An Introduction to Hitchhiking

Originally in: New Escapologist

You may call him a tramp, but I know it goes a little deeper than that. He’s a highway chile.
Jimi Hendrix, “Highway Chile”

The greatest ride in my life was about to come up, a truck, with a flatboard at the back, with about six or seven boys sprawled out on it, and the drivers, two young blond farmers from Minnesota, were picking up every single soul they found on the road.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

I never feel as free as when I am hitchhiking. Standing on the curb, my feet rooted to the ground and my thumb stuck in the air, I am half way between earth and sky, between where I’m coming from and where I’m going to. I’m in a mid-way point, like a skydiver before they hit the ground or a train in motion. Even when I’m standing still I feel like I’m moving.

Freedom from fear

Hitchhiking is liberating. Partly because you’re in motion, and motion is always liberating, but also because you put your trust in the world in a way most people never do. You are freeing yourself from fear and suspicion. Yes, you are taking a risk, but so is the person who picks you up. Both parties are taking a risk which, in today’s culture, is heightened by the strong sense of distrust among people.

Each time I hitchhike I feel like I’ve proved the fear machine wrong. Each time is like a social experiment in trust. It’s also an experiment in anarchy. No money is exchanged when you hitchhike, so you are operating outside of the market. If you exchange anything it is stories; you share your fears and your dreams, your histories and your futures. Stories are the currency of the road.

Space for honesty

Sometimes there is no exchange at all. I have had rides where the driver said only a few words the whole time and made no enquiries into my life. You might think that is rude but it is actually an act of kindness, because the most tiring thing about hitchhiking is the feeling that you have to talk. In this case the driver asked nothing of me, not even my story.

I usually hitchhike short distances, mere hops of twenty miles or less. It is amazing what you can learn about other people in such a short space of time. I met a teacher who helped extend the Jubilee line of the London Underground, a doctor who changes hospital every year because he hates internal politics, and a former hitchhiker who thumbed his way across Europe.

Mirto, a contributor to hitchhiking forum hitchwiki.org, writes about how hitchhiking can create unique relationships which are impossible to experience in other situations. Closeness, a time limit, pre-established trust and the fact that you will never see each other again, “gives space for open and honest interaction”. It also gives you a chance to meet people of different ages and social backgrounds; people you would never normally meet in such intimate conditions.

Dangers and fears

“You can’t trust people in that way!” “Do that in this country today and you’ll end up dead!” Objections like these are common. Earlier this year I joined a book club in Los Angeles where we discussed Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Everyone was in their twenties and everyone thought hitchhiking was dangerous. When I mentioned that I hitchhike they observed me carefully. Maybe they thought I was kidding? To prove them wrong I hitched a ride on the way home from a grocery store in West LA. I waited about thirty minutes before a lone middle-aged man picked me up, shopping bags and all.

You’d be a fool to think the road is completely safe, however. While I’ve never experienced a bad ride, I’ve heard stories about people who have. The worst stories make the news; the rest are on hitchhikers’ forums. The number one rule for a hitchhiker is to trust your gut. If you don’t feel right about the person who is offering you a ride, don’t take it.

In Richard Grant’s documentary, American Nomads, a young hitchhiker named Comfrey travels the West with a knife. He takes the knife out during rides and uses it to clean under his fingernails. A simple deterrent, it screams: don’t mess with me! Comfrey says he would rather scare a well-meaning person than have to hurt an ill-meaning one.

A safer trick is to carry a mobile phone with you. If you get a creepy vibe from your driver you can call a friend and tell them where you are and who you are with. Mention that your friend is waiting for you at your destination, even if they’re not. Check out the websites below for more safety tips.

The road is life

The world is dangerous, more dangerous than it’s ever been. Or so it believes. Don’t let fear stop you from venturing out onto the road. You’ll be surprised by the warm welcome you receive. Most people who pick up hitchhikers used to hitchhike themselves. Buckle up and listen to their stories. After a while you’ll realise how these stories shape the culture of the road.

There is a reason why, when you read On the Road, you feel like you are listening to a wild fanciful story being told in a bar. It’s because Kerouac understood that the storytelling tradition isn’t dead – it survives on the highways and byways. The road can feed your imagination in the way it fed Kerouac’s and countless before him.

Stick out your thumb and you’ll get a sense of what they were writing about. You’ll get a sense of the freedom, the awe, the stillness and the excitement. You’ll get a sense that the road is a microcosm of the universe, and that – like the solid earth you root yourself to – you’re always moving even when you’re standing still.
For more information on hitchhiking, including safety tips, check out:
Hitchhwiki.org
Digihitch.com

To arrange rides online, check out:
Backseatsurfing.com
Roadsharing.com
Hitchhikers.org
Zimride.com

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