Hitchhiking in… (19) the USA

Trampen in den USA
Trampen in den USA

Hitchhiking in the USA was one of the biggest disappointments of my whole trip. You think about Kerouac, how he hitchhiked from Denver to SanFran. You want to explore the root of the hippie culture. You expect the US to be THE country for hitchhiking. But this is not the case. I wandered many months through the USA. In the beginning I didn‘t like it at all, but after some time I became friends with this strange US-culture. Regarded to hitchhiking my opinion is clear: The USA are one of the most tiring and annoying countries I have hitchhiked in so far. Not recommended. Hitchhiking in the USA sucks. Which makes the country not less interesting. Quite the contrary.

Stats

Hitchhiked distance: 11010 kilometer

Number of lifts: 129

Average waiting time: 40 minutes 20 seconds

Waiting time total: 69 hours 55 minutes

Log is available here.

My Route

I entered the United States of America the first time through Texas and stayed some weeks in Austin. From there I was flying with my friend Patrick Falterman to New Mexico. I hitchhiked to Denver and went on by trainhopping to Salt Lake City, California all the way up to Seattle. It was also my first contact with trainhopping at all. What a blast!

Later I hitchhiked up and forth in Washington and Oregon, before I set off through Canada into direction New York. I lived a month in New York and hitchhiked from there 5000 miles to the Northend of Alaska. On my way back I had a small detour through San Francisco before entering Canada again.

People

I can‘t say, even after more than half a year in Northamerica, that I understand the people there. The USA are big and divers. It is hard to make a general assumption about this place. The States can be very different from each other. Coast vs. Inner country, west vs. East, everywhere are people a bit different. But all are Americans and therefore part of this wicked society. I just try to give an impression about that.

Trampen in Amerika
Hitchhiking in America

In the beginning I have to say, that I had my biggest culture shock in the USA. You would think that the people in the USA would be more similar to us Europeans than f.e. the people in South America. Not at all. At least in my opinion. The USA are the same kind of capitalistic dickheads as we Germans, but in America society is much more brutal and uncertain than in Europe. It starts with the health-care system and goes on with living on debts, short-term paychecks and underpaid jobs (which you need more than one, of course). I mean, our system seems compared to what I encountered in the USA like an ideological, flawless Socialism. And there is an abnormal pressure to perform, that we have not at all on our continent.

Generally it was a bit hard for me to connect with the people in Northamerica further than the normal superficial interaction. Everyone is very friendly and polite for sure. But if it gets a bit more personal you will meet their bounds pretty soon. People are very protective about personal issues. And then this pseudo-friendlieness. In the beginning I really hated it, but you get used to everything. When I went back to Germany, I even missed that people are so superficial friendly with each other. I spend a lot of time in California and I had to learn, that it is not so important what you say, but more, how you say it. Germany, compared to that, is a very direct society. A friend just told me: „You can‘t hide in Germany.“ And this is, after months within this superficial but nice world, a bit annoying as well sometimes.

On big topic in the USA is fear. Fear something could happen. Fear to get killed by a hitchhiker. Fear of terrorism. Fear to become sick. Fear of life. The USA are in my opinion much more neurotic and paranoid than the rest of the world. People like it to be stable. Everything should stay how it is. Brazil was similar neurotic in my eyes and I think it has to do with the strong influence of religion within the society.

Especially when hitchhiking you will encounter this fear very directly, when you try ask for rides at a gas station. This is not very appreciated. If you approach people, they will have a very negative attitude towards you. They look strange, want to be left alone and see you as scum. It feels like running the gauntlet sometimes. And I never experienced that in another country. Canada for example is the very opposite of this. People approach you at the gas station, ask what you are doing there and start a conversation with you.

To understand hitchhiking in the USA you have to consider another part. In the USA are living a lot of people in the streets and there are many who have serious mental health issues and would be in the need for help. But there is no health system, that would take care about them and therefore the people are left by themselves. And for everyone who has no car, due to the lack of public transportation, the only way to move around is by hitchhiking.

You gotta understand the general difference in traveling culture between the USA and Europe. Here you move around with your hippie and student friends, people think you are cool and hitchhiking has quite a good reputation among people. On the American streets (while hitchhiking as well as while traveling), there is a wild mix of hobos, homeless, hippies, students, drug addicts, people who are on the run, people who are distressed and people who just don‘t want to be part of this society anymore and live as an outlaw. The characters you meet are much more radical, extreme and annoying than in most other parts of the world. For the good as well as for the bad. It is different to hitchhike the USA than to hitchhike in Europe. But I found it super exciting to move around in the USA and meet people there. I met some really great characters there that opened up my world a lot. Thanks for that!

