authors of newspaper editorials and texts like Howard Griffin’s blackface-laden Black Like Me. With exceptions such as a diary by Charles Kikuchi, a Japanese American social worker who recorded hitchhiking experiences during his military service following his internment by the U.S. government, Reid’s sources habitually center whiteness (pp. 55–58). When writing of the appeal of hitchhiking to Korean American, Black, Latinx, and Native American youth for its “affordability, convenience, and hip youth status,” Reid quickly pivots to interpretation via the lens of white actors (p. 145). “Notably, counterculture signifiers of long hair and alternative clothing crossed racial lines, and if a minority exuded these values, middle-class white freaks would not hesitate to offer rides,” Reid writes, portraying Black, Indigenous, and People of Color hitchhikers as conduits of enjoyment and identity for altruistic white youth (pp. 145–146).
Reid concludes Roadside Americans by invoking a Jack Kerouac quote via reference to a 1988 New York Times column lamenting the demise of hitchhiking as countercultural practice: “Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me” (p. 183). Reid suggests that celebration of the white male protagonist of the most classic American road narrative has met a palimpsestic demise (p. 184). The patriarchal contours of the pursuit of „authenticity“ via hitchhiking are evidenced but unacknowledged in Reid’s inclusion of Kerouac’s reference to women as “girls” and by portrayals of hitchhiking women as dependent on men. Reid relates evidence, recounted by a woman of the era, that even some women in the freak movement “essentially exchanged sex and amity for meals, shelter, and protection” (p. 140). Narratively centering white cis-males, Roadside Americans foregrounds discourse on sexual „promiscuity,“ frequently giving women short shrift in the historical horizons of possibility for their roadside actions.
“Ultimately,” Reid writes, “the rise of neoliberalism substantially changed American understandings of cooperation, civic engagement, and trust—fostering a more closed-off society where Americans feel substantially less comfortable interacting with one another than decades past” (p. 13). Contemporary American „hitchhikers“ choose instead to hide behind aggregate scores in the ride sharing industry.1 Reid’s conclusion begs a return to the question of who was interacting with whom in decades past. While the historiographical conversation on automobility at large has finally begun to address myriad experiences of driving for members of Black communities in the United States, Roadside Americans leaves open many more research questions than it answers.2 Which selves on the American road will continue to be elevated in historiographical conversations?
1 Reid notes that contemporary ride sharing is a direct legacy of traditional hitchhiking practices, writing, “Uber users may not trust the individual offering them a ride, but they do trust the overwhelmingly positive aggregate scores other passengers have given that driver,” (p. 191).
2 See: Candacy Taylor, Overground Railroad. The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America, New York 2020; Gretchen Sorin, Driving While Black. African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights, New York 2020.