Those who wish to travel long distances on small purses should pack their kit bags and try hitchhiking, a sport that requires nerve, ingenuity, endurance and an unshakable faith that the next ride is just around the corner

by Janet Graham

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Rule of Thumb for the Open Road

In an otherwise unremarkable suburb south of Paris a number of bizarre figures appear at intervals, strung out beside the highway like a line of circus washing. The first strikes a Rule Britannia attitude with thumb aloft: he is swathed from head to knees in a smock constructed of two Union Jacks. Fifty yards farther on stands a man wearing a child’s yellow sweater on his head, its straw-stuffed sleeves pointing like rabbits ears: he scans the oncoming traffic with the sharp eyes of a connoisseur. A couple of tow-haired youths stride purposefully down the road, displaying well-pressed khaki shorts and seemingly unhampered by their Everest-worthy kit of ropes, flashlights, cameras, whistles and bowie knives, plus packs that must weigh 40 pounds apiece. They pass a suspiciously youthful bearded priest who has flopped down to eat his sandwiches, revealing beneath his cassock the hairy legs and sweaty lederhosen of the camper. A delicate Japanese girl trips by, arm in arm with a cherubic white-maned granddad. She must be 17 and he 70, but the triangular badges on their knapsacks proclaim them both youth hostelers. All in their own fashion make strange, ritualistic gestures toward the stream of passing vehicles; and half an hour later all have vanished like so many swallows on their journey south. For these are hitchhikers 1966—enjoying one of the oldest and gayest of all sports, the Sport of the Open Road.

Ever since Clactonian Man first traveled across the Continent in 400.000 B.C., the young and impoverished continued have been bumming their way around Europe by one means or another. Wandering scholars, peddlers, tumblers, mendicant friars and troubadours—they, too, tried to go long distances on small purses and brought down on their heads the scorn of more affluent travelers and the violent disapproval of authority. In the 16th century a girl with a taste for vagabondage would be castigated as a kinchin-mort or bawdy basket. Worse still, in the Middle Ages vagrants might be seized for their idle roguing about the country and burned through the gristle of the right car with a hot iron, or perhaps branded with a large red V on the chest (a barbaric stigma worn nowadays only by the severely sunburned).

Modern penalties are less harsh, but attitudes are much the same. I know, because some years ago, before I had one husband, six children, a village store and a home with 17 attic bedrooms, when I was footloose and fancy (more or less) free, I carried my house on my back in a crumpled rucksack and traveled at a happy snail’s pace along the highroads and byroads of Europe by rule of thumb—I ruled the thumb, the thumb ruled the motorists. I worked my passage from New York to London playing Mary Poppins to a diplomat’s poppet; hitched around the Shakespeare country, where the rain it raineth every day, just like the man said. Then, with my lanky English friend Kate, I struggled from London to Paris, discovering the hard way that this is the worst hitching route in Europe. I hitched from Paris to Marseille by barge, with a crew of whom I was by no means the motleyest; from Marseille to Rome in Holy Year, being mistaken for a pilgrim and sometimes worse; from Rome to Innsbruck with three geologists in a crazy jalopy with no brakes; and round every village in the Austrian Tyrol with a traveling grocery salesman with white knee socks and a heart of gold. Innocent pleasures; but I had to steel myself against the panic of parents, the anguish of aunts, the principles of principals, the blustering of bosses, the Culminations of fiancés and the contumely of consuls. Believe me, its not the hitching that wears you out, it’s the heckling.

So if you, too, have thoughts of hitchhiking from Alaska to Zanzibar, of thumbing your way along the Golden Road to Samarkand or even the foggy A34 to Stratford-on-Avon, expect to be looked upon with great disfavor. Your parents will jitter and remind you that 40 of hitchers in Wichita, Kans, have criminal records, cautious friends will recount the squalid details of what happened to their roommates cousin in Istanbul, and even the dictionary will describe your companions in unflattering terms, “to hitch” being churlishly defined as “to move with jerks.”

