Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

Locke McKenzie likes to hitchhike, but for reasons you might not expect.

My girlfriend and I are in the back seat of a 7-series BMW halfway between Berlin and Hamburg. A middle-aged woman we just met twenty minutes ago sits up front with her fourteen-year-old daughter and talks about her favorite bars in Hamburg. From the sound of it, her Friday evenings bounce round bounce house are still pretty wild, and her husband rarely seems to come along for the ride. He tends to “work late,” and deal with their racehorses in the far off resort town of Baden-Baden. Every so often, she turns around to me with a smile and a twinkle in her eye. My girlfriend gives me a look.

I am privately celebrating, because I was finally the reason we got picked up, which is normally my girlfriend’s trump card when we hitchhike.

Four hours and two car rides after arriving at the exit ramp in Berlin, we are back in Hamburg. The mother/daughter combo lets us off at a train stop near the university, gives a fleeting wink and wave, and drives off.

The more I hitchhike, the more I realize how much I misunderstood hitchhiking before. It’s not reserved exclusively for the road warriors and ex-cons. The whole process is incredibly easy, and relatively safe (depending on where you are). Why don’t more people do this?

Well, the inherent danger of getting rides from strangers is the major deterrent.

“One friend did it every day for months between San Francisco and Berkeley,” said Matt, a UC Berkeley graduate I managed to connect with about his experiences hitchhiking. “She’s an anarchist and knows self-defense and so she usually doesn’t mind taking rides from lone men, but scopes them out, and has asked to be let out before. Thank goodness nothing bad’s ever happened.”

Hitchhiking can be risky, but there are methods for mitigating that risk. According to Veit Kühne, founder the Hospitality Club travel network, the best way to find a secure ride is to ask people directly. Don’t stand on the side of the road. Talk to people at gas stations and rest stops. Ask them where they’re going. Then you have an idea of who the person is before you get in their car.

There will always be some level of risk, but most hitchhikers will tell you that if you have any common sense your biggest danger is getting in a car accident.

In my case, the prowling cougar that gave my girlfriend and me a ride was about the scariest predator I’ve encountered.

All dangers aside, there are plenty of other good reasons hitchhiking is not the preferred method of transportation. There are different laws in every country, state, and county, making you prone to police harassment if you don’t know your rights. There are no planned departure and arrival times, nor a guarantee that you will get the place you want to go.

To get the short distance from Hamburg to Berlin, there are a number of more reliable possibilities that cost €15 or less. With the many hang-ups hitching presents, one would think only the poorest of the poor would choose to do so. Surprisingly, many of the people I have talked to rarely see hitchhiking in terms of expense.

“I primarily do it is because it’s really lovely to meet strangers,” said Matt. “I’ve found it very easy to talk to people, even if they’re from disparate backgrounds.  I got picked up by a truck driver (off-duty, he said he’d never risk his job doing it with a company truck), who told me a fascinating story about why he beat his ex-wife, very soberly, you know, his side of the story, although he of course admitted he regretted it.”

I create a vivid memory every time I step into someone else’s car. On one trip my girlfriend and I rode with a guy that we were both convinced was a member of the former Eastern German Secret Police (Stasi). He adamantly defended the governmental agency, saying that all the stuff they tell you at the Stasi Museum is biased and inaccurate. He also had a curious amount of information about the secret bunkers along the autobahn where they used to spy on civilians. At the end of the trip, we were happy to get away from him, but we will never forget the experience.

Perhaps that is why Kühne differentiates between those that “just wanna get cheaply from A to B,” and those that “love to meet other people, love the stories, the interaction, and the freedom.”

There is certainly a difference, but the two groups are not mutually exclusive, and I don’t think that hitchhiking is the only way to achieve the latter.

On a trip to the Ukraine last March, a friend and I began with our thumbs, but found much more of our adventure took place on a train: the army guy who picked us up at the highway exit talked on his phone the entire way. The only thing I learned about him was that he was selling a car. On the train from Berlin to Warsaw, however, we shared our cabin with a timid Polish man who could speak a little German and no English. By the end of the trip, he had shared his thermos of coffee, given us his phone number, and invited us to come visit him in his hometown of Poznan.

The idea that hitchhiking is always the most enlightening form of transportation is a misguided yet pervasive notion.

The American-based hitchhiking website Digihitch completely over-romanticizes this basic concept. In the Digihitch forums, one finds questions like, “What was it that drove you to go out into the world with nothing but yourself, a pack, and your thumb?”

In response came equally passé answers. “I wasn’t able to really understand my life. Had to get out of my own way, see things from another perspective. Couldn’t see the forest for the trees — and it seems to me that there are a lot out there who can’t either… I’m traveling, moving and my reason is that I have to.”

These comments aren’t helpful or informative. They are the inklings of twenty year olds wishing they lived in a time they don’t understand or adults clinging to the dissipating nostalgia of their debunked youth. Getting in a car with a stranger isn’t going to help you fix your crumbling life any more than you’ll find enlightenment on a fingernail-sized piece of blotter paper. Even Hunter S. Thompson knew this, and he was bathing in the shit.

In the end, people take drugs to get fucked up, and people hitchhike because they either want to get from point A or get to point B. Why so many have decided to contrive a higher purpose behind this actions is beyond me. All it does is push hitching toward the cultural periphery, making it inaccessible to the mainstream.

Hitchhiking doesn’t have to be relegated to the community of Jack Kerouac wannabes, ex-cons, and vagrants. There are plenty of very practical opportunities to try it.

Matt said he has picked up a ride simply because his bike broke down and he needed to get to a repair shop before it closed.

Kühne says, “You’ll learn some skills that will help you throughout your life.”

I do it because it’s cheap and has the potential to be culturally interesting. Because of that, I would encourage everyone to try it (although safely), but I also don’t want to glorify it as something it’s not.

I asked my uncle about hitchhiking, and his response surprised me. Ultimately, I think his perspective embodies what hitchhiking should be.

“When I was a kid, I lived about nine miles from town. Walking wasn’t very fun, so sometimes I would just stick out my thumb. I didn’t really think anything of it. I just didn’t like walking alone.”

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.