Hitch hiking kind of sucks. But not because it is dangerous or scary. It sucks because you’re hustling all the time and you can never relax. You are buried in maps, always putting yourself out there for judgement and inviting constant rejection. It is a tough sport. When it is bad, it is really, really bad. And when it is good…it’s still pretty bad.
But it is nice to know that it can be done, and it is a great feeling of accomplishment when you arrive at your destination on time. The thing is, much like any physical challenge, you usually feel shitty during the actual event (unless you’re Maria Stevens), but afterwards, you feel great for having achieved something.
It’s worth a shot, if you feel like challenging yourself. In a way it is a lot like sales. You have to quickly, and non-verbally communicate to strangers that they want to help you out. Or maybe a better analogy is a gambling addiction. You just keep trying and trying until you get that next lift. When it happens, it’s a great feeling, and when it’s not happening, you are just wallowing in anxiety waiting for the next fix. I mean, whichever appeals to you more.
I should confess something. I lied to almost everyone about how I intended to travel. I remember I was at a barbecue/garden party at my friend’s house and a bunch of her mom’s friends were asking me about my trip. When the subject of how I was going to actually get from point A to point B on 7 euros per day came up, I just made up some story about how Europe had the equivalent of Craig’s List Ride Share. I knew this to be untrue. But I really wasn’t interested in lectures from upper-class white women about how dangerous hitch-hiking is when they are the type of people who don’t even bag their own groceries. Cause you know, there is help for that.
The thing is, I understand the risks associated with hitch-hiking. It really isn’t common in America. I would guess it is a clever combination of fear-mongering and the amount of guns and crazy people we have in our country, but Europe is quite different. There is actually a backpacking culture. And even when there are stories in the news of people being robbed by hitch-hikers, it is really not that difficult to avoid danger. It is mostly common sense.
To illustrate what the past 10 months have been like, I have compiled a list of the final statistics:
Total Distance: 8,686 kilometers/5,397.23 miles
Number of Countries: 13
Best Country to Hitch-Hike: Norway
Worst Country to Hitch-Hike: Portugal
Longest Distance: 1,210 Kilometers in 26 hours. Warsaw, Poland to Utrecht. NL.
Breakdown of Lifts:
- 20 Seimi Trucks
- 6 invites into homes (and 1 Invite into the cabin of a semi truck)
- 10 Coffees
- 1 Dinner
- 3 Ice creams
- 10+ door-to-door drop offs
- 5 Utility Vans
- 12 Women
- 4 Couples
- 0 axe murderers
THE WORST HITCH-HIKING EXPERIENCE
Now I know you all are dying to hear about all of the sketchy things that happened while hitch-hiking. Sorry to disappoint you but I have no stories like that. The closest thing I have to sketchy was the drunk farmer who drove us up to Mont St. Michel, which was funny as opposed to scary, or the chain-smoking Polish guy with missing fingers who took us across the border into Germany. But he was totally cool. In addition to buying us ice cream and Mars bars, he drove out of his way to make sure he left us in a good spot to continue our journey. You can read more about him here: Hitch Hiking Warsaw to Utrecht: Notes from the Field.
No, my worst day of hitch-hiking was in Spain leaving Seville. It had nothing to do with drivers, but everything to do with NOT GETTING A LIFT AT ALL.
We were dropped on the far end of the city and since we are too cheap for a bus, we walked it. It was about 3 or 4 kilometers to the road we needed. It was hot outside, but this was welcome as we had spent so much of our time freezing to death. After eating the worst oranges I’ve ever had in my entire life, we find the road. To our dismay, it is on some seriously cramped and winding on-ramp with no shoulder. There is no way a car was going to stop for us, even though hundreds were passing. After almost 30 minutes in the hot sun being rejected constantly, we are forced to give up.
We walked another several kilometers through an abandoned industrial park covered in broken glass, then dodge freeway traffic onto another on-ramp, and walk down the motorway. We were literally walking just to the right of the guard rail through all of the garbage and dead animals that Spain had to offer. We managed to climb a fence and work our way through some brush to “safety” which was actually a desolate dirt road leading into oblivion. We followed it into the middle of fucking nowhere just as we ran out of water.
After taking a cry break in a pile of ants next to some tall grass, we continued down the dirt path until it rejoined with the road. We were trying to get lifts the entire time but had no luck. Fortunately there was a type of gas station nearby and we asked a farmer where we could find water. “To drink?” He said. He was a sweet old man and he gave us some water and two diet cokes. Awesome. But we were still stranded in BFE. This man and a younger boy were parked outside of the warehouse and Maria sweet-talked the kid (in French) and convinced him to drive us to the road we needed. We hopped into the back of a utility van covered in sawdust as he pointed out a place where we could shower among the sprinklers in a potato field.
From there we walked another serveral kilometers with still no luck, but then managed to grab a lift from a completely indifferent Spanish guy who dropped us off at a seemingly deserted Restaurant and gas station. From there we walked behind the building and bushwacked across a pile of burned garbage through a swamp. We ended up camping just behind the restaurant on the edge of a field on the hardest ground I’ve ever slept on.