But what really sucks is the outcome of this mixture towards hitchhiking. As a hitchhiker people in the USA will treat you like a drug addict criminal. That is the mean difference to Europe, because here you are (like in most countries in the world) the cool kid and free spirit, because you hitchhike. In the USA you are the scum because you hitchhike. And I will never get used to that. It is one of the biggest disadvantages about this country. Hitchhiking is not fun at all with this.

In addition to that there is a statistical reason. It takes a while till people stop for you. I had more than 40 minutes average waiting time in the USA and this is only be topped by Colombia as the worst country for hitchhiking. For the 130 rides I had, this is a very bad average waiting time. There is not much left of the Hippiedream about hitchhiking through the USA. Reality is made by hard numbers and woebegone waiting times, with people that hate you, because you hitchhike.

In the end something positive. People in the USA are very helpful. Not to give you a ride, but in general. And this has to do with the many homeless people around. Constantly they throw food and drinks at you. Even money. People in the US see it as their responsibility to help others. It is part of the cultural peculiarity.

In the USA people like to help, donate, give away food. They see it as an inadvertent intervention if the state would do so. It is a typical Republican agenda to keep the state as small as possible and out of as many part of your daily life as possible. In Europe it is the opposite. When the state is fostering volunteering, some people might say this is shit, because the state just uses the free workforce to not fulfill his own responsibilities. There are two very contrary positions about the role of the state towards the society. And those influence the people a lot. Good for you guys being in the USA because you might get food and drinks for free. But it won‘t bring you any rides. Anyway, take the presents, For the people there it is important to help others and you make them happy if you let them help you.

Roads

Trampen in den Redwoods
Trampen in den Redwoods

The American Highway Network is the most beautiful collective of roads in the world for me. And that, for sure, is a big plus about hitchhiking in the USA. Even if it helps just a little. When I first time came to Texas I just thought: „Fuck yeah, this is exactly as beautiful and perfect how I expected this roads to be!“. There are those sweet shootings from the post war period, pale pictures from the 50‘s, time of the oil boom, beginning of a new era and the time were most of this magnificent infrastructure was build. Long, straight interstates, flower-shaped interchanges, few cars in the road and somehow I have the Hoover-Dam as well as Kennedy in my head, when i think about this. Don‘t know why. But with this pictures I entered the USA. And the roads have been exactly how I expected them to be. Not the rest tho.

My excitement might also be supported by the fact, that the american Interstates are bigger, wider and longer than most of the other roads in the world that I was hitchhiking on so far. The continent has a lot of space and you will feel that very quickly, when moving around in the USA. Everything is bigger, Roads, Cars and Egos. I think it is the perfect country to do a road-trip, if you want to drive by your own. Afterwards I went to Japan, which is kind of the counterpart to this society. There is not much space, everything is small, detailed and tight. Japanese cars felt like toy cars to me, when I arrived there from the USA. Sometimes I even had to laugh, when someone came across me in the street with his dwarf-mobile.

What I missed while hitchhiking thought the USA was: Service areas. There are regular gas stations at almost every exit with fast-food restaurants. But no service stations, like we know them from the European highway network. That is a clear disadvantage, when it comes to hitchhiking. There are too much gas stations, so it is hard to find the frequented ones. Sometimes you are lucky, sometimes not. Only north of New York I encountered some really nice rest areas along the toll roads. Between NYC and Montreal. They have been wonderful, but I think it was a specific along the privatized highway there. In general I don‘t think the interstates are that good of an infrastructure for hitchhiking, especially if you go for a long distance hitchhiking trip through the USA.

Beside the Interstates you got Highways which are something like the German Bundesstraße. I can not really recommend the Highways either. Traffic moves too fast and often I had problems with the police. Especially in Idaho they kicked me out of the highway regularly and I had to switch to gas stations or slip roads. If you go cross country in the north I would always prefer to take the route through Canada.

Cities in the USA are also a bit special. There are many cars around. Too many. Every person in the USA seems in the need for an own car. They even introduced car-sharing lanes, where you are only allowed to drive if you are with two or more people in the car. Up to 500$ you gotta pay, if you use them while being alone. There are many traffic jams. And this is a chance for us hitchhikers. During rush hour it is very easy to catch rides out of the cities. You can catch them directly on the interstates during the stop and go traffic. Or better take the onramp, if the cars stand all the way back into it.

Tactics for hitchhiking in the USA

I hated it to approach people at gas stations in the USA. And many owner also didn‘t allow that you do it. I got kicked out by sheriffs from those places as well as I gave up, because the people where too annoying. I prefer to thumb along the road. But that was not very expedient as well. Biggest problem was, that most people in the USA are not driving very far. The average length of a ride was below average.

