Nostalgia is a funny thing. A friend of mine calls it ‘being drunk on the past’. I’m not sure that’s wholly fair, but I’m as guilty as anyone of a rosy tint on my lenses when I look back at past trips. One of the things I miss, is the ease with which one could travel for a pittance by hitchhiking. That’s not to say the hitch is a dead concept, but definitely it comes in today’s world with complications that I didn’t seem to see in the pinkish sunrise images of my past.
Maybe in the post rolling-news world, parents have become terrified at the thought of their kids standing roadside waiting for a stranger to take them over the horizon and have drilled early into their subconscious that it’s not to be done. Something dreadful and full of consequence, lying somewhere between putting your hand in boiling water, and watching the X-Factor. It may seem attractive but it’s terribly damaging. And you’ll feel stupid after.
I’m not immune to these worries myself, and likely neither would I want my daughters waiting in the middle of nowhere with thumbs aloft, gambling on a normal and respectable samaritan to drop them forty miles down the road to safety. But is that fair? Is it REALLY that worrying a thought?
I started hitching in the glorious (so my memory dictates) summer of 1984. I can even remember my first hitch. Just off the exit roundabout at the A48 leaving Cardiff towards the East, or as my plan warranted, Europe. It was a time of huge unemployment in South Wales, and being both broke and desperate to get away, hitching seemed an answer. My long suffering mother shouted upstairs to me to get down to the dole office to sign on, and to let her know if I would be back for dinner. I wasn’t, and I told her so by phone twelve hours later from Amiens, Northern France. Piece of cake. And that was me hooked.
I hitched across the UK, across parts of Europe, even on the Israeli-Syrian border (try doing that today), and all without any concept of danger. Largely due to my own naivety, I would stumble out of one vehicle, and just wait roadside for another. No thought given to consequence, and no care in the world. That translates as stupid today. I can look back at being picked up in trucks, hippy vans full of dogs, a vintage Rolls-Royce, a motorcycle sidecar, and a Morris Marina with no windscreen. I’ve been picked up by a presenter of BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, by an ex-All Blacks rugby player and by someone who claimed to be 27th in line to the throne. I didn’t believe this one as he was driving a Transit and seemed to be living in the back. He kept his dirty underwear in tupperware boxes and seemed only to circle the M25 day in day out delivering car parts and accessories. Looking back he may have been the forerunning influence on modernising the royal family, or he may have been a bit mad. Either way I made it to Dartford.
The question is though…can I still do this today? would I want to? Is it really more dangerous to hitch hike today than in the apple orchard loveliness of the past.
Back in May of this year I gave it a go. While travelling in the USA, I made deliberate efforts to hitchhike my way across from LA to Washington DC, using alternatives (and absolutely NO flights) only when my thumb failed.
My first hitch was out of LA and through to Las Vegas. Ironically a lift provided by a couple from the UK (on honeymoon) in a mobile home. It was easy. I’d just mentioned to the hotel receptionist I was looking for a lift, and within an hour I was on the road. Fabulous though the comfort (and lack of cost) was, it wasn’t old school hitching. No sitting on the dusty roadside, no being stared at by passing motorists as though I was a chicken molester just out of detention. Somehow I craved a little more hardship.
In Flagstaff, Arizona and in Newton, Kansas I was picked up by really nice people after only a short wait. One a writer on the benefits of LSD, and one a Police Officer on his way to duty. In St Louis, Missouri I was picked up by a Volleyball team on their way home from a competition. They said they picked me up because they won. Apparently if they had lost, they informed me smilingly, they may have pelted me with bottles of urine as they drove past. It was pot luck. Thank goodness they were good at Volleyball.
