Taking control and letting go.
It was a cold day in Swindon. A small but vicious mob had coalesced out of each passenger’s private frustrations. Egging each other into a frenzy, they collectively laid into a young girl stuck behind the help desk. She’d had no part in making the train 30 minutes late. She certainly hadn’t been allowed into the board room to determine First Great Western Rail policy. The mob however, was looking for victims. Their journey had been delayed, time had been wasted and somebody clearly must be at fault. The emotion showing through the cracks in her professionalism only fed the crowd, who instinctively sensed that they had gained the upper hand.
For these people the allure of hitch hiking as a mode of travel might seem elusive. It frequently involves standing for hours in the rain. Even the shortest of journeys could potentially take days. In addition to this you are exposed to the verbal abuse of motorists, who apparently can’t resist hurling expletives at anyone doing something slightly out of the ordinary. As a way of getting around, it certainly throws up plenty of challenges. Each trip is full of uncertainty and worst of all- there is no one else to take responsibility if it all goes wrong.
Despite its inconveniences however, hitching can be beneficial on both a personal and on a wider social scale. Ultimately, the act of sticking out your thumb and waiting to see what happens is an empowering process. It forces the hitcher to relinquish control of the parts of his journey over which he has no immediate influence. At the same time it demands that he take responsibility for the bits of the journey which he is able to change. Instead of acting as a passenger, he has graduated and become a traveler.
An illuminating experience.
An exciting aspect of hitching is the opportunity to meet a randomly selected sequence of people, all in an environment where they feel perfectly secure. Whether they are looking to engage in conversation, debate or simply deliver a monologue to an anonymous person, people who pick up hitch hikers usually have something interesting to say. Anyone who holds any interest in other human beings should hitch a few journeys for this reason. Each lift is a strange insight into somebody’s world.
Previously I have been picked up by grocers, meditation instructors, rail safety inspectors, circus performers, antiques dealers, office workers and many other interesting folk. Unstable Yorkshire-men have regaled me with diatribes on assaulting cyclists and unreasonable parking tickets. Trusting elderly ladies have discussed embroidery and dead relatives. Rich business men have attempted to win me over to religion while others have engaged in 300 mile rants concerning the ‘sick state of politics’. Every leg of the journey is something new and unexpected. The outcome of this roulette style social experience is that normal societal boundaries are broken down. When people are pushed out of their private bubbles, you learn that most people in the world, regardless of their back ground, are quite nice and happy to help you out.
There is no one type of person likely to offer a lift, although many who do so hitched in their youth and express the desire to ‘give something back’. These people often talk of turning up in service stations in the 60s and joining orderly queues of hitch hikers. Despite the competition for a ride, because it was an accepted method of getting around, you would be guaranteed to get picked up quickly.
Since those days something, it seems, has changed. Often it is the same people with rosy memories of hitching in the past who now seem convinced of its perils. Having kindly picked me up, a driver will often express sincere concern for my fate. More than once people have suggested that they stopped only because the next person to pull up might have been some sort of ‘weirdo’ (Weirdo, I have deduced, is a subtle way of saying ‘axe murdering rapist’.).
The reasons behind this change in perceptions are difficult to unravel. Presumably risks involved in hitch hiking have not changed substantially over the years. The rise of 24 hour rolling news certainly seems likely to have played its part in proliferating fear. Every disaster in the world is broken down into accessible headlines and fed into our living rooms.
Litigation also seems to have contributed. Some professional drivers will not pick people up in case it voids their insurance or upsets their employers. Many will not pick up women in case there are accusations of rape or sexual assault.
At the same time large portions of the population have become wealthier and more comfortable over the previous decades. Thus the impetus to venture out of their collective comfort zone has generally decreased. There are signs however, that this could all be soon to change.
A return to the road
Recently, for the first time since 1981 household income in England house showed signs of declining. Concurrently the cost of travel is rising. Fuel costs are rocketing upwards and even train fares are now set for a series of hikes. These conditions would seem to lay the foundations for an imminent resurgence in hitching. The only barrier that remains is the image of hitch hiking as a dangerous occupation and an underlying suspicion of strangers. There is a chance however, that given greater financial incentives which are arising, these perceptions might be gradually overcome.
As more people take to the road and stick out their thumb prejudices will naturally begin to recede. For every hitch hiker seen standing by the side of the road, hitching becomes a little more acceptable in the eyes of passers by. For every person picked up, social barriers are broken down. The best way that you can contribute to this trend, is to make a sign for yourself, head for the nearest motorway junction and see what happens.