Thumbs Up: A hitchhiker’s guide to getting around

25/03/2020 08:09

Written by Hilary Bradt

Our very own Hilary Bradt has hitchhiked in every decade of her life (except the first). Here, she reminisces over her many hitchhiking encounters and adventures, from the hair-raising to the downright heartwarming.

Hilary's tale is one of a 41-strong collection found in To Oldly Go, a travel anthology that celebrates intrepid travel by the over-60s. Each story is proof that wanderlust does not diminish with age. You can get your hands on a copy of this perfect armchair read for just £1 in our online shop.

Hilary Sitting Surrounded By Luggage by Hilary Bradt© Hilary Bradt

A few days ago I was standing in a lay-by, feeling a little foolish – as one does – with my thumb out, watching drivers lean forward in their seats to stare intently before deciding no, and speeding on.

No-one does it these days, they tell me, but I’m proud to say that I’ve hitchhiked every decade of my life except the first. And I’m in my seventies. I hitch when there is no alternative, as was the case last week, but I also hitch because it’s the best way I know to meet thoroughly decent people and reaffirm my trust in the human race. I also think it’s interesting to experience the shifting ground between control and helplessness. 

For my generation, hitchhiking was part of life. We all did it. As youngsters, few of us had cars and public transport was expensive. If we wanted to travel abroad we hitchhiked and competed over who could spend the least amount of money on their holiday. When a friend and I travelled to the Middle East in 1963, we were honourbound never to pay for transport. Nor did we need to. 

Then I moved to America and assumed that my hitchhiking days were over. All Americans have cars, don’t they? So I was in for a shock when I starting dating a man who not only had no car, but assumed that I would hitch everywhere with him. I didn’t like to say no, so there I was, in my thirties, exploring America through the kindness of strangers. And such extravagant kindness! One driver just pointed out his house, got out of the car and said, ‘You kids go see this place. Just bring the car back later this evening.’ Yes, we were kids to him. 

As I continued to seek the occasional lift in my forties and fifties, the drivers must have got a nasty shock when they stopped and realised that this hitchhiker was getting on in years. But it was only when I started travelling with Janice, who is two years older than me and has white hair, that I discovered the advantages of flaunting, rather than concealing, your age.

Hilary Sitting Down Rucksack by Hilary Bradt© Hilary Bradt

She also had hitchhiked as a youngster, in Greece, so when we planned a return visit to the Mani Peninsula to see some of her favourite places, we agreed that the once-a-day bus wasn’t going to get us far and we would hitchhike when necessary. I hadn’t realised how easy it would be. I’d push Janice to the front, and cars would stop because what else can you do when a white-haired old lady sticks her thumb out and looks beseeching – and is carrying a sign to the destination written in the Greek alphabet as well as in English? They stopped. They all stopped. We rode with a priest, with his hat and his little bun, and Janice chatted to him in Greek (don’t ask, she just seems to know all the European languages and a smattering of African ones); we travelled with some German tourists and exchanged information on the most rewarding Byzantine churches, with a talkative woman lawyer, and finally hopped onto the back of a pick-up truck to join two young Albanians who, we gathered, were employed on a building site. 

The Albanians spoke about the same level of Greek as Janice, so although conversation didn’t exactly flow, it sputtered along quite happily. They were, understandably, very curious about why two women who certainly looked past the first flush of youth were hitchhiking. They muttered among themselves, casting furtive glances at us before asking Janice her age; sixty-two she told them. No interest there then. So they pointed to me. ‘How old is she?’ You could imagine a little glimmer of hope that I was a very wrinkly thirty-eight-year-old. Once the truth was out they took no further interest in us. We relaxed, until another pick-up approached from the opposite direction, and to our alarm a hand with a gun appeared though its window. 

Oh, it was a joke, was it? Of course it was. The rest of the journey was uneventful.

Another time we had a wonderful ride in a bread van, enveloped in the smell of freshly-baked loaves, and exchanging kalimeras with astonished-looking customers. It was clear that hitchhiking in one’s sixties is not just as good, but better than all those decades ago when we all did it. 

On subsequent travels in England, we walked long stretches of the South West Coast Path and hitched back to our B&B. For me it was as good as being in Greece again, sitting in the back and letting Janice chat away in French to the Parisians who had stopped for us. They had assumed, as so often happens, that we were in some sort of trouble. Once they recovered from their astonishment, they learned all about Cornwall and we got to Penzance after the last bus had gone. Perfect! It made the journey into more of an adventure and we saw our country from another perspective.

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So when we celebrated the introduction of concessionary bus passes by travelling the breadth of England free of charge, we planned sometimes to substitute bus travel for thumb travel. 

The first time was on a rural road. One thing I’ve learned through all these decades of hitching is that the quieter the road, the better the chance of getting a lift. Sure enough, on a country lane in Norfolk the first car stopped and a concerned-looking man asked if we were OK. Once he’d come to terms with the fact that we were hitchhikers he went out of his way, literally, to be helpful, taking us the scenic route to our destination, past a stately home so we could peer down the driveway. The next time, however, was not so easy. 

We’d actually booked a place to stay at our final destination, Lowestoft – up until then it had been pot luck – and all the buses had stopped running at teatime. As they do: the time available for bus-pass travel is quite restricted. We had come prepared with some cardboard and a felt-tipped pen so we could sign our destination, and we added ‘please’ to show what nice polite ladies we were. 

As we stood there waiting, and waiting, I thought how I’d never had a really bad experience hitchhiking. Boring, yes, alarming, maybe, but never terrifying. My confidence in strangers has been liberating, life-enhancing. Maybe I have been lucky, but I wonder if it is actually any more dangerous these days than when I first nervously put out my thumb to a passing car at the age of eighteen. We just think it is, and that limits our freedom.

The road to Lowestoft was a main road, however, and, as happens on main roads, everyone sped past. This was not really much fun. We stood there for forty-five minutes, smiling inanely and feeling silly. Then a van stopped. We grabbed our rucksacks, ran up to the passenger window, and asked where he was going. That’s what I’ve always done, and the emotion never changes. Resignation or gloom transforms into hope and gratitude, as it did outside Axminster last week, when I needed to retrieve my car after a walk. A young man stopped, welcomed me in, and my trust in people’s goodness was yet again reaffirmed.

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