F.e. in Canada the average distance was about twice as high as in the USA. Both countries are similar big, so we can compare this very well. I guess the US-people just don‘t like to travel within their country so much. You an definitely find people on the Interstates that are going cross country. But how to catch those rides the best I couldn‘t figure out. If you have an idea, let me know.

Hitchhiking onramps in the USA is a bit laborious. Of curse it differs between the states and it is often the only option anyway. Maybe a sign might be useful, but as you might know, I am never hitchhiking with signs.

One advice I can give here:

You should dress as serious as possible. As I told before, people have a strong association of hitchhikers, people without money, criminals, wicked people, prisoners, scum…etc. Even when I was in my hitchhiking suit people tended to throw money and food at me, because they thought I was homeless. Maybe shaving would have helped. But the stereotype is deep inside their heads.

Also you will get into a lot of police controls and they will be far more relaxed, if they recognize that you are sane. Sometimes they might even give you a ride to get off the highway. I had a lot of rides with the police. As much as in no other country in the world. Always in the prisoner box in the back!

In general I just wanted to point out, that it is worth to look a bit different from the rest of the folks on the road. Even if you stay punk within yourself. When I was hitchhiking through California recently, I had a green military coat and looked a bit aristocratic in it. I had the feeling hitchhiking through the USA worked much better this way.

But anyway. However you look, if you hitchhike through the USA stay sober in any case!

Specifics

Contrary to other claims, Hitchhiking in the USA is not forbidden! Just in some places there are laws against hitchhiking. But the legislation within the states is different and in most of the states yoz are allowed to hitchhike. But even in states where hitchhiking is forbidden, the question is still if the law is enforced or not. Often it is up to th officer that controls you and they, sometimes, don‘t even know about the specific laws about hitchhiking in their state.

In the worst case you will get a fine, but I don‘t know anyone personally who got to get one. But to have it complete: In Utah, Idaho, Nevada, as well as New Jersey and Delaware hitchhiking is officially forbidden. But in Idaho f. e. I had plenty of police controls and never any problems, even rides with the police. A good overview about the states should give this map. Furthermore it might be interesting to have a loser look to the actual laws, Sometimes it is forbidden to solicit rides at the side of the road, but you can go to gas stations and ask there. Hitchhiking can mean many different things. Be creative. Most important is, that you get the next ride. 😉

I mentioned already that everything in the USA is bigger and more snobbish than in other places of the world. One of the peaks of this gigantism you could observe in the North American Caravan Culture. Caravans are in the USA as big as a touring coach in Europe. And because this is not enough, most people also pull their oversized trucks behind themselves. Here this would be a rig with a trailer, there it is just the pensioner going for some holidays. Strange.

There are lots of awesome national parks in the USA which can be visited. Beside the big, famous parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon) I can recommend the Zion National Park. Also you find the famous Redwoods in northern California. Beside Cannabis farmers and Hippies you will find some of the biggest trees in the world out here. A must see if you going to have a trip along the Westcoast.

New York. This city. They say, if you can survive in New York, you can survive at any place in the world. Seems legit. New York is very impressive with all its skyscrapers and glamorous but also shameless expensive. You pay for everything, too much in New York and in the end you have to tip 20% on top of this. But happy us it is also a very good place for dumpster diving. There is my most favorite dumpster in the world: Sushi at the Time Square. Every night fresh and for free. Have a look it is worth it!

And btw. you can fly pretty cheap to the USA. I shouldn‘t promote this here, but it is so damn cheap and I would rather see my crowd take those places than anyone else. With Norwegian airlines you can fly from Oslo to New York from 86€, one way. This is the cheapest connection I know. But even to the Westcoast and starting from Central Europe you should be able to find flights with return for not more than 450€. Bes is to book directly on the Norwegian website. Don‘t order any food, you can bring it with yourself for the flight. Makes it cheaper.

Police controls are often and they might take a while. Especially in the border regions, they always have to check with the state police, as well as with the federals. Don‘t be surprised. If you get into a control (and you will for sure) stay calm and friendly. Always follow the advices of the law enforcers and try to get a ride with the police if it brings you into a better positioning. They call this courtesy rides and they are the way to go while hitchhiking in the USA. And the police always shows up with at least two cars, because every policemen in the USA has to have his own car. Like everyone in the USA in general, I have the feeling.

Impressions

3 Comments

    • I wish you the best of luck. I grew up hitchhiking in the U.S. I’m 37 now and have hitched in 14 European countries. Advice, Always Always Always have a large sign with your destination and have your backpack very visible, this will get you many more and longer rides especially with truck drivers, this way people know your a genuine traveller and not just bumming\begging around. Don’t try looking too respectable it will have the opposite effect that it has in Europe its better to look like a hippie within reason. If you get stuck in a really bad spot just start walking down the highways interstate if the police stop just tell them you were being sexually harassed and got out there, always works.

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