It was meant to be a coffee table book, just cool photos and earthy quotes from the hitchhikers who used to gather between the three stoplights that interrupted the flow of traffic on California Interstate Highway 101 at Santa Barbara.
My Aardvarque partner, Marty Neumeier, was superb with a camera and adept in the darkroom. Yours truly was good at going along for rides. We rented a van and a tape recorder, and then spent three weeks picking up hitchhikers, conveying them some distance toward their destinations in exchange for their permission to photograph them, their signatures on model releases, and their thoughts about their experiences on the road.
Marty mocked up the best of the photos and quotes into a four-page design that we shopped around to publishers on the East Coast, all of whom rejected it. In the opinion of Macmillan & Company, hitchhiking belonged in books on “boating and trailer camping”, insufficient in its own right as a unique category with commercial possibilities.
A West Coast publisher, however, leaped on the concept. Celestial Arts Publishing, located in the San Francisco Bay area, sent us a contract, an advance, and a polite request for more photos and more quotes. These we supplied.
Later, we received their next request. “Boys,” they wrote, “We love the photos and the quotes! How about a chapter on ‘How to Hitchhike’?”
If there was an art to hitchhiking more subtle than hanging one’s thumb out over a curb, we would have to invent it. So we did. Cackling like a pair of roosters, we cobbled together some suggestions about the use of signs, road courtesies, and general appearance, including a completely fictional Order of Ride Proabablility, based on the number, gender, and pet quotient of fellow travelers.
The publishers wrote back. “Boys! We love the photos and the quotes. We love the chapter on How to Hitchhike. What the book really needs is a chapter on the laws relating to hitchhiking.”
Oh… kay. Drifting away from the coffee table concept, but not unreasonable. I wrote letters to the attorneys general of every state and the police departments of major metropolitan districts. I rolled up my ink-stained sleeves and visited the University of California library law section. We submitted a chapter culled from research and replies to my inquiries – by no means complete, but at least representative of official attitudes.
Celestial Arts got back in touch. “Boys! We love the photos; love the quotes. Loved the How to Hitchhike chapter. The chapter on laws will do. We intend to market the book on both coasts, so we need to have photos of hitchhikers in action all over the country.”
Not very okay. Not very reasonable. We had already invested considerable time and money on the project. We had spent the publisher’s advance. We wanted to finish the thing that had grown from a project into an onus. An extended road trip was out of the question, so we hired Ric Tovar, an excellent snap-snot man from the Brooks Institute of Photography, to make it for us. Ric traveled all over the country, setting up shots of hitchhikers in front of recognizable landmarks, sending back rolls of film that Marty processed and forwarded to Celestial Arts.
“Boys!” the publisher wrote. “The project is shaping up well. We love the photos, the quotes, the How to Hitchhike chapter, and the part about the laws. But something is missing. Your book needs a romance.”
Of course it did. How were they expected to sell a book without sex? They couldn’t really ask for violence.
For the romance we hired models, Louise Weston and Fred Suvak, flexible, free to travel, down-for-anything, perfect for the role. They are featured on the cover.
The book went to press in April 1972. The publisher printed it in sepia tones in a 5″ x 7″ format; not at all a coffee table book. It was a commercial disaster.
In 1974, Celestial Arts contacted me with a request to return their advance. I took this in the same spirit I had taken their demand for a How to Hitchhike chapter – with rooster cackles.
In 1975, U.P.S. delivered to my door a large carton of transcripts from a trial in the State of New York. The plaintiff had challenged the state’s hitchhiking statutes and had entered quotations from The Hitchhikers into evidence as “expert” testimony. The state was therefore obliged to copy me on the proceedings. The plaintiff lost the case.
In the same year, Macmillan & Company – the folks who had lumped hitchhiking with “boating and trailer camping” – published their own hitchhiking book. In it they lifted verbatim, without citation, the specious Order of Ride Probability from The Hitchhikers. Rooster cackles.
In 2008, Craig Constantine, a resourceful producer of reality TV programs, tracked me down to test my interest in a hitchhiking documentary he was filming at the time. He informed me that I have a fan club due to the current popularity of a sport called “extreme hitchhiking” – traveling around the world using only one’s thumb and, apparently, a abundance of charm. My fans – I have never met any of them – congregate annually in Slab City, near the Salton Sea, for a convention. I declined Craig’s generous invitation. I haven’t shared a ride with a hitchhiker since 1972.
Over the years, I have been personally accosted by angry people who felt it was irresponsible of me to publish a book favorable to hitchhiking. Thanks to Hollywood, the prevailing attitude toward hitchhikers is that of pig-headed men toward women who dress provocatively: they are asking for it.
In 2012, I received an email from a young lady who read The Hitchhikers because her father had traveled about this way in his youthful years and always spoke of it wistfully. Her very charitable view was that this book was “a piece of Americana.”
(Published by Celestial Arts Publishing, April 1972)