The surprising joy of hitchhiking

This week in Sunday Life I hitchhike

Picture 152 The surprising joy of hitchhiking
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My life is often overlaid with a certain degree of mistimed chaos. Which means, from time to time, I’m forced to hitchhike.

Take Thursday. I was due at a meeting at 7.30am, but in timing my morning I failed to factor in that I’d sold my car the day before. Readers of this column might recall I often run as a form of transport. So off I set in my sneakers. However, halfway into town, I realized there was not a chance in a blue fit of making my meeting in time.

So I hitched. Some lovely old blokes – on their way in to town for a swim – stopped. They cracked retiree-like jokes about my being the best thing they’d picked up all morning, and I laughed. Because it was fun. And so I hitched home again.

The last time I hitchhiked I was running (literally, again) late for a ferry in Cronulla. Two pimply teens in a circa-1990 Holden Commodore picked me up. Much to my delight, the back seat was upholstered in the Union Jack and the entire cabin interior had been lined in the Southern Cross motif. The boys, apprentice boilermakers, had handstitched the vinyl stars on themselves. And they stopped to buy me an icecream because they thought I might be hungry.

Ensconced on my Australiana throne I was treated to the most enlightening insight into the Aussie male predicament. They were so likeable and open, I wanted to take them home with me, which, admittedly, is a little Ivan Milat-creepy.

You just don’t see so many hitchhikers these days. Which is something a few commentators have been lamenting of late. The nerdy commentators behind the  blog phenomenon Freakonomics outlined reasons for the decline earlier this month. The affordability of cars is one factor – even students no longer need to bum a lift. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a bit to do with it, too. Here, the Milat legacy really poured water on the thumbing of one’s ride.

Whenever I mention that I hitchhike, I’m met with the same response: “Don’t you worry about being murdered?” Nope. I don’t. I always have my phone with me and I just don’t meet that many murderers in the street. Do you?

I looked for stats on the matter – Australian Institute of Criminology researchers who compile the National Homicide Monitoring Report told me they have no record of deaths by hitching since 2008 (as far back as they were able to share records with me). You have a much higher chance of death by pretzel choke…or pretty much anything else.

Freakonomic’s Stephen Dubner echoes my thinking: what we fear most, he says, isn’t being macheted to death by a hitchhiker (or a hitchhiker picker-upperer). It’s strangers, period.

I find this sad. Because, really, strangers aren’t that scary (the Wall Street Journal reported recently that of the 20,309 children missing last year in the US, only one was taken by a stranger). Further, we crave contact with strangers. I’ve written before of the value of “consequential strangers” – we thrive on contact with our local barista, the scanner at IGA and the woman behind us in the bank queue, because we often learn from them and get excited about life in the randomness of the connection. I think we also crave strangers because of the dynamic of trust, and raw connection that this reaching out entails.

To keep my parents on their toes, when I was 23 I rode solo on a bike from Brisbane to Cairns. Again, sometimes I mistimed the distance to the next pub (where I’d sleep the night) and so I’d approach truckies at truckstops for a lift. Every time I was greeted with overflowing respect. Mostly, I think, because they liked being trusted, just as I liked giving them the gift of my trust (if that doesn’t sound too sappy).  Oh, the beaut blokes I met!

The hitchhiking legacy is all about stories that emerge from these trusted connections – Jack Kerouac, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin and Pearl Jam have all been inspired. Roald Dahl used hitchhiking to introduce eccentric characters into his fiction.

There are so few opportunities these days to connect like this, to penetrate a bit of fear and in doing so present others with the gift of our trust. I’m not selling hitchhiking to your daughters. But I do encourage a bit of diving into fear so we can emerge with more connected stories.

Do you hitch? Any fun stories of connection??



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