A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The River Of Words (3): The Lost Art Of Hitchhiking

Where was I going? What was I doing? I'd soon find out. JACK KEROUAC On The Road

You rarely see hitchhikers any more, but back in the 1960s and 70s it was much more common. To get around I hitchhiked regularly from the age of seventeen until well into my twenties. Few young people owned their own car in those days, and trains, even buses, were normally outside your budget, unless your parents had coughed up the fare in an untypically generous mood. Besides, I liked hitchhiking. I thought it was a pretty cool thing to do. I liked the freedom and the unpredictability of it. I liked its air of unconventionality and whiff of danger. I liked pretending I was some kind of outlaw on the edge of society. And I liked the intoxicating romance of the road.

My bible was The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe by Ken Welsh, which I stuffed into my rucksack along with Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Michael Horovitz's Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain. (These last two books I have still, but sadly Ken Welsh fell apart on an autobahn slipway near Düsseldorf.) Ken was full of bright and breezy comments . . .

Hitch-hiking is a game of chance. In this world where we expect things to run on time or to be in a certain place by three o'clock, it is a refreshing experience. Just because the ninth car doesn't stop doesn't mean the tenth will; nor the hundredth, nor the thousandth. But you'll get there.

 . . . and sensible advice . . . 

Look keen and friendly and try to smile at each vehicle, even when they pass by at high speed. The key is to look like you really want to get somewhere. While you might get a lift lying in the grass by the roadside, nonchalantly waving a thumb in the air while swigging from a bottle of French red wine, frankly, it's unlikely.

Occasionally I hitched with a companion, but mostly I travelled alone. One of my best trips was a one-day, two-lift journey from Frankfurt to Paris — first in a smart Mercedes, then in a beat-up old van driven by two French hippies, who picked up every hitchhiker en route. My worst trip was a scary but exhilarating ride with a couple who were stoned out of their minds. I did eventually get them to slow down and stop, whereupon I almost fell out of the car with relief.

When I was seventeen I hitchhiked to the South of France with a friend called Nick. The photos below tell some of the story . . . 

The pic top left shows an overnight camp (note the improvised fireplace! — not bad, huh?) on a rough patch of land above the Roman town of Vienne (which lies just south of Lyon). Continuing clockwise, that's me with the hat, the long hair and the naked chest (gosh, was I really that thin?) next to a makeshift table we'd constructed, and there I am again with Louie, the owner of the field and a mobile knife grinder by trade. He gave us a lift down to Orange in his camionette, from where we hiked to Tarascon and camped by the river Rhône. Next we have Nick making roll-ups next to our tent, and then you can see the two rather lovely French girls we were pursuing — trying to escape, not from us I hasten to add, but from the Camargue bulls which were terrorising the streets during a traditional bull running festival. The last shot is of Nick and I saying goodbye; we both went our separate ways back to Britain. 
 
I was surprised, as always, at how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility. JACK KEROUAC On the Road

15 comments:

George said...

If one were to ask me to identify the most transformative experience of my entire life, I would say without hesitation that it was hitchhiking around Europe for three months in the summer of 1963. I arrived in Europe on a student ship with only $14, received another $20 from home in mid-summer, and that was it! At the end of three months, I was classified as a "destitute American citizen" and allowed by the U.S. government to return home on a troop carrier that transported 3,000 American soldiers from Bremerhaven to the U.S.

What I did have, however, was my right thumb, and what a glorious resource it was. It took me through nine countries, introduced me to myriad kind and generous people throughout Europe, and gave me a completely new perspective on the infinite possibilities of life. So, yes, let me join you in lifting a glass the lost pleasures of hitchhiking. It was one of the finest chapters in my education, one for which I will remain eternally grateful.

The Solitary Walker said...

That does sound glorious, George.

When I did get a car of my own, I always used to pick up hitchhikers myself where possible — repaying a little of what I'd received.

dritanje said...

Oh hitchhiking! The nostalgia is almost unbearable. That was how I got around. Not having money wasn't a problem, you could get wherever you wanted by just standing at the side of the road. Up and down the length and breadth of the UK many times, and through Europe, all the way to Istanbul. And back, a few months later.
Your photographs are brilliant too.

I like your 'river of words' series - just as I'm doing 'rivers of water' posts!

The Solitary Walker said...

I had a feeling you might have been a thumbs-out kind of girl, Morelle!

Rubye Jack said...

Yes, those were the days! We used to hitchhike from Oklahoma to NY but mostly back and forth trips from Norman to Boulder, or Santa Fe. I never had a problem but back then I believed myself to be invincible.
Thanks for sharing those great days.

terry griffiths said...

I still hitch. In Spain last summer, I occasionally hitched to towns to resupply, and usually it was women that gave me lifts. I'm 64 and always have enjoyed the social side of meeting people who are nice enough to stop for me.

The Solitary Walker said...

Cheers, Rubye! Good to hear from you. Weren't we all invincible then?

The Solitary Walker said...

Hi Terry — and welcome to this blog. Brilliant you are still hitching. I've occasionally done so too when abroad. You can have some great and heart-warming experiences.

PS Your walking plan for this year looks fabulous.

sage said...

Interesting post. Most of my hitchhiking has been done with backpacking--getting back to a vehicle or getting into town and back to the trail. Kerouac's "On the Road" was one of the books I read when I hiked the Appalachian Trail.

sackerson said...

If you ever get offered a lift as far as the Pontefract turn-off on the M62, don't take it, unless you're going to Pontefract. I once stood there for hours and hours and hours.

Children of Albion... Great book. I think I've said before that a girlfriend bought me my copy back in the 70s. I think the bloke on the cover reminded her of me. Not exactly complimentary, I remember thinking.

The Solitary Walker said...

Welcome to this blog, Sage, and thanks for your comment.

Luckily I've never felt the least desire to go to Pontefract, Dominic — not even to see the liquorice fields... http://allpoetry.com/The-Licorice-Fields-At-Pontefract

Jan said...

I wish I had done more hitch hiking and your post reminds me of this part of me that has that spirit of unconventionality and knows she is something of a rebel/outlaw/free-spirit as you say "being on the edge". I hitch hiked when I travelled in Israel in 1982 and maybe at that time, because many people seemed to do it, it felt a bit safer as a young woman on her own. When I came home I tried to persuade a friend who I had met over there, to hitch hike to Greenham Common with me which she flatly refused. Ah to be back in her flat on that Friday night and making that decision again......

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your comment, Jan. We all think, don't we, 'if only we had done this or that then' about aspects of our lives. I suppose the thing is not to regret too strongly, and be glad of all the things we did do!

backpack45 said...

My mother picked up a hitchhiker when we left Virginia Beach, VA and drove him all the way to the west coast (with us kids) back in the 1940s. I was only 3 or 4, so I don't remember anything about it except what I have been told. He must have been in the service--as was my dad.
I was taught never to hitchhike and I never had any need to--until we started backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail when we were in our 60s. On the PCT, we often needed to get to a town to pick up our food supply, so trail angels saved us hundreds of miles of walking.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for this, Susan (Backpack45). Yes, servicemen used to hitch a lot.

Thumbing a lift into town for resupply on the PCT sounds essential — great, aren't they, those lovely trail angels.

Walking the Via Aragonés, I remember hitching one late afternoon after detouring to see the monastery of San Juan de la Peña. The very first car stopped and gave me a lift down a winding and entertaining gorge back to the main trail. A very nice Belgian couple on holiday, I recall, and we talked all the way.