I was contacted by Sheila Cook, the Producer of BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought programme to do a presentation on ‘travel’.
On the basis that Four Thought is a series of thought-provoking talks in which the speakers air their thinking on the trends, ideas, interests and passions that affect culture and society, we discussed a variety of travel related topics that I felt might interest listeners.
One of which was my observation that society needed to re-embrace hitchhiking. Sheila and her Editor Richard Knight appeared taken by the topic and subsequently invited me to speak in front of a live audience at Somerset House.
View the full transcript...
I’d like to begin with a quick straw poll among the audience here, and please, as we are on the radio, count yourselves in at home.
– Hands up if you are aged 45 years or older.
– I would now like you to keep your hands up if you have ever hitch-hiked.
– (RESULT – 95% raised their hands)
Ok …. – hands up if you are under 45.
– and again could you please keep your hands up if you have ever stuck your thumb out at the side of the road.
– (RESULT – 5% raised their hands)
Thank you, you have helped to prove my point, maybe not very scientifically – that the experience of hitch hiking belongs to an older generation.
Quite why today we see so few, if any, hitch-hikers along our roads is a mystery? Especially when you consider how prolific hitch-hiking has been previously. Do we now really live in a society whereby ‘offering a lift to a stranger’ is an alien concept?
Certainly if you are searching for Travel Utopia, hitching is arguable as close as you’ll get – bunking a ride with someone else, chugging along the same road, in the spirit of friendship. So why do today’s travellers shy away from it? Have we become too isolated? Has the constant 24hour-barrage of negative news headlines turned us into a society dominated by fear?
Over the years I have hitched tens of thousands of miles across Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania, either alone or with a companion.
Leaving school in 1980, at the age of seventeen, I travelled the world for eight years almost exclusively by thumb and had an extraordinary variety of experiences as a result.
My record ‘LONGEST EVER LIFT’ was 1,280 miles, crossing Canada from the Rockies Mountains to Lake Manitoba.
The SLOWEST was on the back of a 30 metre crane in the Sinai Peninsular. Tough work at 15 mph in mid-summer desert heat.
LONGEST WAIT was a week in Wau, Southern Sudan, finally being picked up by a truck that took 6 days to travel 250 miles.
MOST HUMBERLING– hitching a ride on a UN truck delivering grain to a Sub-Saharan refugee camp. I can still remember the children picking up every small spilt grain of barley from the dust.
In contrast my girlfriend and I were once picked up by a pastry delivery van in New Zealand – where we were invited to gorge on donuts, éclairs and profiteroles for over 25 miles.
MOST INTIMIDATING was hitching through the civil-war zone of Central Uganda on the back of an army truck. Not least as the advice on what to do if we were ambushed was “grab a rifle” and follow the soldiers into the jungle, “firing in all directions”.
Traditionally truck drivers are the most reliable of hitchers’ friends. Across the planet they know their road, and all who surround it, better than anyone.
They are a constant source of local information:
A truck driver in Zaire stopped and showed my travelling companion and I where to start trekking, into the jungle to visit the pygmies.
A Himalayan truck I was hitching in, stopped at 3am whilst crossing a 4,300 metre high mountain pass. With temperatures in the -20s the driver beckoned me to get out, and then led me through the darkness down a thick snow mountain path to THE most welcoming hot springs.
A friend and I were also picked up at 2am in the morning, by a north American truck driver. He said that due to his ‘insurance’ he could only offer us a lift locked-into the back of his container. It was a very cold night – so we agreed. Two hours later, still in the pitch dark of his container, the truck slid to an emergency stop. Expecting the worst, we shot out of the back when he opened the doors, only to be greeted with a big smile “Hey boys, ..I’ve two sons your age … this is the bus station … here’s $26 each .. enough for a ticket to your final destination”.
The shame is that today so many people seem spooked by the concept of hitch-hiking …. “I’d never pick someone up: it’s too dangerous” … “I’d never hitch-hike, I’m too scared of what might happen” …
Well … what might happen? Why do we mistrust and fear our fellow members of society?
In my experience, I can honestly say over decades of hitching – travelling in, on and sometimes hanging-off over a thousand different vehicles – I never once experienced a moment of real danger. ‘No’ psychopaths, terrorists, thieves or axe murderers. ‘Yes’, the odd scary moment – the worst was possibly the 360° horizontal Evil-Knievel spin-manoeuvre, in a Merc’ on snow & ice!
YES there were armies of people with interestingly-weird-ideas, different outlooks, tall stories, religious views and daily grumbles. But also unflinching generosity, that has enhanced my belief in ‘human nature’ as a ‘force for good’, more than anything else that I have ever experienced.
Indeed, without hitch-hiking I would never have been able to travel so far, experiencing so many different cultures, customs and countries. Travelling on a very limited budget the knowledge I picked up about the destinations and peoples I visited enabled me, over 25-years-ago, to set up my travel company Nomadic Thoughts.
