International Writers Magazine: Review
WITH STRANGERS: A Hitchhiker's Journey by Elijah Wald
Chicago Review Press, 2006, 228 pp.,
ISBN-13: 978-1-55652-605-3, ISBN-10: 1-55652-605-9
Elijah Wald is a modern-day Huck Finn and a guitar-picker to boot.
His upraised thumb expresses the hitchhiker's faith: Trust
in random acts of kindness by strangers. RIDING WITH STRANGERS,
his paean to hitchhiking is both a record of a coast-to-coast,
Boston to Portland, Oregon trip and also a compilation of wisdom
he's gained from more than three decades of hitching, both in
the USA and on four other continents.
Wald might have
been born to be a wandering minstrel, deciding at age seven Woody Guthrie
was what he wanted to be when he grew up. Many of us tried hitchhiking
in earlier years, including this reviewer as a college student for a
year or two, but gave it up when we could afford a car and eventually
took on the fixed responsibilities adulthood presents. Somehow,
Wald avoided the usual traps and kept his carefree minstrel life and
guitar-in-hand spent a solid dozen years as a travelling troubadour.
As he admits, the first woman he proposed marriage turned him
down flat, freeing him to pursue the unanchored lifestyle. He has
supported himself for decades doing what he loves, which is writing
books and playing music.
One doesn't need to go very far with Wald's account of his odyssey to
realize this fellow knows how to hitchhike with ultra-efficiency. Because
he's been at it so long, his tips and tricks enliven what non-hitchhikers
might assume is the boring business of holding up a sign asking for
a ride. Even whether to hold up a sign or not is an issue Wald
has analyzed to a definitive resolution (He almost never does). One
measure of Wald's efficiency: The half-continent jump from Iowa City,
Iowa to Portland, Oregon took him but thirty-six hours.
The route a hitchhiker takes going cross-country has, of course, a pinball
quality to it. One makes choices for the next leg, depending on
where your current ride drops you. One of the many fascinating
insights Wald shares is all of Nebraska is usually avoided for its deserved
reputation as a law-enforcement hitchhiker hell (he chooses to go north
through Wyoming). While the highlights of the trip are sometimes
geographic--for example, Hannibal, Missouri, home to one of Wald's writer
saints, Mark Twainbut more often they're the people, the "strangers"
offering rides that make the trip memorable.
At the top of Wald's list of comfortable rides and strangers with an
appealing dignity are long-haul truckers.
In one chapter, he offers a "vehicular taxonomy," and says
the semi or tractor-trailer is, by most measures, the sought-after ride.
Plus, at truck stops, as the trucker's passenger, one is entitled
to all the "driver only" benefits the general public cannot
have, including separate eating areas and showers. As Wald descends
in his vehicular taxonomy, he pauses to consider the special case of
the SUV, that large passenger vehicle, so annoyingly ubiquitous on American
roads. In his years of hitching, Wald has never been offered a
ride by an SUV-driver. Never. He speculates it is the "I
want my safety" mentality of the SUV owner that refuses to share
space with a hitchhiking stranger, who, after all, might be a risk to
In that respect, one of the themes of RIDING WITH STRANGERS is Wald's
sadness over hitchhiking's sharp decline in popularity as media stories
have amplified and distorted common perceptions of danger about hitchhikers
or those who give rides to them. Wald has decades of experience
that give the lie to this conventional wisdom. With the intelligent
voice that characterizes the whole of RIDING WITH STRANGERS, he makes
a strong argument our greater risk is losing trust in our fellow human
beings, even if they be strangers with whom we share space and short
time, then never see again. If we lose faith in the basic decency
of random strangers, who are we then when we pull up to our gated-community
in our SUV?
No, Wald argues all life has risks. Even a bourgeois life with
a desk job is not risk-free. For Wald and for this reviewer at
one stage in his life, hitchhiking offers an unforgettable feeling once
you get out there on an freeway on-ramp and lift your thumb. In
that one act, you give up many fears.
Picture you are all of nineteen, standing on a Hollywood Freeway on-ramp,
a car stops and you hop in and the driver is listening to the radio
and he makes small talk with you. Then he reaches down to turn
up the volume on the radio a tad. The song is Bobby Darin singing
"If I Were a Carpenter." You tell the driver it's one
of your favorites. He tells you he just got off work at the music
studio and that he's the drummer playing bongos and percussion on that
song. The guy has instant credibility in your eyes, which he probably
knows. He also knows he will never see you again, so he offers
some hard-won advice. He makes a gesture to his forearm. He's
seen too many fellow studio musicians waste their lives on hard drugs.
He tells you avoid them. You take what he says as religion
partly because you love that song. He drops you off at an off-ramp
and you say good-bye.
And one more small example of the rewards of the open road for which
Elijah Wald rhapsodizes. RIDING WITH STRANGERS rang all too true
for this ex-hitchhiker. As a bonus, this travel memoir is written
with such meticulous care, I will addand I rarely say this for
authors I reviewI intend to look up the four other books Wald
has in print: ESCAPING THE DELTA: Robert Johnson and the Blues; NARCOCORRIDO:
A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas; JOSH WHITE:
Society Blues; and RIVER OF SONG: A Musical Journey Down the Mississippi.
See where Elijah Wald takes you. He has a literary voice
that makes for time well-spent.
© Charlie Dickinson October 2006
read "stories & more" @ http://charlied.freeshell.org
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