Students all over campus depend on the kindness of strangers when trying to get around town. Hitchhiking has been a local tradition since the 1960s. Photo by Nick Paris.

A couple of weeks ago, fourth-year Porter student Nik Martinelli was standing on the side of the road, sticking his thumb out, trying to catch a ride from campus to the Bay and Mission intersection. It was nothing new for him — he usually hitchhikes three or four times a week, for the simple reason that it can often be more convenient than taking the bus.

But on this particular day, something a little out of the ordinary happened. A street sweeper, on campus because of construction, pulled over. The man inside stuck his head out and told Martinelli to get in.

“I was like, ‘What is going on?’” Martinelli said, his voice deep and full of childlike excitement.

As the two headed down Bay Street, the driver remarked to Nik that he sometimes had difficulty steering the unwieldy street sweeper. There were two steering wheels in the vehicle, and he asked Martinelli if he wanted to give it a try.

“So I grabbed the big steering wheel and got to merge into traffic on Bay,” Martinelli said. “Then when we got to Bay and Mission, there were a bunch of people waiting for the bus, and I just hopped out in the middle of traffic and skateboarded away. And these people were like, ‘What just happened?’”

What had just happened was a variation of what happens every day on campus and around town: People need rides, and they count on the kindness of strangers with spare seatbelts to help them get where they’re going. Although the distance has now shrunk — hitchhikers typically only try to go from home to class instead of across state lines — the idea of getting in a car with a complete stranger can be both exhilarating and terrifying, or simply a way to get around. Despite the issue of safety, Santa Cruz students continue to test the road, for better or worse.

Hitchhiking has been around about as long as cars have, an outstretched thumb is the nationally recongnized symbol of this transportation method. Although various U.S. states and cities have passed laws prohibiting the practice, it remains prevalent in some parts of the country, including Santa Cruz.

In 1958, in the first-ever academic effort to explain and explore hitchhiking, John T. Schlebecker wrote, “Begging rides from passing motorists, or hitchhiking, is an American contribution to world civilization which has been largely unexamined by historians. And this is strange because hitchhikers first became familiar figures on the American scene in the middle 1920s, and have been more or less ubiquitous ever since.”

The research surrounding hitchhiking never really picked up after that — statistics and academia remain sparse, though its prevalence in popular culture ranges from classic American literature by John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac to the modern cartoon “Spongebob Squarepants.”

Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” tells varied stories of hitchhiking experiences in the context of the Beat Generation, jazz and counterculture. Kerouac explains hitchhiking as being about both the utility of needing a ride and the exhilaration of not knowing quite what will happen, for both the driver and passenger.

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks disappearing?” Kerouac wrote. “It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s goodbye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

American studies professor Forrest Robinson remembers participating in the golden age of hitchhiking.

“When I was young, I hitchhiked all over the country. Everybody did, and it was safe,” said Robinson, whose deep, friendly voice and careful wardrobe evokes classic academia. “The great hitchhiking novel was ‘On the Road.’ It spawned a whole generation of hitchhikers.”

History professor Pedro Castillo recalled this time.

“At one time, when I was growing up, hitchhiking was considered normal. People would go from state to state, or start in Boston and end up in San Francisco,” Castillo told me as we sat in his small office, surrounded by hundreds of books about American history. “Historically at one time, those who hitchhiked were considered hobos or tramps, but there was no stigma attached to it [in the 1960s and 1970s].”

Although people are less likely now to hitchhike across state lines, Cowell fourth-year Hannon Smith quickly caught on to hitchhiking as a means of getting around Santa Cruz.

“The first day I was in the dorms, I wanted to get downtown, so I just put my thumb out there,” he told me nonchalantly. “I hitchhike any time I have a chance, if there isn’t a bus. Usually if you can get a ride, it’s a lot quicker.”

Martinelli also depends on hitchhiking to get around frequently — as often as three or four times a week.

“Usually it’s not planned at all. I do it because it’s more convenient than buses,” he explained. “It can be pretty fun too.”

Martinelli said that most people who pick him up are fellow students.

“Students are often the most common to pick up other students, because they’re more sympathetic,” he said.

Fourth-year Porter student Ricky Desanto is one such fellow student. He often gives rides to hitchhikers he sees on campus. For him, it’s a simple concept.

“I pick people up because they’re looking for a ride, and I’m usually going in the direction they want to go, and I have room in my car, so it’s no big deal,” he said.

Although many agree that hitchhiking isn’t something that requires a lot of thought, there is still the issue of safety.

In 1972, Edmund Kemper picked up two young women on the UC Santa Cruz campus who were looking for a ride. The two never got where they were going because Kemper brutally stabbed both of them to death. These were the first of five hitchhiking murders Kemper executed. He later became known as the Coed Killer.

American studies professor Robinson was familiar with Kemper and his mother, who worked on campus, and he remembers this time well.

“The mood was just the worst kind of panic and fear. It was terrible … I was very close to this,” Robinson said. “I knew people who were murdered. The whole town was just in panic and fear and dread.”

