The Tide has Turned: Reflections on American Negativity

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: October 1, 2002

After my plans for an extended visit last year failed me, I’m suddenly back home in Australia with nose to the grindstone again, on the professional set, designing and delivering commercial training courses. My first job has me on edge, there’s an awful lot to learn and do in preparation - but where should it be but the United States?

So, I’m on the verge of first trip to the States in a decade, and have very little time to squander - with enormous commitments and opportunities on the Australian side of the Pacific before and after the course. All the same, I’m excited at the opportunity to catch up with some of the old acquaintances I’d meant to track down last year, in the short few days I have in Seattle.

I find myself reflecting on the state of hitching of the States – the rather extreme views I consistently hear about it. I’ve never hitched in the States, may never do at this rate. And yet over the years I’ve engaged in some of the most unusually biased discussion on the matter with all manner of American’s, in person and on-line.

There’s a near ubiquitous feeling that that it’s just plain suicide, and more curiously, that it doesn’t work anymore. In my scrap book I have some notes which epitomise these feelings. They were posted by the webmaster at some while ago, but have disappeared now. Their author, Scott A. Moore has pulled those pages down, but according my notes on the site he wrote:

It’s amazing how common these sentiments are. There is a transition in personal perspective that parallels the perceived (or imagined) transition in cultural perspective. What was a wild adventure, has become "bizarre and trying" in retrospect, itself a kind of euphemism for "downright stupid". Europe of course is stereotypically seen as less bizarre, and it may well be, for all my doubts (having experienced my fair share of the bizarre on European roadsides). But perhaps that is because the writers from whom I glean thse sentiments are predominantly American? I’ve a dearth of European writings on America to compare with alas - only informal anecdotes. They seem all the same to be generally convinced that hitching in the States is still an wild and interesting adventure.

I can recall Jacob Holdt’s vivid descriptions on my last visit to Copenhagen. He’d hitched the States for many years in the 1970’s and today, on his drives across the States would pick them up. Most American hitch-hikers today, he tells me, are either groupies (dead-heads, ferals, whatever you like to call them) or criminals, and he prefers the criminals – they don’t smell as bad. It’s easy to imagine if most hitch-hiker’s you pick up are so beyond the pale that the drivers who pick them up are not your average joes either.

In "The Lost Highway" Jeffery Perso sums it up brilliantly with his interview of James Maclaren:

An interesting and far more trustworthy perspective (in my view) than most I read or hear. MacLaren speaks with clear insight.

I reflect on my impending departure to the States with no shortage of professional stress alas, but an underlying enthusiasm for the opportunity to see however briefly some of the folk I cherish, and a land about which, in the end, I know so very little … I’ll hopefully report on a gathering of hitch-hikers in Seattle in early November, no matter how modest …. Keep posted.