Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: March 1, 1997
My curiosity stirred by Ilmar Island's claim to the 1980 world record for hitch-hiking, and the somewhat amazing achievements of Stephan Schlei in the current Guinness Book, I took some time to explore the archives at the State Library of New South Wales recently in search of the records in between.
Imagine my surprise to find that Ilmar's 1980 record wasn't the first at all! Ilmar provides us with a web page claiming to have generated the first Guinness Book entry for the 1980 edition (see Stories and Anecdotes). Well, to be fair, he mentions an existing record covering the 48 mainland states of America, but his was the first long distance, high speed hitch. I think he's talking about a Guinness Book of Records specific to the United States though, to which I've no access -- because I can't find any reference to his record anywhere! (a likely theory in light of the anglo-centric records the international edition cites).
I found all the Guinness Books from 1973 to 1997 with the sole exceptions of 1974, 1977 and 1979. I'd like to have gone further back but lacked the time. These old books are all archived deep in the bowels of the library and are fetched on request. The librarians have some strange aversion to carting the entire series of Guinness Books up to the reading room at the request of some nut researching Hitch-hiking records. The excursion into records has proved amusing though, I have to confess.
The most consistent record the Guinness Book cites is simply for the furthest distance traveled in a lifetime. Devon Smith held this record steadily until 1985, whereupon a curious battle breaks out between would be record holders, that appear to be doing little else but hitching around in an effort to break the record. In the last year alone Stephan Schlei, the current record holder, claims to have hitched almost 1000 km per week every week for a year! Does the guy ever stand still?
I'm still amazed at the power he and the Guinness Book display in measuring these distances to the nearest kilometer! But just take a look at the records the Guinness Book accredits (take a moment to reflect that planet Earth measures a mere 40,000 km around the equator):
|Record Year||Distance Hitched||Record Holder|
|1973-85||468,300 km||Devon Smith|
|1986||468,308 km||Raymond L.Anderson|
|1987-90||492,248 km||Bill Heid|
|1991-92||579,510 km||Bill Heid|
|1993||613,578 km||Stephan Schlei|
|1994||673,200 km||Bill Heid|
|1995||695,597 km||Stephan Schlei|
|1996||726,117 km||Stephan Schlei|
|1997||776,955 km||Stephan Schlei|
The moment Raymond Anderson breaks onto the scene, Bill Heid spots his chance and Stephan Schlei has been on his back since. A few sums will reveal that Stephan has averaged a 2000 km trip every month for the past 35 years, and in the last year 4000 km per month. Remember, all the while he's reading the odometer on the cars that pick him up, and collecting signatures from the drivers to prove the whole thing to the Guinness people. Either that or we need to talk to the Guinness People about their policy on records, or at the very least on their understanding of significant figures.
But there are other records that the Guinness Book mentions. It has currently ceased with all but the world record above, probably because things were getting a liitle silly.
Until 1990 they recorded the fastest hitch through all 48 mainland states in the USA. Our old friend Devon Smith held this until 1985 when he was ousted by Stephen Burns, who managed a steady average of 600 km per day for almost a month to achieve it. They dropped the record in 1990. I sympathize. The thought of poor old Stephen busting a gut to get through all 48 states in a minimum of time by power of thumb strikes me as a little vain in all honesty.
Still, in 1991, they decided a better record would be the greatest distance covered in one day. They dropped that record the next year as well. The cited record was by one Robert Prins, who in 4 lifts made it from Southern Yugoslavia to Northern Germany some 2300 km in 24 hours, an average of 97 km/hr all day. I'm impressed, it's a neat ride, but hardly the stuff of records in my mind.
Isn't this more a question of luck than it is of human achievement? I think the Guinness Book came to that conclusion.
The story is epitomized by the entry they ran for the run from Cornwall to Scotland in Britain. They dropped this record in 1993 as well, as it was getting a little out of hand. Just look at the progression since 1973:
|29 hrs||B. Atkins and J.F. Hornsey|
|23 hrs 50 min||P. Vere and G. Astley|
|23 hrs 24 min||M. Brooks and M. Allinson|
|21 hrs 55 min||J. Repton and R. Grounds|
|17 hrs 50 min||A. Markham|
|17 hrs 8 min||M. Clark and G. Beynon|
|77 hrs 20 min||C. Elvery and G. Sherwin|
|57 hrs 8 min||Peter W. Ford|
|56 hrs||John Frederik Hornsey|
|54 hrs 40 min||Peter W. Ford|
|45 hrs 34 min||Guy Hobbs|
|42 hrs 15 min||C. Allard and F. Gillanders|
|41 hrs 42 min||Anthony D. Sproson|
|39 hrs 28 min||Alan Carter|
Just picture these people all lined up at Cornwall, year after year hell bent to make it to Scotland before the last record. Imagine all those who tried and failed. Consider that the one way trip is averaging 82 km/hr all the way, for 1400 km, as fast as anyone could drive the stretch in all likelihood. Probably only one or two rides were used.
They don't, by the way, count the time spent waiting for the first lift. Can you imagine a couple standing in Cornwall with a huge sign saying "Guinness Book Record Attempt to Scotland, 17 Hours please", and waiting patiently for days and days until some sucker stops and takes them?!
Hardly the stuff of human achievements. Much rather a cute attempt to get your name in print and in the Guinness Book. Which was, by his own confession, Ilmar's motivation for hitching from Florida to Alaska.
Out of sheer interest I'll probably look backwards prior to 1973 some day when I find myself in the State Library again. It has been amusing to picture all these people pushing for meaningless records, poor old Stephan is probably still moving, checking odometers, or does he think that Bill's given up ... and is resting easy. Or is he a professional hitcher, in the employ of the Guinness Book?
An extract from the Stories and Anecdotes section of the Links page at Suite 101 where this article appeared. The web page to which it linked seems to have disappeared:
Key West to Alaska: Not Without a Hitch
Ilmar Island was apparently the first man to enter the Guinness Book of Records by means of a fast long distance Hitch. I think this is not the Guinness Book of World Records though, but the Guinness Book of Records, American Edition. Still, this is the story that Miami News printed about it in 1979. See my articles World Records and More Records. (1,700 words, 3 photos).