Travel Secrets: you’re never too old to hitchhike

Published in The Observer 2007

My travel secret? It’s that you’re never too old to hitchhike. I’ve always loved the serendipity of it: not knowing where you will spend the night and the impossibility of planning anything. And now, in my mid 60s but still occasionally hitching a lift, I marvel again at the astonishing kindness and generosity of ordinary people. And if anything it’s got easier now I’m older and not seen as a potential threat.

I binged on hitchhiking in my teens and early 20s, assuming it was something you grew out of. But a decade later I met, and married, an American who loved travel but didn’t own a car. We thumbed our way thousands of miles through the USA and Canada, and some of my best travel memories are from those rides. Extraordinary memories. Like the time a man stopped for us on an island off the coast of New England, drove us to his house “so you can see where I live” then gestured to the driver’s seat and told us to go and enjoy ourselves. “Just bring the car back before the last ferry leaves”. And the elderly man who spent his days touring around looking for hitchhikers. “Listen, I’m retired, I love driving, and I like people. My wife says that one day some young girl is gonna accuse me of rape. But look at me! Do I look capable of rape?” He gave a wheezy laugh. “Now where do you kids wanna go?” Turning the tables, I remember one couple who drove in tight-lipped silence for half an hour after picking us up (they’d argued about whether to stop for us). By the end of the day, however, we joined forces to have a lobster and wine feast in a hired cabin on the Canadian coast. ‘Boy I’m glad we stopped for you guys!’ the husband said. ‘We were going to drive back to Boston tonight.’

These days I only hitch when there is no public transport. But the buzz is still there. How else would you ride in the back of a pick-up truck in Greece and find yourself the subject of speculative attention from a couple of Albanians? One asked my Greek-speaking friend how old I was. Maybe, you could see him thinking, she’s a very wrinkly 30-year-old; on being told the truth they lost interest completely. In Réunion, in the Indian Ocean, the Creole driver wanted to know about England. Was it near France? We explained that it was an island but now linked to France by a tunnel under the sea. ‘Under the sea? Can you see fish?’

Is hitchhiking dangerous? Maybe, but if we never take risks, never experience heart-pounding fear as well as heart-lifting exhilaration, if we close ourselves off from the goodness that is in so many people as well as the evil that is in a few, what are we really gaining? Why not just stay at home.

© Hilary Bradt

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