The International Writers Magazine: Review

RIDING 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
Charlie Dickinson

itchhiking 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 Twain–but 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 personal safety.

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.
That's hitchhiking.

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 add–and I rarely say this for authors I review–I 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
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