I saw a poster the other day advertising hitchhiking. It was in Leeds University, where I was spending a day for the Viking Society Student conference. It was the first reference I've seen to hitching in many a year.
Hitching was one of the mainstays of my life for years. It got me around the UK, and to a lesser extent, France. It enabled me to have a lifestyle split between three cities for a few years. One of my best hitches was from Sheffield in Yorkshire to Redruth in Cornwall in seven hours. Admittedly, I didn't do that all on my own; my companion was my girlfriend, who sported beautiful, long red hair.
Sometimes, people went out of their way to give me a better lift, miles out of their way. Other times, magic happened. The first time I went to Oxford was on impulse, to visit a friend who'd recently moved there, whose address I didn't even possess, though I did know the name of the road. The final lift actually dropped me off on that road. I knocked on a door on a hunch; a woman answered and told me I was probably looking for the people across the road. It was indeed my friend's house.
Sometimes it got a little dangerous. On one occasion, our driver slammed on the brakes in the third lane of the motorway, apropos nothing we could see. 'Oops,' he said. 'I thought I saw something...' The rest of his statement was a mumble out of which we picked the words 'liquid lunch.' We then realised what the smell in the car was: seemingly, his hallucinogen of choice was gin.
Then there were the two lads who picked my friend and me up under a bridge by the M4, about 4 a.m. 'Where are you going?'
'Cardiff.' They looked at each other and said 'Why not? We'll take you there.'
It gradually dawned on us that this was a joyride, the car and the journey both taken on a whim. The Top Ten hit 'Young, Gifted and Black' played on the radio. The lads sang along to it, with the words 'Young, gifted and white.' They took us to Cardiff.
One occasion taught me about the physiology of freezing. A winter nighttime lift from Watford Gap was from a physiologist who was an expert in lethal hypothermia.
Another provided some rare entertainment, the kind you can't get otherwise. Waiting in the snow outside Southampton, I was picked up in a station wagon. I was carrying a rucksack, and the driver invited me to drop it in the back, on top of a long parcel wrapped in blankets. As we got underway, it turned out that the driver worked for an undertaker's firm. He had just driven back from France, and the bundle in the back was the corpse of an English client returning home. I asked him if it was OK that my rucksack was on top of the body. 'No problem,' he said. 'It's not going to bother him.'
I was heading for Leeds. He was going to turn off the M1 onto the M18, which would have been no use to me, so I was expecting to be dropped off at Woodall Service Station on the M1, before he turned off. He went one better and got on his CB rig. Remember Citizen Band Radio, and its brief few years of popularity? Anyway, he got me a lift, from Woodall to Leeds. I wish I could remember his 'handle'.
My new driver was a woman, who said she would never have picked anyone up off the roadside - the fact that contact had been made by CB made her feel much more secure about giving me a lift.
All of those years of hitching, I often thought how I'd like to give something back, once I started driving. But there have been so few opportunities in the last couple of decades. Hitch hiking has gone out of fashion. I've given almost no lifts in the 20+ years I've been driving. You just don't see the small queues of hopefuls at the exit road of every motorway service station, or major slip road.
Why? How did this happen? Maybe it was media reports of evil psycho-drivers/hitchers. Maybe it was the 'fuck-you-I'm-all-right' culture of the Thatcher years that leached the last natural generosity out of the British. Maybe it was a whole slew of factors. But it has definitely gone out of fashion, and I think we've lost something. The low cost, the adventure, the many-sided environmental soundness, the positive cultural impact of intelligently sharing resources.
That last example, the lift I gained through a driver's CV communication, gave me hope for a future style of hitching, where passenger met driver through modern media. The internet is the obvious heir to that kind of one-to-one contact, and should be much better as a medium for doing it.
So how many people get lifts via online networks? I tried http://www.hitchhikers.org/ for a list of rides over the next month, free rides like back in the day, just inside UK. The number that came up: 0. So I tried UK-France. 0. Maybe I'm not being adventurous enough; UK-Romania: 0. The same for the next 6 countries. So I removed the free-ride stipulation and tried again: same. Not impressive.
http://hitchwiki.org/ is a multilingual site with a lot of info about hitchhiking events worldwide and an activist attitude. It's got a lot of articles. But I couldn't find any way to arrange lifts - maybe they're inside members' forums and chat rooms.
http://yoursafeplanet.co.uk/ looks more promising, but it was closed for repairs.
Smartphones seem like the obvious basis for flexible travel communications. http://www.avego.com/ offer an app for Android phones, so GPS helps you find a lift. This of course is only as worthwhile as the number of subscribers it has, but it's the kind of thing that offers hope. If enough people take this kind of thing up, it could offer something which has many of the good qualities of the old style hitchhiking but with more safety, and maybe more predictability.
That's a big 'if' though. Seems like there's some way to go before getting a lift is as common as it used to be, before it's a part of the culture again.