The American Beatnik Today: Hitchhiking in a Post-pandemic World

It’s safe to say that the glory days of hitchhiking are over. Gone are the times when you could cross entire continents simply by raising a thumb. Whilst it’s an undeniably cheap way of travelling and provides the opportunity to meet new people, hitchhiking is also extremely unpredictable and often dangerous. My own experiences of hitchhiking have been positive, but it must be said that it isn’t for everyone. Indeed, in the post-pandemic landscape, will we ever be able to hitchhike again with the same ease of the American Beatniks?

In late spring of 2019, I caught a flight to Toulouse, France, and set out to hitchhike through the Pyrenees to Barcelona. I had little hitching experience and had decided to bring some emergency cash for public transport if I became stranded. I set out alone towards the outskirts of Toulouse and was whisked away by a wild French lady who texted and smoked while she drove before I even had to wait ten minutes. Over the next few days, I was slowly chauffeured into the mountains. In the small town of Foix, I was picked up by two Bulgarians in a rented Mercedes who took me right up to the border of Andorra. We stopped along the way for cigarettes and soft drinks and talked the whole time of politics, democracy, corruption in Eastern Europe and globalisation. Eighteen at the time, I felt out of my depth but was grateful for how much I learnt from these two men.

Along the way to Barcelona, I slept once in a campsite, once in a mountain refuge hut, and the rest I camped wild. I nearly got lost in the mountains alone with no map, ran out of water and phone charge far too frequently for my liking, and ate an inhuman quantity of tortellini, cooked on my mini camping stove. Despite my concerns about catching lifts, the most relaxed I felt throughout the journey was by far the time I spent in the cars of strangers. While some drivers, like the man who took me to Perpignan, said nothing at all, and made no attempt to understand where I was going, others took great interest in what I was doing. A mother and daughter even took me to the Aldi in Girona and waited for me to buy groceries before offering to pay my train fare to Barcelona; which was around €50!

I still view this trip as a great success and suffered none of the ill side effects of hitchhiking. I never had to wait longer than twenty minutes for a lift, and only had to pay for short train rides from Perpignan to Cerbere on the border, and Sabadell into central Barcelona. However, hitchhiking alone is certainly not advisable for everyone: I have no doubt that were I not a white male, my experience would have been somewhat different. I was also happy to put up with the discomfort and illegality of wild camping to make my trip work, which was far from glamorous.

You never know who will pick you up when you’re hitchhiking, and the dangers are self-evident. If I were to do this trip again, I would prefer to have someone else with me simply for the sake of security. The vulnerable position you put yourself in as a hitchhiker certainly isn’t for everyone.

I believe there are two ways the coronavirus pandemic has affected hitchhiking. Firstly, it has understandably made people wary of infected strangers, and out of a sheer desire not to get Covid, people are less likely to pick up travellers. And secondly, I believe that the time we have all spent in lockdown has given some people a subconscious aversion to social interaction. How often do you now opt to order food or a drink on your phone instead of going to the bar and speaking to a stranger? Self-service checkouts, online shopping and social media have made our lives so easy that sometimes a simple interaction with a stranger can be anxiety-inducing.

Does this mean that hitchhiking will never be a viable travel option post-pandemic? Perhaps. But then again, was it ever a viable travel option initially? It’s inherently unreliable: you don’t hitchhike if you have a tight schedule and cannot be flexible. But that’s not really the point of hitchhiking, is it? When you stand on the side of the road in 2021, thumb optimistically erect, you have no guarantee that you won’t be standing there for the rest of the day. But isn’t that the same scenario as a few years ago? The same scenario as any hitchhiking attempt.

Hitchhiking has its dangers, and it was never really a viable travel option. But its beauty lies in the small human interactions along the road and the thrill of surrendering yourself to whatever lies around the next corner. What is the future of hitchhiking? There is only really one way to answer that, and that’s to stick out your thumb and see what happens.

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Finlay Porter

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January 2022
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