Ask the Boy Scouts: hitchhiking is prohibited, except in very exceptional circumstances. The International Youth Hostel Federation discourages members from relying on this as a means of travel. The Royal Automobile Club normal advises members against giving lifts. In foreign consulates, too, you will be met with thunderous scowls if you are unwary enough to disclose your projected means of transport (known in France as auto stop, in Denmark as at rejse paa tommelfingeren, in Finland as matkustaa peukaloky-ydilla and in China as "travel with the yellow fish"). The government of West Germany is not fond of the practice, and in France this mode of transport has been discouraged by the authorities for some considerable time, while in Italy you are liable to be arrested if found to be without means of support.

Ignore them all, as so many have done before you. Despite these surly thumbs-down official judgments, the upraised thumb remains a valid ticket to adventure for uncountable thousands every year. We took to hitchhiking because it is fast, fascinating and free, while admitting that poverty is, in most cases, more of an excuse than a reason. In addition to freedom from fares, hitchhiking offers freedom from schedules (leave when you like, arrive when you may); freedom from possessions (carry what you can, do without the rest), freedom from tedium (endless variety of vehicles and drivers), and freedom from fixed abode (Anywhere, Europe will do nicely as an address).

I used to give my folks a distant poste restante to keep them happy, secure in the knowledge that their anxious letters telling me not to hitch behind the Iron Curtain would cross with mine announcing that I already had. Fellow hitchers confirm that this is a fine way to escape parental exhortations. “Dearest Stephen, Please keep away from Communist countries.” was blithely answered by Steve’s tale of how a Bulgarian policeman stopped a car at gunpoint to get him his next ride. An air letter from Sydney warning, “Darling Audrey, On no account are you girls to set foot in Morocco,” was countered by Audrey’s soothing explanation of just how she came to be staying at the Missionary Maternity Home in Marrakesh.

It is true that hitchhiking, even in Olde Worlde Europe, can be mildly dangerous—that’s one of the attractions in this over cushioned age. So are some other sports—rock-climbing, field hockey and skin diving—but parents give these their blessing, presumably because they endanger only your physique and not your virtue. Pull on your hitching duds and pick your team. Beg. borrow or barter your transatlantic fare to the European hitching grounds. You are about to hear, as Walt Whitman did, “the cheerful voice of the public road.” and once you have heard it you will never be quite the same again. (But not, of course, in the way your mother fears.)

10 Tips to girl hikers

  1. Take a companion—or a hatpin.
  2. Be neat but not gaudy—no low-cut blouses.
  3. Ask driver first where he’s going.
  4. If he’s tipsy or wolfish, say you are heading elsewhere.
  5. Beware the driver who stops when you haven’t thumbed.
  6. Never accept a ride if your first instinct is against it.
  7. Resist attempts to separate you from your hitching partner.
  8. Keep your baggage near you for a quick getaway.
  9. Know your route, and see that you stay on it.
  10. Learn in five languages: “I’m going to throw up.”

Two is the best number for a hitching team, and for speedy travel one of these, at least, should be a girl. A recent British survey reveals that girls average two days’ travel from Paris to Marseille, while boys lake twice that long. No wonder mere males conclude ruefully: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. A girl is usually glad to have a boy along, if only to form a barrier between her and the truck driver as he gropes for the gearshift.

Pairs of boys or girls often set off from home prepared to form mixed doubles en route, for these things have a way of sorting themselves out at Youth Hostels—notably in Paris, where we used to draw lots for road mates and then race each other to a Riviera rendezvous. These were casual, working partnerships. A couple of sprightly Australian secretaries paired up with “Bill and Henry” from Harvard for three weeks of carefree travel in North Africa and then parted without ever having discovered their last names.

