Most people are against hitchhiking until they need to hitch a lift having broken down in a dangerous spot miles away from anywhere. Suddenly the 'Hitchhiking? Are you crazy?' advocates soften towards the idea of asking for help from a stranger. When the benefits of hitchhiking are more than just getting from A to B on the cheap, it's not such a bad thing because then you're not a cheapskate but a person-in-need and the latter doesn't have the same stigma.
Breaking the hitchhiking taboo after being forced to partake in it can change a person's perception of it forever. My first experience of hitchhiking, that I can remember, was during a holiday in England. I'd had a bad fall from my hire bike and my family and I were stranded on the side of the road: five people, five bikes and a very sore elbow. Suddenly, we were hitchhikers. Fortunately, the best vehicle for our transportation needs meandered around the corner....a mobile home big enough for the entire haul.
I became a hitchhiking advocate about ten years ago when I moved to a place where hitchhiking was more acceptable than where I had lived before. I found it quite exciting and almost comical at first; suddenly being faced with a weird or wonderful character and having to make small talk took a bit of getting used to. But I did get used to it and now it's second nature.
I have some funny and not so funny stories to tell and I often think I should set up a blog just about my hitchhiking experiences. One of the most memorable ones was of when I ran out of petrol a couple of kilometers away from the petrol station at dusk one very hot August evening with my then three year old daughter. The road had no pavement other than a thin strip of rough ground so walking was very difficult in the failing light. The cars whizzed by; tourists in a hurry. I kept standing with my thumb out but no-one would stop. The sight of a mother, a small child and a petrol can walking away from a broken down car was not enough to persuade anyone to put our real and present danger before their miniscule risk.
'How could they drive past us?!' I said more than a few times in utter despair. What message did those adults send to my daughter? What effect did it have on her to see hundreds of cars, often with only one occupant, drive past us? What impression did she get of the many men who drove past a mother and child in obvious need? It cannot have been a good lesson for her. From that, she will have learnt that people are mostly selfish, thoughtless and cannot be relied upon to help you when you really need help. I also said a few times, 'They are holiday makers....they just want to have fun' but, still, it was very upsetting for her.
With sweaty faces and a few tears, we made it to the petrol station in the dark...utterly spent and terribly disillusioned at humanity. In survival mode, I marched straight up to a man pumping petrol into his car, checked that he was going to our village and told him we were going with him. They don't quibble then.
As my old car's petrol gauge was permanently broken I often ran out of petrol, so this scenario played out a few times. Another memorable time was during a very hot day a few kilometers from the petrol station. With no pavement again, we negotiated our obstacle course whilst also trying to flag down a car...to no avail. This time I wasn't having it; the safety of this mother, child and petrol can was going to come before their smug security. I stood in the middle of the lane with my hand making a stop signal. A very smart vintage Mercedes came to an abrupt halt after a slight swerve and I bagged a lift to the petrol station, the driver being so awestruck by my audacity he couldn't do anything but cough with shock and amusement. We had a good laugh during our little journey and he even shook my hand when we said goodbye. As he was 'a local' from my village, maybe the talk of the week then was of the Dukes of Hazard Englishwoman. Hopefully he didn't elaborate and say I climbed through the window feet first.
Hitchhiking hasn't always been an emergency event for me though. Having become accustomed to being trapped in a small space with a total stranger, I now see hitchhiking as a viable and sensible transportation option. I've made many friends-of-the-moment after thumbing a lift to parties, with or without my now eight year old daughter. Instead of standing at the side of the road looking desperate and sweaty we sometimes look ready for dancing with flowers in our hair. Each time, my daughter has the opportunity to stare at someone different and appreciate their kindness, thus counteracting the damage caused by previous dirt-bag drivers.
The memories of being refused help when needed and the positive memories when help has been given have instilled in me a sense of duty regarding hitchhiking; I cannot drive past someone with their arm out unless serious and realistic concerns strike me. I think, in the last ten years, I've maybe picked up over one hundred people and driven past two or three, one or two of those due to not being able to fit them in. I once drove past four obviously tipsy men all waving for help, got two hundred meters down the road, felt guilty, turned road and picked them up...much to their raucous delight. I ended up knowing one of the men so it was especially good I did have a change of heart!
