Many travellers consider hitchhiking to be a dying art, a once-celebrated form of authentically experiencing a country – particularly the USA – dethroned by cynicism and mistrust. Despite having no hitchhiking experience, Jon Lott was determined to rescue its reputation, and in March 2016 set out to travel from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles (around 2,700 miles) without paying for any transport or accommodation along the way.
The 17-day journey, during which he camped in the wilderness, rode with a pot-smoking felon, and was sexually propositioned on the road, has been chronicled in his new book, Hitchhike America.
We caught up with Jon to talk about his adventure and why hitchhiking is due a comeback.
Hi Jon! Why did you decide to hitchhike all the way across the USA?
For the adventure! I wanted an experience like no other, and to prove that it could still be done today. People don’t believe in hitchhiking anymore; Americans have largely grown too cynical to trust their fellow strangers, and I wanted to show that we are still, overall, good and trusting people.
How much hitchhiking experience did you have before this trip?
Literally none. I had never even seen a hitchhiker in real life before I started. You can learn the best techniques easily and quickly once you have to depend on hitchhiking for transportation. My book, Hitchhike America, also has a section at the back with my advice for hitchhiking in the United States.
You managed to spend less than $100 during the 17-day trip. How did you keep the cost so low?
I don’t include start-up costs (like my tent and backpack) in the $100. But living is incredibly cheap once you cut out lodging and luxuries. I never paid to sleep anywhere; most of the time I’d find a secluded and safe spot somewhere in the woods and set up camp there. A few other times I used Couchsurfing or stayed with friends along my route. A couple times my drivers offered to let me sleep at their houses, too.
I kept my diet pretty spare: mostly water (which I got for free along the way), bread, peanut butter, and vitamins. My drivers would offer me food much of the time, so I never went hungry for very long. What do we really have to spend money on, apart from food?
Along the way, seven or eight people who mistakenly thought I was destitute gave me a little over $50 in total. I didn’t even ask; sometimes people would literally stop their cars and hand me money out of the goodness of their hearts. So if you factor in the charity I received along the way, you could say I even made it across the country for less than $50!
What was your favourite experience of the whole trip?
There are so many, but I think my favorite part was when I finally arrived on the Pacific Coast. It was the culmination of so many experiences building to the moment where I finally shed my baggage and waded into the warm, gentle ocean.
Were there any particularly scary or sketchy moments during the trip?
Scary? There were a few somewhat tense moments, like when my driver, an admitted felon, was getting high on a Tennessee highway, and I worried about his driving. But I never had any terrible frights along the way.
Sketchy? There was one time in eastern Oklahoma when my driver asked if he could give me a blowjob. Obviously I declined, but the remainder of the ride was incredibly awkward. A lot of people think that part of the book is one of the best moments.
Who was the most interesting person that gave you a ride along the way?
It’s so hard to compare the drivers. Everybody was interesting in their own way, and if you travel with a truly open mind, anyone’s life story can be unique and engaging.
One of the things I love most about hitchhiking is how honest the drivers can be when they know they’ll never see you again. They’re only with you for, at most, a few hours, and conversation tends to get deep and real. The kind of people who pick up hitchhikers aren’t usually quiet types, and hitchhiking across the country gave me an insightful (but incomplete) cross-section of what and who America is—and left me wanting more.
Why did you decide to write Hitchhike America?
I have so many ambitions for the book. I wanted to show people it could still be done, and that hitchhiking can be a totally novel and authentic way to travel, especially for someone on a budget or for someone seeking adventure. Jack Kerouac, one of my favorite writers, claimed he wanted to start a “great rucksack revolution” when he wrote The Dharma Bums. I don’t think that movement ever really took off, but I don’t think it’s too late. I want to inspire a new generation of vagabonds and millennials to get out there and taste life, and to show that travel isn’t out of reach for anyone.
I wanted to restore faith in hitchhiking in the United States among potential drivers and passengers alike. Our goodwill towards strangers has eroded over the years, and people have grown too distrustful of each other.
And of course, like all first-time authors, I want to establish myself as a new voice in travel writing and make a little money from the book. I’m holding out hope that Hitchhike America will become a new staple in vagabonding literature.
Hitchhiking is not common in the UK – what advice would you give a young traveller from the UK considering hitchhiking across the USA like you did?
If you’re coming from the UK and hitchhiking the USA, you’ll figure it out fairly quickly. Like most things in life, the hardest part is getting started. Hitchhiking is mostly mental, and if you can overcome the initial fear and uncertainty, anyone can hitchhike without any problems. Doubt can bring you down very quickly, so it’s critical to keep your spirits up, however you manage it.
I’d suggest carrying a sign, standing near a gas station or somewhere with a safe area for drivers to pull off the road, and wearing a comfortable pair of shoes. There’s a lot of advice in the book, woven into the narrative and listed near the back.
How do you respond to people who think hitchhiking is unsafe?
I do think it is less safe to hitchhike most places in America if you’re a woman or a racial minority, but I’m not convinced that it is necessarily an unsafe practice in general. There are some places I wouldn’t hitchhike in, just as there are a few places I wouldn’t feel safe walking around at night. You have to use common sense and judgment, and practice some measure of caution at all times in your life.
But what does it say about our society if you can’t trust your own countrymen living and working around you? If you’re so distrustful of your fellow citizens, you’re living in fear and you’ve already lost. I’ve spoken with people who have had years more experience hitchhiking and never once been attacked or robbed. Most of the times the dangers exist only in our own minds.
What adventures have you had since this trip, and what’s next for you?
Since my cross-country hitchhiking adventure, which I accomplished in March 2016, I spent a couple months in East Africa as a kind of “voluntourist” (I did hitchhike once in Tanzania), and spent a little time on the Appalachian Trail.
In summer 2017 I lived out of my vehicle for a month in the Rocky Mountains of the United States, looking for the hidden treasure of Forrest Fenn. I ended up totalling my vehicle in the mountains and hitchhiking around 500 miles (about 800 kilometers) to an airport so I could fly home. I’m working on a narrative podcast about this, similar in style to Hitchhike America.
Several months later, I went to southeast China to teach ESL for a while. And this past summer I did a few trips around New England as I prepared my book for its publication. I have since returned to China, but now I’m teaching in a city in southwest China. I’ve got plans to backpack Thailand, Cambodia, and maybe Vietnam for a few weeks this winter.
When I return to the States in July 2019, I’m tentatively planning on buying a van and driving around America for a month or two, interviewing people for a few podcasts I want to start. I think podcasting is really going to take off soon, if it hasn’t already, and I want to throw myself into that world as soon as possible. Life is short; do something that will be remembered!