Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore: A Stubborn Tale of A Rolling Stone.
“Nobody hitch-hikes anymore.”
The accusation is the first human contact I’ve had today. The driver smiles as he says it though. Surprise then, not suspicion.
I woke up at 6am, which is taking its toll, but it’s a necessary evil. There are no Gods of hitch-hiking, but if there were they certainly wouldn’t smile on those who hit the roads after mid-day. And in fact, the earlier the better. Sunrise is 6:40 says the weather forecast, so I’ll be on the road at 6:45. I’ll need all the daylight I can get.
He picked me up from a freshly completed highway on-ramp in the south of Glasgow, a short subway ride from my place. The time right now – the time when I finally manage to get on the road, wheels turning – is 8:14. One hour and twenty-nine minutes is a long time to stand at the edge of a highway on-ramp with a thumb in the air, and the depth and scope of emotion that works itself into knots running around your brain is not to be underestimated.
The first twenty minutes or so this morning were quite pleasant. Quiet contemplation interrupted at long intervals by the first few and far-between cars rolling by, drivers puffy-eyed and clutching paper cups with plastic lids. And during those first twenty minutes, I was unstoppable! Each passing car was not just a passing car, but a sure bet – a ticket as far away as I could imagine… and one by one they rolled by, avoiding eye contact entirely, or waving, “sorry”.
And then after about an hour each passing car became less of a mild annoyance and more of a direct affront to my being, or at the very least to my choices in the journey.
You should have started earlier; you’d be in Carlisle by now. You should have had a shave, you look like a vagrant. Or at least worn a jumper that didn’t come from the second-hand shop. The voices start at some point and don’t tend to ease up. You should be a girl. People pick up girls. Or at least you should have BROUGHT a girl.
I sigh, resolve myself, set a firm smile on my jaw, and straighten my back.
You should have skipped the on-ramp and headed straight to that service station on the highway south already. This is a waste of time, and for what? The price of a train ticket to Hamilton? Because it feels like cheating to not make every possible mile of travelling in someone else’s car?
Pride then, perhaps.
So when he finally stops, pulling in a few yards past me, it’s a struggle to avoid rushing him down and almost hugging him. It’s the same every time. I compose myself, grab my pack, and walk promptly to the passenger-side window.
“Nobody hitch-hikes anymore,” he says with a smile as I trot up to the car.
I grin and thank him for stopping. “I’m going south,” I say. He nods at my makeshift cardboard box sign – I forgot I had that. ‘Hamilton, Motherwell, South,’ it says, in bold capital font over three lines.
He says he’ll take me to Motherwell.
He’s right, I suppose, relatively speaking. Nobody really does hitch-hike anymore. He remembers a time in the 70s or early 80s where it was entirely the done thing. Everyone did it, and most people would stop for you. He speculates that fewer people had cars then. And people were more free and easy. And the media wasn’t full of paedophiles and rapists. Everyone is scared of murder and rape these days. And paedophiles.
“Yeah,” I agree, nodding concernedly.
After that, we talk about what I do, and what he does, and he asks me how far I travelled by hitch-hiking, and I tell him about 25,000 miles so far.
Well after 25,000 miles these conversations become kind of rote, but I don’t tell him that.
I ask him to leave me at the service station just before Motherwell. I know it well, by now. You can take the train straight here, but I didn’t. And right now, standing here on the big concrete forecourt, I feel justified. It’s on the concrete forecourts of the service stations that the rejection of a hundred thousand passing cars pales into insignificance compared with a handful of short conversations with a few pressed drivers.
“Hi, how are you,” I start with a smile…
“I’m not giving you money, mate.”
“Okay, sure, how about a lift south?”
But he’s said his piece, I move on. It’s the direct rejection. The word “sorry” overused to pointlessness. “I’m going the other way.”
Which way, north or south?, “No, the other way.”
People are scared, I guess. Aside from the direct and very present fear of rape, murder, kidnapping… is the fear of actually having to hold a conversation for a few hours with a complete stranger. I genuinely believe this terrifies people.