Team spirit is strong, but throwing in an extra man after play has started is an unethical gambit that would certainly be frowned upon by the controlling body of any more organized sport. An attractive girl stands apparently alone by the roadside and thumbs, until some snappy sports car driven by a predatory male squeals to a hall. The girl accepts the ride for herself “and my friend”—a loutish and overladen youth who now staggers from behind the nearest hedge bearing two rucksacks and 50 pounds of camping gear. It must happen a good deal. Many is the kind motorist who has stopped for me and my fellow kinchin-mort, Kate, and who has then peered nervously around and muttered in hoarse tones, “Are there any more of you?” Honorable hitchers (there are some) condemn such trickery as Unfair Play, knowing that while you may attain one ill-gotten goal you lose a motorist-contestant for all future matches.

Boys can, if they wish, play solo. But the girl who travels alone, though she may get rides quickly, won’t always get them from the most desirable companions. Respectable men will pass her by, fearing she may turn out to be an assault-claiming, blackmailing highwaywoman—or else a professional bawdy basket, offering rather more in the way of friendly companionship than the average motorist has time for.

The experienced girl hiker, therefore, avoids dressing too glamorously, lest she be mistaken for a streetwalker of quite another kind. Her clothes should be tidy and clean enough not to look odoriferous, but never so chic that the motorist reckons she could have paid her fare. A skirt and blouse will do fine. Bright colors attract the eye of the oncoming motorist, but Kate and I found the best lift-getting garb of all was tailored navy blue with a neat cap, an intentionally air-hostess image that appeared to reassure the most nervous driver. Any female who travels in trousers instead of a skirt is forgoing her greatest hitching asset. So successful, indeed, are skirts that even boys wear them when they can get away with it. More than one long-haired Scotsman plodding home late from a highland ball has been picked up by a motorist who greeted him furiously with. “Och, I only stopped for ye because I took ye for a gurrl.” And many a kilted figure thumbing his way from Birmingham to Beirut has never been north o’ the border in his life.

Transvestism apart, boys who are content to look like boys will find that somber colors, beards and dark glasses give them an unrideworthy, sinister appearance, while crew cuts and college scarves work wonders. Well-pressed slacks and clean white shirts appeal to the choosiest of motorists, hut how can a succession of clean white shirts be produced on a hitching-and-hosteling trip? An enterprising University of Virginia student supplies the answer. On good hitching days, when ride follows ride in pleasant succession, he wears his workaday hitching garb of old jeans and a checked sport shirt. But at tricky periods like national holidays, when there is keen competition and a frustrated crowd of weary beatniks at every hitching point, he plays his ace. He slips out of sight from the road and pulls out his Do-it-yourself Instant Bourgeois Kit, comprised of sparkling while shirt, Ivy League tie and creaseproof slacks preserved for the purpose at the bottom of his bag.

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Thus transformed, he resumes his place on the roadside and strikes a noble pose, one foot forward and head high, as though conquering far horizons. It never fails. Later, when he’s got to know his driver well enough, he folds the shirt carefully back into its polyethylene bag; that way it lasts for weeks. (Laundry is always apt to be an embarrassment on a hitching tour, as he discovered when he was arrested by the Yugoslav police for washing his socks—without Marshal Tito’s permission—in a fountain in Belgrade.)

The alternative to such a clean-cut-college-boy image is to adopt one of those picturesque rabbit’s-ear or flag-draped costumes seen on the road south from Paris. One thing is certain: the successful hitcher must look either utterly respectable or else surrealistic enough to pique the curiosity of every motorist. The young Englishman who decided to thumb his way to North Africa in an impeccable city-stockbrokers outfit, with Savile Row suit, bowler, rolled umbrella, briefcase and copy of The Times beneath his arm, was the supreme champion of hitchhiking dress—in one stroke he had achieved both images.

