Tuesday 28 December 2021

The "hitchhiker's" guide? Another time, another me...

Hitchhiking seems to have disappeared, except as part of the title of a classic radio/ TV/ movie/ novel comedy - Gone at least in the UK. But in the late 1970s and early 80s it was a big part of my life. 

I was a medical student, and certainly not especially wild or adventurous; but hitchhiking soon became simply a normal part of life; if not 'everyday' then at least every few weeks. 

That was how I used to travel - especially to the many places which did not have a decent train service (or any train service) - such as the Lake District. 

I can recall hitching from Newcastle to Hexham for a morning visit, to look around the place - a mere 20 miles. Also going on holiday to visit friends, diagonally from eastern Scotland to the South West of England - about 500 miles. And much in-between.     

It was very normal. It now seems extraordinary to launch-out on such ventures, with no particular route, not carrying any map (which I now find unbelievable), and with no preparation... 

Well, sometimes I would make a cardboard sign with the destination written upon it in marker pen - but only when I had got stuck somewhere. A sign did help, but I couldn't usually be bothered.  

As with many functional aspects of everyday life, I don't recall very much detail about these years - any more than I recall the train or bus journeys. It was a way of getting from one place to another - although I did realize there was something strangely wonderful about the fact of it being possible; and therefore I was not amazed when it died-out. 

I myself never gave a ride to a hitchhiker after I got my own car - which was in the middle eighties. Ungrateful - yes; but there you go: Zeitgeist, I suppose. 

And I had a couple of off-putting experiences of getting stuck hitch-hiking, not being able to get a ride - which was probably an early indication that it was dying-out. 

The last time I recall hitch-hiking was a complete failure. I was in Ireland, on my own (probably 1982), and trying to get from the west (Waterford, I think) across the middle and back towards Dublin. I got a short ride into the middle of nowhere, in steady drizzling rain next to endless bog land; and could go no further. 

Few cars went past, and probably none were crossing the bog. 

After a couple of hours of misery, I walked across to the other side of the road, and quickly got a ride back to where I had started - then made my way to Dublin by train. It was a wasted day - a significant loss on a short holiday. 

Perhaps - for me - the key was that - after I started work - I had more money and less time; and did not want potentially to 'waste time' on travelling. Also, I began to carry more luggage. 

Yet my experiences had been nearly all positive - that 500 mile journey only took about nine hours... At any rate I got to my destination in time for tea; and was in fact delivered almost door-to-door (to within about half a mile) after a single 300 mile plus ride from somewhere in the north of England. 

So there really was something magical, life-affirming, about hitching; which I certainly appreciated. 

And perhaps the reason it disappeared was simply part of the general disenchantment of life, which indeed began to gather strength from the middle 1980s. 

Until then, it did not seem utterly absurd to lie on one's back in a field, stick-out a cheery thumb; and hitch a ride to 'the galaxy' from some passing UFO.

Note added: The disenchantment of life is a fact - and it seems to have begun several centuries ago; but it is also necessary to our spiritual development. The fact is that relying upon external sources of enchantment was not good for us; it just made us spiritually lazy. The enchantment given-us (reliably, and fairly passively given) by particular situations and experiences (such has hitchhiking) was (by the middle 20th century) very partial; and clearly inadequate - because mass apostasy, mass media, fashion, and imposed-abstract peer orientation (as with 'teenage', and its cults and tribes) was proceeding relentlessly. We had to be made to stop relying on external circumstances to supply us with enchantment by withdrawal of its availability and gratifications; and this has by-now substantially happened. Now - we must either work for enchantment consciously and by choice - or else we will have none; and will lapse into chronic and intractable disenchantment, alienation and despair - and will try to 'deal with' these by distraction (including intoxication) and relying-upon being temporarily overpowered by the negative emotions: spite, resentment, disgust, fear, sadism etc - as seen increasingly in our daily discourse. In other words, we refused to learn from kind and easy life-lessons; and therefore must have harsh and tough life-lessons... Yet still most resist learning from them. It seems that almost all life-satisfactions need to be withdrawn before many people can be brought to take the needful eternal and Heavenly perspective - which is all that can save a Man from choosing Hell by default. 



