Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Lost Art of Hitchhiking

The more I talk to people about hitchhiking, the more it seems that it has become a lost art.  There was a time, in this country and others, where it was an acceptable form of transportation.  I think it was somewhere around the end of the nineties where hitching began to fall out of fashion.  For me it was a specific ride, a specific memory.
I was trying to get back to Varsity in Grahamstown, travelling from East London.  I found myself in Queenstown at dusk.  It was a Sunday and the roads were packed with travellers, all manner of color and luggage strewn on the pavements, all manner of eyes watching for any sign of stopping. I decided that to try and compete with that rabble was suicide, and so walked to a petrol station.  I started asking travellers there, banking on the personal approach.  I soon scored with a group of three in a dark Citi Golf.  We set off.  During the ride there was no talking at all, just the slow sunset and a building warmth inside, cold rain refracting orange and white on the windows. Finally we made Grahamstown and I told them just where.  They stopped and as I was about to hop out I heard something I hadn’t heard before.
‘How much will you pay?’
‘Excuse me?’  I paused mid-climb, looking back at the driver.
‘How much will you pay?’
‘I don’t have any money,’ I said, genuinely puzzled, getting outraged too.
‘Why don’t you pay?
By now his compadres had joined him, three sets of mean little eyes peering out from a musty nest.  I wanted to get away, rather the honest chill of the cold and rainy night than these three.
‘But I was hitchhiking.’
‘You must pay.’

My doubts were confirmed a few weeks later when I found myself on the N2 outside of Hermanus, walking fast beneath the R-44 bridge, heading North.  A roar began behind me and I turned, thrusting my thumb up high to the cab of a MAN 410, 16 wheeler.  In a moment of dreadful clarity I saw that same mean look alive up there.  The driver was staring down at me, his speed not dropping at all as he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, wanting to know how much, how much.  Well I responded.  But my soul shrivelled and nearly died as that magnificent machine and the promise of that magnificent lift passed, and was away.
I knew then as I know now that the open spirit of the hitch is in trouble, the honest barter of the traditional hike in terrible jeapordy.  Why?  Impossible to tell.  I’m of the opinion that things have always been this bad, have always been this good.  Anything else is conjecture, impossible to prove.  Perhaps the only constant, the only fact pointing to any kind of real answer is that there are more people in the world today than ever before, there is less to go around.  Does that stick?  I’m not sure.  Fact, though; hitchhiking used to be common and accepted in my world.  Today it doesn’t seem to be.

Hitchhiking is not simply about covering ground. It’s about connecting, collecting memories, nuggets of freedom to feed the dreary, normal, nine to five times.

What's it like for you?

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