I’m trying to remember the last time I saw someone standing by the side of the road with their thumb out, holding a cardboard sign. Like innumerable other bygones – the last milk bottle on a doorstep, the last rag and bone cart – it’s a sight that disappeared without fanfare. Growing up in West London close to the M4 I would see hitchhikers all the time, and by my late teens I was one of them. The first ride out of town usually dropped me at a motorway service station in the West Country, or on the outskirts of Bristol. At popular spots – the Gordano services near the M4/M5 interchange, for instance – I would join a queue of hitchers along the slip road, and cars would stop every minute or two at the head of the line. Camper vans would pack us in like sardines, and make a circuit round every motorway interchange to drop off and pick up, like buses. Eventually I graduated to continental travel, spending nights on the benches in the Dover ferry terminal and then, at dawn, finding rides with lorry drivers en route to Amsterdam and via the East German transit corridor to Berlin. I got occasional work driving second-hand cars back from the Netherlands: I would hitchhike out there, pocket my travel expenses, and fill the vehicle with fellow hitchers on my return.
Waiting for hours in a bleak lay-by in the rain was no fun, but hitchhiking was in essence a buoyant and life-affirming experience. The drivers who stopped for you were a diverse bunch – truck drivers, vicars, army cadets, fellow hitchhikers – united by their interest in conversing with strangers. It felt like a new chapter of Kropotkin’s mutual aid, a gift economy flourishing within the transactional grid of consumerism, at once utopian and everyday. It was democratic, putting travel within everyone’s reach, and you often met people who had been transformed by it: new adventures, new friends, new lives. The tenor of conversation was breezy, optimistic, alive to serendipity and infinite possibility. There was a broad overlap with the travelling counterculture, and ageing hippies would sometimes claim hitchhiking as a manifestation of their alternative society, but it was obvious that its roots extended further back than the 1960s. I had several rides from pensioners who recalled thumbing rides in uniform after the war, displaying their national flags on their rucksacks as they criss-crossed Europe meeting up with pen pals and old army buddies.
Jonathan Purkis, a self-described ‘vagabond sociologist’, sees hitchhiking as the inheritor of a long tradition celebrating self-sufficient travel, dating back to Lao Tzu’s aphorisms (the journey as more important than the destination) and medieval pilgrimage. Another milestone was the embrace of the bicycle in the 19th century, which for the first time made independent travel possible for millions of working people. The earliest known written account of hitchhiking was by a student named Charles Brown Jr, who in 1916 described his 800-mile journey from Fort Wayne, Indiana to New York City. He got rides from, among others, a priest, an artist, a teacher and a doctor, the last of these so fascinated by Brown’s adventure that, despite being en route to a medical emergency, he overshot his destination by ten miles. The veteran US hitchhiker Irv Thomas, who unearthed Brown’s account in 2004, noted that the ‘flow of exchange between givers’ was central to the appeal of hitchhiking from the beginning.
Brown’s account was titled ‘Vagabonding by Motor-Car’, which we can now see as a first attempt to name and define this new activity. First, it needed to be distinguished from the vagabondage of hobos and itinerant farm workers. Before he set out, Brown spent his last few dollars on new clothes, a shave and a haircut. Since the backpack or ‘bindle’ (bedroll) was a hallmark of the drifter, those who set out on an intentional journey by the new method took to carrying a suitcase instead. The term ‘automobile panhandling’ was used for a while before it was replaced in the 1920s by ‘hitchhiking’. The origins of the word are disputed. It may have built on ‘auto-hiker’, hobo slang for this new type of traveller they were forced to share the highway verges with – ‘hitch’ suggesting the hitching post of horse travel, or possibly hitching, as in joining oneself, to a vehicle. The origin of the thumbing gesture is obscure too: it may have been used by rural itinerants during the days of horse carriages, but it must have been well established by the early 1930s, for in the screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934), Clark Gable tells Claudette Colbert, his novice companion at the roadside: ‘It’s all in that ol’ thumb, see? … That ol’ thumb never fails.’
It was in the Depression-era US that hitchhiking really took off, and became codified as an act of social solidarity. Purkis’s touchstone here is Woody Guthrie, whose Dust Bowl Ballads addressed the new itinerant dispossessed: the anthem ‘This Land Is Your Land’, written after his transcontinental hitchhiking trip in 1940, talks of a ‘freedom highway’ crossing a land that ‘was made for you and me’. At the same time, refugees and emigrants from the war in Europe were making their way across borders, continents and oceans. In Britain, hitchhiking established itself among the armed forces and then more widely in the years of austerity and petrol rationing that followed. It was one way of responding to appeals to the collective good and empathy with the plight of others – ‘banal acts of heroism’ which reasserted human decency in the wake of inhuman aggression. In his memoir, A Hitch in Time (1966), Ian Rodger recalls hitchhiking around Europe in those postwar years, when ‘suddenly you could go anywhere.’ He thumbed his way around la France profonde, encountering wine and communist theory for the first time, finding himself one moment in a gay bar in Paris with three American dentists, the next planning routes with Dutch, Danish and Swedish companions, enjoying the hospitality of French locals and welcomed warmly by young Germans who told him ‘English good’ and marvelled at his passport.
