According to an AA poll, it’s ‘the end of the road for hitchhiking’. Well, not for me it isn’t, says Hilary Bradt
I’ve hitchhiked every decade of my life (except the first), on four continents, and I don’t intend to stop just because I’m 70 and no one does it any more.
Actually, it’s got easier as I’ve got older – though I must admit to a niggle of guilt when a car stops and the driver anxiously asks this elderly woman if he can help. It must be disconcerting to find that I merely want to get to such-and-such, and there’s no bus.
The last time I hitched was a couple of years ago when I was researching my Slow Devon and Exmoor book and missed the bus into Dartmoor. I was with my friend Janice – who has the advantage of sporting white hair so scores high on the sympathy scale – and a car stopped within minutes. The driver was most informative and some of his stories made their way into the book.
That’s the thing about hitchhiking: most of the people who stop are interesting as well as kind. I think it’s given me a skewed perception of the human race. I do seem to trust people more than is usual, which opens the door to adventure and serendipity.
Everyone talks about the dangers of thumbing a lift but I really don’t get it. With so few hitchhikers around these days, surely the likelihood that the driver who stops will have evil intentions is tiny. Both the driver and the hitchhiker accept an equal share of risk. Cautious drivers don’t stop; nervous people don’t hitch.
Hitchhiking has been an integral part of my travels since I was a teenager, but it was when I finished college in 1963 that I was able to take three months off and hitch with a friend to the Middle East. The trip cost £90. Val and I learned all the tricks of keeping safe, refusing to get into cars with two men unless we were sure it was OK, and sometimes asking – politely – to be let out if things got a little too exciting.
Anyone who hitched in the 60s and 70s will have had similar experiences: the odd anxiety or even fear, but an overwhelming memory of extraordinary kindness and fascinating conversations. There’s also the requirement to be the perfect passenger; we learned to judge whether to talk or keep silent, and to listen to religious or political rants without comment.
The AA’s poll suggested that these days fewer than 10% of drivers will stop for hitchhikers, in which case Janice and I have been very lucky. We do make it as easy as possible, with a destination sign and a smile, and a place for the car to pull in.
And, of course, I’m honour-bound to stop for hitchhikers myself. Earlier this year I picked up three very wet, very grateful lads from Pittsburgh who were hitching around Ireland. Chatting to them made my journey to Galway far more interesting. Happiness all round.