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At the age of 16, Elijah Wald found him stuck - found himself stuck in Reno when the bus he was taking to San Francisco broke down. And he decided to hitchhike the rest of the way. Thirty-one years later, he's crossed the United States at least a dozen times on a smile and an outstretched thumb.
He's found rides on three other continents as well, and accumulated enough stories and experience write a book called, Riding with Strangers: A Hitchhiker's Journey. We've posted an excerpt from the book at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.
And we'd like to hear from those of you with experience with hitchhiking, either as riders or as drivers. Why do you do it? What have you learned? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com. Elijah Wald joins us now from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. ELIJAH WALD (Author): Well, thanks very much for having me.
CONAN: What's changed over more than 30 years on the road?
Mr. WALD: Well, I've gotten older. Other than that, I have to say not very much. I mean, I just hitchhiked across the country again last month. And it's about like it always was - some days you get lucky, some days you spend a lot of time standing in the sun on an entrance ramp.
CONAN: Some days - you do describe, though, in your book saying that the number of hitchhikers is way down over 30 years.
Mr. WALD: That's the big difference. The big difference is you see way fewer people. Honestly, I don't really know what the numbers were then or what they are now since, you know, a lot of the time, I'm actually going into truck stops and asking for rides. So you wouldn't see me out on the rode, either.
But it sure is different from back in the ‘60s or ‘70s, where you sometimes would see two-dozen young people waiting on a highway entrance ramp. You don't see that anymore.
CONAN: And some celebrate the ‘60s and the ‘70s as some sort of a golden age and say that these days, you'd have to be out of your mind. It's much too dangerous.
Mr. WALD: That's really strange. Yeah, they absolutely act like it's more dangerous now. And there's no evidence whatsoever for that. The fact is, what scared a lot of people is there really were some serial killers who went out in the ‘70s cruising for young hitchhikers.
But these days, they wouldn't be out on the highway cruising, they'd be on the Internet. I mean, there just aren't the young hitchhikers out there. So honestly, if there's a difference, I would say it's safer now.
CONAN: You would say it's safer now. This sort of runs against conventional wisdom.
Mr. WALD: Well, the country has become a great deal more paranoid. You know, I have to say, you look at any statistics - violent crime, particularly violent crime committed by strangers, is, if anything, down almost everywhere in the U.S. since 30 years ago. And yet, we're a more frightened country. And I think that's very sad. And frankly, that's why I did the book.
It really was a book essentially saying look, if you turn off the television and just get out there, you will find that the world is not a terrifying place. The world, by and large, if you're just approaching random strangers, is pretty friendly.
CONAN: It is one of the oddities of hitchhiking - you write in your book - how many drivers seem to admire or envy you for being out on the road, by yourself, with no visible ties to anything. It is, you say, the other American dream.
Mr. WALD: Yeah, that's true. Though I must admit, I'm hearing less of that now. I think that, you know, back in the ‘60s, there was much more of the romanticism that we're getting less and less of - which, you know, frankly, also saddens me. I mean, I grew up on children's books where guys went out to seek their fortune - sometimes women, but mostly guys, you know, and just headed off down the highway. And that really was one of the great myths.
And I think we are seeing less of that as a myth in the culture, and I miss that. I think it was extremely healthy for young people to just sort of head out and look at the world.
CONAN: Yet, that sense of envy, this is your reporting on a trip that occurred as you were writing this book, I guess, last year.
Mr. WALD: You still get drivers like that. Absolutely. I mean, I have one driver who I do write about in the book who simply, you know, he was an older guy and basically said, you know, these days we're living in a world that -where its getting harder and harder to make a living. And probably the most sensible thing is to just find something you love doing. And he then nodded at my guitar. I hitchhike with a guitar, and clearly he just felt that, you know, being a rambling musician is as good a choice as any these days.
CONAN: Interesting - you hitchhike with a guitar, but not with a sign. Explain that thinking there.
Mr. WALD: Honestly, I tend not to hitchhike with a sign partly because I've got that guitar in my hands, and I'm playing it and then just stick out my thumb when a car passes. And it takes two hands to hold a sign, and then it's hard to play guitar.
But the other thing is a lot of what I love about hitchhiking is just the element of chance. You never know exactly where you're going. And a sign will discourage people who aren't going wherever that sign may say. And where they're going - I know this sounds silly, but it's really true - but where they're going may be more interesting than where I was planning to go. So I'd rather leave that element to chance in there.
I did hitchhike for years with a sign, but the sign just said No Ride is Too Short. And, frankly, it pulled over a lot of people. But the guitar does the same thing. I mean, both of them basically say, you know, this is somebody who might be entertaining to spend some time with.
CONAN: And, critical for hitchhikers is to look clean and neat.
Mr. WALD: Clean and neat and friendly, yeah. And, you know, what can I say? Not - you know, like you're having a good time. Basically, people invite you into your cars because they want to chat with somebody. And if you look like you are absolutely miserable, frankly, I would be less inclined to pick you up. Because who wants to sit with a miserable person for a couple hours? So I try - even if I am in fact wet and miserable - I try to look like I'm having a great time out there.
