Hitchhikers Get Wired

Today's travelers take a ride on the information highway

| May / June 2005

'What's your road, man? -- holy boy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road? It's an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.'
-- Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The Beats wandered America in run-down cars and makeshift campers, hitched rides and hopped trains. Today's nomads call themselves 'travelers.' Colorful as the countryside they traverse, they are students, punk-inspired anarchists, and artists who, much like Jack Kerouac and his cohorts, are aching to get lost and find themselves. But here's a striking difference between then and now: Contemporary wanderers have enthusiastically embraced modern technology as a tool for truly democratic discourse by using free Internet connections at public libraries and coffeehouses to create a sense of community.

Stories formerly spun at a novel's length at a long journey's end now unfold in real time, like installments in a weekly newspaper. Consequently, the tales are often as much about solidarity and a sense of place as they are about any single experience. One traveler might urge others to check out a sculpture in front of a public library in Salt Lake City. Another might suggest a bike route in Mexico, encourage a detour if a particular vista is indispensable (or distinctly unfriendly), or even recommend a free place to flop. People from Florida to Minnesota to San Francisco, for instance, all know the location of a makeshift shack near Asheville, North Carolina, that is available to travelers who need to escape the elements.

Like a majority of her friends, Anika, 27, has been 'on the road more often than not' for the past decade, she says. When she started hitchhiking, the Internet was not widely available in public places, so the native Canadian and her peers took advantage of a toll-free phone number (800-COLLEGE-CLUB) initially set up for struggling (and registered) students. Tapping this mainstream tool for underground purposes had a big impact on keeping travelers in touch with each other, she says. Now, instead of trading voice mails, travelers stay in touch online, via blogs, chat boards, and diaries, such as the bilingual Bon Voyage/My Trip (www.novanor.qc.ca).

Gil, a 23-year-old who is studying to be an elementary school teacher at Florida Atlantic University, hitchhikes cross-country during summer breaks. He once went from Florida to Texas to California to Canada to New York and back in the span of a month. While he's traveling, Gil writes weekly journal entries and posts them on an open source Web site (http://www.livejournal.com/users/inspirat/). There, fellow travelers can read about the random details and diverse company that differentiate one ride from another: the couple who treated him to crackers and let him watch movies in the back seat; the proud father whose seventh-grade daughter is designing a solar-powered ship to cross the Atlantic; a former mayor of Tacoma, Washington, who patiently explained the politics of land use; those white bats that unnerved him late one night after he was dropped off on a lonely mountain road in California.

When Eian, 22, biked through Mexico and Guatemala, Web-based travel journals yielded crucial camping information he couldn't find in traditional guides, including little-known routes for bikers, obscure locales (with addresses and directions), and what to expect on back-road stretches that most people see only from the relative safety of their cars. Intrigued by the format's inherent freedom and utility, he began to 'sift through his experiences,' he says, and organize his journals into a blog (http://weissman24.tripod.com).