Hollywood and paranoid mothers would have you believe that hitchhiking is a one-way ticket to a gory death and the undesirable starring role in crime scene investigation. A sordid world in which every driver is a filthy sex offender and behind the innocent façade of that patiently waiting hippy is a maniacal axe murderer.
We live in suspicious times and hitchhiking is a depressing example of how societies trust in each other is at an all-time low. In 1970, with the summer of love still fresh in the mind, my father and a friend successfully ‘thumbed’ their way across Europe and onwards to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan and whilst I’m happy to put visiting the latter three on the back burner there is an incredible sense of romance surrounding this method of transport, dare I say lifestyle, which is being lost due to its rapid demise.
With spirit of Kerouac in mind, I agreed to hitchhike with a friend the length of Sweden, with the challenge being to see if we could make the 1300km descent from its northern tip in the Arctic Circle to Stockholm within a week, with only a tent, little money and the kindness of strangers.
On Clambering out of the tiny plane at 2 AM we were welcomed by glorious 24 hour sunshine and snow-capped mountains; combined with the prospect of a land brimming with beautiful people and it’s easy to see why Sweden and Utopia are so readily associated.
However the harsh reality of hitchhiking in the modern age was soon to become apparent. You are probably just as likely to be murdered as you are to develop repetitive strain injuries from constant thumb waggling to disinterested and bemused drivers. If you’re in a rush this certainly isn’t the holiday for you, as we saw hour after hour vanish on roadsides baked in the relentless sun.
In terms of cultural integration hitchhiking is one of the finest ways to start to understand a country and its people. I know in years to come the blows of constant rejection at the side of the road will come to pass and I’ll be left with the memories of the people who picked us up along the way; the people whose pity outweighed their suspicion and who with a simple act of kindness gave us an insight, albeit brief, into their lives…
The octogenarian leather clad theatre director who refused to listen to anything but ABBA. The hunter who insisted on an historical tour of his village, before taking us to his home, feeding us and then convincing a friend to do his chore run to the next town down a day early so as incorporate us. The boy racer, who found us asleep and defeated at the side of the road and who took us 300km to meet a girl with whom he had fallen in love with over Xbox Live. The group of multi-national students who hid the contents of their car in a nearby wood in order to accommodate us. But a snapshot of the almost unbelievable characters who gambled on us not being murderers.
If the goal was to successfully make it down in a week then the trip was a spectacular failure; trains reluctantly caught with the sheepish air of reproached school boys. And yes, Hitchhiking as an efficient means of getting from A to B may have its faults but if you want your travels to have some element of the pioneering spirit and you have the time to lazily meander through countries and continents then it really is a first class ticket.