As Paul Burton thumbed a lift in the Deep South, a scene out of `Dukes of Hazzard' turned into something much more sinister

A FEW years ago I spent a few months travelling around America. I was hitch-hiking from New York towards Florida. After several friendly and fairly uneventful short rides over a couple of days I found myself in Georgia in the Deep South. A red Camero pulled alongside the curb; it was straight from Dukes of Hazzard. The driver shouted: "Jump in boy, we're going your way." The four youths inside were all big, with enormous hands and enormous shaved heads. They were all swilling cans of beer and laughing loudly. Despite their laughing they made me feel uncomfortable and I should have thought of some excuse for not taking the ride they offered. But I didn't, and the passenger from the front squeezed in the back with the other two and I climbed in beside the driver with my rucksack on my knees. With a screech of spinning wheels, roars of laughter and clouds of dust we were away. I turned to the three in the back seat and tried a bit of friendly small talk; they just laughed even louder. I turned around again with an attempted smile on my face and to my horror the youth behind me was fondling a hand-gun. I turned to the front again and asked the driver how far he was going. Apart from a slight glance in my direction he ignored me completely.

Suddenly the roars of laughter dropped to giggles and sniggers, and I began to feel uneasy. Then there was the mechanical click of a hand-gun trigger being pulled with no bullet in the chamber - I could sense the gun a couple of inches from the back of my head - and immediately the roars of laughter exploded again. They were obviously playing some kind of Russian roulette. I felt a cold sweat running down my back and under my arms. A couple of minutes later the laughter again subdued slightly and again the chilling click was followed by the roars. I thought about trying to jump out of the car if it stopped or even slowed for lights, but as we were in vast open plains there was little hope of this. I even thought of jumping out anyway but we were travelling at high speed and even if I wasn't hurt by the fall I was still on my own; if they really were the psychopathic maniacs I was quickly convincing myself they were, they could soon whip the car round and come back for me. I began to imagine the headlines in my local paper. I told the driver (rather pathetically) that I'd travelled far enough and could he stop to let me out. He turned slowly, looked me in the eye and said: "You'll get out when we say you do, hippie boy."

A couple of minutes later we came to a railway crossing. A long, long train was passing and a couple of cars had already stopped before us. As the end of the train came into view I glanced through the back window - there were now another couple of cars behind. I quickly threw open the door and rolled clumsily out of the car with my rucksack. Once out, I ran as fast as I could along a dirt path in the direction of a roadside bar further along the track on a parallel road. I half-expected to hear the explosion of gunshot from behind, but all I could hear were the now- familiar roars of laughter.

Perhaps not quite a holiday nightmare but a pretty bad dream.