Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: August 1, 2000
Some while ago I came across something I find all too rare: a erse, extremely well written pamphlet that is at once an excellent guide for beginners and an elegant piece of pro-htching propaganda. On my current tour of Britain I tracked down its author, Merrick and was further impressed with this learned social activist himself and his array of socially constructive activities and writings. Why is it that socially aware, independent thinkers and doers are drawn to this mode of transport? I'll let Merrick speak for himself, and share with you the small brochure he distributes on the road:
The Mysteries of The (H)I-(t)ching
Hitching is liberating, educational and, most importantly, FREE. Once you're into it you think nothing of going several hundred miles for a gig or a party. And when your four walls start closing in you can sod off to see someone cool no matter how little money you've got or where they live.
Hitch-hiking has been a favoured mode of transport for the young and skint since the 1940s. It apparently took a downturn in the late 70s and 80s with the advent of cheap coaches. However, increasing coach prices and their unreliability (not to mention the galactically-scaled price of trains) coupled with vicious cuts in dole and student grants have facilitated a resurgence in this supremely adventurous and environmentally-friendly method of travel.
So let's de-spook it a little: despite what the papers tell you, you don't get threatened/eaten/buggered by psychotic serial killers with swastika tattoos and baby flesh between their teeth. In the same way, the only time you hear of coaches in the news is when there's a crash, but how many coach crashes have you been in? Me and my hitching friends have covered literally millions of miles by thumb over the last few years, and nobody I know has had a maniac. But in the same period of time I've known people who've had problems with psychos in streets, pubs and their own homes. Loads of things in life are big and scary until you actually do them. Remember your first day at a new school? The first time you had sex?
The best idea is to find a friend or a friend's friend who's done it before and go somewhere together. If there isn't anyone, don't be daunted. Be prepared; ALWAYS have a waterproof coat with you, and some warm clothes too (you'll be standing around outdoors, remember). Get a map of the country (top tip: put clear sellotape down the creases to stop scuffing and disintegration). Study it first, see your route, although be aware that it's sometimes best not to stick with a predecided route if one of your lifts can take you a different but better way. Don't be afraid to get the map out in a vehicle and see where your lift's going and where you're heading. A working knowledge of national road networks and geography is one of the most empowering things in hitching.
So, go to your nearest main road or motorway junction that's on the edge of town heading out (with main roads being busy things, you can usually find a bus that'll go to your starting point from the middle of the town).
WHERE TO STAND
You want somewhere where:
a) Most traffic is going in your direction - always stand on the destination side of a roundabout or junction.
b) Traffic isn't going too fast
c) Drivers can see you before they reach you, giving them time to indicate, slow down, etc, and
d) There's somewhere for the benevolent vehicle to pull in beside or behind you.
Lots of places won't have anywhere with all these things, so just do the best you can. When in doubt, look for the spot where the most hitch-hikers have written and stand there. If you get bored add some pearls of wisdom or words of signature of your own.
There's barely a motorway junction in the land that doesn't have a mass of 'Deggsy and Pixie, Rotherham to Oxford for The Levellers'-type stuff written on it somewhere. When I first started off it was all Nephilim, Mission and PWEI followers, but exposure to the elements makes marker pen wear off after a year or two, leaving the signing places free for those still on the road. Dark coloured permanent marker pen is good, and these days toy and modelling shops even sell gloss paint markers.
The thing to remember is that you have to be someone who looks like they're OK to pick up. Humans will help other humans if they are sure that they're not going to be ripped off, so try looking as harmless as possible. Tying back long hair, putting dreadlocks or coloured hair under a hat and stuff like that feels like a compromise, but it does help to get lifts (although it must be said that prejudices based on such things aren't as bad as they were even a few years ago).
The main thing is to be positive: take a look at other hitchers when you go through a service station and you know that some of them you just wouldn't pick up if you were a driver. Give off a good vibe, think that someone WILL stop sooner or later, and that each vehicle going by is one less till the one that stops.
HOW TO GET LIFTS
Once in the motorway system, I generally find that it's about twenty minutes between lifts, but there is no rule. You might not have time to put your bag down, you might be there for five hours. Outside of the motorways, A-roads are a little more hit-and-miss, probably because more of the vehicles are on little local journeys rather than your required long haul. On rural roads, although there's far less traffic, the vehicles that are there are far more likely to stop, as the drivers have less suspicion of strangers than you find in urban and suburban places. Whatever your journey, just give yourself all day, and preferably travel the day before the event you're going to. Even if you get there quickly, travelling tires you. Loads of times I've set off really looking forward to seeing some friends and then just get there, wash, eat, use the bog and sleep.
Service stations are a good place to be for lifts as there's shelter if the weather gets too much (when that's the case getting a lift is still just as easy; the 'I don't want that wet git dripping in my car' and the 'poor sod, I can't leave him out in this' factions effectively cancelling each other out), and you can get some (overpriced) food. Also, everyone leaving has just had a break and is relaxed and driving slowly to the exit. The downside of the service stations against actual road junctions is that professional drivers (who like the company to alleviate boredom, don't have a car full of relatives and drive faster) take less breaks, but families with full cars take more. Also, in summer service stations can have shitloads of other hitchers there.
Holding a cardboard sign is a good idea for many reasons. It get people to stop who are going to your final destination ('I wouldn't have stopped but I'm going straight there' said my Leeds-Cambridge lift), but do be realistic; standing in Aberdeen with 'Stonehenge' may not be wise. On a long run it can be best to have two or three signs for the key points on the way. A sign always helps with the harmlessness thing because it means that you are on the side of the road on a specific journey, not some aimless drifter loony who's going to wet themselves on the passenger seat.
Write BIG, drivers are going at speed and looking at the road, you're a distraction at the side. They have to see and read instantly, not strain to see what you've written. A 'please' underneath the destination is often a good idea if your piece of card is large enough (harmlessness again). And keep the sign, it doesn't take up much room and saves you the hassle and pen next time.
Hitching is completely legal in the UK (though I bet Jack Straw has his sights on it as we speak). Now and then Our Friends In Blue may search you. There's no point in being stroppy with them, they'll only make things worse for you. All they're really doing is checking that you're not a missing person or on the run, and maybe looking for some badly concealed dope. If you have some kind of ID to show them and are co-operative they tend not to be too thorough, so hide any illegal substances well and you should be OK.
The only thing that you can do that's illegal is stand beyond the blue oblong sign that's got the motorway number and road/bridge logo. There's one at every access to a motorway. Once you're past it you're technically a pedestrian on a motorway, and therefore a criminal. At some junctions you just have to do it to be anywhere that a vehicle can stop. Some junctions, especially ones where two motorways meet, the entire junction is classed as motorway. Try to avoid such places, but if you do end up at one just hope that your lift gets there before Plod. And get in your lift quickly - it's not only illegal for you to stand there, but it's illegal for the driver to stop there for you too.
If Plod do turn up, plead ignorance and say you haven't been hitching long. But DO MOVE. They WILL come round again soon, and if you're still in the wrong place they'll get awkward with you.
IF YOU'RE GOING TO A NEW TOWN, WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU GET THERE
Your last lift will probably be going to your destination, so they may have knowledge of local geography and/or public transport if you need it. Failing that, bear in mind that most buses will run to or from the town centre (except London, in which case just get to any tube station). From the side of town you came in from it'll be easy to figure out which way the buses go into town. Go there, then ask for directions to your particular part. Newspaper street vendors tend to have a staggering level of local geographical knowledge.
GENDERS AND MULTITUDES
There are obvious risks to anyone hitching (and indeed to anyone who gives lifts), but women often feel more vulnerable. I know several women who hitch solo, and none have ever had problems that they couldn't deal with, just a lot of lectures from sane friendly people telling them how they shouldn't put themselves at risk. Women also get lifts quicker (harmlessness more than lechery, it seems). That said, if I were a woman, I doubt I'd hitch alone.
Hitching together is OK if there's two of you, but three or more is trickier. The best idea is to stand a few metres apart, then when someone stops for one of you ask if they've got room for your friend(s). Once you've exchanged a few words with the driver and they see that you appear to be sane, they almost always take your mates too. Decide in advance if you're prepared to split up or not, and if you do what you'll do about meeting up again at the journey's end.
By far the best combination is one man and one woman; a lone person could be a maniac, and two or more men could be intimidating, and the tabloids have run stories (so they MUST be true) or two or more women robbing drivers by threatening to allege sexual assault. But a man and a woman seems safe, normal, nice and wholesome. Just ask Mickey and Mallory Knox.
WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE ACTUALLY GIVE LIFTS?
Think about it. There's no reward for the driver, not even the glory of telling their friends how charitable they are, 'cos their friends will think they're unnecessarily jeopardising themselves. Who are these people who would help a stranger for no reason other than the fact that they can, that it makes the world a bit nicer?
The answer is anyone. If you need stereotypes blowing out of your mind, go hitching. I've had lifts from people of every age, race, gender, religion, income, intelligence level, political opinion and occupation I can think of. Elderly couples, people with kids, you name it. On the whole I find it's about one third truckers (they spend a lot of time driving and like the conversation), one third 25-40 year old men in company cars ('I used to do it a lot when I was your age, had hair longer than you, followed Black Sabbath tours. Got stuck outside Algiers one time for four days without a lift, etc.'), and one third others (they can be ANYONE).
After hitching a while you develop your own technique, theories, methods, attitudes and superstitions, (because of the total lack of any objective information, hitching is a very superstitious thing). But the thing is DON'T GIVE UP. Yes, I've been stood in the hail at the A580/M6 junction so cold that I was screaming with the pain. Yes, I was stood just outside Glasgow watching it get dark having waited five hours for a start to London. But I've also gone from the Isle of Skye to Southport (about 450 miles) for no money at all in two hours less than the coach takes. In fact, I've done most journeys in less time than the coach takes. I've seen thirteen Birdland gigs in fifteen days, and done a Leeds-Paris return trip for £40 all in, including hotel and gig. And I've been bought food and drinks and taken to the pub, had loads of people go out of their way to drop me off somewhere good, swapped addresses so we can exchange REM bootlegs, and loads of other stuff.
But the real benefit is twofold:
1) I have the freedom to go places quickly, very cheaply with no extra environmental damage, and
2) I get otherwise unavailable insights into humanity - I get to talk on equal terms with all kinds of people about all kinds of things. I get to really understand that nobody is good or bad, we're all in different parts of the middle ground. Everyone who picks me up has something positive to give, even if it is just a lift.
I hope you agree: Merrick managed to extract the essential tips, couple them with the essential selling points, advantages and moderated concernsand warnings, in such a convincing way, that surely no young Brit could read this and not consider taking up the art. And how brave is that, in a day and age where many a publisher has removed all hitching advice from their literature, to replace it with dissuasive warnings, for fear of litigation in our ever more aggressive legal culture ... where you may well be sued by someone's folks if their baby girl is bumped off hitching? Instead we should of course promote car ownership and driving and they can join one of the 10 odd deaths and 100 serious injuries on British roads every day and 30,000,000 polluting vehicles on the roads ... !