The thing is, there’s actually no story here. Every lift was easy, every journey pleasant and there was no great hardship. the longest I had to wait was about an hour and a half. I never felt in any danger, but true I was hitching only during daylight, and only on busy roads. Does this prove anything? well…yes and no I guess. Certainly I learnt after a gap of over 25 years, that hitching is still possible despite the proliferation of sensationalist bad news we see every day about our modern lives. That despite the seemingly endless spin of abductions, murders, muggings, robberies and drinking or drugged drivers, people are still people. Good ones still are interested in helping someone at the side of the road, and bad ones still hurl abuse as they drive past. I also learnt that nowadays people just don’t seem to NEED to hitch. I was offered a flight from Las Vegas to Atlanta, Georgia for only $22. Buses are relatively cheap, and in general, without wanting to make any economic point, the need to leave town to find work is far less of a factor now, than way back when. Also, from the perspective of being behind the wheel, the need to break up a journey with company now is less compelling. You can have a hands free conversation with loved ones, or get perfect signal on your in-car DAB radio to rid the monotony. And isn’t it also true that we hardly even see any hitchers now, so we don’t have the opportunity to pick up like we used to. And it’s also true that most of the drivers who pick up hitchers were hitchers themselves once too, so the numbers happy to help are diminishing fast anyway. But people DO get picked up, and they do get dropped off where they want to go without ending up in a basement tied to a chair and having their teeth extracted by a postal worker with a gripe.
Here’s the rub. Even though I have nothing but positive experience, the dichotomy is that I still wouldn’t want my daughters to do it. They’d still be in the middle of nowhere, trusting their safety to the ‘next’ ride. And that next ride may just not be great. I know it’s contradictory, and I also know it’s begging as an argument to be torn apart, but even at the long odds of hitching trouble , if they can get from Las Vegas to Atlanta for $22 then I’ll pay.
I started doing it because thirty years ago, there was a need to, and I got lucky. If things had gone badly I may have stopped straight away. but If I had, I wouldn’t have met Malcolm and Peter.
On a very wet night in the winter of 1985 somewhere outside Birmingham after an Icicle Works gig, I had been standing roadside for about an hour. My friend Jason was staying up in town, but I had to get back and I was drenched. Literally sopping wet. A Vauxhall Carlton pulled alongside and the driver leaned across to wind down the window. “where you off to son?” I was asked. As I always did, I scanned the car, and saw a shadowy figure in the rear seats, so I was a little wary, but the driver appeared genuine, so I jumped in.
“Don’t mind Peter”, the driver said, “he’s asleep now anyway”. I looked back to see Peter very much asleep, but also, quite clearly very handicapped. Teenage Peter suffered from a rare degenerative handicap and his dad Malcolm was chauffeur. Malcolm was a retired civil servant who was then Peter’s full time carer, and discovered that Peter slept better in the car, so every night he’d take him for a spin until he drifted off, and then would take him home to bed. Malcolm and I talked and talked. Peter couldn’t talk, so Malcolm occasionally picked up for company, and took pity on me standing dishevelled at the roadside. Malcolm also had a flask of hot tea. He was at that point, my God.
He talked about Peter frankly, about the limited time they would have together, and about his hopes and fears. But he also talked about music, about football, and about his beloved Vauxhall Carlton. I had no idea how long we had been talking when Malcolm said “I’d better turn back now then and get Peter home…you ok by here?”. By here was Monmouth, South Wales. Malcolm had driven me seventy miles and was now going to turn around and do it again. I don’t remember anything else about how I got home? Likely a late truck through to Newport or Cardiff, but I DO remember Malcolm and his Vauxhall Carlton. A chap with his beloved son, looking for a little human contact on a rainy evening in the Midlands. I may have helped, I may have bored him silly, but for an hour or so our worlds touched and it suited us both.
For every Malcolm, there were also less pleasant journeys. A fish wagon that left it’s stench on my beloved denim jacket for weeks springs to mind. And I’m still not comfortable dragging up the memory of Brian from Aldershot, who could drink beer whilst driving and pass it back out through his eyes…and while I really don’t want my kids doing it, I’m damned glad I did. And reliving it for a few weeks back in May was great.
As it turned out, I didn’t even need my rose tinted glasses.