The Lost Art of Hitchhiking

October 2018

When was the last time you saw a hitchhiker? 

If you saw one standing on the side of the road today, would you stop and pick them up?

Hitchhiking is an Art that has all but died out.  That’s right, an Art, and some 40 years ago I was pretty good at it. 

My three kids have never hitchhiked nor will they. As a protective dad, I’m good with that.  Having said that, I know that the experiences I gained “on the road”, helped me to grow in ways that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

My journey began back in 1976 with a year of study in Germany.  My parents immigrated to America from Germany in 1953 and as such were excited about my interest in spending a year in the country of their birth. Had they known that it would take 20 years for their son to return back “home”, they probably wouldn’t have let him leave.

As a responsible student I tried to live within my means and not ask my parents to support a super comfortable life-style. Owning a car was very expensive and out of the question. So, I depended on my bicycle and public transportation to get around.  

I was a curious student and fascinated with all that was going on in Europe.  From the wall that separated Western from Eastern Europe, to the Franco dictatorship in Spain (which had just come to an end after 39 years with his death Nov. 20, 1975), and on to the Marrakesh Express, I wanted to explore it all.

My Wanderlust had one problem: lack of funds!

Hitchhiking became my mode of transportation for the next seven years or so. Sure, there were student ride boards at the university, but they too cost money and you were locked into a specific date and time. Sometimes I packed my backpack on a whim and decided to visit a city I’d had never seen before.

Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.

                                              Booker T. Washington

Over the years I really improved my hitchhiking skills and turned it into an art.

I learned that the trick to hitchhiking was getting that first ride.  In my early hitchhiking days I would make a sign on a piece of cardboard showing the name of the city I was traveling to and headed to the on-ramp of the nearby highway. Sometimes I stood there for hours in the cold and wet weather. Sooner or later some creepy person would pull over and I’d be on my way.

After a few of these bad experiences I realized that I needed to improve my first-ride statistics. How I did this was to ask a friend to drive me to the nearest highway gas station. Or, I’d locate it on a map and take public transportation to get there.  Sometimes I’d have to walk a mile or two to get to the gas station but it was worth it.

What did the gas station provide?  Shelter from the wind and rain; a bathroom; food and drink; and most importantly: travelers who had to stop for fuel or a bathroom break.  Being a natural introvert I had to push myself to strike up a conversation with the travelers. But push I did because I didn’t want to waste time getting to my destination.  I quickly learned that you have to talk to people and you have to ask them for what you want, otherwise you’ll be stranded.  The more you talked to them, the more comfortable they became and within a few minutes I’d have my first ride.

The next important question was, where do you get out of the first car that offered you a ride, if they weren’t headed all the way to your destination. I quickly learned that it was way better to exit 25 miles early and have them drop you off at the last gas station you would pass, then continue the drive, get closer to your destination and get stranded on some highway off-ramp.

The better I got at hitchhiking, the further distances I would travel, and that with a lot of confidence.

One requirement I had for my university degree was that I had to learn a foreign language.  What to do? Take boring classes at the university? No way. I would go directly to the country and learn the languages from the locals!

Every summer for the next four years I would hitchhike to Spain, each time a different city, rent a room in someone’s apartment and then sign up for Spanish lessons. Three of the four times I lived with an old widow who had lots of time and patience to listen to my broken Spanish and one year in Salamanca I lived with 4 other Spanish students. 

My experiences are too numerous to share in this blog post, like for example the time when I ran out of money in Athens, Greece. I was hungry, dejected and on my way to the U.S. embassy looking for help when a guy approached me and asked if I wanted to make money selling some of my blood. He said he worked for a blood bank and they were low on supplies. I went with him and thankfully it was a legitimate facility. I’m not sure how much blood I let them tap but I left the clinic a bit dizzy but with enough money in my pocket for some food and a ferry ride over to Bari, Italy.  From there I was able to make it to Rome where some friends and I planned to meet.

Life Lessons From the Road

When thinking back on my experiences as a hitchhiker a few life lessons come to mind:

·     Finding Peace in Being Alone:  There were many times that I would find myself alone and I had to deal with that. One time Spanish police kicked me off the major highway and I had to walk for 10 miles to get to the next roadway.  As this was the time before iPhones and iPods, it was just my surroundings and I. It gave me time to think and really experience being alone. I learned how to shut out the noise and distractions and focus on a goal or simply reflect back on a good memory.

·     Being Resourceful:  I learned how to: get by with little money; stretch my funds; negotiate at the market for food; use maps to figure out where the next gas station was or what an alternative highway could get me to my destination. I carried everything on my back for trips that would last for months. I knew how to pack!

·     Getting Out of My Comfort Zone:  You’d think that being naturally more introverted I’d never be one for hitchhiking. I agree and I haven’t figured this out yet. I think it goes back to my curiosity to see and learn as much as I can about different people and places. I would find myself in countries where I didn’t know one word of the language or where I could find a bed for the night. So I pushed myself to walk up to strangers and simply ask: “Do you speak English?”   “Can you help me?”

·     Recognizing Danger:  There were many times when I found myself in very dangerous situations. My intuition helped me to recognize these situations and walk away from them. An attempted sexual assault by a French truck driver was averted by me jumping out of the truck – it must have been 2 am – and walking on the road until the sun came up. 

·     Writing and Reading:  As I often found myself alone I got in the habit of journaling. Every day I would record my experiences, frustrations, and successes. I also wrote letters, most went to my parents and other relatives; some went to a girlfriend(s).  (I’m sure to get some grief from my wife for this!). I also started to read a lot: books and if possible , local newspapers.

·     Thankfulness:    What was I thankful for? A friendly, interesting driver; a hot shower; a free meal; a washing machine; a new friend; sunny weather; a clean bed; dry socks… the list goes on.  When you lack the simple pleasures of life you become thankful when you get to experience them again.  When was the last time you thought about all the simple pleasures you experience day that make life really great?

As I end this post, I’m a bit sad, knowing that my kids will never experience the things that I did through hitchhiking.  Times have changed and it probably is much more dangerous to travel this way and, people are not willing to stop and offer a ride.  So, all I can do is hold on to the memories and share them, if they are interested in listening.