Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Elijah Wald, "Riding with Strangers"

As usual my reading has really slowed down this summer. But I finally finished my first book of the season, and it was particularly apt. Elijah Wald's Riding with Strangers is a chronicle of a croos-country hitchhiking tour that he completed in his 40's. The publication date is listed as 2006, so I can only speculate that he wrote it over the last couple of years.

Wald has been a hitchhiker since he was a teen, and laments the perception that his cherished hobby is dangerous in today's age. His contention is that the country has gotten ever more paranoid and insulatory, but his experiences go a long way toward restoring his faith in the fundamental decency of his fellow citizens. He completed his entire excursion in less time than it would take riding Greyhound... and he wasn't propositioned, robbed, raped or murdered. Throughout the book the author describes his desire that more young people take to the road in this time-honored tradition. He details the history of hitchhiking in America, and outlines his studied approach for getting rides. Wald even teaches us the difference between a hobo (travels and works), a tramp (travels, but does not work), and a bum (neither travels nor works). But this is a digression, for this terminology arises from the train-hopping culture that, while sometimes arbitrarily clumped with that of hitchers, has a unique set of values and indicators.

Riding with Strangers is a pleasant, if not compelling, read. Nothing particularly dramatic happens during his latest travels. The book therefore focuses on the small moments of appreciation that make a pocket of liberation worth a struggle through minor inconveniences. Wald's constant companion is his guitar, which serves him both as a diversion to get him through the slow times, and a prop to defang his appearance. It seems to work well for him, because he is rarely stranded.

I have to admit that I have never really picked up a hitchiker. One time, as I was making a short drive home, a woman approached my car as a thunderclap foretold a flash storm. I took pity on her and drove her several blocks to her friend's house. This incident contributed very little to the world that Wald writes about- a world that I have never seriously considered engaging on either side. To me the romance of the road lies in hurtling solo through the vast expanse at the wheel of my own conveyance. But I must say that reading Wald's book might be enough stimulus to make me reflect upon the next time I pass by an entreating roadside thumb.


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