One lady in need I picked up had been waiting by the side of the road for forty minutes before I stopped and loaded her and her bags of groceries into my van. She was in a similarly exhausted state I had been in when I had waiting endlessly and upsettingly and she was over-flowing with gratitude to the point of tears. If only people knew how upsetting it is to be a women in need and see grown men just pass you by. She was hitching because her husband was in hospital and she was unable to drive. She kept insisting she would be ok walking part of the way home, not wanting to be a burden, but I drove her to her door. So instead of her making it home in a sad and distressed mood she walked up her path smiling and waving; it was a mutually heart-warming experience.
My daughter now often likes to move from the front of the van into the back to travel with hitchhikers to take the opportunity to marvel at the unknown. One old man we picked up the other week had a huge cache of wild asparagus that he'd just gathered from a hill in our village. He'd hitched to the village, spent four hours picking asparagus and then needed to get back home...to make soup? My daughter sat next to him on the back bench and inspected his craggy old face and wrinkly hands and listened to his croaky voice as he talked expertly about asparagus. His gratitude was shown, half expectedly, by giving a good handful of his green gatherings. Yummy....raw or cooked!
Yesterday we picked up the funniest pair, although I thought it was just one old man at the side of the road until he called for his wife, who appeared from behind a tree. I assume she wasn't just hiding but peeing but I will never know. This pair was the epitome of hippie: flowers, angel wings, fluffiness, long hair (both), long beard (one), sequins, bells, slow movements, the lot. Shattering the look, our dog went completely crazy at the sight of the winged woman climbing into the back and the many unfastened bags of charity shop donations caused a bit of a commotion, but eventually we all settled down to slightly awkward stranger-chatter. My daughter, of course, was totally agog at the drama of it all; she'd never seen a winged woman before so was maybe wondering if we'd picked up the tooth fairy. It really felt as though we had two characters from a Lord of the Rings film with us. I didn't get any asparagus from these passengers but they did get a wool scarf each, both fished out from one of the bags after my invitation. So, two very happy customers that day.
You may be wondering, 'How does she know if it's safe to stop?' I go by instinct. If I think someone looks in genuine need or if they look harmless then I will stop. If my gut feeling tells me to drive past then I will reluctantly drive past. My instincts have told me to stop for two young men before in the middle of nowhere, admittedly without my daughter. I've even stopped for one man and his dog despite him having a bloody nose. He is probably my most grateful occupant to date. I often think, 'If I don't stop and pick them up, no-one will.' I've even accepted a lift from a car with four men in it. It felt safe and so I didn't refuse. I have never had any problems from giving or receiving lifts other than the time my daughter and I squashed into a tiny car, either side of a baby in a seat in the back. This family was from Paraguay and they obviously loved their tropical fruit so much they liked to have it everywhere. I eventually managed to wipe all the mango off from the back of my skirt.
In the old days, a man who drove past a lone woman out walking in a lonely place might have been tracked down for his lack of decency at not having stopped to check she was ok. Now, a man who does just that might find he's on a Most Wanted list. How time and the media have perverted our perceptions of helpful people and people in need of help? I bet that man will never want to risk being helpful to a stranger again.
There are so many benefits to society from hitchhiking but, unfortunately, only the miniscule risks are highlighted. A person whose experience of hitchhiking is only born out of a negative experience at not having been helped when help was desperately needed is going to have a much more pessimistic attitude towards their community and be less inclined to help others. A person who has been helped when they needed it by a stranger who didn't take advantage of their situation will go on to have a more positive opinion of their neighbourhood and be more willing to offer help to strangers.
Parents who scoff in front of children at hitchhiking travellers spread an air of superiority and disdain for people who do things differently. Children who witness a parent driving past a person in obvious need of help will either feel ashamed of their parents or be taught that personal security always comes before chivalry, which is a scary thought. Children who have more positive experiences of hitchhiking will be instilled with a much healthier view of humanity; one of people who help people in need and where strangers are not automatically assumed to be objects of danger but of curiosity.
To hitchhike or to pick up a hitchhiker is to be a 'free range' adult--an adult who doesn't treat strangers as likely hostile beings but as people they've just not met yet but trust to be like almost everyone else--more or less ok. If you are right now raising a free range child then you must also be a free range adult, unless it's only your kids who should feel positive about the people around them. Being free range really just means being trusting and giving people the benefit of the doubt. Adults who do not participate in hitchhiking are missing out on a part of life just like children who are never allowed out unsupervised. So, really, everyone in a family needs to have the free range attitude for the free range mentality to be authentic.
Hitchhiking is not something to be afraid of or to cut out of society like a cancer but something almost always positive and beneficial to everyone involved.