Highway of Youth Now Dead-Ends at Junction of Fear

I don't know my world history well enough to know whether citizens in every great civilization eventually surrendered their unfettered freedom of movement. I do know that it galls me that people can't walk around after dark in all sections of New York or Los Angeles or Santa Ana without a suit of armor.

That's a foul thought on an otherwise perfectly fine spring day, but it comes to mind because it was about this time of year 21 years ago when I hatched plans to hitchhike from Nebraska to New York after graduating from college.

I'll bet the idea sprouted on a balmy Lincoln day. I'll bet I was feeling my oats and thinking of great adventures after four years of college. My best friend was living in White Plains, N.Y., and since I didn't have a car, the idea of hitchhiking to visit him seemed perfectly logical.

My parents weren't enthralled by the idea but didn't let out any anguished cries or threats to chain me to the bedpost. I don't remember being the least bit afraid to hit the road, and on the Monday morning after my Saturday graduation ceremonies, I stuck out my thumb on Interstate 80 outside Omaha and began the trip.

Sociologists could probably find a better measuring stick than that hitchhiking trip to chronicle how much things can change over one generation, but it may be more telling than you think.

A couple of anecdotes come to mind. One of the people who picked me up was a woman in her 50s. She said she had never picked up a hitchhiker in her life. Can you imagine a woman driving alone today picking up a 21-year-old guy on an interstate highway?

I got another ride from a Purdue student, who picked me up in her Volkswagen bug. After stopping for me, she asked if I'd mind driving for a couple hours while she slept. Maybe college women do that today, but I doubt it.

The point of all this isn't to relive that innocuous trip but to suggest that most of us today have forfeited that kind of freedom--the freedom from fear.

It's a tossup who would be the most fearful today--the hitcher or the person considering stopping for one.

To test my theory, I surveyed 15 male students at UC Irvine, asking them whether they'd consider hitchhiking across the country. Of the 15, 13 said they wouldn't.

The following excerpts from my polling are offered as evidence:

"Too much risk involved. You see all the time people getting beaten up, robbed, slain, the Jeffrey Dahmer thing." Gary, a 20-year-old junior from Walnut.

"It would be a good experience, and it would probably teach you something, but there are other ways that are more efficient if you wanted to do it if you want to learn something. . . . You can't really trust anyone." Tom, 22, a senior from Hacienda Heights.

"Not by myself, anyway. I wouldn't like the idea of being stranded out in the middle of the country." Joe, 20, a Brea sophomore.

"You can get yourself killed doing it." Mike, a 22-year-old senior.

"I would never hitchhike in the first place. I'd be worried about some Jeffrey Dahmer guy driving the car." Aaron, 17, a freshman from Santa Ana.

"It's pretty stupid and dangerous. I'm not a very trusting person, so it's not something I'd want to do." Craig, an 18-year-old Oregonian.

"With the uncertainty of not knowing who you'd meet or what you'd come across, it'd be too much for me to risk." Vinnie, 18, a sophomore from the San Fernando Valley.

Based on my survey, you could conclude that I was simply a courageous and intrepid swashbuckler and that today's college boys are a bunch of milquetoasts. However, the intelligent and obvious conclusion is that this is no longer a country where college kids--or hardly anyone else--thinks it's safe enough for an adventure like cross-country hitchhiking.

Steve, a 19-year-old Arcadia sophomore, considered my hitchhiking question and said: "At the end of your column, you might want to throw in Bob Dylan's line--"The Times They Are A-Changin."

There you go, Steve.

Maybe our society can survive the absence of hitchhiking.

But can we survive the loss of adventure? Can we survive the loss of security and the loss of trust in our fellow man? Can we survive the fear of walking a city street and thumbing a ride across the Heartland of America?

Just so I don't ruin your day, let's concede that the demise of hitchhiking is not the final evidence that the end is near.

But it can't be a very good sign, can it?

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