Canny hitchers cut their kits to a minimum and then pack half of that. Novices take too much and spend a lot of time doing up unwieldy packages in cafés and shipping them home at vast expense. I remember that on our first inexpert hitching trip together, on that endless road to Paris, Kate had insisted on bringing a long-handled umbrella, six coat hangers and a coffeepot, while I had encumbered myself with, among other things, a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

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We were put to shame when we met up with the two chipper Australian girls al the Paris hostel. They had just spent five months on the road from Israel, with their combined belongings in one straw shopping basket. They told us that on an earlier journey, hitching overland from India, they had taken three changes of outfit, called good, better, best, but before they got halfway these had to be reclassified as bad, worse and unspeakable. So they learned to carry mending kits to preserve their well-groomed charm. Hitchers should lake a toothbrush, soap and deodorant (to spare the drivers’ sensibilities), first-aid kit, a small flashlight, warm nightwear, plenty of socks, a plastic raincoat or a windcheater, a white head scarf for hitching at dusk and a map. It’s possible to get along without any of these, except the map. At all costs avoid loading yourself down like the southern boy I watched rearranging his gargantuan pack in a café in Edinburgh. Having heard back in Florida about the rigors of the Scottish climate, he had equipped himself with an old-fashioned stoneware hot-water bottle, which must have weighed not less than four pounds empty—and for all I know it was full.

Although the State Department would really prefer Americans to stay home rather than export precious currency for vacationing abroad, $3 a day shouldn’t embarrass Fort Knox, and many hitchers, sleeping rough, have sustained life and spirits on half that amount. A reserve for emergencies can be sewn into the bottom of your rucksack. Then if you find yourself down-and-out and in need of your fare back to Paris you won’t have to sell your hair or your blood. (Hitchers report the last alternative to be quite profitable in countries like Greece and Turkey, where it fetches $10 to $15 a pint, but serum hepatitis from dirty needles is all too common.) If you fall into really desperate straits application can be made to the nearest consul for a bawling out, followed by instant repatriation. Kate had to do this when her pocketbook was pinched in the Roman Forum at the start of her vacation. A doughty trekker, she objected strenuously to being packed straight home.

“If I were you, young lady,” scolded the consul, “I should want to go home rather than cause everyone so much trouble.”

Kate stood, arms akimbo, and looked him straight in the eye. “But you’re not me.”

Before you pack up your troubles in your old, or spanking new, kit bag, you must decide, once and for all, which method of hitching best suits your particular temperament: are you to be a walking hitcher with rucksack, or a standing hitcher with hold-all?

The walking hitcher is the extroverted, energetic type, who feels he must get on with his journey by some means and if he can’t hitch he’ll cheerfully hike until something comes along. Not too choosy about his transport, he’ll accept any ride that’s offered, be it at 2 mph in a laundry van or merely the loan of a wheelbarrow—for baggage only. Because it is the part of him most visible to the potential ride-giver, he will festoon his rucksack with any number of desirable status symbols to improve his brand image as a hearty, outdoor type: Youth Hostel badge, dangling tin mug. Boy Scout insignia, college pennant, a national flag. If he is an honest hitcher, the national flag will be his own and will be firmly sewn onto the canvas. But there are those among the youth of the world today who despise the hoary nationalism of their elders; they see no harm in exploiting it by amassing a collection of half a dozen flags and swapping them at borders, pinning on whatever nationality happens to find favor in the new territory. (They report that it pays to be American in Germany, British in Yugoslavia, German in Turkey.)

The standing hitcher is the guy who has developed his brain more than his calf muscles and who analyzes the moves of the hitching game with a detached and scientific eye. One of the most expert hitchers of my acquaintance is a research chemist; another, a computer programmer. A real pro, like one of these boys, knows from long experience and observation exactly the best places to solicit rides. You will never come across him waiting vainly in city centers, on curves, brows, bridges or fast stretches of road: his haunts are traffic lights, lay-bys, gas stations, frontier posts and just past the exits of traffic circles. Having taken up his pitch, he wouldn’t dream of thumbing everything that passes. He has studied number plates like a horse-player studying form and knows just how to recognize a British car-delivery driver insured to take passengers (white figures on red) or how, in darkest Afghanistan, to spot a Fiat heading home to Milan (Mi on the plate). He will examine the slate of the tires and will probably shun vehicles traveling at more than 90 mph or less than 20 mph. And if he is a real hitching snob he may even select the make of car that, in his estimation, contains the most amusing type of driver, or coolly turn down a proffered ride because he hears the wrong program on the radio.