CONAN: Even when, you say they pick you up in order to chat, some of them pick you up and then go into whatever rant is in their head. You got one driver who was, must have been on the grassy knoll himself.
Mr. WALD: Yeah, I got - on the trip I write about - I got somebody who was an absolute Kennedy conspiracy expert. He'd actually been down to Dallas and interviewed a member of the motorcade. And this last trip across country, last month, I had somebody who was absolutely on the rant that 9/11 was caused by the Bush administration, and he actually gave me a DVD with two hour-long documentaries to prove his case. You do get those people.
And, you know, I think frankly it's exactly the same reason that you get a certain number of missionaries. I got one of those on the trip I write about. You know, you do have people who see a random person out on the highway and think, you know, I have a mission to bring a message the world, and here's somebody who's just ready for a message.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on this conversation. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us: 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's start with Valentine. Valentine is calling us from Hartford, Connecticut.
VALENTINE (Caller): Well, hello Elijah. I'm wondering - you comment it's mostly guys who set out like that, and I think you're right. I used to hitchhike a lot. I crossed Canada. I never crossed the U.S. alone, I didn't quite feel safe doing that, and it's really different if you're a woman. You…
Mr. WALD: Absolutely. Though…
VALENTINE: …you are prey.
Mr. WALD: Well, that's absolutely true, but I have to say having just finished this tour, I've developed a somewhat nuanced position, because - and I'm really not exaggerating here - every single reading I've done, more women than men have come up to tell me their hitchhiking stories.
Mr. WALD: So I'm beginning to realize, you know, I'm staying that the myth that I grew up with is of young guys setting out to seek their fortune. But the fact is, I have no idea whether there really are that many more men than women hitchhiking, because women get rides so quickly that you wouldn't see them out there.
VALENTINE: That's a good point.
Mr. WALD: Like everybody else, I judge who's out there by who I see standing by the highway, which is to say, the failures.
(Soundbite of laughter)
VALENTINE: I also, I just want to say - I'm sure you will recognize this - that one of the high moments over and over is that time when you've first gotten out of however it was you got to the highway, and you're standing out there and you put your thumb out and you have no idea what's going to happen next.
Mr. WALD: You know, nobody ever comments on that. Yeah. That's one of the greatest feelings on earth. That's, I think the only thing better is that moment when you've been standing in the rain for three hours and a car pulls over.
VALENTINE: Well, you see, I never had to stand for three hours.
Mr. WALD: There you go!
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Valentine, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you.
CONAN: Bye, bye.
VALENTINE: All right, bye.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from John D.(ph), in Rochester, New York. “The last hitchhiker I ever gave a ride was a guy who thought McDonald's served hot dogs. I think the guy wasn't really connected to reality, and decided not to try my luck ever again with hitchhikers. My apologies to your guest. One of the hitchhikers I may have passed over the years may have been him.”
So, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Dwayne(ph). Dwayne's calling us from Hopkinsville in New York. In Kentucky, excuse me.
DWAYNE (Caller): That's correct. How're you doing, Neal?
CONAN: Very well, thank you.
DWAYNE: Outstanding. Listen, I make it my business to pick up hitchhikers. I'm a minister in a Methodist church in Kentucky. And, you know, I preach that sermon, the Jericho Road, the Good Samaritan, and so my thought was, you know, if I'm going to preach it I've got to live it. And so that's what I do. I live what I preach.
Mr. WALD: You know, I'm glad to hear that, and I have to say the comment I made earlier about people trying to convert me, those are by no means the only religious people who picked me up. I do often get rides from people who say exactly that, you know, that they've been in church and have thought, you know, what would Jesus do?
DWAYNE: Right. Well, that's one of the - and listen, I've never passed anybody up. I pick up hitchhikers. I'm an African-American, and I pick up hitchhikers no matter what their size or attire or anything. As a matter of fact, I picked up one guy, he was white and weighed about 280, and he could've probably crushed me, you know, in my car. And this guy, he had scar tissue all in his face, and I began to witness to him and he just started crying. And I had a horseshoe cross on, and I gave it to him, and, you know, put him out where he could catch his next ride and everything, and it was just a wonderful experience.
CONAN: Well Dwayne, thanks very much for the call. And good luck in - continued good luck in picking up hitchhikers.
DWAYNE: Hey, Neal, it's not luck, man. See, here's the thing. My Lord not only feeds the flock, but he also protects the flock.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Dwayne, thanks very much.
DWAYNE: You too, Neal. Bye, bye.
CONAN: Bye, bye. We're talking with Elijah Wald, the author of Riding With Strangers: A Hitchhiker's Journey. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And here's an e-mail question from Christopher in Kansas. “I'm wondering if the author was able to discern any part of the country as having people who were more or less likely to pick up a hitchhiker.”
Mr. WALD: You know, that's a funny question, because the fact is, you know, we don't have any good statistics. I mean, a great day for me is when a truck picks up and takes me 500 miles, and that means I learn less about those 500 miles than if he hadn't. Or she hadn't. I actually, my longest ride on the trip I wrote about was a woman truck driver.
So, I, you know, the big difference you see is legal differences. Once you get west of the Mississippi, most states will let you stand out on the highway until you get to California and Washington. And that, obviously, can make it a lot easier. You know, but, honestly, in the old days - you know, I started hitchhiking in the ‘70s - and for awhile, when I hitchhiked in Montana I constantly got rides from women and never got rides from women anywhere else outside of Massachusetts. But when I say constantly, you know, I'm talking probably a total of five rides. So it may have just been the luck of the draw.
CONAN: Yeah. One of the things I found fascinating about your book was the distinction you drew between hitchhikers and those other knights of the road, the hobos - who, men who often ride the rails.
Mr. WALD: Sure. It's a very, very different experience, and a very, very different culture, because riding the rails can be social. I mean, I was just talking - I, in fact, just picked up a hitchhiker last week. And he was saying he was about to make a trip on the trains and he was taking a bunch of friends with him. And you just can't do that when you hitchhike. So that hoboing has a whole culture. They have songs, they camp together, they live together, and hitchhikers don't do that. Hitchhikers avoid one another, because you don't want another hitchhiker near you.
CONAN: “The classic taxonomy,” you write, “of American outcasts and wanderers: a hobo works and travels, a tramp travels but doesn't work, a bum neither works nor travels.”
Mr. WALD: Yeah, well, that's from the 1920s. That used to be how they divided things up - ‘20s or ‘30s - and you see that quote over and over again. And hitchhikers have always sort of been apart from that, because frankly, an awful lot of hitchhikers - I mean, if you're going to jump on the trains, first of all you have to know trains, and second of all you have to be willing to be absolutely filthy and not associate with regular people until you get cleaned up. Most hitchhikers through the years have been, you know, regular, ordinary people who just happen to need a ride for a minute. The number of real long-range hitchhikers is just a small fraction of people who've actually, you know, hitchhiked now and then.
CONAN: Let's talk with Guy. Guy calling us from Goldsboro, North Carolina.
GUY (Caller): Yes, I had a couple points. I wanted to agree with him about how people will invite you into their car, and it's usually is not because they're just filling kind, they want to give you a ride. They want to share your experience. And once you get in their car a lot of times, it kind of grows and now you're both on this journey. And my experience was not so much of getting picked up by the wrong person. It was, nine times out of ten I was not getting a ride because they thought I was the wrong person.
(Soundbite of laughter)
And I really felt - I was hitchhiking in the mid-90s, and you could just tell that it wasn't the same, it wasn't the cliché that I thought it was once I got into it. It was a much different. It was a lot more, it wasn't as - I think it was more cold now than it used to be in the ‘70s when it was more accepted. And now, it kind of is a risk. People are very hesitant. Like you said, we live in a paranoid America now.
Mr. WALD: Yeah, clearly for me, you know, I'm now 47 years old. And I'm carrying a guitar and I have a big smile on my face. And I'm not a big burley guy. I mean, I'm six-feet tall, but I'm reasonably slim. So, you know, I look less dangerous than a lot of people. And I'm white. You know, if I were black or younger or bigger, it would undoubtedly be a very different experience.
GUY: I am a big burley guy, and I once spent three and a half days at the same exit in Redding, California.
Mr. WALD: Yeah.
CONAN: Well, Guy, better luck next time.
GUY: Ha! Thank you, sir. Well, I'm driving now.
CONAN: All right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GUY: Have a good day. Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. We just have a minute or so left with you, Elijah Wald, and I know you've hitchhiked recently. If you could give some people some tips on how to do this successfully, if they wanted to do it, and some tips on how to avoid the worst mistakes?
Mr. WALD: Sure. I mean, the basic tips, like I say, is look clean and happy and friendly, and find a place where people will have plenty of space to stop. Or, you know, just go to truck stops or rest stops on the highway where you can walk right up to people and you can see them and they can see you. The big safety tip is, you know, don't get in a car with a driver who's drunk. And if you're a woman, don't get in a car with a bunch of guys in it. But those are the basic tips. Other than that, everybody has their own rules, but we, none of us know whether we're right or whether they're just what works for us.
CONAN: And if you can, learn how to play a little guitar.
Mr. WALD: That certainly helps.
CONAN: Elijah Wald, thanks very much. And, are you planning a new trip?
Mr. WALD: I'm planning, actually, to be over in Italy and France with my wife in September, and we're going to hitchhike across there, yeah.
CONAN: Good luck to you.
Mr. WALD: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Elijah Wald's book is Riding with Strangers: A Hitchhiker's Journey.
Joe Palca will be here tomorrow guest hosting on Science Friday. Lynn Neary will be sitting in for me next week. I'm on vacation.
In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, NPR News.