Hitchin’ a Ride in the 1970s: Canadian Youth Culture and the Romance with Mobility

Today, a “gap year” is regarded as an excellent opportunity for a young person to travel for his or her personal growth. However, in the 1970s, civil society saw dropping out of school or work and drifting around as the sign of youth alienation and crazy hippie ideas. In 1969, the Trudeau government struck a task force to investigate why thousands of middle-class young people were observed hitchhiking along the Trans-Canada Highway. This article looks at the federal government’s reaction to the “transient youth” subculture through the lens of what hitchhiking meant to restless teenagers and twenty-somethings. In the early 1970s, Canadian thumb-travellers subverted hegemonic class and gender expectations by putting a new twist on the rituals associated with traditional Canadian tourism. By self-consciously adorning themselves with backpacks, beads, Canada flags, and long bushy hair or by flipping a peace sign to oncoming traffic, they performed rituals of a romantic subculture. Then, as now, their road stories highlight more than the monotonous and carnivalesque moments of alternative travel; they can be read as key biographical moments when understandings of landscapes, national identity, and citizenship were formed.