Cover Stories

The Road Goes on Forever

GT1511 CoverwebMost people assume that hitchhiking is a long-gone tradition in the 21st century. But in the San Lorenzo Valley, the continued popularity of thumbing it is one example of how things are done a little differently

The 3:07 p.m. bus was due 15 minutes ago, and Xavier Pujol has been waiting at the Felton bus stop since 3 p.m. Wearing paint-splattered coveralls and speaking in a thick Barcelona accent, he cranes his head around to get a better view of the bus-barren road.

“Where is the bus?” he wonders aloud. “What’s happening? I don’t have any way to know. Even if I call the main station, they’re gonna tell me just like, ‘wait.’ That’s one of the biggest inconveniences.”

Having spent the morning doing manual labor work for a friend in Felton, Pujol, a Westside Santa Cruz resident, is trying to get back into town. He doesn’t own a car, and says he normally relies on public transportation to get around—though “relies” is maybe not the best way to put it.

“I use the public transportation every day, and in general it’s not reliable. Sometimes the bus doesn’t show up at all,” he says. Between trips to Cabrillo, where he takes a class; errands around town; and the occasional job up in the San Lorenzo Valley, this is a man with a lot of places to be. So what does he do when he’s got an appointment to make and the bus is nowhere to be seen?

“What else are you gonna do?” he says. “Here, people hitchhike, because it’s the only way to get around.”

Mountain Impasse

The San Lorenzo Valley is comprised of 130 square miles of mountainous terrain, centuries-old redwoods, and some of the windiest, bumpiest roads you’ll find anywhere in Northern California. Highway 9, which winds up from Santa Cruz through Felton, Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek, is the area’s main thoroughfare. With no sidewalks and hardly any shoulder alongside 9, riding in a car or bus is unanimously regarded as the only safe way to travel through the area.

“Walking Highway 9 is very treacherous,” says Lisa Robinson, volunteer collections manager at the San Lorenzo Valley Museum. “Since 9 is carved out of the side of the canyon in many places, there is just no room for a footpath.”

Hitchhiking in SLV is quite common, she says. “I probably see someone hitchhiking every day. I think their reasons for doing it are very valid. The geography of the area itself supports the practice—there’s essentially a single main road in and out.” Robinson says the most common place to see people hitchhiking is at a bus stop.

The main Santa Cruz Metro bus line connecting the San Lorenzo Valley with Scotts Valley and Santa Cruz is the 35. For most of the day, every day of the week, it runs every half hour. After 7:30 p.m., it runs once an hour, and its final run of the night leaves Santa Cruz at 11 p.m. Many residents of the San Lorenzo Valley use it, but that doesn’t mean doing so is easy.

Heather and Philippe Cruz are a couple in their 20s who live in Felton. They both rely on the 35 bus to take them to Santa Cruz for work almost every day. It’s about a 20-minute walk for them to get to the bus stop, which isn’t bad considering Heather, who grew up in Ben Lomond and has also lived in Forest Lakes (a community near Felton), at one point lived an hour-and-a-half walk from the nearest bus stop. She is nonchalant about this.

“I mean, it was just my daily routine. I did it every day, to get to work in Santa Cruz. I’d wake up early, walk downtown, get on the Felton bus.” She says she was often offered rides by her neighbors, but she always declined them. “I would say ‘No, no,’ because at this point I already planned for it. If I take the ride, I’ll be two hours early to work.”

Cruz herself doesn’t hitchhike, citing safety concerns as her main reason, but she says that almost all of her classmates at Ben Lomond’s White Oak High School (which closed in 2010) hitchhiked to and from school.

Former White Oak Principal Roberta Gutierrez confirms that, despite efforts on her part to discourage the practice, during the early and mid-2000s “students hitchhiked in and out of the Valley all the time.” White Oak’s hours were from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., and Gutierrez says there was only one bus that came through the area in time to get them to school for the first bell. “Most of the students weren’t old enough to drive, so they got there the best way they could,” she says.

Current San Lorenzo Valley High School Principal Karen vanPutten contends that she hasn’t heard of any of her students hitchhiking, but that the San Lorenzo Valley is “definitely a carpool culture.”

“It is very common for a parent to pull up with their minivan and load it up with a car full of classmates,” she says. “Because of the miles between Boulder Creek and Felton, the community depends on each other to get kids where they need to go.”

This unusual hybrid between hitchhiking and carpooling is common in the Valley. Of course, you’ll see plenty of people teetering precariously on the edge of Highway 9 with their thumbs out, whether going to Santa Cruz or just a mile down the road to the market, but often it’s more casual—neighbors giving rides to neighbors.

Richard Mead, a manager at Johnnie’s Super Market in Boulder Creek, has worked at the store since 1979. He claims he’s only actively hitchhiked once or twice in his life, but recalls that a few years ago he lived 2 miles north of the store, and neighbors or people who recognized him from the market (“I have a very high-profile job,” he says) would pull over and offer him a ride any time he was waiting at the bus stop.

“It’s different up here. It’s not like you’re living in a big city where no one knows you,” he says with a shrug.

