Riding your thumb

Alabama Living Magazine
Illustrated Dennis Auth

Here’s a bit of trivia for you.  

In 1937, roughly one out of ten American men had hitchhiked at some point in their lives.

Makes sense when you think about it.

Back then, Depression was in the land, and men looking for work stood by the road with their thumbs out, hoping for the ride that would take them to a job. 

For some folks hitchhiking was a matter of convenience.  

When I was a boy, we had a “farm” about 12 miles west of town.  During the winter it fell to me to ride the school bus out to see that the cows were fed. Then I would hitchhike home.

Drivers knew my family, and we knew them, so I never had trouble catching a ride.  

When I got to college it was another matter. I did not have a car, so on weekends I would head for the highway and hitch.  

Soon I began to calculate what it took to get someone to pick me up.

What you wore mattered. 

For example, a uniform.  Folks who lived through WWII considered giving a serviceman a lift to be their patriotic duty. My ROTC uniform got me many a ride.

I learned to pick my spot carefully, making sure that there was a place past me where a driver could pull over.  A location in a lower speed zone also improved your chances.

Often it was not possible to make the whole trip with one ride, so a hitchhiker had to piece together rides to get to where they were going. Sometimes the rides didn’t appear.  Once I got stranded and it looked like night would catch me on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.  Then a family from my town drove by, recognized me and stopped.  They were in a pick-up and the cab was full of parents and the kids.  About two hours later they delivered a wind-blown me to my Mama.

Looking back I can say that I met some interesting people, only one of whom ever made me feel uncomfortable – not threatened. I was just glad when we got where we were going.

You don’t see many hitchhikers today.  Not sure why.  Maybe because more people have cars. I’d be willing to bet that there are more two-car families than no-car families. 

Maybe the highways are to blame. Hitchhiking is prohibited on the interstate. On other roads folks drive faster and there seem to be fewer places to pull off to give a guy a lift.

But mostly I think it is us. Hitchhikers have been demonized, and maybe they should be.  We have been told that it is dangerous to pick up someone you don’t know. On the other hand, getting into a car with a stranger doesn’t seem wise either.

Maybe it is just as well that this part of the American past is, well, past.

Would I have wanted my son to stand on the side of the road, thumb out, waiting to see who or what might stop?


But back then my parents did, though I am sure that Mama prayed me all the way home.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at


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