Do people still hitchhike? Maybe I should get out more but it’s a long time since I came across anyone standing at the roadside with outstretched thumb.
The question occurred to me when a car-less, thirty-something acquaintance’s planned train journey turned out to be on one of the recent train strike days. Finding that every coach seat was already booked he decided to postpone his trip.
“Why didn’t you hitchhike?” I asked him later. “What?” he replied in a shocked tone, as though I’d suggested hijacking a car. But seriously, with further strikes planned, fuel prices high and most people increasingly strapped for cash, might hitching free rides be due a revival?
Heading out on the open road free of costs and timetables was part of teenage liberation in the 1960s. In the film Summer Holiday hitchhikers were said to be “all over” as Cliff Richard and his mates drove a London double-decker to the French Riviera. The Rolling Stones recorded Marvin Gaye’s hit, Hitch Hike, and there was even a dance craze named after it which involved much waving about of thumbs.
Until I got a car I was a regular hitcher in my late teens and early twenties, and usually got lucky in the first ten minutes of standing at major junctions with my destination written in bold capitals on a piece of cardboard. It wasn’t always easy, though, and I remember a queue forming at the Fiveways roundabout in Hull one Friday teatime because so many of us were trying to thumb a lift west on the M62.
Everyone has stories. Mick, a musician friend in Leeds, tells me that when he hitched to London a truck pulled over and the driver told him to climb in the back, where he found other hitchers who were also being given a lift. Fred, a Leeds motoring journalist, was loaned a pick-up for a newspaper review and stopped to collect a hitcher at the start of the M1. Bored with the usual “what do you do?” conversations, rather than say he was a journalist he thought the vehicle would allow him to get away with posing as a tree surgeon. “That’s incredible,” gasped his hitcher. “I’m a tree surgeon too!”
It was said that holding an amusing cardboard sign always guaranteed a lift. One which still sticks in my mind read “Not on the run!” A friend claimed a lot of success with “Freshly Showered”. But another sign I recall alluded to the bad image hitching got later in the 1970s – “I’m not a killer”.
The free and easy life of hitchhiking took a knock through movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, in which a hitchhiker picked up by some friends turns out to be deranged, and a 1986 film, The Hitcher, featuring Rutger Hauer as a psychopathic hitchhiker. Personally, I never sensed danger in my hitchhiking years and have no bad experiences to report. Nor did anything bad happen to me as a car driver giving lifts when I got older, although I do admit to making snap assessments of hitchers before picking them up.
But in the modern era of expensive and unreliable travel by road and rail, surely some foolproof system could be devised which brings together hitchers and drivers – like dating sites – to take the risk out of thumbing lifts.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe