In every country, every lift brings up how ‘you’ll never get a ride because hitchhiking isn’t a thing anymore’, and how ‘it’s so unsafe and anyone who picks you up is probably a psychopath,’ excluding said speaker of course.
I had forgotten how pseudo enlightened the population is on the matter of hitchhiking. Everyone has an opinion. A negative one, if said individual has never actually hitchhiked. Being defensive is not something I enjoy, but as of late I’ve frequently found myself in that role, because I refuse to be called naive, careless, or stupid. I strive to be an intentional and informed individual, and I don’t base my life off of whim. I don’t accept condescension from people who have no experience towards someone who has quite a lot of experience.
The general public’s knowledge of hitchhiking is based on headlines. And headlines are based on what sells. And unfortunately what sells in this culture is death, rape, kidnapping, horror. The media isn’t selling happy hitchhiking tales. I know plenty of great personal stories from hitchhikers, but I’ve yet to actually read of anything positive in the news relating to things happening in the world of hitchhiking. Consequently, when the word ‘hitchhiking’ is thrown around, negative associations are immediately what people draw upon. We’re great as a society at adopting fear.
I’m not saying that there is no inherent risk in hitchhiking. When you interact with the world, there is always risk. When you engage humans, you put yourself in their hands. When you open yourself to any experience, you are opening yourself to all of the good and all of the bad this universe has to offer. Hitchhiking is no exception, but I would argue that hitchhiking is on the same level as anything else.
Trust is such a huge thing for me. Trusting people with whom I am close, and strangers alike. Years ago I made a choice, when I first started traveling, to trust the humans with whom I interact. I just don’t want to live in a world where I can’t trust the people around me. I don’t want to live a fear based existence. I’m not interested in assuming that people are out to get me. I know I can be hurt. I know not everyone has good intentions. I know that choosing trust over fear can put me in situations that compromise my safety. But there are just other things that are more important to me. I have different priorities.
We’re such small beings. But I believe, deeply, that the things we do have an impact on this world. I believe that our attitudes and behaviors are shaping the fabric of this existence. I also happen to believe that when you put your trust in others, they often rise to that trust. I’ve felt this in myself, and I’ve seen it in others. I have had couchsurfing hosts who have given me the keys to their homes while they’ve been absent. They didn’t know me, but they put their trust in me. And there grew within me this insurmountable feeling of responsibility. That level of vulnerability is a request, to to not be taken advantage of. I felt deeply honored to be trusted in that way, and I would never have betrayed that.
I’ve seen it in coffee shops, when you ask a stranger to watch your belongings while you step away. There is an unspoken understanding that you consider them worthy of your trust. And this person who has no reason to care about you or your wellbeing, agrees to take that responsibility, even when it has absolutely no benefit to them. There is a request, and a consent. I do believe people rise to the occasion when you grace them with something as precious as trust.
I enjoy hitchhiking for many reasons. You meet a patchwork of fascinating humans. Like the priest who proudly pointed out all of his graffiti work along our journey. Or like the guy who was planning on storming a castle for his twenty-first birthday. Or my favorite ever, the man who was taking his dog and five children for a tour of his childhood on a bank holiday.
You are privy to a remarkable level of generosity. Thousands of people stopping for you, at no benefit to themselves. Furthermore the many who drive miles and kilometers out of their way to get you exactly where you need to go. Or take detours because they want you to see something beautiful or interesting. The countless individuals who will provide you with food in addition to your free lift. Or the crazy, wonderful individuals who open their own homes to you.
You get the opportunity to spend small amounts of time with people you wouldn’t otherwise. You broaden your understanding of the world around you; of the other humans with entire, unfathomable lives with whom you share this planet. You are actively connecting yourself and people from vastly different backgrounds.
You hear great stories. From people who hitchhiked decades ago. Or people who can barely speak your language, but are eager to engage anyways. From families with small children who consider it important to introduce their children to a wider array of the world than what is usual. People who have never stopped for a hitchhiker before. Artists. Young and old, shy and loquacious. There is nothing quite like hitchhiking to put yourself in the path of interacting with the diverse spectrum of humans.
But part of why I hitchhike, is because I am asking people to trust strangers. I am asking people to trust, and to become trustworthy. I think that is so important for this world. We are surrounded by so many humans who have full lives and stories and complex emotions and histories. And we don’t interact with them, and we don’t care for them. And I think we should. I think we need to learn to care deeply about the people around us. The ones who care about us in return, and offer something to our lives, as well as those we’ve never known.
I by no means hitchhike with the belief that I cannot be harmed, or than no one ever has been. I have a grave understanding of the things that could befall me. I am aware that my being is in the hands of humans who are capable of every atrocity under the sun. I believe that every human has the capacity for every good and every evil. Chiaroscuro. We are shadows and light. I hitchhike because, to me, there are worse horrors. Like wanting to trust people, but choosing fear instead. Like settling into comfort, rather than pushing your boundaries. Like stagnancy. Like withholding your love because you might get hurt. Like drowning your own voice, because others are louder. Like not knowing your own instincts, because they have been trained out of you. There are so many small ways in which we choose to live contrary to what we really feel. For whatever reasons. I’ve been there. Sometimes I still am. But as much as possible, I make a conscious choice to not live that way. Whatever the cost. I would honestly rather die living life on my terms, living in the way that I feel to my depths is right, than merely living the way I have been told; the way that is expected, or accepted. I can’t exist in a world where the standard is to withhold trust. I can’t live in such a way that I lose a multitude of experiences because of the negative things that might happen. I am not willing to.
I hitchhike because it provides joy. Because it is something that makes me want to engage with this life, and that is mighty. Because though my physical health might be at risk, my mental, emotional, and spiritual health are nurtured by those experiences. I hitchhike because while humans can be horrific and disgusting, humans can be generous and kind and wonderful. I want to experience that. And I consider my trust to be my vote for humans to seek the latter. And ultimately, that’s what I’m signing up for every day of this existence. Because all of those ideals of peace and love and understanding really do start with how I live my life each day. And I don’t know of a more intimate way to interact with strangers than hitchhiking. Because it connects me to other humans. Because it asks strangers to up their game. Because there is an unparalleled beauty in these small and meaningful interactions. Because it awakens people to the opportunities in the world that you cannot have if you remain sheltered.
(and because puppies.)