David Stanley said...

I think the Yorkshire ripper case led to a fear for women to hitchhike and men became wary of being seen as predators. This was possibly because American films portrayed it as dangerous and we caught their fear?

I hitched back from the Alps to Paris and then to Amsterdam and I probably didn't smell very good either!

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I don't think that was the reason - because sensible girls never did hitchhike alone. That was just asking for trouble.

A boy and girl together was probably the most attractive combo - the easiest alignment to get a good lift.

The best and most reliable lifts were from lorry drivers on long haul. These were mostly very decent characters, and of course found conversation helpful in their work.

My best lift was from a bearded chap in a Land Rover who lived in Walsall; a real salt of the earth character; who gave me a cup of tea at his house, the material to make a sign, and dove me down the road to a suitable place for the next lift - from pure goodness of heart. Never forgotten!

I did have a few 'weirder' characters, when I 'made my excuses' and got out more quickly than strictly necessary - but none were pushy or nasty.

The positive coincidences were remarkable. I got one lift from Keswick to my front door in Fenham, Newcastle... Another from Chorley to the door of where I was staying in Southport, Cheshire... what were the odds?

As I say, there was a kind of benign magic about it all.

William Wildblood said...

I hitchhiked now and then in the early to mid '70s. The best one was from Calais in the north of France to Beziers in the south west in 1974. It took about fortnight and another fortnight or so to go back again but we (I was with a friend) weren't in a hurry. We started off sleeping in campsites but eventually just bedded down in a field like the hobos we romantically thought we were. Our daily diet was a baguette, camembert, wine and cigarettes except for one memorable occasion when the person who gave us a lift invited us back for a splendid dinner chez lui.

I suspect one reason hitching went away was because of the loss of trust in strangers and that's on both side of the transaction.

Epimetheus said...

Never tried it myself, always had a car or could hitch with friends and acquaintances. With the right partners, there's certainly an enchantment in a good road trip. I've had at least one dozen-hour trip which ended up being a single long invigorating conversation.

Hitchhiking still takes place in rural Canada, mostly for the poor or indigenous. But then, the country is incomprehensibly massive, and the Anglo countryside still has some of the leftover glow of Red Tory high-trust society.

mobius said...

I never did any hitching, but up here in Maine, if you start walking, someone will pick you up. Usually the next person, though we have lots of new imports, now.

Same if you break down.

whitney said...

I will stop and ask people that are walking in a sudden rain storm if they want to ride home... if they look like normal people. I know they probably live in the neighborhood. They always seem a little nonplussed but sometimes they take me up on it and are really happy about it. And I'm happy to do it. Last time I hitchhiked was when my car broke down on the interstate it was probably 91 or 92 and me and my friend, male, were picked up by a couple kinda weird guys but they took us to a truck stop and I got my car fixed

Bruce Charlton said...

I'm not claiming it is extinct; but there is little doubt that hitchhiking in the UK has massively declined from being normal and everyday, to something only very rarely seen. Indeed, I can't recall the last hitchhiker I saw, it was so long ago - although I have not travelled much in the past several years.

As a telling instance, Channel Four made a documentary about Newcastle University during 1985; and depicted the medical student arriving at college having hitchhiked from the south, and being dropped-off on the Tyne Bridge.

The scene was, of course, staged (he was driven by Channel Four people... after all, who would stop and drop off a hitcher in the *middle* of a bridge - except to film him walking into the city!).

But the point was that this was at the time still a bit of a cliche (or at least a possibility) for how an undergraduate might arrive at college (having sent his trunk - containing a whole year's worth of necessaries - on ahead by rail).