Having chosen his target, he makes his signal in a confident and vigorous manner, unlike the amateur whose thumbing tends to be feeble and languid. The vigor can, of course, be overdone. Kate and I were thrilled when the first driver we signaled in France screamed instantly to a halt. We rushed up to the car shouting glad merci’s, to be greeted by a furious Gallic tirade. So frenzied had our gestures been that the driver stopped for one reason only—he feared his back wheel must be falling off.

The expert does not invariably use his thumb, having learned that German motorists will respond to the wagging of a rigid forearm; while the salute of an upraised palm is the accepted signal given by the comrade who wishes to putyeshestvovat in Siberia. He bares his teeth in a friendly boyish grin and looks the driver straight in the eye, well aware that hitchhiking is a form of psychological warfare, a battle of wills between the challenging hitcher and the defending drivers in which eventually he must prevail. If unsuccessful in his first few bouts he doesn’t spend lime snarling abuse but lakes stock of himself and his tactics, combs his hair, dons a tie or a pair of reading glasses and returns to the fray.

A curious subgroup of the standing hitchers are the holders of hitching signs, the simplest of which are bare statements of intended destination. These have their hazards, as was discovered by the returning Harvard student, who held up a strip reading Cambridge, got a ride and awoke some hours later to find himself in Ambridge (Pa.). Signs occasionally contain an unblushing advertisement of the hitchers desirability as a passenger, like the one reading DUBLIN PLEASE—GOOD CONVERSATIONALIST (GOOD LISTENER might have gone down better with the Irish). It is not recommended that hitchers copy the earnest student who announced on his placard, I KNOW A THOUSAND JOKES.

One slick team prepared a series of signs, the first of which exhorted drivers to STOP AT CHARLEY’S. The next one read, 300 FEET TO CHARLEY’S, followed by ONLY 100 FEET TO CHARLEY’S and culminating in I AM CHARLEY! When a car stopped all four boys abandoned their notices and ran to take their seats; drivers were usually too staggered to refuse them.

The most hearty walker, or the most expert stander, will occasionally see the traffic stream by without him. My computer-expert friend once counted 57 disconsolate hitchhikers standing shiftless and liftless on a traffic island south of Munich. What stratagems do hitchers adopt when really desperate for a ride? An unscrupulous New Zealander tells me he stands on one leg, grasps the other ankle behind his back and does a fairly convincing crippled hitch.

The favorite ploy used by a Californian beatnik of my acquaintance is to act the stranded motorist, standing with an empty gas can in one hand. One day he was picked up on the outskirts of London by a most amiable chap, and after a while the subject got around to hitchhikers. “I like hitchers. I always pick ’em up,” said the driver. “Well, if you really want to know,” my friend confessed, “I’m one myself. This thing is just a gimmick.” They both had a jolly good laugh about it, after which the driver went around the next traffic circle—right around—and 10 miles back along the road to the spot where he had picked the wise guy up.

“There you are, mate.” he said, opening the door for him. “That’s what I think of gimmicks.”

Most devilish of all driver traps is the accident-faking observed in France last summer. A hitcher slaps the side of a moving car and then makes a dramatic fall into the road. The driver, however hardhearted, fears he has done some terrible injury and takes the “victim” aboard. One distressing result of these tactics was discovered by a public-spirited wayfarer, who recently found himself at the scene of a perfectly genuine hit-and-run accident. A wounded pedestrian was lying on the road, and the young Galahad waved frantically at car after car in an effort to get someone to stop and take the poor fellow to the hospital. He was puzzled at the callous way motorists drove carefully around the body and sped on, until, at last, one leaned out and shouted. “Lousy hitchhikers!”

