The Hitchhiker's Guide to Morality

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Morality

Hitchhike; verb: – the art of sticking out your thumb, and getting a free ride with a stranger to get yourself from one point to another. Typically used by backpackers and travellers who are poor as shit.

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A fairly polarising means of transport, hitchhiking can be a tender subject amongst everyone from your pals to your parents. People tend to sit in one of two camps: yay or nay. The nay-sayers have a deep-seated aversion to hitch hiking. Whether they feel it is dangerous, improper, or illegal, they can rarely be swayed, and are set in their archaic ways. And then we have the pro-hitching folk; very willing and very likely experienced in hitchhiking themselves.

I’ll admit, I was anti-hitchhiking. I was young, naive, and thanks to my primary education on “Stranger Danger” and stories about Ivan Mallat, the thought of willingly letting a stranger into my car had me shakin’ in my booties. But it all changes when you stick your own thumb out and lay your pride on the line on the roadside.

In the weeks leading up to my inevitable hitching stint, I had heard romanticised tales of hitching. There was an elderly Polish woman gifting 50 euro to a hitchhiker just because, and an Austrian single mother picking someone up, taking them home, and making them pancakes. I was sold. Sign me up for this freeloading fun. However, my own experience hitching in Uruguay was far less quixotic, and involved a shady van and a man pointing out the police stations in town “just in case”.

Once you hitch, there’s no going back. Now I’m home, I can’t drive past someone on the roadside with their thumb out, or with a backpack lying at their feet. I’ve even persuaded my own mother to help the hitchers, and she is quite proud of driving a Swedish backpacker, George, an hour down the M1. A few months ago, a middle-aged man was walking along in 33-degree heat with his thumb out, trying to get home after a boozy Australia Day. I drove just past him, and indicated onto the shoulder, before I gracefully hit the brakes. His name was Ricky, he was nine months out of jail and he advised me against dealing hard drugs. Thanks, Ricky – thumbs up to you, too. Then two weeks ago, I picked up an elderly man on a suburban road. The poor old soul wore an ‘I have low vision’ badge and implored me to get my vision checked regularly, as macular degeneration was impairing both his eye-sight and his quality of life.

From these two hitchhikers, I’ve learned a thing or two; and certainly a major lesson in morality. You’re never too good to hitchhike, and you are never too good to pick up a hitchhiker. When I tell people I’ve picked up people on the side of the road, more often than not, they’re bewildered. “How did you know they didn’t have a knife?” they shriek. “I took a stab,” I retort.

The anti-hitching stance is now alien to me. A person is imploring you for assistance, assistance that you’re likely able to provide, and you just drive on by? Maybe I am a little too idealistic, or maybe you’re just a jerk. Waiting on the side of the road for a generous stranger is a very humbling experience. You’ll try specific poses, try looking clean – but still needy enough, and consider writing a sign: “I don’t have a gun or a knife, I promise”, but then realise it seems less honest and more suspicious.

There’s an unwritten law that states if you hitch, you must pick up. There is nothing worse than rich kids slumming it for kicks abroad, and then deciding their own vehicle is too good for an unassuming backpacker. Once you know the struggle to get a ride, you can’t turn your back – or tail-lights – on someone in that situation.

Of course, exercise caution when hitchhiking, or picking someone up. But remember, we’re all mere muggles just trying to scratch our itchy feet on the world beneath us. Or, like Ricky, we’ve had a few too many and are seriously strapped for cash.

Cover photo by Christiaan Tribert