Is Hitchhiking Still Viable?

I am committed to avoiding flying for tourism. Commercial air travel has been in existence for less than a hundred years. There must be another way.

This probably meant that there were far fewer travellers, of course, but it probably also meant that those who did partake of long-term, long-distance voyages gained an intimate knowledge of the process of crawling across the surface of the world, and far more in touch with the people and places they passed through.

My motivation for shunning air travel comes partly from the desire to experience the scale and variety of Earth in the same way, rather than rocketing far above the surface of the planet for a mere few hours.

It also has something to do with the fact that I dislike the passivity and ignorance of it, the way millions of passengers are shuttled through the global aviation network without ever gleaning the faintest inkling of how a modern airline works or how it is operated.

Neither of these reasons cause much direct harm, aside from the killing of curiosity and encouragement of apathy and travel as yet another consumer product, but the combined emissions produced by ferrying millions of people around the globe every day comes to an enormous quantity, one that cannot continue, for many clearly-understood reasons, the foremost of which you’ve probably heard of: Global warming, and over-consumption of energy from non-renewable fossil fuels.

I won’t go on about these topics. There is no controversy over the existence of global warming caused by human burning of fossil fuels. It is not an article of belief, like faith in God or the tooth-fairy; it is undisputed scientific knowledge based on evidence, no matter what impression the combined hollerings of media, politicians, corporations and other “interested parties” might give. (See if you’re still wrong, or read one of the numerous accessible books by climate scientists, such as The Weather Makers. Go on, enlighten yourself.)

It is the responsibility of every thinking being on the planet to take action in any or all of the many ways available. This concerns you, because if you’re reading this you have access to a computer, electricity, and free time, which makes you highly likely to be a Westerner, and therefore not only living in the culprit society but capable of free choice and positive action to thwart the global warming process while it can still be thwarted.

I’m not going to pretend that I travel by bike in order to “stop global warming”. I travel by bike because it’s the best way to explore, on my own terms, the planet and the vast realm of human knowledge.

My action to stop global warming is to stop flying and to try and convince others to explore the alternatives. Cycling happens to be one. Hitch-hiking, I think, could be another.

“But hitch-hiking still involves emission-generating vehicles!” cry those of a cynical mindset. True, but while it may involve emissions, it does not add to them. The demand for lifts is unlikely to ever exceed the supply, and an increase in hitch-hikers is only going to reduce the number of cars on the road, because there will be more people sharing fewer vehicles.

I think it makes good sense to give a lift to someone who needs it. It’s just nice, for one thing, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you hope that you’d be given a lift if you needed it? The downfall of hitch-hiking’s popularity can probably be attributed to a more fearful, guarded society, which probably comes from the ever-increasing competitiveness of the free market.

The hippy movement who hitched across Asia as well as in England in the 60s and 70s, well before my time, were probably helped along by a society who, post-war, still understood the benefits of working together in all aspects of life to overcome hardship — a hardship which makes all this moaning about the “credit crunch” sound like a wailing child whose mother didn’t pick them up on time.

My money is worth about 30% less once I leave England than it did six months ago. So what? Even on minimum wage, as an Englishman I have all of life’s necessities and I’m still bloody rich. If I’m unemployed and can’t afford all of life’s necessities, the Government gives me everything I need, and cash every fortnight. Free! Genius!

Where was I? Ah yes. Hitch-hiking. So why is it so rare to see a hitcher in Western Europe these days? There’s fear from would-be hitchers that anyone stopping for a hitcher is likely to be a raving axe-murderer. And there’s fear from would-be lift-givers that anyone hitchhiking is likely to be a raving axe-murderer. Both of these assertions and anything approaching them are clearly false.

When I was at University our RAG society (Raising and Giving) organised annual sponsored hitches to Amsterdam. I made it to Ghent, in Belgium, 24 hours after leaving Exeter, and decided to sleep the rest of the way on the train to Amsterdam. In November just gone, Tenny and I hitch-hiked from Venice to Paris in 3 days, then again from Dover to my front-door in an afternoon. I got where I needed to go, and I’m still alive.

If you’re hitching, chances are the person who picks you up will be naturally friendly and altruistic, by virtue of the fact that they’re offering you a lift. On my last trip, I had lifts with a man in a classic VW Beetle, a couple of Slovenian students, an Italian government official, an interior decorator, a Turkish truck driver, a middle-aged French couple (plus rebellious teenage daughter), a gardener, a French businessman, a shop-fitter, and a middle-aged English couple who weren’t going where we wanted to go but took us anyway. 100% positive encounters, which is more than I can say for public transport staff recently.

This was all in Western Europe, which I had been told would be difficult or impossible (by people who’d never tried). Once out of the west, it only gets easier, as the culture in general becomes less suspicious and more open and friendly.

I think hitch-hiking is a great way to travel if you want to meet strangers on genuinely-friendly terms, and if you’re bored with your life being predictable and every last detail of a trip being planned and insured to the teeth. It’s unpredictable, of course, but that doesn’t stop people from successfully travelling round the world by thumb, having a life-enhancing experience on the way.

It can be a good thing to do in your local area, too. It saves all those short car trips which clog the roads and contribute to our huge relative emissions from transport. Try Liftshare if you’d rather arrange your lift in advance.

Thus concludes my life’s experience of hitch-hiking. It’s been fun and I’ve met a large cross-section of society doing it. It’s been unpredictable, and sometimes frustrating, but that’s only served to give the senses a good kick up the backside, and reintroduce initiative and optimism as means to a more fulfilling end. Most importantly, it’s been a highly successful means of travel.

It’s been enough to convince me to hitch from my front door back to Istanbul in the next few days to resume my bike trip, and has brewed a burning desire to start some kind of Hitch-Hiking Renaissance. This means drivers giving lifts, and travellers sticking out thumbs, even if you’re just going to the next town.

You, whichever category you fall into, can participate in the Hitch-Hiking Renaissance, as part of a bigger movement towards mutuality, reciprocal altruism, and hope for a better world now and in the future, in the face of the rich and powerful few who’d rather keep society afraid, ignorant and immobile. We need this.

Next time you need to get somewhere by road, or you’re driving along and you see a hitcher, I’d be happy if you remember this article, act on it, and write a comment about what happened!