I picked up a hitchhiker on the way to Boston yesterday.
While pulling out of the Charlton Plaza rest area on the Mass Pike, I saw a woman standing in the grass just before the rest area’s onramp to the highway with her thumb extended. She looked like she was in her early thirties. Smiling. A small backpack affixed to her back. Dreadlocks.
She looked a lot like she might be hitching her way to a Grateful Dead concert.
I’ve picked up hitchhikers before, but not in at least 20 years, partly because hitchhikers are far less common on the roads today and also because I tend to also be on a schedule. In a rush. Trying to get somewhere on time.
I’ve picked up a bunch of people in more recent years who were caught walking in a rainstorm or snowstorm, but these were people surprised by weather. Not actively trying to get somewhere with their thumb.
But my gut said that there was nothing to fear from this woman. It was broad daylight on a busy interstate, and she was young, smiling, and seemed to have someplace to go. Like me, she had a destination somewhere to the east.
So I pulled over and offered her a ride. She accepted. Her name was Sophie. She was from Utica, New York, making her way to Portsmouth, NH to surprise her mom with an unplanned visit. She was a perfectly lovely person, and for the 50 miles that we shared the road together before I dropped her off at the rest area in Natick, MA, we talked about our lives, our families, our careers, and our hometowns.
At one point, early on in our ride, I asked her if she worried about getting picked up by a crazy person. “There are buses,” I told her. “You could probably just take a bus to Portsmouth.”
She told me that she liked hitchhiking. It was full of adventure and surprise. She liked meeting new people. She also told me that she almost never accepts rides from men and that far more women offer her rides.
“Three out of four people who offer me rides are women,” she told me.
“Then why’d you say yes to me?” I asked.
“You looked nervous,” she said. “Like you were more afraid of me than I was of you. And you have a car seat and books in the backseat, so I knew you have kids. People with kids aren’t axe murderers.”
I learned a lot about Sophie, and while the 50 mile trip wasn’t exactly an adventure for me, it was something different. I met another human being, spent about an hour with her, and then I said goodbye.
I called Elysha to tell her about my decision to pick up a hitchhiker, thinking she would find this cool.
She did not.
On Facebook, she posted:
“Matthew Dicks just informed me that on his way to Boston this evening he picked up a hitchhiker. She didn’t murder him, which is fortunate for me, because when he gets home I am going to.”
I understand. I really do. I’m not sure if I would want her picking up a hitchhiker, but I still didn’t think what I had done was wrong.
The vast majority of comments on Facebook sided with Elysha, though a few agreed with my decision. One commenter wrote:
“The last time I picked up a hitchhiker was when I was in college. Cute guy hitched at the same entrance ramp from UConn Storrs every Thursday and I picked him up a few times. Never amounted to more than a few rides to Manchester. I have given rides to people I didn’t know when it looked like they needed one. Live without fear. Tell the kids too. There are many more trustworthy people than not.”
I liked this comment a lot. And there is statistical evidence to support this claim.
This Vox piece entitled The forgotten art of hitchhiking — and why it disappeared explains that our fear of hitchhiking was not formed from the murders of young women at the hands of hitchhikers but from a few specific sources:
As cars became easier and cheaper to own, the perception of hitchhikers shifted from perfectly normal people in need of a ride to people who were probably problematic because they didn’t own cars.
Starting in the 1960s and '70s, some of the first laws against hitching were passed, and local and federal law enforcement agencies began using scare tactics to get both drivers and hitchhikers to stop doing it, including campaigns describing hitchhikers as murderers and rapists even though crime statistics do not support this claim. Hitchhikers aren’t any more dangerous than anyone else in this world when it comes to criminal behavior. In fact, you are far more likely to be raped or murdered by a friend, family member, or coworker than a stranger.
Movies featuring murderous hitchhikers lodged themselves in the American psyche in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
The fear of strangers has dramatically increased in the last 20 years even though crime has continued to plummet for those same 20 years.
I also think that mass media plays a huge role. When I was growing up, the Blackstone Valley sniper (which turned out to be two men) fired rifles into the homes of unsuspecting victims for a period of almost two months. Four people were injured, two seriously, in the series of at least 11 nighttime sniper incidents around the 1986 Christmas holidays in Cumberland and North Smithfield, RI and Bellingham, MA.
All towns surrounding my hometown of Blackstone. The shootings stopped after Gov. Edward DiPrete called out the National Guard to patrol the North Smithfield-Cumberland area.
Think about that:
The National Guard was patrolling the streets of American towns because an unknown assailant was shooting at people as they passed in from of their windows at night, but I’ll bet you never heard of it.
News was local. The crimes were plastered across the front page of every newspaper in the area where the shootings were taking place. My mother had us crawling through the living room at night lest we get shot. People were genuinely terrorized. The judge who sentenced the two men to 95 and 115 years in prison respectively said the crimes were “nothing short of a reign of terror perpetrated by two men for some perverse sense of release.”
But it never received a mention on the national news.
Conversely, when two men were firing a rife at motorists in the Washington, DC area a few years ago, the entire country knew about the crimes. We heard about each and every incident.
Even though the world gets safer every day, we think it’s getting more and more dangerous.
I like to think that my decision to pick up Sophie was a rejection of that belief. It was an acknowledgement that the vast majority of people are good. It was an affirmation that when the time and conditions are right - a young woman hitchhiking on the side of a busy interstate in broad daylight - we can lend a hand to a stranger.
People are generally good and kind and safe.
Yes, a considerable minority of Americans may inexplicably be supporting a racist, ignorant, corrupt President who brags about serial sexual assault and is running a short-sighted, chaotic administration designed for personal profiteering, but that doesn’t make them dangerous people.
Just bad decision makers. Partisan voters. Tribal. Self-serving.
If Elysha doesn’t want me picking up hitchhikers in the future, I will probably honor her request. She’s my wife, and she has that right.
But if she ever tells me that she picked up a young woman named Sophie while heading east on the Mass Pike and spent an hour getting to know her, I don’t think I’d mind one bit.
The world is safer than we think. Strangers are better than we think.
In the world of one Facebook commenter, “Live without fear.”
Within reason, of course.