Still taken from “The Hitch-hiker,” an episode of The Twilight Zone’s original season. Director: Alvin Ganzer

By: Shane Lambert

What is it about hitchhiking that has made its representation common enough in the world of fiction?

Is it that hitchhiking is almost exclusively a middle-classed or low-classed practice and that, since the world is full of billions of people in these classes, its representation in fiction is merely a reflection of human reality?

Or is it that there is just so much potential for conflict when it comes to hitchhikers and their rides that authors of fiction, people who are always looking for some kind of dramatic kick, are naturally attracted to the subject?

Read “On Being Indistinguishable”

Regardless, one aspect of writing about hitchhiking is that the readers will bring in their biases on the subject. That, in turn, can help set the stage for suspense or adventure in writing where hitchhiking is represented.

That hitchhiking, in real life, can involve a fair amount of suspense could be viewed as an understatement. Hitchhiking can, in fact, cost someone his or her life.

Surely, we’ve all heard or read the horror stories, those stories of the missing people and the murdered, that have resulted from hitchhiking. In fact, “Last Seen Hitchhiking” is such a common phrase in missing persons’ reports that a couple of authors published a mystery book in 1974 with that exact phrase as the title.

The North American public has been presented a lot of literature or reports on the topic of hitchhiking. With the news reports on the topc so often depressing, ask yourself this: if a work of fiction represents hitchhiking in a short story or even a novel, would you naturally think that the plot is going to contain sinister characters?

The answer to that question will certainly vary. Hitchhiking can actually be a part of an adventure, just like it was in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Furthermore, in real life, those that pick up hitchhikers mean no harm.

However, in a world that has seen the likes of both Ted Bundy and Ivan Milat, you have to think that just the mere mention of a character that’s a hitchhiker might make a reader think that he or she is about to embark on a story involving murder or abduction. Both Bundy and Milat abducted and killed hitchhikers that entered their cars and their criminal careers were well covered when discovered. They certainly are not alone and there are many that murdered hitchhikers that were never caught. Whoever committed the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders in California, is a case in point.

Ted Bundy murdered hitchhikers.
Public domain photo.
Florida Memory Project.

Arguably, an author that represents hitchhiking in his/her writing could set a suspenseful stage with less effort that what would normally be required to prep the reader. If it’s true that many readers will regard the travel practice as inherently dangerous, then they might bring that bias into whatever they read about the topic. Maybe there should be a phrase when a writer constructs a narrative that relies to a certain extent off of building off of a societal prejudice.

In a recent post on this site, readers can find “On Being Indistinguishable,” a short story I, Shane Lambert. I have hitchhiked before on three occasions: once when I was a young adult between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish, again about a decade later between Souris and Charlottetown, and lastly in 2011 in Iceland. The picture below is of my thumb in the latter destination. As sure as I am writing these words in 2019, Iceland 2011 wasn’t — for better or worse — the last time I was seen. However, these experiences didn’t really drive the narrative, as I wrote from imagination. In fact, my writing of this short story reflects why I don’t pick up hitchhikers myself as I have a paranoia when it comes to the practice.

But despite what I wrote earlier, there is nothing amiss in my short story, one that is written in the first person. The story represents picking up hitchhikers as a form of philanthropy, yet, the prejudices that surround the issue, prejudices that many of us carry, manage to drive the narrative — sometimes into dark places.

What happens when a well-meaning man, picks up a hitchhiker, who desperately needs a ride but doesn’t trust the motives of the man she’s riding with, literally not even for one minute after meeting him? “On Being Indistinguishable” portrays a dysfunctional side of humanity when answering this question.

What is it about hitchhiking that has made its representation common enough in the world of fiction?

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