Roadside Americans

Springfield native's new book explores the history of hitchhiking

click to enlarge Author Jack Reid. - PHOTO COURTESY JACK REID
Photo Courtesy Jack Reid
Author Jack Reid.
"I have hitchhiked a couple times. But that's not why I wrote the book," said Springfield native Jack Reid of his new book, Roadside Americans: The Rise and Fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation. The nonfiction history was just featured on a list by Smithsonian Magazine of newly released titles to "read while you're stuck at home."

Reid said the book was a way of combining his interests in the Beat Generation, travel and U.S. history. He's 35 years old and lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he moved to pursue a Ph.D. His book was released March 30, and he was planning a homecoming event in April to sign and sell copies and discuss it with locals. "I still want to at some point," he said. He, like the rest of us, is waiting to see to just what extent plans will change as a result of the coronavirus.

Reid joined Illinois Times from the safety of a phone call to discuss the book, which is sure to provide a dose of escapism.

Between the Great Depression and the 1970s, hitchhiking was relatively common, Reid writes. Students, military and adventurers all used the method to get from place to place, including Illinois native Ronald Reagan.

"He was looking for work and he wanted to be a Cubs broadcaster," said Reid. No luck, though, so Reagan hitchhiked to a number of places before landing in Davenport, Iowa, where he found a job in radio. "It's interesting because most people associate him with family values, and people think of hitchhiking as this kind of marginalized thing that odd people do," said Reid.

Reid's book follows the nation's trajectory through liberalism into the Reagan era. To research, in part, Reid visited veterans' halls, record stores and taverns to hear of individual accounts and general themes of how hitchhikers were perceived. Reid – an experienced traveler – has long been drawn to artists and writers from the Beat Generation, think Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

So honing in on hitchhiking was "an interesting way of combining all of these things I enjoy, music and culture and film and all that," he said. "But then also the social history of how Americans have changed."

While well-dressed middle-class white men were able to put up a thumb and expect the best, that was not the case for people of color and women. "In the Great Depression, (women) sometimes dressed as men to stay under the radar, because if they were seen by police, they would often be sent to their closest male relative," said Reid. Likewise, during the Jim Crow era, some black men found hitchhiking to be a way to seek a better life, but the risks were much higher for them than for white counterparts.

It was a crisis that made hitchhiking a common practice, writes Reid. World War II came with gasoline and tire rations which made it a "practical necessity." Simply, one way people could help each other was to offer a ride.

Reid said that aspect is starting to resonate again amid our current pandemic. "One of the themes in the book is this idea of individualism versus civic cooperation."

"Hitchhiking is in this kind of contested middle ground between cooperation and individualism," he said. "In these moments of crisis, the United States rallied around this notion of civic cooperation." Reid said while he couldn't relate to the cooperation borne of World War II and the Great Depression, with the coronavirus, "Now I'm watching it play out."

Reid might be an academic, but the book is written for everyone. And let's face it. Part of the best way we can cooperate at this time is to stay inside and help stem the spread of this virus. Which means we all have plenty of time to read.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com and follow her on Twitter: @MsOtwell. For more information about Roadside Americans by Jack Reid, including how to order the book,

visit: tinyurl.com/uurtbjc.

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