After spending 30 days catching trains around central Europe, I found myself in Budapest with an expired ticket, a dwindling bank balance, and no obvious route back to the UK. Over the last month, I had met several hitch hikers, who extolled the virtues of the practice. Naturally, I was nervous. Mention hitch hiking to your friends or family and watch them go pale and tell you how quickly you’re going to die or end up as a vital component of the human centipede. With little other choice, I fashioned a sign out of a box ‘borrowed’ from a supermarket and stepped to the kerb with my thumb held high.
I’m not saying that hitching is an entirely safe activity as there certainly is a degree of risk. But the risk isn’t just laid upon the hitcher. Despite this, most drivers who pick up hitchers are painted as psychopaths. If anything, when you think about it, the person who is most at risk, is actually the driver, seeing as they are preoccupied controlling the vehicle. A task, which normally would require the use of all their limbs and a degree of cognitive effort also. Certainly, this is not always the case, as several of my rides failed to use one, or other, or both of the aforementioned prerequisitives of safe driving.
Hitching is a very vulnerable exercise for both driver and hitcher. The initial hitch from the side of road can feel stupid, but putting yourself out there as much as possible is key. I’ve also found that it is quite an exposing activity. To stand by the side of the road, thumb lifted in the air, expectant and hopeful smile in place, is to open yourself to a degree of ridicule. Standing there, hoping for the kindness and humanity of strangers to save you, you can feel quite vulnerable.
But, that vulnerability also extends to the drivers who pick you up: they are trusting that you are a good human being and letting you in to their car, and, in consideration, when driving, they are the more exposed party as their hands and attention are predominantly occupied.
Never the less, in my (admittedly limited) experience as a young, male hitchhiker I can safely say that the majority of drivers who picked me up were not axe wielding escaped convicts, or mentally derranged killers. Well, if they were, they certainly hid it well. Broadly, I found they actually fell into two categories: The Ex-Hitchers and The Karmic. The Ex-hitchers is reasonably self explanatory. These tended to be both men and women, approaching late middle age, who spent their youth hitching around Europe or their respective countries. Inevitably, conversation (where possible) would begin with their surprise at seeing a hitch hiker — remarking how they just don’t see anyone doing it these days. It would often continue with them adopting a slight nostalgic smile and asking you about your trip whilst reminiscing on adventures of their own.
The Karmic tended to be generally benevolent types. When I would ask them their reasons, it was often that they wished someone else would do the same for them or their loved ones given the situation. Additionally, they often just liked to do it for the craic, for the sake of a good turn. Of course, these are very broad stereotypes for drivers, and I certainly had rides which fell outside these categories, but I feel confident saying that from my experience — these are the people you are likely to meet.
The best way to approach hitching, but often the most difficult way, is to do so without preconceptions or prejudices. An open heart, a clear sign and a great big smile will take you far. And when it does, the sensation of crossing entire countries for free, is one that will bring a smile and an inadvertant burst of disbelieving laughter to your lips. If you want to be reminded of the infinitely varied tapestry of human lives and human goodness, I urge you to hitch hike. I was given lifts by Bulgarian Gypsies in a dilapidated mini van, a high paid medical salesman who drove (fast) in an expensive convertible, an incredibly stoned Turkish construction worker whose car resembled a skip, a German documentary producer/musician without a valid license, a kindly middle aged lady who felt it more important to turn round to talk to me than watch the road, a voluptuous blonde Hungarian estate agent who drove a smart car in which my backpack struggled to fit, an off duty police officer who wanted to get me off a dangerous section of road, a very well read Hungarian man who attempted to take a ‘selfie’ of us whilst driving and offering me a history lesson at the same time.
There are certain rites of passage with hitching. Cyclists and moped riders find it hilarious to come past and ironically offer you lifts. If for a moment one of them had even been serious, I would have hopped right on the back. I wasn’t fussy. I also found I had to endure a lot of abuse from younger generations, who would slow down and then speed off to great hilarity and middle fingers. The occasional scornful face is also not uncommon — those who glance at you and dismiss you with irritation or anger, for the having the nerve to ask for their assistance.
Wait times for rides can vary hugely also. For myself, I was lucky. I managed to get a ride in three minutes which took me across Austria. Later the same day, I had to wait five hours to just cross the Austrian/German border toward Munich. But I’ve spoken to other hitchers who have ended up in the middle end of nowhere and have been stranded for days. The trick is to be as prepared as posibble for whatever outcomes may arise. Whilst you can get far on the goodness of other people, you should certainly not rely on it as a given, as just when you might need to lean on it, it may be taken away. Food and drink, money, shelter, boredom cures — enough to last you as long as you may think sufficient, as long as it may take to walk to the next feasible settlement. The goodness of strangers is all around and in abundance, but it is not a right. It is a privalege and you should always treat it as such, in your thinking and especially in your actions towards your drivers, or possibly even hosts.
Language is a very pertinent element of hitching, especially if you are outside of your own country. At one point, in Hungary, I lost a ride because of a miscommunication. An elderly couple had pulled over and were offering me a lift to the next town, at first I wasn’t overly keen as I was hoping to go further than that, but I mentally reproached myself for turning down their goodness, so I attempted to explain that the next town would be great. The driver nodded, smiled, and the window went up. I turned to get my pack, hitched it on to my shoulder, turned back and the car crunched gravel as it sped away leaving me standing agape and confused. Phrase books, school boy foreign language, or failing all else, a good bit of arm waving often helps. In cases where there is no shared language, settle back and enjoy the rather bizarre and surreal yet abundantly varied roller coaster that your life has become.
With the exception of general courtesy and a polite manner, there are no rules when you hitch hike. There is no guide on how to do it. Sure, there are basics, such as find a good spot or hold a sign, but there is no guaranteed route to success. You just have to treat each individual hitch as an individual person — as unique a situation as any other you may find yourself in. I feel that if you are a young male hitch hiking, you’re likely to encounter some of the finer specimens of our species. I highly recommend the experience, and if you see a hitcher at the side of the road, I implore you to pick them up.