Hitchhikers Don’t Get Around Much Anymore

Crime has tarnished a once-popular mode of transportation


Prof. Linda Mahood during her hitchhiking days in Saskatchewan.

It was a trend that was promoted by the highest levels of government at the time. Pierre Elliot Trudeau had hitchhiked around Europe and the Middle East as a young man, long before he became prime minister. In 1970, apparently remembering his own experiences in a positive way, he publicly advised young Canadians to “Hit the road. Drive or hitchhike and see what Canada’s all about.”

Many teens and young adults took his advice to heart, and hitchhikers with their thumbs stuck out became a familiar sight on Canadian highways. In 1971, the Globe and Mail predicted some 300,000 youth would pass through Winnipeg that summer, and that about 500,000 would end their hitchhiking journey in Vancouver.

U of G history professor Linda Mahood never hitched across Canada, but she did hitchhike around her home in Saskatchewan and later on Vancouver Island. “When I mentioned this to some of the students in my women’s history class, they were horrified,” says Mahood. “That’s when I started to get interested in the history of hitchhiking.”

Over potluck suppers, brown-bag lunches, and during a CBC call-in show, Mahood has been interviewing people between the ages of 50 and 65 about their experiences. She’s now starting a sabbatical year to finish her research and write a book on the topic of youth tourism, which is part of a bigger biographical project about growing up in the 1970s.

Almost as soon as cars were invented, hitchhikers started looking for free rides, she’s found. “In the 1920s, little boys would hitchhike to baseball games and ‘lettermen’ would hitchhike to college.” During the Great Depression in the 1930s, entire families would be seen hitchhiking, and drivers saw stopping for these people as a charitable act. By the 1950s, drivers were being warned of the dangers of picking up hitchhikers, but during the 1960s and 1970s, it became very popular, especially among teens and young adults.

Mahood has heard from hitchhikers in many different situations: those who traveled in groups and those who traveled alone, a couple who did a hitchhiking honeymoon, and a teen single mother who hitchhiked with her baby. In rural areas, hitchhiking was often the main way teens got around.

Early in the 1970s, the armouries in many Canadian cities were opened up as a free place for hitchhiking travellers to stay. The federal government provided grants to support the development of hostels where people could stay for up to three nights.

By the middle of that decade, though, links between hitchhiking, crime and assaults were becoming clear and were widely reported. Cities began to restrict the locations where would-be travellers could stick out their thumbs. Prince Edward Island and other places attempted to block hitchhikers from arriving.  “Long before taking a ‘gap year’ was acceptable, some people were bothered by the fact that these able-bodied young people were not out looking for work, but were instead enjoying themselves, travelling  around the country in other people’s cars,” she says.

Today, hitchhiking is rare. “Those were more innocent times,” says Mahood. “Our parents didn’t think anything of us hitchhiking or backpacking or camping outdoors. Today people are more aware of the risks and more cautious.”

In fact, most of the people she’s spoken to so far have described at least one or two experiences of what she calls “the dark side of hitchhiking.” Some were approached for sexual favours or were sexually assaulted; some found themselves out of money and stranded in an area with little traffic; some lived for days on truck-stop French fries with gravy.

Were there more positive but memorable moments? One woman had hitchhiked to a Vancouver beach. As she and her friend rested near huge logs that had washed ashore, helicopters descended to the shore. “She told me they saw men in suits and CBC cameras, and then Pierre Trudeau stepped out of the helicopter,” says Mahood. “Trudeau gave her a pencil. She said that later her mother told her she’d seen her on TV with the prime minister.”

Another woman described being stuck in New Brunswick without any money. “Then a gust of wind blew up and a $20 bill blew right against her chest, where she caught it,” says Mahood. In those days, that was more than enough for a meal and a night in the hostel – it got them all the way to Winnipeg.

Mahood is looking for more people with hitchhiking stories and memories to share. Anyone interested can contact her at lmahood@uoguelph.ca.