Jonathan Self: The lost art of hitch-hiking

A first encounter in decades with somebody hitching a ride prompts our columnist to look back on the days when hitch-hiking was entirely normal — and an incomparable way to get from A to Wherever.

My wife and I share a car that can, apparently, reach a top speed of 130mph. 130mph! Given the twisty, narrow nature of the roads in west Cork, even 30mph could be considered reckless.

Anyway, with each passing year, I find I drive more and more slowly. This has nothing to do with my increasing age and everything to do with my increasing nosiness or, as I prefer to think of it, interest in the world around me.

Quiet back roads clearly suit my pace and natural curiosity better (not that I don’t sometimes enjoy main roads, with their endless opportunities for annoying other drivers by sticking slavishly to the speed limit), and my stream of consciousness on a typical trip, such as the one I have just completed, runs something like this:
‘It’s starting to get dark the blue hour I know not how it falls on me this summer evening hushed and lone… he’ll regret putting pigs in that field — heavy wet soil no drainage his father Lord have mercy on him wouldn’t have let him… what a lot of woundworts beautiful pinkish-violet even if they smell… ooh ooh a peregrine falcon… gone… those sheep should have been sheared two months ago poor buggers… the French call this time of day l’heure du berger auspicious for lovers… good heavens a hitchhiker will I stop for him he looks clean and sober I’ll stop.’

“You never know when you will get to where you are going — if you even have a set destination in the first place”

I used to be an enthusiastic hitch-hiker, to my grandmother’s eternal shame: ‘It’s no different from begging.’ But it is different from begging because the better sort of hitch-hiker sings for their ride. Drivers pick you up for two reasons: they feel sorry for you and/or they want some company. I always felt it was my duty to entertain. Whether my chauffeurs considered me entertaining is quite another matter.

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My mother, who hated waste, approved. She remembered a poster from the Second World War: ‘When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler.’ As Hitler was a notoriously bad driver, this was something clearly to be avoided. At any rate, in the 1970s and 1980s, I travelled the length and breadth of Britain by sticking out my thumb.

Only once did I feel even vaguely in danger and that was when I was picked up by someone who announced, as she put her foot flat to the floor, that her doctor had told her she should not drive because of her heart condition, but that she felt great, absolutely great. I suspect she was a little confused when, having initially said I was going to Durham, I asked to be let out at Luton.

Otherwise, all I remember is the sense of solidarity (at the start of any major route there always used to be half a dozen young people waiting for a lift) and freedom. For the unpredictable nature of hitch-hiking means that you never know when you will get to where you are going — pre-supposing that you have a set destination in the first place.

Nowadays, of course, hitch-hiking is a lost art. It used to be that if someone flagged you down in this part of the world it would have been extremely rude to drive past.

This week was the first time in 20 years I have even seen a hitch-hiker. He was a student, too broke to pay for the bus, and on the way to see a dying aunt in Bantry Hospital. A line from The Great Gatsby came to mind: ‘So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.’ However, I said nothing and stuck to my 30mph.