Thumbing Your Way – Community Transportation

Vagabonds, transients, vagrants, drifters; deranged degenerates and wandering lunatics.  These are your colleagues on the long, winding road as a hitchhiker.  Oh, and there are wonderful thrill-seeking adventurer types…like me.  The Old Crow Medicine Show knew what they were talking about…

Green travel, economical transportation, community-oriented touring.  In order to explore the roads and highways of earth in romantic Kerouacian style all you have to do is stick out your thumb and let the fates (and good will of drivers) bring you a little closer to your destination, one ride at a time.  The Grapes of Wrath, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and the amazing trilogy in five parts: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – it’s more than cheap travel; to thumb your way along life’s bumpy roads is a philosophy, a religion to the risk-embracing wanderers of the world.  The possibilities are nearly endless.  Germany’s Stephan Schlei travelled over 600,000 miles by hitching rides around the globe (says earlier editions of the Guinness Book of World Records before they removed all hitchhiking records).

Last weekend I embarked in a race from Montpellier to Cassis in beautiful southern France.  There were 22 wanderlusters in mixed-gender pairs (as men hitching alone sometimes have trouble garnering a lift) vying for rides past Avignon, Arles, Aix-en-Provence and even tremendous Marseille.  We separated to the best spots to grab a car and began traversing the seemingly meagre distance of 200km.  Me and my travel mate, a spirited German student named Corrina, designed a our strategy around smiles and sign.  With my calligraphic detailing, Sharpie on corrugated cardboard, and her grinning, non-threatening petite stature, we penned the names of cities lying between A and B in hopes of being picked up by someone passing through with a few extra seats in their Peugeots and Renaults.

Getting a Ride

This will not be a “how to” guide, but rather a brief synopsis of techniques that I employ.  For more you can check out WikiTravel or any of a thousand sites for would be Chris McCandless.

Put yourself in a place where cars can stop.  Since France likes toll booths on their national highways, this is ideal.  Cars have to stop to pay their 1.10€ to cruise along the next stretch of (beautifully maintained) highway.

Don’t look menacing.  This may be tough for some.  Hitchhiking has inspired as much porn as it has horror flicks.  Ed Gein has ruined the glory of the thumb for most of us, having planted firmly the image of murderous killers into the minds of drivers of careening minivans and put-putting pick-up trucks.

Use signs.  This can include the (almost) universal thumb or a straight-up sign drawn on a visible surface (not restricted to paper products) with your destination on it.  If you do not write clearly, drivers will squint to see where you’re going and may pass you by thinking that you’re travelling to Walla Walla instead of Spain (really bad handwriting).

Do NOT do the following:

  • Hitch from downtown.  First off all, you’ll look kind of dumb seeing as Calgary is far away from Yonge Street.  Second, there are too many people just going around the corner.
  • Be in the middle of a highway, far from a place where you can stop.  If you’re travelling at 130km/h you are NOT going to see a hitchhiker, let alone come to a screeching halt to pick up the little parasite.
  • Hitch at night, by yourself, outside a prison or asylum.  You’re just not going to get a ride…or if you do, you probably don’t want it.

Etiquette in the car

So you’ve gotten a ride.  Now what?  This is your chance to make some really interesting conversation.  Remember, this is a person that you’re probably never going to see again, so be creative.  Of course you want to just sleep and maybe listen to the radio, and it may come to that, but part of the motivation for your host to gather you from the cold, lonely road is the idea of company.  This is where community building comes in.  Imagine that you have a captive audience for twenty minutes to several hours.  Make it good, because you don’t want to get let off in the middle of a major highway (see Getting a Ride section).

Being grateful

You’re getting a free ride, so be polite and don’t be a douchebag.  Thank people.  Smile.  Sometimes people will go out of their way to get you to where you’re going, including, but not restricted to driving you hours out in the wrong direction, buying you lunch, and calling a few friends to pick you up in the next stage of the Tour de Highway.  When this happens, try and muster up your most gracious and humble smiles of thanks and be sincere.  There are amazing people out there who will do this out of the goodness of their hearts and this, my friend, is what makes the world go ‘round.

Corrina and I made it to our destination in 6 hours with only 3 rides.  On the way back it took us only a few hours with a stop on the beach, lunch, and a tour of Marseille by Antoine, one of our rides.  The winner of the competition did the ride in 2 hours getting a “hole in one” with one ride from A all the way to B.  But for Corrina and I, the ride was the destination – I saw more of France’s generosity and friendliness in those hours than could have been imagined.  This, people, is what it’s all about.  We made a real connection with a real person instead of plugging into an iPod on a bus or worse, driving our empty car passing by cheery, friendly riders along the way.

To be clear, I’m not advocating everyone ditch their cars and start hitching to work everyday.  That’d be crazy (or would it?).  Also, there wouldn’t be enough cars on the road to get picked up, which would be bad for me.  There are real dangers to hitchhiking and every precaution should be taken.  Judgement and escape plans.  Learning how to roll from a car at high speeds, perhaps.  Pepper spray?  I don’t know.  I’ve only had good experiences in my fifteen years of hitchhiking.  It’s easy in many places in the world – in fact, a necessity for many people.  I have never hitched more than in Cuba or Thailand.  So why is it illegal in most of Canada?  Is it the auto industry or passenger megacompanies that are doing this?  Are we just afraid?

What are your thoughts on free community transportation?