Or just the simple fear of what I might think about the inside of their car. I hear it all the time. Sorry, this car is SUCH a mess. How embarrassing.
But it is what it is. I stand up straight, smile, and ask the next driver. That’s the first lesson – resolve.
The second valuable lesson is that you can get a feeling about people – you can develop a sort of premonition as to whether you should approach someone based on their likelihood of taking you, even if they are going your way. Well, the lesson here is to staunchly ignore that, and ask absolutely everyone. The wonderful thing about people is that they so often surprise you. This next lift is a case in point.
She’s around 40 and remarkably handsome with a neat black bob and a slim and elegant evening dress, in one of those fashionable off-whites which, disconcertingly, matches her car perfectly. I think it is this that throws me the most: What level of vanity have we reached when one must choose their dress to match their car? Or perhaps she chose the car to match the dress, who knows. And she has a look on her face like someone who feels hard done by. It’s amazing how often I speak to people worth tens of times what I am… or more, even – who tell me they wish they had what I have. Youth. Freedom. Well, people can surprise you I guess. She steps out of the car and makes to rearrange something on the back seat – I figure she’s not stopping for fuel or coffee so it’s now or never.
I give my pitch, carefully rehearsed and effortlessly delivered, like a salesman – standing no more or less than one metre away, smiling, leaning ever-so-slightly backwards, never taking over the car but always in clear space where my full frame is in clear view, where she has space behind her and to the sides, arms at the side & away from my face, chin up. It’s about being as unthreatening as you can, whilst seeming entirely comfortable. I demand nothing. This is an opportunity for a pleasant human interaction.
I say hello, ask how she is, and find something to feign distraction over for a few seconds – in this case, it’s her huge fluffy beast of a dog which comes into view in the back seat of the car. People aren’t listening for the first few seconds – they’re too busy judging you. Everyone does it. The pitch continues.
“Hi,” I repeat. “I’m, eh, hitch-hiking.” I hope I sound unthreatening. But what does unthreatening sound like, anyway?
I’m ashamed to say that I quite honestly expected her to be disgusted by the mere prospect of conversing with such a down-and-out as I am (I’m clearly a down-and-out, hitchhiking in such treacherous times as ours). She gives me a sad smile like I’m a hurt little kitten and says “bless you.”
And at that, I have to say, I am slightly taken aback.
“Well,” she starts, looking down at the dog, and back at me… “Gosh, I hope you don’t mind sharing with a dog..?” And then, “Oh, it’s such a mess in here.”
I could bounce up and down on the spot with glee! But I don’t. I say thanks, and I ask if I should put my pack in the boot.
“Were those ice axes?” she asks, innocently, as I climb into the passenger seat beside her. I can’t find the words. I’m returning my friend’s walking poles. He lives in Toulouse, and he left them the last time he made the hitch up to see me. It’s these that she mistakes for ice axes. I understand this and ponder for a moment how ridiculous the situation is – how ridiculous I was for assuming to know so much about this woman without even a word between us. And now she’s agreed to take a slightly scruffy and strange young man in her utterly pristine car with her dog that certainly cost more than I earn in a week, for free… and all of this despite the fact that she believed me to have two extremely sharp and quite wieldable items of climbing equipment on me. Finally, I laugh and explain.
She works in a genetics lab, it turns out. A perk of her job is being sent out to networking events and fundraisers, basically schmoozing people with money into giving it to the lab. She isn’t arrogant when she says it – she sounds like she can’t believe how lucky she is. She asks me about my travels, and keeps making big eyes, and saying “gosh, you ARE exciting”. I shuffle uncomfortably and try not to blush.
Later she asks me about the crossing at Calais, and how easy the customs guys are on me. Not so easy, but they never cause trouble, I say. She asks when I expect to get to Toulouse. Tomorrow night, I say. Tonight I expect to camp in a service station on the London ring – I have my hammock and a small tarp to keep the rain off. “Wow!” she says.
“And are you never scared?”
“No,” I laugh. “People are okay really.”
We part ways on the concrete forecourt of a service station just south of Manchester. She waves goodbye and good luck. I smile, pick up my pack, and ask the first driver I see if he’s heading south.