All these devious and calculating methods, quite apart from their legal and ethical aspects, lack the gay spontaneity that is the essence of hitchhiking. Far better to set off in the morning, full of ill-found hopes and great expectations, and lake a bus to the outskirts of some great city—Stockholm or London or Istanbul—ready to take your chance. You wonder what your first ride will be. What, indeed, for this is the very greatest of the several joys of hitching, the lure of the unexpected. It could be, and has been, an Andalusian manure cart or a Queen-carrying Daimler, the sidecar of a motorcycle or a 180-hp tank transporter. Perhaps it will be a school bus, a vintage Rolls, a hearse, a horse, a sports car or a steamroller. Even the dull-looking, family-type sedan can be full of surprises. The New Zealand lad, making his way to England with $20 in his pocket, thumbed one such vehicle in Malaya, rode more than a hundred luxurious miles and then discovered that it was a taxi. After that, he couldn’t afford to eat for three days.

Experienced travelers have found themselves sharing the back of a truck with a reeking cargo of smoked eels, have been asked to sit (very carefully, please) upon a hundred crates of fresh eggs and have been allowed to find a niche among a load of bananas only on condition that they ate enough of them to make space for their baggage. The most uncomfortable ride I ever endured was 10 hours traveling through the north of France balancing my bony frame on a load of cement bags. Stiff and aching, I thumbed another camion and to my delight was cordially invited to ride through the night upon a mountain of luxury mattresses. Now, I thought, my beauty rest was guaranteed, but I suffered instead a violent bout of travel sickness brought on by the gentle undulations of 20 sets of innersprings.

We hitchhikers are. in general, a gregarious and tolerant lot, prepared at the outset to get along with all sorts and conditions of mankind, and we soon discover that it is necessary to extend this benevolent camaraderie toward the animal kingdom. In addition to rides upon horses and camels and in carts drawn by mules, oxen and water buffalo, hitchers have been called upon to travel as part of a consignment of chickens, sheep, pigs or calves, with a few fleas thrown in for good measure; they have accepted invitations to share a cage at the back of a station wagon with a snarling Alsatian or a friendly, face-licking bloodhound puppy. I once thumbed a brightly painted truck in the French Alps and was told to “hop in the back,” only to find myself cheek, as it were, to cheek with the massive rear of a circus elephant. At least that was alive.

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An Indian writer, Santha Rama Rau, was offered a dead goat as a nice, resilient cushion when she hitched a slow ride through China on the roof of a truck some years ago.

There is, alas, no slide rule that can be used to estimate the speed of a hitching journey. An anglers tale is much the same as a hitchers tale: lop a few pounds off the one, add a few hours onto the other. The only hitching feat vouched for by The Guinness Book of Records is the British one for the 873 miles from Land’s End to John o’Groats in 39 hours’ actual traveling time. Hitchers claim to have covered the 823 miles from Zagreb to Brussels in two days, the 1,269 miles from Hamburg to Gibraltar in three and the 1,842 miles from Ostend to Istanbul in five. Shorter spurts at more than 100 mph are common, but the fastest rides are not always the most agreeable. I heard of a stylish blonde with a taste for stylish cars who was picked up by a very dapper English gentleman with pearl-gray hair and a pearl-gray suit, driving a beautiful pearl-gray Daimler. She settled into the (pearl-gray) leather seat and they set off, the speedometer rising by easy stages to close on 100.

“My dear young lady,” announced the driver, “you’ll never believe what I have to tell you.”

“No?” she said calmly, for hitchhikers are used to confidences.

“I’m 93,” he quavered, veering toward the center of the road as he turned to watch her turn pearl-gray with alarm.

Slow journeys can be equally distressing. Some hitchers take five days to cover the 175 miles from Calais to Paris—that dismal stretch that shares with the Riviera Corniche the distinction of being the slowest of all continental hitching routes. In civilized areas the hitcher who finds himself dawdling uphill in a gravel truck, or jerking by inches in a milk delivery van, can always improve his rate of progress by climbing out and walking. But in wilder parts of the world it’s not so simple. The hitcher who has been chased by wolves in the forests of Yugoslavia, or has seen the buzzards wheeling overhead as he wails in the desert sun, thinks twice before leaving the safety of his vehicle, however slow. Which explains why people have crawled for as long as 24 hours across the Iranian wilderness in an oil truck—at two miles an hour.

