Hitch in (and out of) time

Christopher Bigsby on the declining art of taking a hike

May 16, 2013

Whatever happened to hitch-hiking? When I was a student it was the only way around the country. Now, according to the most recent UK census, a mere 5 per cent of people in East Anglia say they would pick up a hitch- hiker. In Wales the figure is 12 per cent.

I was hitch-hiking in Wales with my girlfriend (now my wife) many years ago when we were picked up by a man who invited us back to his house.

As we sat in his kitchen, he explained that it was the room in which his wife had died. This fact, while sad, was not unduly disturbing.

However, he then explained that she had been killed as a result of an explosion. (Don’t ask. We didn’t.) She had literally been blown apart. It had, he said, taken him two days to scrape her off the walls. He then invited us to stay overnight. There would be a bed for my girlfriend but I would have to share with him. I can already hear you shouting: “Get out of there!” Why didn’t we? We had very little money. The next morning he cooked us breakfast, glancing nostalgically at the kitchen walls, before waving us on our way. Was he lonely and kind, or had he just run short of exploding kitchen appliances?

It had, he said, taken him two days to scrape his wife off the walls. He then invited us to stay overnight. There would be a bed for my girlfriend but I would have to share with him

On another occasion I found myself in Sweden, standing outside a restaurant wondering if I could afford to eat, when a man approached me and asked if I was a student. I said I was, and he offered to buy me a meal. I can hear you shouting again. We had a pleasant evening. I thanked him. We went our separate ways. He was a businessman bored with eating on his own and had once been a student himself.

One drizzly day in Norwich, I decided that I would pass the favour on. I pulled over at a bus stop and offered a lift to the university to two male students who looked as though they were in the rugby first XV. They glanced nervously at each other and declined, despite the university permit on my windscreen. The stranger, it seems, is now always a threat, while drivers, wary of sexual harassment claims, would benefit from an on- board human resources app to remind them of the offences with which they could be charged.

There was a news story in the US about a man who was writing a book on hitch-hiking who claimed to have been shot while trying to thumb a lift. It later transpired that he had shot himself (doubtless as a direct result of his contract to write a book about hitch-hiking), but the story evidently struck a chord, not least because of the horror film The Hitcher (1986), a how-to manual for psychopaths.

There is a Jack Kerouac poem, Hitchhiker, in which he blames his failure to get a ride on his raincoat, which made him look like a “selfdefeated self-murdering imaginary gangster” with “‘a gun underneath that IRA coat’”. No wonder hitch-hiking has declined.

I did not always hitch: I owned a car before I went to university. It cost £50 and had to be pushed to start, and had a passenger door that would not open. My driving instructor, a fellow pupil, would duly push the car, then run after it before opening the rear door and climbing over the front seat. Once he did this and his feet went straight through the floor. He now lives in Sweden, although I don’t think the two things are connected.

More recently I received notification that I had committed a speeding offence on the road past the university. I had driven at 34mph when I should have kept to 30mph. My wife duly took pleasure in castigating me and, having an Augustinian sense of original sin (and having read Kafka’s The Trial), I pleaded guilty. Then it occurred to me to ask what the evidence was for my offence. The woman at the other end of the information line explained that there was no doubt I was guilty as charged because she was looking at a photograph of me on her screen…well, she was if I had blond hair, at least. I do not. My wife does. I had inadvertently Chris Huhned myself. How did it turn out? I can’t remember. With luck the Home Office does not subscribe to Times Higher Education.

There is a website, Wikitravel, that identifies the popularity and ease of hitch-hiking in different countries. Unsurprisingly it is hard in Colombia (presumably unless you are prepared to transport, preferably internally, some of the products of that fine country), but it is comforting to know that you will be picked up in Iceland. It is rare in Mongolia and easy in Albania, although be warned: payment can be requested. (I think the word “requested” may have been mistranslated.) It is also worth noting that the raised thumb inviting motorists to stop is an obscene gesture in Iran, and likely to get you into similar trouble in West Africa and South America, too. In the UK, according to the site, hitch-hiking is “almost non- existent”.

So why don’t students hitch any more? Perhaps it is less because of presumed homicidal maniacs and more because of the existence of student railcards, cheap buses, Skype and the fact that they now own their own cars: at my university, student car park passes outnumber those of staff and faculty members. But just think what they are missing: not least the frisson of excitement that comes from dicing with deadly kitchen appliances.

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