This experience changed Robinson’s views on hitchhiking.

“It just frightened everybody in this town so that anybody who went through that would just discourage hitchhiking,” he said. “When I pick up hitchhikers, I give them a lecture on why they shouldn’t have let me pick them up. It’s the darndest thing.”

Nothing quite so violent or horrific regarding hitchhiking has happened in Santa Cruz since then, but according to the Monterey Bay Students Against Violence’s website and UCSC’s website, there were five documented hitchhiking-related crimes between 1979 and 2002, ranging from robbery to rape.

Jim Burns, UCSC director of public information, warned against hitchhiking, reasoning that there are plenty of other modes of transportation.

“UCSC police report that there are no incidents lately on campus, but they added that there are a declining number of hitchhikers on campus,” Burns said in an e-mail. “UCSC police advise that students and other members of the campus community use caution when getting into a vehicle of a stranger — and remember that hitchhiking is illegal. Violators can be cited. Their strong recommendation: Use the campus shuttles and Metro buses for inexpensive and reliable transportation that is also safe.”

According to the California Vehicle Code, “No person shall stand in a roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride from the driver of any vehicle.” However, all it takes is a look around campus to see that this law isn’t followed or enforced here.

For students who take part in hitchhiking, it’s all about using common sense and being aware — though none of them are too concerned.

“Because it’s a college town, I don’t feel like it’s unsafe in any way,” Hannon Smith said. “I get rides from all types of people. I haven’t had a bad experience. Just normal people.”

But hitchhikers do admit that the practice might be safer — or at least appear to be safer — for men, as opposed to women.

“I think there definitely is some concern,” fourth-year Martinelli said. “For me, I’m not worried, being a bigger male.”

Ricky Desanto also recognizes that there may be a double standard.

“[Safety] is something I have to think about less, just because precedent and culture doesn’t inform my lifestyle the same way it would a woman,” Desanto said. “That risk isn’t as immediate to me as it would be for someone else.”

History professor Castillo said that women hitchhike with the same frequency as men and attributed this to the feminist movement.

“In the 1940s and 1950s, I think it was probably more men, and then with the feminist revolution of the 1960s, you began to see more women doing it,” he said.

For one woman, Sarah Rubenstein-Gillis, who graduated from UCSC in 1995, hitchhiking was a necessity that she handled with caution.

“I can’t say I feel completely comfortable with the idea now. But somehow as a student at Santa Cruz, it was really part of the culture,” Rubenstein-Gillis said. “I was aware of safety issues, and I generally didn’t hitchhike by myself at night.”

For Sarah, it proved to be worth the risk.

I called Rubenstein-Gillis on a Saturday afternoon, and she had to duck out of a birthday party her 4-year-old daughter had been invited to in Ithaca, N.Y., where they live with her husband, Eric, and their 7-year-old son. We exchanged hellos before she launched into the story of how she and Eric met at UCSC.

“My mother flew out to Santa Cruz for my birthday, and rented a car for the week that she was visiting. It was evening, and we were starting to drive down the hill,” she began. “And the headlights flashed on this thumb that was sticking out in the road, and I had hitchhiked down the hill so many times myself that I felt I had a little hitchhiking karma to repay … He got into the back seat, and we didn’t really pay much attention to him. We just continued our conversation. We didn’t exchange names or anything, and we dropped him off at his house, and after he got out, my mom said, ‘He was cute, you should’ve asked him for his number!’”

Sarah later ran into the mysterious hitchhiker at a Passover Seder potluck, and the two recognized each other from that evening months earlier. They spent much of the night talking, and, well, you can figure out the story from there.

“The hitchhiking was the true beginning of it all,” Rubenstein-Gillis said with a chuckle.

If Sarah hadn’t hitchhiked so much herself, she might not have been inclined to give a ride to her future husband. This is a common theme among Santa Cruz hitchers — they try to give as much as they take.

“As a freshman I was told that it’s a tradition on campus, and I think that that’s gone down a bit over the past few years,” Desanto said. “But I try to keep it going because if I were ever on campus without a car, I’d expect a ride.”

Despite the friendly vibe hitchhiking can promote, Robinson doubts that it is wise.

“The more complicated, and the more heterogeneous society becomes, it seems to me, the more complicated that whole sense of at-easeness becomes,” Robinson said. “Hitchhiking as an image expresses a sort of idea of a society in which people get along and can implicitly trust one another. I don’t think we live there.”

Still, Porter student Martinelli feels positive about hitchhiking.

“It definitely goes along with the stereotype and the lie-back vibe of the whole city,” he said. “I think it says a good thing that you can feel safe getting a ride from another student you don’t know.”

Fourth-year Desanto feels the same way, and he doesn’t want that “lie-back vibe” to fade.

“When I first came to this campus, I was told that hitchhiking was a tradition, and I feel like that has faded a little bit. I would prefer for it to be a tradition that keeps going,” he said. “If people have enough room and are comfortable doing it in their cars, then they should definitely help people who are looking for a ride.”