It was a summery day in 1962 when Joe Sanderson left his parents’ Illinois home and walked down the street with his thumb stuck out.

He would reach Miami two days later, hopping 24 rides from drivers that included a pastor, a gun-toting salesman and a mom-driven station wagon with six clamoring kids in the back. He had just dropped out of college and was looking for adventure.

“It harks back to the time when Americans hit the road fearlessly, just by sticking their thumb out on the road and seeing where chance might take them,” said novelist Héctor Tobar. His new book, “The Last Great Road Bum,” is based on Sanderson’s rambles across five continents and assorted war zones, which the traveler documented in journals and letters.

The journey was singular in any era. But even as Sanderson caught those first rides, there was a gathering wave of young people thumbing their way from suburbia toward nearly anywhere else, writes historian Jack Reid in his recent book “Roadside Americans: The Rise and Fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation.”

A surge of free-spirited travelers like Sanderson lined up at the edge of American roads through the 1960s and 1970s. Celebrating authenticity and adventure, they tucked battered copies of Kerouac and Thoreau into rucksacks, influences that resonate through American culture to this day. (Travelers still tag Instagram posts #ontheroad.)

But while Americans travel more than ever — or they did, before the novel coronavirus — hitchhikers have become a rarity in the decades since Sanderson’s journey began. And now, even the few remaining holdouts are staying home, amid a pandemic that has transformed the way we travel.

Golden age

“It was a romantic thing for young people in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Reid, whose research for “Roadside Americans” took him deep into a century’s worth of newspaper clippings and hitchhiking memoirs. “Bob Dylan hitchhiked from Minnesota to New York because he thought it was cool — he wanted to be like Jack Kerouac.”

But this golden age during the 1960s and 1970s was not the first time Americans had turned out to thumb the country’s highways and back roads, Reid writes.

Middle-class youths made a hobby of flagging down passing autos in the 1920s; the Great Depression sent whole families on the road searching for a living. Wartime America was sympathetic to hitching soldiers. Etiquette maven Emily Post gave hitchhiking “defense debutantes” working at factories her official blessing in 1942. (Only on the way to work, ladies.)

But in America’s collective imagination, those earlier waves have mostly ebbed. If hitchhiking stirs your nostalgia, it is probably date-stamped with Sanderson’s era.

“In 1975, it had reached its most mainstream,” Reid said. And compared with today, the golden age of hitchhiking had a host of advantages. Rules against hitchhiking by highways were not so widespread then. Lower car ownership meant more middle-class kids lacked private vehicles; their participation was essential to hitchhiking’s relatively mainstream status, Reid found.

And it was a cultural moment. In the 1960s and 1970s, a kinetic sense of potential was in the air: Many Americans were sympathetic to the quest for youthful adventures.

Hitchhiking can thrive, Reid explained, only when there’s an overlap between the demand for rides — people who think hitchhiking is a pretty good idea — and drivers willing to pull to the roadside and take a chance on a stranger. And back then, Americans trusted each other.

Decline of trust

“It’s in these micro, everyday encounters that we’ve become less trusting,” said anthropologist Patrick Laviolette, whose new book “Hitchhiking: Cultural Inroads” turns hitching rides into a lens on society at large.

Laviolette writes that as Western culture became increasingly individualistic in recent decades, both drivers and travelers have grown warier of sharing rides. In fact, trust has declined right alongside hitchhiking in America. When the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey asked 1972 respondents if most people could be trusted, nearly half of those who answered the question, 46 percent, said yes. By 2018, that number was 31 percent.

Modern-day hitchhiker Skyler Roberts, who moderates the 11,000-member Reddit forum r/hitchhiking, said that needs to change before thumbing rides can make a meaningful comeback. “I think we need to have a societal shift toward trusting people again,” he said.

That perceived lack of trust hasn’t kept him from seeking out adventures on the road. Once, after crossing the United States on foot, Roberts hitchhiked from San Francisco to Toronto, linking up a few dozen rides as he swooped through the wide open spaces of the American West. For Roberts, the people he met along the way are what make hitchhiking worthwhile.

“There’s just so much variety,” Roberts said. “You just get these conversations about literally everything, from politics to moral philosophy.” That potential for personal connections helps explain hitchhiking’s appeal, agreed Laviolette, whose own hitchhiking experiences became part of his fieldwork. It’s also what’s lost when a traveler chooses, instead, the relative anonymity of a plane ticket.

“There’s this possibility of sharing something,” Laviolette said. “Whether it’s a friendship of the moment or picking up someone that you totally disagree with . . . it’s something that takes us out of our own comfort zone, our own bubbles.”

Post-pandemic future?

Of course, the last thing most travelers are looking for right now is to be taken out of their bubbles. Months ago, Roberts announced a freeze on most posts to r/hitchhiking. He did not want to encourage behavior that would spread the virus.

“We must all make sacrifices,” wrote Roberts, who is waiting out the pandemic at his mom’s house outside Toronto. “Hitchhiking is very much a community, so don’t kill your community.” But when the threat of covid-19 has passed, Roberts hopes to return to hitchhiking. He would like to explore Eastern Europe.

Will there be anyone to pick him up? Already, the pandemic has changed our social interactions. Everyone is a possible carrier of a deadly virus. If hitchhiking was marginal before the virus, now the idea of letting a stranger into the car seems utterly outlandish.

We are all about keeping our distance these days. It follows, then, that pandemic travel is adapting to minimize unplanned encounters as much as possible. And it’s easy to imagine a time — perhaps not too distant — when a traveler could leave home for a faraway place without meeting anyone at all.

Airports with touchless screening would be just the beginning; some innovators have proposed sealed, individual pods to whisk passengers to gates while bypassing crowds. Upon arrival in a new place, the traveler might continue outside to pick up a touchless car rental, then chat with the virtual concierge at a nearby hotel.

Taken to their logical conclusion, the new travel technologies promise a squeaky-clean bubble to usher you between cities germ-free. That’s a good thing, probably, in a pandemic, if it helps us see loved ones and live our lives more safely.

But technology is sticky, and we are building habits that may last. While tech-assisted insulation from the people around us can be lonely, it’s also convenient, safe and predictable. And the shift toward contactless travel, which predates the virus, is likely to extend beyond any future vaccine, according to travel industry analysts at Skift.

When the crisis recedes, each of us will decide what our journeys will look like in a post-
pandemic world — and if we’re willing to take a chance on the strangers we encounter there. And Roberts, as travelers have done for decades, will head to the road with a thumb stuck out. Only then will we see if anyone stops.

Smith is a writer based in Vermont. Her website is jenrosesmith.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @jenrosesmithvt.