California Uber Alles

The differences between the San Lorenzo Valley and the Bay Area’s cities are indeed vast. Boulder Creek, for example, has been infamously referred to as “absurdly rural” by Sunset magazine (in a spread entitled, “Woodsy Dream Towns,” no less) while San Francisco is—what else?—“The City.” At first glance, it may seem utterly ridiculous that such a throwback practice is taking place less than 70 miles away from both Silicon Valley and San Francisco, lodestones of tech innovation that basically exist in the future, as far as the rest of America is concerned.

But upon closer inspection, when it comes to transportation, some would say they aren’t that different after all. For if hitchhiking is the preferred way for car-less residents of the San Lorenzo Valley to get around, what of the growing empire of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft in the Bay Area? Can the two even be compared?

California State Assemblymember Adrian Nazarian thinks so. “Ride sharing is simply high-tech hitchhiking,” the democrat from Sherman Oaks said in a prepared statement earlier this month. Nazarian recently reintroduced legislation that would demand background checks and drug testing for drivers of ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, calling them out as too risky for riders, despite the companies’ existing background check policies and ample opportunities for riders to leave reviews. Nazarian’s sentiments have been echoed by many, including William Rouse, president of the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association, who said in a recent interview with the news/activism site ryot.org: “People don’t hitchhike anymore because hitchhiking is dangerous. If you take one of these [ride-sharing] services, you’re essentially doing the same thing as hitchhiking.” (Representatives from both Uber and Lyft failed to respond to interview requests for this story.)

Uber and Lyft use smartphone apps to link up people in need of rides with drivers. While Uber’s drivers are professionals who are expected to give riders the experience of having an “on-demand private driver,” Lyft is more casual, linking up cars with people who need a ride and billing itself as “your friend with a car.” If either company is to be considered equivalent to thumbing it, Lyft is definitively more hitchhiker-esque—or at least, it attempts to be.

When it launched in the summer of 2012, Lyft came out of the starting gate with a couple of pre-packaged ways for drivers and riders to connect and “foster a community environment”—a favored buzz-phrase of the tech/social networking/startup world. Most notably, Lyft riders were expected to fist bump drivers as a way of greeting when entering the car, and then sit up front in the passenger seat so they could get to know each other.

However, this past November Lyft sent a mass email to its customer base distancing itself from these practices, explaining that the fist bump and front seat riding were not requirements. “Greeting your driver? A simple hello will do, although you’re always welcome to engage in the Lyft tradition of fistbumping,” the email read. It also encouraged riders who prefer quiet time to sit in the back seat. The changes presumably came as a result of rider complaints.

One difference that can’t be ignored is the glaring 180-degree shift in power dynamics between taking Lyft and actually hitching a ride—with Lyft, the rider is paying for the service, essentially employing the driver, while hitchhikers accept a ride as a favor from the driver. The other distinction between the two is more subtle. It has to do with community: What is it, and can it be manufactured via an app and a Lyft fist bump?

The answer is a clear no. There is something about true, authentic communities that cannot be replicated, even by the best computer programmers in the nation. When it comes to what makes the San Lorenzo Valley distinctive, Mead puts it simply: “It’s a small community here, and people know each other. Everyone’s tied together.”

Will the lifestyles of the San Lorenzo Valley and its tech-metropolis neighbors ever meet? Some in the Valley hope so. Pujol, who spent two years living in Bonny Doon and hitchhiked to work every day, says the area is the only place he’s ever done it, and he would prefer not to hitchhike if it were not absolutely necessary.

“If there’s a bus, I’ll use the bus. If I can walk, I’ll walk,” he says. He thinks the San Lorenzo Valley’s biggest pitfall when it comes to transportation is lack of new technology, including tracking devices for buses.

“I think that the system needs to be updated to the 21st century,” he says.

Risk Assessments

Technology can definitely have its benefits when it comes to things like getting inside a moving vehicle with a complete stranger. Rideshare companies provide a forum for riders to leave comments and feedback on their experiences and, though this has not prevented widespread fear about the safety of the unregulated rideshare industry—including accusations against Uber drivers of holding lost items hostage, stalking passengers and even sexual assault—riders are theoretically able to at least warn others if something about a ride felt unsafe.

True-blue hitchhikers are at the mercy of whoever picks them up. Longtime Santa Cruz County residents have been especially sensitive to the dangers of hitchhiking since the area’s most famous serial killer, Ed Kemper, picked up and killed six female hitchhikers in 1972 and 1973. Indeed, the risks of hitchhiking in the same county that was once called “the murder capital of the world” are not lost on the residents of the San Lorenzo Valley. Pujol says it’s for this reason that most hitchhiking in the area these days takes place during the daytime.

“It’s more sketchy at night,” he says. “The people who stop at night are more sketchy. If you go out to Don Quixote’s and you want to go up back home, good luck.”

For better or worse, hitchhiking is a part of the San Lorenzo Valley that is as dependent on the unique culture of the area as much as its geography. And while the cities around it continue to innovate all manners of practical and impractical ways to get from point A to point B, the residents of the San Lorenzo Valley will likely continue to do things the same way they’ve been doing them for the last several decades.

“Hitchhiking goes along well with the ’60s lifestyle of shedding wasteful worldly goods to share resources,” says the San Lorenzo Valley Museum’s Robinson. “Many residents still live that lifestyle.”

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