(P.S. The sunset was pretty and we saw some ducks)
ON TRUCK DRIVERS
My next confession is this: My favorite lifts were with truck drivers. This is contrary to any instinct people usually have. Their image of a truck driver is some fat, dirty, sleezy dude who fills his cab with porno mags and pays for sex regularly. Maybe that is what truck drivers were like back in the day, but now they are pretty much just like any working person. They have deadlines and they have to document everything they do and take structured breaks. I mean, it’s a lot like riding in the car when someone is at work. They really don’t have a lot of time or opportunity to mess around. Usually they just like you along for the company, even if you don’t share any languages in common.
For example, Pavel found Maria and I desperate at a truck stop near Berlin. This was during our epic journey from Warsaw to Utrecht in record time and he kindly invited us into the cab with promises of Hannover. He spoke NO English. We spoke NO Polish. Usually when such a harsh language barrier occurs, the driver is just politely silent and turns on the radio. But not Pavel. Pavel insisted on having a conversation with us in Polish for the next 5 hours. My 10 sentences of Russian helped, but not much. He was like a cartoon character. Excitedly shouting into his two-way radio in Polish that he had two American girls from CALIFORNIA in his cab. And he was texting, on not one, but TWO phones. Anything it would seem, to keep from putting his hands on the wheel.
As we swerved down the motorway going 80 km/h, he barely let 3 minutes of silence go by. He would say something in Polish, talk about his family, show us pictures of his children and his wife and his house on his iPad. Then sometimes he would ask questions about the economy or unemployment in the US or bring up Bin Laden. And somehow, through an awkward and tedious system of charades and pictionary, we managed to communicate. Pavel would eventually invite Maria and I to sleep in the top bunk in the cab rather than pitch our tent. He also gave us his 5 euro dinner voucher and made us coffee the next day. All of this with zero language in common, and he was still a perfect gentleman.
It was truly after this experience that I realized I could be a truck driver. I thought about it many times before. I love having my own space, I love driving, I love listening to music, I love COFFEE. It seems like the perfect job sometimes. It was right when Pavel pulled out his 40″ flat-screen from one of the cabinets that I was truly sold on the idea. Maybe one day I will realize my dream.
Generally speaking, my favorite lifts are with truck drivers, but my top 3 favorite lifts came from regular cars and now that I think about it, they all occured in Norway.
You can find some details about all of these lifts in my entry about Norway, but just to recap… (in chronological order)
The first was from John, the lonely-ish guy who picked us up off the side of the road where we napped in the mosquito forest. He drove us all around and even stopped to make sure we got out of the car to take pictures of cool things in the area. Loca tour guide. Then, he invited us to our own room in his cabin in the middle of Rjuken. For those of you who don’t know, in the winter Rjuken is an ice climbing paradise. It is a small town nestled in a mountain pass and it’s completely gorgeous. He not only bought us groceries, but he gifted us each two pairs of wool socks and took us to the Heavy Water Museum the next day and bought us a waffle.
The second was from Maria. This woman picked us up at a deserted gas station parking lot. We had been standing there for God-knows how long when she pulled up in a Prius. Usually women don’t stop for us, but when they do it’s always refreshing. I sat in the front and proceeded to make small talk and explain our situation. This was quickly followed by an invitation to sleep in her guest room.
Her guest room had probably the largest bed I had ever seen. But more importantly, as soon as we entered the house we were fed fruit, bread, home made jam and tea. They not only had a copy of The Oatmeal’s “How to Tell if your Cat is Plotting to Kill You” but they actually had an awesome cat. In the morning we were fed oatmeal with blueberries and walnuts. I just about died from pleasure.
Finally, after we came down from the mountains and entered the hell-hole that is hitch-hiking on national road in Norway in the rain, we met Kai. Kai saved me from a mental breakdown. He spotted me sobbing on the side of the road, and offered to let us stay in his house for the evening. This might have been the most needed life of the trip (after the one where I was nearly dead trying to leave Santiago, Spain). This was more like emotional death, and Kai was basically the angel at the 11th hour. He brought us in, lit a fire, made us tea and then bought all of the fixings for tacos. It is apparently a Norwegian tradition to have tacos on Fridays. We stayed up pretty late with him having some realtalk about economics and world issues. It was so awesome.
The following morning he drove us 100 kilometers over desolate foggy mountains which would have been impossible to hitch-hike on in those particular weather conditions. He was an extremely lucky lift. We are also facebook friends, so I can’t totally forget him either.
I am not sure if I have totally decided to throw in the towel in regards to hitch-hiking. I am still a bit undecided as to whether or not I will attempt it when I return to the US. What I will say is that it is difficult, challenging on multiple levels, and also extremely rewarding. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.
To think, all you need to get anywhere is a cardboard sign and your thumb. Not a bad thought.