So, it’s time to wise up, check the stats and loose the paranoia. It’s certainly no more dangerous to travel, or hitch-hike, today than ever before. If it’s ‘stranger-danger’ you’re worried about – cheer up, in the knowledge that today’s murder & crime rates are at their lowest in over 30 years. Truth is, it tends to be only those who have never hitch-hiked who feel worried by the concept.
Historically hitch-hiking has fallen in and out of favour – depending in-part on the view at the time of the danger to the hitchhiker, or the driver. At the end of the 1920s, when hitching was at its initial zenith, the Great Depression began to take hold. Unemployment exploded and many, many people took to the roads across the US in search of jobs. Men of all ages, women and even young girls hitch-hiked across the country … so much so that hitching began to symbolise vagrancy, crime and danger – and lifts dried up.
A new boom appeared during the 2nd World War when hitch-hiking was almost regarded as an act of patriotism, by saving fuel.
Things changed again in the 1950s as crimes against hitch-hikers grew, resulting in a ban across several American States.
Thankfully, as the conservative 1950s, gave way to a more generous-minded 60s and 70s, hitch-hiking became popular again – continuing through to the mid-1980s. But since then it appears to have been in the doldrums.
Fashion, habit, culture, fear – whatever it is that’s been stopping us from doing it .. NOW, I would argue is the time for a hitchhiking revival.
Travelling is second nature now-a-days. With over 1 billion people a year travelling outside their own country’s borders. That’s the equivalent to one in every seven people on earth.
In today’s globalised world people regard travel as mainstream and share trains, planes, buses and boats as regularly as going to the shops – so why not cars?
There are already several well organised on-line life-sharing sites growing in popularity. The main difference however, is that the services is set up in advance and does have a cost. What is similar – is that you are traveling in a vehicle with a total stranger on the basis of trust.
Regarding people’s mindset – in today’s social-media world, with mobile phones, Apps, chat-rooms and 24/7 communication the time is ripe.
In addition, if you factor in the hundreds of thousands of middle-aged ex-hitch-hikers (who finally own their own cars) ready to return the favour, NOW is the perfect time to get that thumb out.
On a social and spiritual level it feels great. Meeting a stranger, through an act of generosity, not only improves your mind set and sense of well-being, but also provides a sense of belonging, in a ‘social-media-dominated-society’ often lacking in real-time, face-to-face interaction.
As for safety, the standard of vehicle in the developed world, at least, is vastly superior to years gone by. Air-break systems, airbags, power-steering and Sat Nav’s all make for an easier, safer ride.
On a practical level hitchhiking provides people with an easy way to travel for free.
Economically it’s bullet-proof, especially considering the cost of running a car for anyone under 25.
We also have some of the highest fuel rates in the UK – for example nearly 2,000 times more expensive than the world’s cheapest pump prices in Venezuela. Parking a car in our capital city can cost over £7 per hour.
Hitch-hiking is also hugely environmentally friendly.
So, I would like to persuade you to join me in launching a society-wide campaign to ‘BRING BACK HITCH-HIKING’.
Society, which in many ways is much more open and forgiving than before, needs to re-embrace the concept. And in the process hopefully breakdown the disproportionate barriers of fear and mistrust.
Travellers need to get back out there. Right here, right now – it’s summertime, it’s festival season, it’s a World Cup year, the feeling is good – so go for it!
The variety of lifts can be as exciting as arriving at your destination for free. For example I once had a chain of lifts that started with a priest, followed by a rock band, followed by a gentleman who had just got out of prison, followed by a lady in an open-top sports car. All lovely, open-minded and travelling in my direction.
Equally exciting is that wherever your next lift is coming from, standby for a ‘change in plan’. When I hitched through the small town of Hope in British Columbia (famous as the location where the first Rambo film – ‘First Blood’ – was shot) I was told that a previous hitch-hiker had arrived and never left, as he had married the local vicar’s daughter.
One of the biggest ‘change of plans’ I experienced was when my girlfriend & I climbed aboard a Tibetan truck. We met three other travellers on top, with a crumpled hand drawn map of how to get to the Everest Base Camp. Without previously realising we were anywhere near Mt Everest our plans changed immediately – and we found ourselves joining our new found friends and the crumpled map, on a five day trek to the North Face.
The beauty is – whatever creed, country, culture or cul-de-sac you come from, hitch-hiking is open to everyone. It’s simple, instant and free. And you never know you may find yourself on the M1 like a previous hitch-hiker 30 years ago – when one of my family’s oldest friends – who was working in the crop spraying business- was flying a helicopter from Edinburgh to London. On seeing the person on the side of the motorway he landed in an adjacent field and said “jump in”.
In closing – I would like to quote the Prophet Mohammed, “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have travelled”.
And on the basis that he, like many other great men and women in history, have relied on others to give them lifts, may I finish by urging you all to ‘Get your thumb out and enjoy the ride’ .. or .. ‘if you’re behind a wheel, stop if you see that outstretched thumb’.
After all.… you never know who you might meet.