Whenever I ask someone why they haven’t tried hitch-hiking before, I usually know the answer before it comes out of their mouth.
If it’s a guy, he’s probably going to say something about it being really uncomfortable sharing a ride with a stranger, not to mention the possibility of becoming a serial killer’s next victim (I can’t blame Australians for thinking this because they made a movie about it).
If it’s a girl, she’s probably going to say all of the above, plus she doesn’t want to get raped.
Let’s get this out of the way first: At least in the USA—pretty violent as far as developed countries go—you’re more likely to die from an accidental fall than you are from hitch-hiking.
So really, hitch-hiking is not dangerous, especially in developed countries. I’ve also hitch-hiked in Morocco, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania (not to mention about 15 “first world” countries) and can say with personal knowledge that the people who are willing to pick up a stranger standing by the side of the road are some of the kindest I have ever encountered.
The very first time I hitched a ride I was invited to spend the night with two anarchist punk rockers from Paris who were house-sitting for a friend in a beautiful home in Burgundy, the legendary wine country in central France.
Another time I was hitching out of Leuven, a Belgian university town, and trying to get to Antwerp on the coast. The first person who picked me up was going instead to Brussels, which I had been intent on avoiding after hearing how ugly it was. But my roadside savior—who was a full-time midwife and also played bass in her boyfriend’s rock band—invited me to spend a few days with her family in the city, and in the end I had a great time.
If anything, there seems to be a correlation between people who pick up hitch-hikers and rock musicians, which is awesome, right?
There have been many other cases when I’ve hitched rides with super generous strangers, and pretty much everyone I’ve talked to who has done it has at least one amazing hitch-hiking story to tell.
But I would be misleading you if I said that you should hitch-hike in order to receive charity from others. Don’t get me wrong: When you get a ride from a stranger it is a humbling experience and it will remind you to treat others kindly, and hopefully offer someone a ride when you’re the one behind the wheel.
I would expect that anyone with half a heart should be able to empathize with someone standing in the hot sun by the side of the road or a beggar holding her hands open on the street. You don’t need to hitch-hike to understand how massive a simple act of kindness can be for someone else.
The reason why you need to try hitch-hiking once is not so that you can have a cool story to tell friends about the amazing person who gave you a ride going to XYZ and then you stayed at his house and listened to 90’s gangsta rap and smoked blunts (but that’s definitely a reason to do it). It’s not so that you can remember to be a better person and treat others with the utmost kindness and generosity.
The reason why you need to hitch-hike is because everything in life is so goddamn easy. We’ve become soft.
We are constantly tethered to technology that keeps us in contact with everyone, that gives us directions so we don’t get lost, that amuses us with frivolous apps in those increasingly rare moments of silence and solitude that used to be reserved for thinking.
When we do travel, we have an extensive network of cheap and efficient buses, trains, and airlines to get us between A and B without breaking a sweat. For all the supposed connectivity of social networks, people seem less likely to talk to strangers than ever before—we prefer to be surrounded by our familiar bubbles. And almost from the moment we step outside our front door, we are bombarded with images and sounds urging us to consume something. There’s no room for contemplation anymore, no frighteningexhilarating moment when you realize that you are a fragile, mortal being stuck on a tiny rock hurtling through infinite space and one day your consciousness will cease functioning.
We are living in an age of constant noise and movement—but rarely do we consider if it means anything.
The reason why you need to hitch-hike is because when you’re standing on a weedy patch of concrete in the industrial outskirts of a city and sucking in the fumes of cars rushing by and the sun is going down and it’s getting cold and you’ve been standing there for what feels like an eternity and your thumb is practically numb from sticking out for so long, you’re going to have a moment that a Buddhist might call transcendence.
You’re going to realize that despite the rush all around you, you’ve become something of an island of calm amidst the noise. You will see beauty in the weeds at your feet; evanescence in the discarded plastic bags lining the road; the meaning of life encapsulated in the shards of broken glass beer bottles that glint in the waning afternoon sunlight.
If you don’t see the beauty in your situation, you’ll certainly appreciate the absurdity of it—maybe both.
You need to try hitch-hiking because when you go back to your normal life and are submerged in chaos you can call back to that one moment of stillness. It will help you when you’re worried about a deadline, or a relationship, or just about any other moment of existential angst you have. You might attain a similar feeling in a yoga class, or a meditation retreat, or perhaps standing on top of a mountain. But those are all abstractions. Stand by the side of the road somewhere, draw up a sign, and stick out your thumb. Prepare to be transformed.