By the time Rodger wrote his memoir, hitchhiking had become a badge of the counterculture. The nomadic ethos was there from its beginnings in the 1950s: though hitchhiking is virtually absent from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, his Beat compadres drew on their experience of riding with long-distance truckers and drifters – Gary Snyder, for example, in his poem ‘Night Highway 99’. The proliferation of newly affordable saloon cars, along with the spread of youth hostels, made ‘hitting the road’ a more practical prospect than ever before. Hitchhiking created a free transport network to support an alternative society of communes and festivals; it was seen as prefiguring the replacement of capitalism by co-operation, a message spread around the world by the thousands who thumbed their way along the hippie trail from Europe to India.
In the mid to late 1980s, when I stopped hitchhiking, the queues on the slip roads had already begun to thin. Purkis recalls that they were also becoming less diverse, more predictable in their make-up (squatters, car mechanics, festival-goers, foreign tourists), with fewer representatives of the older generation, the military or ethnic minorities. Hitchhiking became more seasonal, a way of getting to and from summer festivals, notably in the West Country during Glastonbury. The last hold-outs – you still see them occasionally – are people making short hops on rural roads or motor industry employees, often in overalls and clutching licence plates, on their way to collect vehicles in order to drive them back to garages or dealerships, as I did back in the day.
By the early 1990s hitchhiking was well on its way to becoming, as Purkis puts it, ‘something people only do in horror movies’. He finds newspaper features from those years declaring it dead and puzzling over what might have killed it. A handful of possible causes were identified. One was the rise in car ownership, which is plausible but surely not the whole story. Another was changes in insurance policies and litigation practices, which turns out to be mostly a myth, though media reports may have persuaded some road haulage drivers and operators that they were at risk of being sued for sexual assault by devious female passengers. But by far the most common hypothesis was that hitchhiking had become significantly more risky for the hitchers themselves. Purkis identifies the inflection point as the ‘Australian backpacker murders’ of the early 1990s, which prompted Lonely Planet, whose guides had been a staple in travellers’ backpacks since the 1970s, to take a stand against it: ‘These are not the Kerouac days of old. The culture of hitchhiking has changed dramatically in the 1990s and we feel it is so dangerous we would rather people didn’t take the risk.’ The new narrative was reinforced by the huge success of the Australian outback serial killer movie Wolf Creek (2005).
But Purkis finds no evidence that hitchhiking became more dangerous around this time: murders by strangers were always very rare and remain so. And horror movies had been onto it from the beginning, exploiting the obviously sinister potential of random encounters on the road. The Hitch-Hiker (1953), by the pioneering female director Ida Lupino, followed the trail of a psychopath on a hitchhiking murder spree, opening with a warning caption: ‘The car might have been yours – or that young couple across the aisle.’ The 1970s, perhaps the peak decade for hitchhiking in Britain, was also a heyday for lurid public information films about ‘stranger danger’. ‘Isn’t it dangerous?’ was always the first question you were asked by those who had never done it, but I don’t recall the issue ever coming up with fellow travellers. It was in everybody’s interest to strengthen the virtuous circle of trust; there was safety in numbers, and most people weren’t carrying much in the way of valuables. In the words of Jacob Holdt, who spent five years thumbing around the poorest parts of the southern US in the 1970s, there’s nothing safer than being on the road with no money.
Risk and danger were always gendered, of course. I recall plenty of women waiting on the slip roads, and I got plenty of rides from women driving alone. They must have been making complex assessments, in any given instance, of whether to take a ride or pick someone up, whereas I don’t remember ever turning down a dangerous-looking ride. (Purkis, similarly, confesses to a ‘charmed kerbside life, free of aggressive incidents’.) Girls often hitchhiked in pairs, and sometimes asked to pair up, which reliably shortened the waiting time – as in It Happened One Night, where the gag is that Clark Gable’s magic thumb gets no results until Claudette Colbert cheekily adjusts her stocking. But there’s an equally well-established trope of hitchhiking as a mode of women’s empowerment: the classic counterculture adventure is Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976), whose big-hearted heroine discovers herself on a journey across the Midwest. Purkis also cites more complicated accounts: Iva Pekárková’s gritty, morally uncompromising novel Truck Stop Rainbows (1989), in which the protagonist has sex with truck drivers to fund her friend’s medical care, and the Dutch anthropologist Barbara Noske’s memoir, Thumbing It: A Hitcher’s Ride to Wisdom (2018), which documents a terrifying assault and her recovery from it. Noske asks whether the dangers faced by female hitchhikers are in a separate category from the risk of violence they have to negotiate in daily life.
