Got the itch to hitch?

Hitch-hiking should be revived before it becomes a lost art, writes Iain Mac Eochagáin

Hitch-hiking should be revived before it becomes a lost art, writes Iain Mac Eochagáin

‘So why do you do it?’ It is partly to answer this question that I am writing. But rarely does my admission to hitch-hiking get such a calm reaction. The usual responses are, in order of frequency, incredulity, shock, and fear. To members of my own generation, I am “not serious,” “crazy,” and taking stupid risks. The concept of willingly getting into strangers’ cars to get to the next village, or across the country, in exchange for nothing apart from your company, is apparently too much for a lot of people. Especially given “today’s climate” or “the amount of weirdos on the road today.”

Hitch-hiking, hitching, thumbing, or autostop means standing on the side of the road, sticking out your thumb, and waiting for a car to stop. When a car/van/lorry/off-duty private bus stops,
you establish the destination with the driver. If they’re going your way, and you like the look of them, you get in. Sometimes you’ll be lucky and get a lift all the way to your destination, though this rarely happens in Ireland, as people drive short distances. You arrive at your destination in exchange for nothing more than the company you’ve given. Sometimes, the first car you see will stop. Other times, you could wait two hours for a lift to the next village. Once I got from Galway to Dingle in two lifts. On the way back, it took seven. The only rule is to allow for anything.
So if it’s always so unpredictable, sometimes slow and even frustrating when things don’t work out – why bother? Personally, my motivation has two strands: the adventure and the human contact. I love few things more than setting off on the road and not knowing how long it will take, what sort of vehicle will take me there, or who I’ll meet. This randomness and unpredictability can be surprisingly addictive. This is linked to the second strand: the human contact. I recently wondered whether to give up telling people that I study Russian, to just keep it simple and say I do French. But the reactions are priceless. ‘Who’d want Russian?’ said one woman last weekend. More people than you might think have been to Russia, or have an insight on its history that they are willing to share.

It’s not just my own speciality that can become a discussion – I’ve learnt more in strangers’ cars about construction, farming and economics than anywhere else. Less abstract topics can also be eye opening. I’ve exchanged views on deeply personal and family matters with some drivers more frankly than I’d sometimes be prepared to with close friends. Not that all conversations reach such a deep level. Sometimes the mere fact of just chatting with someone outside our own, rather closed, university environment can be a breath of fresh air. How else, if not by hitching, would I have been advised to get a job with an Italian warplanes manufacturer?

So those are the basics, the how and the why. In modern Ireland, though, the subject has made me think about our generation differences, and how liberal we, born in the late eighties and after, really are. For the most part, people my own age are shocked and frightened by the idea of hitching. Furthermore, many don’t even know how to hitch. They ask, wide-eyed, ‘Can you hitch in pairs? Do the drivers expect any money?’ This, from the generation that considers itself freer than its parents, unshackled from old social and cultural restraints. My parents’ generation, in contrast, generally doesn’t raise an eyebrow, except when long distances are involved (‘you’re tough to be thumbing that far’). Is our generation over-obsessed with private property and space, brainwashed by horror films that exaggerate the dangers of everyday life, or just more cautious?

Of course, there are different strains of ‘liberalism’. There are radical liberals who make conscious decisions to flout convention. There are old liberals who have learnt from life’s experiences. Being liberal or conservative about giving lifts to, or taking lifts from, strangers doesn’t decide the cast of your whole generation. And of course, there are people of my parents’ age who don’t give lifts on principle.

Still, the point remains that a generation has, on one topic, become more conservative than its predecessors. This is not because there are ‘more weirdoes on the road’, or because the world has become more dangerous – it is as dangerous now as it ever has been. It is because that is the way it seems, and this is what we need to start discussing – to what extent outside factors influence the way we perceive other members of society and how we interact with them. Not only that, but we need to talk about fear, and how and why we allow our collective imagination to be dominated by it.
Far away from such heavy musings, however, I will, in the meantime, continue to hitch, and not just for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. I will continue to thumb to prove that it can still be done, that people are still kind to strangers, and that not all transactions involve money. I wouldn’t, given the necessary time, travel any other way. With an average speed of 50 kph, and at no cost, I see no reason not to, provided one uses some common sense. As one driver from Belmullet said: ‘It’s probably just as efficient as Irish public transport.’