Hitchhikers Get Wired

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).

Just as the Internet has been a boon for independent journalists
and essayists, the Internet allows travelers to, as Eian says,
‘bypass all the editorial processes and various [corporate] filters
through which these stories would otherwise pass.’

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