Zen and the Art of Hitchhiking

Photo/ Bob Elderberry
Photo/ Bob Elderberry

Following the recent Hurricane Sandy, which left millions without electricity, food and shelter. Americans all along the East Coast, previously renowned for their urban lives of mutual suspicion, embraced the cooperative spirit and came together as a community to help one another get along in tough circumstances.

Mayor Bloomberg took the unusual step to suggest that New Yorkers welcome each another into their cars to share commutes after a temporary carpooling law came into force to help deal with traffic in Manhattan. This novel form of public transport was accepted hesitantly by the denizens of the Big Apple, accustomed to the chauffeured privacy of their yellow taxis. Not only did this measure reduce congestion, but fewer cars on the road also meant less fuel consumption and quieter, safer streets.

These acts of civic duty have sparked a long-awaited discussion about the merits of hitchhiking. A practice which, in my humble opinion, is the best thing in the world.

By no means did Jack Kerouac invent hitchhiking. Humans have been offering rides for as long as we have been travelling around. Although the expression ‘hitchhiking’ was not heard in the UK until the 1930s, British soldiers in the First World War would ‘lorry hop’ between bases.

After the Second World War, hitchhiking was adopted en masse by a whole generation of youths, burning with a restless desire to hit the road, often as far as India along the famous Hippie Trail, and was also practiced by swarms of migrant workers chasing after seasonal agricultural work.

But this ubiquity was not to last. Grotesquely misinformed Hollywood films spread a disturbing image of hitchers; in The Hitch Hiker, The Hitcher, as well as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, psychopathic hitchhikers are depicted violently murdering their drivers. This overly simplified idea of stranger danger was taken up by overprotective parents, becoming a true malady of modernity.

From my experience, this fear simply does not hold true. Since first extending my nervously shaking thumb straight up to the Dutch skies, wielding my amateurishly-crafted sign for Amsterdam in my left hand, I have successfully travelled over 30,000 kilometres around the world in the past two and a half years. Zooming down mountain ranges, hurtling across Autobahnen, straddling fresh lakes and even crossing seas, the experiences have changed my life.

The average day of hitchhiking at times consists of repeating ad nauseam the same clichéd conversations, running over the same stale questionnaire time and time again. Alternatively, you can have some of the most open and honest interactions with the greatest variety of people you could possibly imagine.

In such enclosed spaces for such short periods of time, you forge strangely unique relationships with a seemingly endless array of drivers. You can find yourself listening to the confessions of a cancer survivor, followed by a pot-smoking hippy, and then a gun-totting right-winger.

This sense of vulnerability tinged with light intimacy as an integral aspect to the culture of hitchhiking. Hitchhiking appeals to me because of these opportunities to provoke crises de conscience. Kerouac called it spinning the Dharma. It’s the idea of making people see their own lives from a whole new perspective, cutting through the nine-to-five grind to provide them with moments of conscious clarity. Social divisions of all sorts are suspended, and it is in these moments that solidarity is sown.

Even before you step into the car, the zen-like pleasures of quiet contemplation on the hard shoulder of a motorway are unique, and also terribly fun. Standing under a baking sun, delirium finds a useful outlet in playing little solitary games, from counting cars to juggling, dancing and cursing the skies.

Tattooed middle-aged men may ‘flip you the bird’, or a gaggle of meat-headed football nuts may sing their chants at you, then a group of powdered suburban mothers laugh out loud, as if to say “Haha! How funny! We have a car, and you don’t!”

The ‘American style’ of hitchhiking, thumb out on the hard shoulder, is, however, an unnecessary practice. In all corners of Europe, the service stations which straddle the autoroutes become your best friends. Armed with any decent road map and basic navigation skills, you can find yourself gliding across vast expanses in no time.

Simply ditch your backpack on the side, wait by the pumps for cars to arrive, and simply approach the unsuspecting driver with a broad smile, welcoming pose, and ask for a ride. Linguistic barriers aside, the friendly direct approach works like a charm, and will drastically improve your chances of getting picked up.

From Maidstone services on the M20, you are one ride away from the Eurotunnel. A little known secret amongst hitchhikers is that passengers cross the Channel for free, as vehicles pay a flat rate. Once you are in the train, you have half an hour, with over a hundred stationary vehicles for the taking, ready to emerge onto the continent and head for all corners of Europe. Imagine travelling from London to Rome in just two rides, for free, non-stop. Such are the joys which await the humble hitchhikers…

I used to plan my trips and book accommodation a couple of days in advance. But I soon learned that planning ran counter to the element of chance inherent in hitchhiking.

Without plans, everything seems to fall into place; with no expectations, there can be no failure. The freedom earned is priceless. Hitchhiking is liberating and totally free, in both senses of the word.

Nothing beats the feeling of leaving the beaten tourist path, exploring far-out nooks and crannies with the best tour guides available, local inhabitants. Those who regret not paying attention in GCSE language classes will rejoice in the advances they will make after a few tough first exchanges. You might even learn that universal language called ‘human solidarity’, or the rare dialect of ‘mutual unspoken understanding’.

On occasions, I could technically have afforded to fork out the money for a train ticket, but this misses the point. In these years of economic decline, depleting natural resources and the consequential wealth inequality, hitchhiking has fallen out of use just what we need it the most.

Waiting by an on-ramp, seeing all those empty passenger seats roar past you, you feel a bitter taste of disappointment at such waste in a society with so much want. We need to practice radical sharing if we are to survive and flourish as a species.


This nations’ obsession with car ownership, accounting for nearly a fifth of total CO2 emissions, cuts a bad deal for our wallets as well as our environment. As it stands, we are on track to falling short of our greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Is there any reason for hope in this traffic jam of madness?

With peak oil signaling the end of cheap transportation and declining wages throughout much of the industrial world, little by little, the joys of the open road will be forgotten. They say necessity is the mother of all invention, so let’s hope that we can drop our stubborn attachments to independent mobility, and begin to trust one another, share and co-operate, despite what we may perceive as the risks entailed.

People call me naïve for hitchhiking, as if I am purposefully blinding myself to hidden dangers lurking around every corner. For me, naivety is key; it gives the sense of childlike awe ideal for worldwide exploration.

Because, in order to be a hitchhiker, all you need is your thumb. But to be a great hitchhiker, it is all in your attitude. People ask me whether I fear being left stranded on the side of the road, ignored by passing traffic, forgotten by society. Honestly, the thought has rarely crossed my mind: I have rarely had to wait longer than two hours.

On the other hand, what I truly fear is ending up like some of those people, never leaving the same place, stuck with an unfulfilling job, stranded in some dead-end city, ignored by millions of pedestrians passing by. I fear spending my whole life fearing life before living it.


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