Boat hitches are sometimes even more leisurely. Heading south, I hitched a barge at the Quai des Invalides in Paris, together with a French puppeteer and two footloose Canadian chiropodists. The captain, a black-bearded anarchist, promised to take us as far as Marseille, and so he did. He neglected to mention that there would be several hundred locks en route, each requiring half an hour’s negotiation, and that the journey would take two and a half months.

Kate, too polite to refuse the offer, feared she was in for a snail-pace ride when she accepted a lift in the back of a hearse in Hereford with two official mourners sitting sad and erect on the bench beside her. They drove through the town in a properly funereal manner, but once in open country the driver amused himself by racing every vehicle in sight, while the official mourners removed their top hats and played cribbage on top of the coffin. Another long-distance hearse rider was the New Zealander who was invited to share quarters with a body going for burial in his own home town, the driver wishing for more lively company. He was taken right to his front door, and when old Dad tottered out to investigate, the driver announced in lugubrious tones, “I have brought your son home.”

Most motorists who give rides do so from simple altruism, but there can be other, more complicated reasons. One hefty fellow got a lift near Dublin in a ramshackle jalopy with three men inside, because they were having difficulty in steering—the car only balanced properly with a fourth. In even more desperate straits was the American lady who picked up a couple of British lads near Munich. She had rented a German car for the day, only to discover that the machine was equipped with a gearshift, a gadget she had never used in all her born days. Would they drive and show her how? With true British aplomb they came to her rescue and chauffeured her for several hundred miles, gallantly concealing the fact that they were even less qualified than she, being underage, unlicensed, uninsured and—although theoretically familiar with the workings of a gearshift—utterly unused to driving on the right-hand side of the road.

Other youths have been picked up and asked to take the wheel because the driver was too sleepy, too drunk or too hungover to drive any farther. Girls have been asked to sing to fractious children and nurse carsick dogs. Once, in postwar Austria, Kate was given a ride to Salzburg by some French officers only because they needed a woman on board.

Her duty was to chaperone (with a pistol) the woodland toilet expeditions of some handcuffed female prisoners.

Sometimes a lift-giver seeks a discreet and portable audience for the unburdening of some personal problem. The hitchhiker’s patient sympathy is the price of his ride. For that reason medical students avoid disclosing their true vocation unless they are prepared to endure, from Boulogne to Beersheba, a series of stitch-by-stitch accounts of their drivers’ symptoms, operations and scars. One such obliging young medico reckons he has misdiagnosed half the drivers in Europe. But when, trudging along a Swiss mountain road on a bleak, riderless day, he came on a man slumped in a coma over the wheel of his car he knew he had better use his medical knowledge fast if he was to save a life. Rightly presuming this was a diabetic in an acute state of hypoglycemia, he felt in his rucksack for some sugar lumps, put them beneath the driver’s tongue and waited for him to recover consciousness. After about 10 minutes the patient began to look around him, and his rescuer explained what had happened. “Lucky thing for you that I happened along.” he finished.

Ja, ja” grunted the driver, switching on his engine.

“Say, mister” ventured the young man politely. “I wonder whether you would be kind enough to lake me as far as Zurich?”

At this the Swiss pursed his lips and shook his head vehemently. “Nein, nein, im-possible! I neffer pick up stoppeurs” and he roared off in a cloud of exhaust.

Mishaps and misunderstandings are the common fate of hitchhikers, and girls—particularly in Catholic countries—find most of the misunderstandings are about sex. One of the most ticklish trips Kate and I ever made was our journey to Rome in Holy Year, the innocent purpose of which was to look at baroque architecture; but we found ourselves tossed between the Scylla of lecherous truck drivers, who took us for tarts, and the Charybdis of officious and well-meaning Catholic mommas, who look us for pilgrims. We tried to explain that we were neither, with singular lack of success. Looking back on it now, it is hard to say which was the more unpleasant experience: being taken to a desolate beach by the truck drivers and locked into the back of a refrigerated cheese van, or having to escape out of the washroom window of the convent, where we had been incarcerated for safekeeping by the kindly black-shawled signore.