The sharp decline of hitchhiking in the 1990s may have been informed by the geographer John Adams’s concept of the ‘risk thermostat’, one implication of which is that people’s perception of danger often differs wildly from statistical reality. The horror stories, in other words, were taking the place of less obvious underlying trends. There’s no shortage of candidates here: along with the rise in car ownership and the growth in litigation, we might include the rise of cheap intercity coaches, or more recently ride-sharing apps. But these things may in turn be the result of deeper causes: the attenuation of social trust, for example, or the arrival of the smartphone and network connectivity, or the changing status and meaning of the car itself. Some combination of these factors seems to have brought us to a place where hitchhiking isn’t just impractical or undesirable, but close to unimaginable.
Decline in trust, Purkis argues, is a less convincing explanation than it first appears. Despite all the talk of the erosion of traditional morality or the loss of community, social trust networks have by many measures proved remarkably resilient in the 21st century, as demonstrated by the growth in new forms of interaction and mutual assistance, from food banks to local currency schemes, couch-surfing apps to online consumer collectives. However, the combination of the smartphone and the car has undoubtedly changed the rules of the game. Today’s motorist is surrounded by personalised comforts and multimedia stimulation: the desire for company on the journey is satisfied these days by playlists, podcasts and a hands-free phone. To the extent that vehicles have become an extension of the living room, drivers are less likely to invite random strangers into it.
More insidious, to my mind, is the way that satnavs and digital connectivity have designed away spontaneous driving for pleasure. Hitchhiking got me from A to B, but I also enjoyed it as a recreation in itself. If you were time-rich and cash-poor, it was a readily accessible adventure, especially when the weather was good and you could sleep in the open wherever you happened to end up on your rural dérive. Aimless travel of this kind was, as Purkis puts it, an escape from the ‘organised time’ of schedules and obligations into ‘hitching time’ – a destination in its own right, but much harder to reach when your position is continuously marked by a blue dot on a phone screen. Nowadays we know just where we are at all times and exactly how long it will take to get anywhere else. Something similar may have contributed – along with the cost and environmental concerns – to the increasing rarity of pleasure-cruising in classic cars, which were always likely prospects for a convivial ride.
Purkis is sceptical about all these grand explanations: he regards the narrative of decline in the 1990s as more mythical than real. He cites inspiring international survivals, such as the institutionalised hitchhiking network for visitors to the Gulf Islands off the Vancouver ferry, and suggests that the eclipse of hitchhiking is a phenomenon with much less salience in the developing world. He may have a point, but the custom of ride-hailing in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America isn’t a gift economy in quite the same way: there’s usually a quid pro quo of some kind, and it is rapidly being supplanted by private minibuses and collective taxis which ply negotiable routes for small change. He finds an especially organised system in Cuba, where government employees flag down private vehicles for hitchhikers at designated stops – a service for which they expect a small tip, as do drivers who pick up passengers on their own initiative.
Purkis’s best stories are from the former communist nations of Eastern Europe. By the late 1950s the authorities realised that the younger generation, whose contemporaries in the West were creating an alienated, dissenting counterculture, needed a healthy outlet for their impulse to seek new horizons. Programmes of ‘patriotic’ travel were launched, propagandist travel writing was promoted through state publications, and hitchhiking was encouraged as an expression of social solidarity. In Poland in 1957, the Social Autostop Committee introduced a coupon system: hitchhikers bought a cheap book of tickets and handed them out to drivers, who traded them for state lottery tickets. By the mid-1960s, however, state-sponsored initiatives of this sort had fallen out of favour. Eastern Bloc regimes became concerned that the freedom of the road was abetting other less desirable freedoms in music, fashion, drugs and civil disobedience, and motorists resented being expected by their governments to accommodate free riders. In the end, Poland was proof that official support for hitchhiking creates backlash and moral panic, and makes the authorities responsible for whatever abuses and horror stories there may be.
The only country in the world where hitchhiking is officially banned, apparently, is North Korea; in the rest of the world (including Antarctica) it takes place without official support or sanction, observing highway regulations and operating according to socially evolved codes of etiquette and conduct. Purkis maintains that it’s alive and well if you know where to look. There are hitchhiking clubs in Lithuania and speed-hitching competitions in Belgium and Germany, co-ordinated online through hubs such as Hitchwiki and promoted by corporate sponsors and ‘slow travel’ advocates. But all this seems very different from the activity I knew before the 1990s: it has become a hobby for dedicated enthusiasts. Like many such enthusiasts, Purkis keeps a running tally of his hitching career – in his case, 40,198 miles with 1309 strangers since 1982. He remains committed to the re-enchantment of the road, and the latent power of hitchhiking to democratise travel and unlock our better selves.
Purkis also asks us to consider hitchhiking in the context of climate change. This may be the twilight of the motor age, but there are still a billion cars on the planet, and notwithstanding the success of ride-sharing apps or of informal carpooling schemes in places such as San Francisco, the number of shared rides as a proportion of the total is only half what it was in 1980. According to regular surveys by the AA, the number of British drivers prepared to offer a lift to a stranger fell from 25 per cent to 9 per cent between 2009 and 2011. The demographic least likely to do so were men between 18 and 24, pretty much exactly the ages between which I did my own hitchhiking. Purkis imagines our descendants asking the question: ‘Why didn’t people share their transport in those times?’ He finds no easy answer.