My father taught me to never, ever hitchhike because I would die. He illustrated the point with dinner table horror stories starring chopped up teenage bodies strewn along the highway and acid-crazed madmen speeding across America at 120 mph: “Those are the kind of people who pick up hitchhikers.”
I followed his advice until I turned 18, which–in this country–is the legal age to stop following your parents’ advice. I don’t remember my first time, though. I was probably in Europe and it just happened–I stuck out my thumb and got a free ride. It was so easy and I was so hooked. Others chased drugs and girls but I chased cars. Free travel is addictive.
I started small and safe, catching lifts with blonde families in minivans in the Benelux. I branched out and grew bolder in places like Sardinia, Poland, and the Sahara–I shrugged, pointed and thumbed my way across the map. I crossed foreign borders in the backseats of strangers, I rode shotgun in diesel-farting trucks and talked my way onto fishing boats that ferried me between islands. Once, when stranded up in the English Cotswolds, I managed to flag down enough cars to carry myself and ten grad school friends all the way home. I became a legend among my worrywart peers.
I devised a “hitch rate” for countries–the average number of cars that passed by before I got a lift. France has a better hitch rate than Spain, Spain better than Italy, Italian Switzerland worse than German Switzerland. Russians always pick up, as long as you have cash. Scandinavia is surprisingly good. The smaller the island, the better the hitching–unless it’s a British colony. And then there’s stuck-up bourgeois countries like Slovenia, where I waited 2 hours and walked over 10 miles before getting a lift from a bleach-blonde Austrian man who had crossed the border to buy a vacuum cleaner.
It wasn’t always movie montage bliss. I’ve had my fair share of scares:There was the self-proclaimed, card-carrying terroriste in Corsica with his pair of hound dogs atop a pair of loaded shotguns in the backseat. I played it cool, showed great interest in the Corsican liberation movement and nonchalantly pointed to an upcoming crossroads where he could drop me off. He drove past it, turned up unpaved roads that winded higher and higher into the lost mountains of the interior. I panicked and mentally practiced a Dukes-of-Hazard exit from the moving car window but there was no need. Le terroriste only wanted to show me the sunset from his village before driving me on to the next larger town.
There was the Ukrainian sailor in Crimea who rode his little Lada like a speedboat, chain-smoking with all windows rolled up, chewing and puffing on his cigarettes and conversing wildly, dropping inches of grey ash each time he shifted gears. Also, maybe he was a little bit drunk.
And I won’t edit out all the pervy creeps out there, like the beady-eyed, fifty-something French baker who wanted a male friend on this, his day off. Although, the one good thing about creeps is that most of them look like creeps. Hitching is all about judging a book by its cover and I’ve probably refused as many rides as I’ve accepted. I also accept that my own occasional creepiness has worked against me.
Like the time in Polynesia–sweat-soaked, red-faced and unshaven–when I stuck out a thumb and waited hours before getting a lift from a nice old lady in a flowery dress. I promptly fell asleep in her car (oh no, was I snoring?). Twenty minutes later she gently woke me at my destination. I thanked her and wiped the drool from my cheek, feeling like a numskull.
Hitching humbles you and makes you grateful for others. As I got older and wiser and less broke, I stopped taking so many lifts and started giving them.
In Costa Rica I picked up two Nicaraguans-a young mother and daughter who worked illegally in the banana plantations. In Zimbabwe–where a car with gas in the tank is viewed much like a free bus–I managed to fit 15 people in the back of an open truck. My passengers knocked on the window when they wanted to get off, then clapped their hands in thanks. In New Zealand, I picked up two Eurokids at the tail end of their gap year. They pretended everything was cool but displayed classic symptoms of backpacker poverty. They were out of cash and hungry with three more days before their return flight home. I drove them all the way to Christchurch and gave them dinner, then watched from the rearview mirror as they set up their sleeping bags under a bridge. Every true traveler needs to be broke on the road at least once. Everyone else is a poseur.
Like in Iceland when I picked up this soaking pair of entitled German campers with blonde dreadlocks and matching nose rings. They complained about the lack of space in my rental car, dripped their icky hippy wetness all over the backseat and demanded a monetary contribution for their organic, low-impact lifestyle. I offered them a fistful of blue pixie stix and dropped their ungrateful, low-impact asses off in a rainy parking lot. Kids these days; they got no respect.
There are no rules to hitchhiking but there are definite social graces–a delicate etiquette between giver and receiver. In America, that relationship of trust was broken long ago.
I don’t need to spell out all the gruesome ways people have been killed hitchhiking or giving lifts–I have a word limit and besides, you can read it all on Wikipedia, right under “serial killer”. Basically, a lot of people have died hitchhiking in America. It’s just one out of many head-shaking United States’ ironies–that in spite of our great freedom and multiple first amendment rights, imitating On the Road is against the law in most states because you might die. Meanwhile in “repressed” Europe, hitchhiking is legal, a rite of passage and the latest trend in charity fundraisers, kind of like our lamer walk-a-thons but way more fun.
Forget the economic woes, endless war and healthcare mess of the news: The real sign of America’s troubles is that Rousseau’s social contract has failed at this most basic level-between hitcher and driver, lift and lifted.
There’s a hundred ways to philosophize this phenomenon: As a car culture, all respectable Americans own cars or have friends with cars–hitchhikers are Americans without cars and therefore undesirable vagrants of ill character. Or that Americans prize freedom of expression above quality of expression (see American Idol), which inevitably leads to victory of the lowest, loudest element. Whatever the reasoning, something bad happened in my country that turned hitchhiking into a vehicle for death.
I never hitchhike in America, nor do I give lifts to strangers. Maybe my dad’s stories still haunt me, maybe I know better now, and maybe I have my own stories to tell: things that I’ve read in the paper, melodramatic TV newscasts, horrible stuff that’s happened during my own lifetime.
As the English say, it’s a pity really . . . how we’ve squandered this innocence, how we’ve closed the open road just a little bit, how our unfettered wanderlust is lost to precaution and cautionary tales. The American fairy tale of hitchhiking hovers on the verge of mythology–a belief rooted in history that might inspire young travelers, but nonetheless remains a kind of modern fiction.
It’s a pity really because some of my happiest travel moments occurred while hitchhiking. Like getting a ride in Scotland on some long rocky isle in the Outer Hebrides. A farmer motioned me into the back of his pickup and I sprawled out across a pile of freshly chopped logs. Everything smelled like sea and pinewood; the ocean wind whipped my hair wildly. I watched the world pull away from me, backwards, the red-brown moorland swept up into high crags and then over the edge of broken sea cliffs. To this day, this is how I remember Scotland: from the back of a truck.
And that’s still the way I like my travel: from the back of a truck.