Bradt guidebooks founder and life-long hitcher Hilary Bradt shares her high points from the road – and considers why hitchhiking has got better as she has got older
A few days ago I was standing in a lay-by, feeling a little foolish – as one does – with my thumb out, watching drivers lean forward in their seats to stare intently before deciding no, and speeding on.
No-one does it these days, they tell me, but I’m proud to say that I’ve hitchhiked every decade of my life except the first. And I’m in my seventies. I hitch when there is no alternative, as was the case last week, but I also hitch because it’s the best way I know to meet thoroughly decent people and reaffirm my trust in the human race. I also think it’s interesting to experience the shifting ground between control and helplessness.
For my generation, hitchhiking was part of life. We all did it. As youngsters, few of us had cars and public transport was expensive. If we wanted to travel abroad we hitchhiked and competed over who could spend the least amount of money on their holiday. When a friend and I travelled to the Middle East in 1963, we were honour-bound never to pay for transport. Nor did we need to.
Then I moved to America and assumed that my hitchhiking days were over. All Americans have cars, don’t they? So I was in for a shock when I starting dating a man who not only had no car, but assumed that I would hitch everywhere with him.
I didn’t like to say no, so there I was, in my thirties, exploring America through the kindness of strangers. And such extravagant kindness! One driver just pointed out his house, got out of the car and said, ‘You kids go see this place. Just bring the car back later this evening.’ Yes, we were kids to him.
As I continued to seek the occasional lift in my forties and fifties, the drivers must have got a nasty shock when they stopped and realised that this hitchhiker was getting on in years. But it was only when I started travelling with Janice, who is two years older than me and has white hair, that I discovered the advantages of flaunting, rather than concealing, your age.
She also had hitchhiked as a youngster, in Greece, so when we planned a return visit to the Mani Peninsula to see some of her favourite places, we agreed that the once-a-day bus wasn’t going to get us far and we would hitchhike when necessary.
I hadn’t realised how easy it would be. I’d push Janice to the front, and cars would stop because what else can you do when a white-haired old lady sticks her thumb out and looks beseeching – and is carrying a sign to the destination written in the Greek alphabet as well as in English? They stopped. They all stopped.
We rode with a priest, with his hat and his little bun, and Janice chatted to him in Greek (don’t ask, she just seems to know all the European languages and a smattering of African ones); we travelled with some German tourists and exchanged information on the most rewarding Byzantine churches, with a talkative woman lawyer, and finally hopped onto the back of a pick-up truck to join two young Albanians who, we gathered, were employed on a building site.
The Albanians spoke about the same level of Greek as Janice, so although conversation didn’t exactly flow, it sputtered along quite happily. They were, understandably, very curious about why two women who certainly looked past the first flush of youth were hitchhiking.
They muttered among themselves, casting furtive glances at us before asking Janice her age; sixty-two she told them. No interest there then. So they pointed to me. ‘How old is she?’ You could imagine a little glimmer of hope that I was a very wrinkly thirty-eight-year-old. Once the truth was out they took no further interest in us.
We relaxed, until another pick-up approached from the opposite direction, and to our alarm a hand with a gun appeared though its window. Oh, it was a joke, was it? Of course it was. The rest of the journey was uneventful.
Another time we had a wonderful ride in a bread van, enveloped in the smell of freshly-baked loaves, and exchanging kalimeras with astonished-looking customers. It was clear that hitchhiking in one’s sixties is not just as good, but better than all those decades ago when we all did it.
Hilary’s story is an extract from To Oldly Go – published by Bradt, out now. To get 35% off your copy of the book, use discount code OLDLY35 when you buy online from bradtguides.com (Offer ends 30 Nov 2015).
Since writing the first Bradt guide in 1974, Hilary Bradt has made travel her business, working as a writer, lecturer and tour leader. In this latter capacity she has encountered intrepid oldies who convinced her that age is no barrier to adventure. In 2008 she was awarded an MBE and the following year a Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Guild of Travel Writers. She is currently working on the final volume of a trilogy of Slow Travel guides to Devon – hence the need occasionally to hitch a lift.Main image: Elderly couple hitchhiking (Shutterstock)