Thumbs up or thumbs down? Travel writer Felix Bush discusses what’s so great about hitchhiking.
Most people think they understand hitchhiking, for many it conjures up this scene: A lonely figure, arm outstretched and thumb skyward. A dusty road and a succession of oddly myopic drivers ignoring him; he begins to lose hope. But then, at last, an ancient engine and the screech of tortured brakes heralds a pickup-truck with an owner resembling a classic Hammer horror villain.
We all, to some extent, know this image and this is the problem with hitchhiking in the 21st century. A combined assault from fear-mongering media, cliché reliant horror writers and ‘stranger danger’ urban legend has all but wiped out this great tradition. This is odd because the ‘golden era’ of hitchhiking (picture depression-era travelling workers or Kerouac’s itinerant free-spirits) was demonstrably a more violent age. So it really must be time to rediscover the power of the hitch. It is a sociable, adventurous and very green method of transportation: consider how many unnecessary car journeys are made every year when there are empty seats that could be filled.Perhaps in a social media age we ought to re-brand it as ‘spontaneous car sharing’ or similar.
Hitchhiking offers a unique perspective on humanity. The sheer variety of life it exposes you to is breath-taking and this is as true in suburban Britain as it is on any American interstate. Sure, hawking for a lift in a service station car park isn’t quite ‘On the Road’ but it certainly gets you places and introduces you to just as many people. And it’s free.
Of course there are risks – in theory anyone on the road is a potential crackpot/serial-killer – but are you really any safer on a bus full of strangers? Or in a pub? We embrace the unknown every day and, by and large, we get by (incidentally, the number of psychopaths I’ve come across while hitching is precisely zero). So let’s ignore the doom-mongers, dust off our thumbs and get back on the road. We’d all be a lot greener, a deal richer and more socially enlightened if we did.
Written by Felix Bush