Prudent hitchers should learn to pronounce a few essential phrases in the language of any country they plan to visit. “No. I am not that sort of girl,” will do for a start. There are moments in every girls life when a drivers gestures—whether searching for a road map, pointing out the landscape, or even changing gear—become so exploratory as to become personal, and she wants to get out of the car, but fast. After years of experiment I have discovered the perfect formula, which serves equally well for cases of dangerous driving. Just commit the following to memory in several languages: “Sorry, I’m going to throw up.&lrdquo;

Any personable young woman traveling alone may need lo employ this sentence fairly frequently, for drivers will go to surprising lengths to further their acquaintance. There is a story of just such a dish, who thumbed a lift from a suave viscount driving a well-tuned Citroen DW saloon with a great bench seat in the front. She tried to keep well over by the door, but the moment they went around the first sharp bend she found herself interlocked with the driver. Disentangling herself, she remarked. “My, you do have very slippery seats.”

“Yes,” he said. “I wax zem.”

Hatpins, pepper pots, pistols, ice skates, umbrellas and tennis rackets are among the defensive weapons carried by cautious female hitchers. Others have crossed three continents armed with just sense and innocence and have managed by diplomacy alone to ward off proposals of orgies in Israel, prostitution in Andorra, companionable husband-sharing in West Africa and even marriage in Kabul. They have been rewarded by displays of a most touching chivalry in primitive places: the two pretty Australian girls spent the night in the cab of a truck high in the mountains of Kashmir, while their drivers watched over them out in the cold night air; five young Peace Corps school marines, hitching across the Sahara, were similarly guarded by the Arab nomads among whom they made their camp.

For every ominous incident one hears 20 about the kindness of drivers who traveled long extra distances to take a hitchhiker to his exact destination or to ensure that he doesn’t miss some renowned local wonder—be it Stonehenge, the Parthenon, the Pyramids, or Angkor Wat. A driver in North Wales look me 100 miles our of his way, explaining that it was no trouble—he was breaking in a new engine. A Virginia college boy was invited to a sumptuous, bagpipe-accompanied dinner by a Scottish nobleman and stayed the night in his turreted castle. In Malaya a local businessman proffered the cost of a 1,000-mile train journey for the New Zealand lad because he was worried about his hitching alone. A wealthy Portuguese, who picked up the healthy Australian girls, lent them his beautifully furnished apartment in Estoril for a couple of weeks on the strength of three hours’ acquaintance. They accepted (after some anguished doubts of his intentions) and found that, indeed, there were no strings attached.

And since this help is freely offered by so many motorists whose own adventuring days may be over, is it so very wrong to accept it, with the firm intention of repaying such generosities in kind when we in our turn become the affluent knights of the road?

People who did their hitchhiking many years ago—who perhaps got around by lorry-hopping during World War I and who later witnessed the explosion of transcontinental hitching after World War II—these people will have you believe that the Golden Age of hitchhiking is over, that it is a pastime degraded by over popularity, made unworthy by unsporting tricks or dangerous by sordid crime, discredited by motorists and officialdom alike.

But if you come and join us on the highroad south from Paris you will find that they are wrong. For each new generation that sets off with uncalloused hearts and feet upon the Open Road, the world is as innocent and free as it was for Whitman when he proclaimed—with the cheerful confidence that made him such a supremely successful hitchhiker:

I think whatever I shall meet on the road
    I shall like, and whoever beholds me
    shall like me....

I inhale great draughts of space.
The east and the west are mine, and the
    north and the south are mine....

What is it I interchange so suddenly with
    strangers?
What with some driver as I ride on the
    seat by his side?...

Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet
    have tried it well—be not detain’d!...


This article was originally published in the 6 June 1966 issue of "Sports Illustrated". The text was OCR’ed by Дејан Ристановић (Dejan Ristanović), and converted to html by Robert ‘prino’ Prins, who bears all responsibility for any errors that might still be present, please notify him if you find one.

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