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June 10, 2004

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World Records: Musings on what makes a record breaking hitch.  (Perspective)

Posted on by Bernd Wechner

Driving & Road Tripping World Records: Musings on what makes a record breaking hitch.

World Records: Musings on what makes a record breaking hitch.

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: February 1, 1997

Ilmar Island, a man from Florida, hitched some 8,500 km to Alaska in June of 1979, taking just 5 days to do it. Collecting signatures of drivers on the way, he convinced the Guinness Book that it was a world record. Thus in 1980 the Guinness Book of Records published its first Hitching record.

Well I thought, if it was only 8,500 km, that's a nice long way, but no record, I could break that on a single trip with little doubt. Ilmar no doubt agrees, he'd hitched that same stretch before. But his goal was speed, and a record (not just a long trip!).

If you have to hitch fast to be a record breaker though, it's not my thing at all. In fact, it reflects little more than blind luck in my mind to begin with. But it wouldn't be the first record to be based on just that, blind luck that is.

Anyhow that first record was filed under Human Achievements and read as follows:

THUMBED FROM FLORIDA TO ALASKA: A young man named Ilmar Island of Pompano Beach, Florida, Hitchhiked from Key West, Florida, to Fairbanks, Alaska, a distance of about 5200 miles, setting out on June 2, 1979, and arriving at his destination on June 7, just 5 days 20 hours and 52 minutes later.

Ilmar collected signatures and times from all his drivers, and even had the mayor of Key West, Florida to start the log off at 7:38 am on Saturday June 2nd.

Kudos to Ilmar, but all the same curious to see how things had changed since then, I opened the '97 edition of the Guinness Book to find that the record had moved from Human Achievments to Travel and Tourism and now reads:

Most travelled hitchhiker Stephan Schlei of Ratingen, Germany, can lay caim to the title of world-champion hitchhiker having obtained free rides over a distance of 776,955 km since 1960.

Wow! Let's think about this. I've lived in Europe, and I've hitched tens of thousands of kilometers to be sure. Living in Bern, Switzerland, I hitched to Berlin and Back to see my girl, a leg of 1,000 km each way. Let me suppose that Stephan has been doing something similar since 1960. To reach the quoted figure he'd need to be travelling 1,000km and back once every month since 1960!

Let's be generous and assume his girlfriend is in Lisbon. Germany (Stephan is German) to Lisbon is only about 3,000 km, so he'd still need to do the trip four times a year every year since 1960 to make that record.

The earth itself has a circumference of roughly 40,000 km, implying that Stephan has hitched the equivalent of 20 times around the globe!

Of even more interest is how he's measured that distance down to the nearest kilometre, and demonstrated it. I won't easily believe that for 35 years Stephan has been collecting signatures in a log the way that Ilmar did.

I mean anything is possible, but seriously, this record raises many more questions in my mind than it answers. Guinness alas don't dedicate any space at all to an explanation.

A survey of Guinness books between 1980 and 1997 would interest me, to see the evolution of this record. But such an array of Guinness books is difficult to find. I'd love further to hear from Guinness just how this record was achieved.

In the end though, the clearest message here for most of us, is that a world record in hitching isn't really within our personal grasp.

If you're feeling generous and want to express gratitude for the work presented here, by all means donate some money.


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