If the Adventure Travel Film Festival had existed 30 or 40 years ago, the idea of it having a hitchhiking theme would have been somewhat bizarre – that was just how you got around if you were skint or didn't own a car.
Most people above the age of 30 will recall the familiar sight of the lone figure standing at the side of the road with their thumb out or a handwritten sign bearing the name of their destination. Many of these over-thirties will have picked up that person, and a surprisingly large number of them will themselves have stood at a roadside with an outstretched arm and a hopeful expression. They will know what it is to wait in a lay-by for hours, watching the stream of cars approach – and mostly drive on by. But they will also know the thrill of the one that decides to stop, the eager jog along the hard shoulder, the lean into the passenger-side window, a short exchange with the driver – and the unique mixture of relief, gratitude and anticipation that comes with climbing into a stranger's car, wondering what will happen next.
So, what happened to hitchhiking? Why did it disappear from our roads and how has it been reborn by an enthusiastic underground movement, reclaiming it from the slasher movies and fearmongers? Austin Vince, curator of the festival and the man behind Roadside USA – the American television series about his hitchhiking travels – is a lifelong proponent of thumbing rides, and believes it deserves a place in the adventure-travel pantheon.
"If the definition of adventure is being outside your comfort zone and not knowing what's going to happen next, then hitchhiking is where it's at," he explains. "I have climbed mountains, motorcycled around the world and led expeditions to deserts and jungles, but nothing compares to the vulnerability of standing on the edge of the highway utterly unable to control your fate. I love the collision of desperate loneliness followed by affability and conversation. Freezing cold followed by the warmth of hospitality."
He also points out that, while traditional "adventurers" tend to seek out wilderness devoid of people, the kernel of the joy of hitchhiking is the opposite of this – seeking out human contact, although, ironically, it is they who seek you out. "Truly rich experiences that will change your mind, values and thinking will happen in the passenger seat of a stranger's car," he says. "It's unusual and interesting people that pick up hitchhikers, and it's invigorating to spend your days in such varied company. If you think this could be done by sparking up a conversation with the person sitting next to you on a train, just try it – you know what their reaction will be.
"When someone makes the effort to pull over and pick up a hitcher, they are in their own space, their car is their kingdom and this totally alters the dynamic. They are at ease, they open up, they are generous and forthcoming."
French traveller and author André Brugiroux, 77, is probably the world's most famous hitchhiker, and will be speaking at the festival about his 50 years on the road, visiting every country in the world. His sentiments mirror those of Austin. He says he chose hitching as his form of transport because it was simply the best way to connect with people. "Man is, above all else, born for exchange," he says. "Hitchhiking allows the flame of solidarity and sharing to keep burning." And the adventure works both ways, he adds: "The beauty of hitchhiking comes from the fact that you need two people to practise it: one behind the wheel and the other one on the road. The driver picking you up is also hitchhiking in my eyes – because he throws a bit of adventure into his routine."
All of the hitchhikers I spoke to had heartwarming stories of generosity and kindness, and my own experiences have proffered similar tales. (As a scraggy 16-year-old hitching from Bristol to London, getting a ride in a Jaguar XJS and being treated to lunch and 20 Marlboro at Leigh Delamere Services was exciting beyond belief.) While all the evidence shows that decency and goodwill are in plentiful supply on the road, the real beauty of the hitch is that these experiences are sprinkled with just the right amount of weirdness and unpredictability to turn a regular A to B journey into a mini-adventure.
Austin Vince recalls being picked up outside the White Sands Missile Base in New Mexico by a "totally lucid" colonel in the US Air Force who spoke lyrically of how a prayer had instantaneously cured his serious chest injury – a "miracle" that he genuinely attributed to "the power of the Holy Spirit". Steve Burbidge, an award-winning baker from Hampshire who hitches purely for pleasure and is taking part in the hitchhiking experts' panel discussion at the festival, recalls being picked up by a couple in Philadelphia while hitching across the USA last year. "The female driver was having phone sex while driving, in order to earn money, and her passenger was buying dope; they had just popped out to buy gear for the weekend, but they took me on a 65-mile detour into Pittsburgh."
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"Lovely couple," he adds, "Couldn't have been more helpful."
It is this unlikely shoulder-rubbing that makes for the adventure and also, like a good work of fiction or the best television dramas, also makes one question one's own vision of humanity, claims Vince. "You start thinking, what makes a 'good person' or a 'bad person'? I was recently picked up on the M3 by a guy who, when he stopped, was on the phone and I caught the tail end of the conversation.
"He was saying, 'They've got me on five charges of ABH, but only two of them are real.' It turned out he had been released from police custody 20 minutes earlier. A little way into the journey, I asked him, 'Why did you stop to pick me up?' He simply replied, 'You needed a lift and I was going in that direction, why wouldn't I?"
