"Hey, mister, where ya headed? Are you in a hurry?" This bouncy little Green Day lyric kept galumphing through my head as I perambulated my way through Riding with Strangers: A Hitchhiker's Journey (Chicago Review Press, 2006), an unapologetic ode to hitchhiking by writer and experienced hitcher Elijah Wald. According to his Web site, www.elijahwald.com, he plans on hitching his way through an entire book tour, including a May 21 stop in Boise. If the book is any indication, it should be a pleasant visit.
The book is nominally about a trip Wald took from Boston to Portland (Oregon, not Maine), but its real subject is the joys of the road and the people who travel it. Wald is no stranger to travel by thumb--he's hitched damn near everywhere you can, and some places you'd think he couldn't--and he's not unaware of the potential of risk, but he obviously takes such heedless joy in this time-honored mode of travel that, as a reader, it's hard not to get swept up in it. After finishing this slim tome (less than 230 pages), you may look out your window and decide, "Warm weather's here; time to limber up the thumb and hit the road."
Along the way, he provides an amazing amount of experience and interesting information: what states are best to hitch in (it's tougher back East, but Nebraska's no picnic; Iowa's where it's at until you hit the Intermountain West and Northwest), the pros and cons of various approaches like signs, and hitchhiker etiquette (try to stay awake when you ride, let the driver set the conversational pace). Having hitched for the better part of the last quarter-century, Wald is also well-placed to share insights on the effects immigrants and race relations have played in the hitchhiker universe, displayed in his stories of riding with truckers from the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia, among others.
What's most remarkable about the book is the sense of sunshine that spills from every page. Hitchhiking isn't all fun and games, and Wald doesn't shy away from the few dispirited moments or setbacks along the way, but he brings such a refreshing streak of optimism and cheer to his breezy, unaffected prose that only the terminally sour will be able to resist. His oft-repeated thesis--that the world in general, and America in particular, is far more open and safe than we are trained to think by the news--isn't new, but it is novel to hear it stated so baldly and with such bonhomie. It's a fun, quick read and an excellent companion should you find yourself at a truck stop or a country roadside some time.
P.S. Wald points out that due to its danger-filled portrayal in popular media and the news, hitchhiking is easier now than at any time in the last 50 years. Just an interesting point to raise, for the adventurous reader.
Wald will hitchhike his way through three Idaho appearances, sharing the bill with Idaho singer-songwriter legend Rosalie Sorrels: (1) In Boise on Sunday, May 21, at 1:30 p.m., at the Log Cabin Literary Center (801 S. Capitol Blvd.); (2) in Ketchum on Wednesday, May 24, at 7 p.m., at the Iconoclast (211 Main St.); and (3) in Pocatello on Friday, May 26, at 7 p.m., at the Walrus and the Carpenter (251 N. Main St.).