Belgian artist and filmmaker Dimitri Dumortier, whose film Hitchtanbul sees its UK premiere at the festival, believes it is all down to the mentality of the type of person who would even consider picking up a hitchhiker, an outlook that crosses all boundaries of age, race and gender. "The challenge of Hitchtanbul was to get us – two grown men – across Europe to Istanbul, and it meant we got a very specific selection of drivers: people who are not easily scared – anarchists, truck drivers who didn't care about the rule that you're not allowed to have three people in the cab. But also, very liberated women. It immediately set the tone for the conversations."
Even without the thrills of these random encounters, hitchhiking makes perfect sense, both practically and economically: you're driving somewhere, you have an empty seat in your car, someone else needs to go in the same direction, you give them a lift. What could be more obvious? In most of the developing world and even parts of southern Europe, this is normal practice and how a large proportion of the population gets around, particularly in rural areas. In the UK and the US, though, the concept of hitching a ride with a stranger is now considered not just passé but insanely dangerous.
But how risky is it really? The statistics are hard to pin down, as there is little official data on the topic but, according to Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt of Freakonomics, who made a fascinating podcast on the subject, the dangers are massively over-stated. There is no evidence that hitchhikers or the people who pick them up are more likely to be victims of crime, but it only takes one or two horror stories to hit the headlines and the perception of the risks involved becomes skewed, affecting people's behaviour, and ultimately the level of trust in society.
Dumortier agrees, and also puts the decline down to the generation of risk-averse parents who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s watching hitchhiking horror movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hitcher, and were indoctrinated with the "stranger danger" mentality that has been drummed into the minds of children over the last few decades. "Don't take lifts from strangers" may have been the well-meaning mantra of a million mothers, but its legacy is a generation of suspicious adults who have a default setting of distrust when dealing with their fellow man. Hitchhiking works on an unspoken reciprocal pact, but the notorious 1970s serial killer Ted Bundy scared off the hitchers and The Hitcher scared off the car drivers. By the end of the 1980s, hitchhiking had been demonised and discredited by a psychopath and a work of fiction.
The other factor in the decline of hitchhiking is more straightforward. Cars are cheaper, more plentiful and more reliable. Most people own one. A lot of people own more than one. But most car journeys are under-occupied and in recent years, following the economic crash, this glut of empty seats has been capitalised upon, resulting in a boom in ride-sharing websites – essentially hitchhiking for the digital age.
The starting point is identical – someone needs a lift, someone else is going that way. Sounds like a perfect solution to an age-old problem, and once again it makes practical and economic sense, but according to Jo Magpie, a seasoned hitcher and travel writer who will also be on the hitchhiking experts panel discussion, it's just not quite the same. Not least because there is payment involved, often upfront via the ride-sharing website. And although it is not uncommon for a traditional hitchhiker to contribute towards fuel costs, it is not generally assumed to be part of the arrangement and depends on all kinds of factors to be sussed out along the way, once the subtleties of the driver/hitcher relationship have been worked out.
As Magpie explains in her article, How Capitalism Stole Hitchhiking, describing a ride-sharing experience in Spain, money changes everything: "I noticed that the interaction and the connection between driver and passengers is completely different. I have paid for this ride, and so I have a sense of entitlement that replaces the humbling feeling of being gifted a lift while hitchhiking.
"I don't need to make small talk with the driver, who doesn't seem very chatty anyway. I don't feel like I need to be chatty, but I also feel like I don't really know how to behave. We're in uncharted territory here."
While online ride-sharing may not have the same raw appeal as sticking your thumb out in a lay-by, it was perhaps inevitable that hitchhiking would find some online presence. The website Hitchwiki contains tips from the road on good places to get lifts, do's and don'ts for getting picked up and details of an annual European meet-up, The Hitchgathering, which draws as many as 250 hitchers from around the world, its aim being to "connect with strangers and build trust". Rather reassuringly, these websites have an appropriately homemade feel, as if they were made in the mid-1990s and haven't been updated much since. But when there's nothing to sell and no money to be made, there's no danger of corporate sponsors or advertisers injecting any capital. The effect is rather refreshing.
So what is the future of hitchhiking? Will we ever see its return to our roads? Maybe. It is certainly going through a renaissance – but reinvented for the 21st century. Like devotees of vinyl, film cameras and other lo-fi analogue pleasures, it has been reclaimed by new enthusiasts who crave the crackle of human connection and the thrill of an uncertain outcome.
What was once simply a practical transport solution has become a celebration of humanity. So if you do see someone standing at the roadside with their thumb out, give a thought to the oft-quoted saying in hitching circles: "The good thing about hitchhiking is that the assholes drive right on by…"
The Adventure Travel Film Festival starts tomorrow and runs until Sunday at the Mill Hill School, London, NW7. For more details visit adventuretravelfilmfestival.com
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