Sunday, 3 February 2013

Itching to hitch - 08.04.2012

Between 1988 and 1993 I spent most of my free time hitchhiking.  Long distances, short hops, journeys that lasted days or weeks, trips to the shops.  It didn’t matter.  Wherever I went, if I could, I hitched.

The reasons behind the travelling per se are quite a complex matter, full of quasi-mystical claptrap, and will be dealt with elsewhere.  What I’d like to discuss here are my practical experiences as a girl travelling alone.  It is probably all different for males – I have no means of knowing.

There were practical reasons for my choice of travelling system.  The fact that hitchhiking is free and any other travel bar walking isn’t was part of the issue.  The safety aspect, however, was also a consideration.  Most people I know think that hitchhiking is dangerous to the point of being suicidal.  I don’t get that.  I don’t quite know why, but the fact of the matter is that if you are a woman travelling alone, you are considered fair game. 

I’ve got into trouble on any mode of transport I can think of, bar a rowing boat.  The two examples that stick in my mind the most are a man taking his dick off and masturbating in the seat across the aisle on a train when I was 14, and the conductor of a TGV telling me he’ll let me drive, in exchange for favours.  The first scared the crap out of me as I had no idea how to deal with it at that age.  The second just made me very aware of the low levels of safety on French public transport.  Once I got randomly accosted waiting for the ferry across the Channel by a man offering me £500 for a bonk in a hotel.  I said no quite forcefully, but I still can’t feel offended about that one – it was quite a sum back then.  The moral of the story is that it’s a big, bad world out there.  If you are out in it on your own, bad things can come your way.

Have you ever found yourself on a train full of pissed-up football supporters on their way home from a match they lost?  Or just groups of lads on holiday?  Sorry and all that, but if I have to take the risk of being in a car with a single man I handpicked or an unspecified, uncontrolled horde, I’ll take the man.  As much as anything, at least one of his hands will be busy with the driving.  Once I was dropped by a lorry driver on the side of a main road a couple of miles from home after a completely trouble-free long journey only to be pestered for a good quarter of an hour by another lorry driver, kerb-crawling whilst making obscene gestures at me and displaying body parts.  On the public road.  In daytime.  Go figure.  Tolkien was right, even though he was talking about something else entirely, and provided me with one of my favourite travelling quotes ever: “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.”

The worrying thing is that I’m a plain Jane.  I’m not entirely repulsive, but I really ain’t all that.  I’m stumpy and podgy and generally nondescriptive, and I used to cut my own hair and dress in a decidedly unsexy manner.  So, if I get this level of bother, what must the fit ones get subjected to?  I didn’t particularly go to dangerous places at dangerous times, either.  I was always careful and planned ahead.  It just seems to be the case that if you’re a female travelling solo trouble has a way to find you.

I’m not suggesting now that you should lock up your daughters.  Touch wood, I’ve had plenty of bother, but nothing ever happened.  The thing is, though, that young as I was, I carried out a mental risk assessment based on my day-to-day experiences and realised that if I had to travel, hitching was probably safer, as well as cheaper, than other modes of transport.  I wasn’t proven wrong, either.  The worst that ever happened was an emergency bailout at a motorway toll booth, and it was my fault for getting a dodgy lift in the first place.  I got dumped in inconvenient places a couple of times for rejecting someone’s advances, but hey ho, way it goes.  Other than that, I travelled in comfort, speed and relative safety.

The thing with hitchhiking safely is firstly to get your brain right.  You’ve got to understand what you’re dealing with.  There are two main classes of people who will give you a lift.  You get men who would like a fuck, and men who are bored, want some company in their travels, and would not mind a fuck.  Of course you also get other sorts, but they are so rare as to be statistically insignificant.  In all my years of travelling I got picked up three times by ex-hitchhikers, twice by people who were lost and needed a hand navigating, and once by a concerned father who wanted to lecture me on the error of my ways.  Generally speaking, you’ve got to accept what you’re dealing with and be on your toes.  Please note that I said “fuck”, not “rape”.  I’m not saying that all men are potential rapists.  What I am saying is that people pick you up for a reason.  They are not normally doing it out of kindness.  You don’t get something for nothing, so you have to take steps to ensure that the exchange of favours is something you can accept.  You need to engineer the situation so that things won’t go ways you don’t want them to.

The first trick is how to pick a lift.  There are clever ways and stupid ways of getting a lift.  Despite the romantic stereotype, standing on the side of the road with your thumb out is NOT the way to do it.  It’s only for desperate times, the start of a trip, or idiots.  The safest way to pick a lift is from service stations, and the best possible lifts are from male commercial travellers.  They are usually easy to spot, with a certain type of car, wearing suits, carrying briefcases.  I’m not saying that commercial travellers can’t be psychos on the side, but they are your best bet.  People on holiday, women and families don’t pick up.  Don’t even try it.  Couples sometimes do, and they can be the most relaxed lifts available.  In general, though, you need to find someone who’s forced to go somewhere and looking for some company on the way. 

At a service station you can pick your lifts.  You go up to a likely candidate, ask him where he’s going, and if he’s going the right way and you reckon he’s alright you can ask for a lift.  You pick your person, you don’t let them pick you.  If they pick you, there is a much greater chance of them having sinister second motives.  When you get dropped, try and get them to drop you at a service station, and repeat the process.  It’s worth having a shorter lift to make sure that the next one will be safe, too.  Lorry drivers used to be the best, because they could radio ahead and organise you long lifts.  Unfortunately, now they are no longer allowed to pick up hikers at all because of insurance reasons.

Hitching on the side of the road is far dodgier.  People stop to pick you up – why?  What are they after?  They are ultimately taking a risk too, so they must be after something.  This type of hitching also gives you very little time to judge them.  Sometimes, however, it can’t be avoided, and it can go perfectly well as long as you are careful and luck is on your side.

On the other hand, standing on the side of the road with your thumb out and a sign with your destination on it is purely reserved for the suicidal and those wanting to give their guardian angel a workout.  You never, repeat NEVER tell people where you’re going.  You ask them where THEY are going.  Two reasons.  If someone is a potential rapist, they will lie and tell you they are going your way to get you in the car.  Asking them for their destination is a little safety check you can put into place.  If you don’t like the look of them, you can always say you’re going elsewhere.  And for the love of all that is holy, if someone says that they can do a detour for you, start running.  Secondly, getting them talking gives you a better chance to carry out a brief assessment.  You’ve got a very short period of time to decide whether you want to put your life into a stranger’s hands – you need to make the most of it.

Every lift you take, you have to assess the person you are dealing with.  Firstly you need to decide whether to take the lift at all.  What do they look like?  What does the car look like?  Why are they on the road, and why did they stop?  You only have to make one mistake to really mess your life up, or potentially end it.  Every successful hitchhiker develops a set of criteria for how to judge people.  How they look at you is a very important one for me.  There is a certain hunger in the eyes of a man on the prowl that must be avoided at all costs.  If you get a feeling that they are slimy, creepy, scary, anything of that kind, walk your way there, beg money for a train ticket, but don’t get in that car.  My emergency bailout, incidentally, was precisely this sort of case, where I ignored my assessment of a guy’s eyes because everything else seemed kosher.  I got lucky.  I didn’t deserve to be.

You then need to work out what makes them tick, and adapt.  It’s almost a performance art.  You need to be a person they want to carry places, so you have to strike a rapport, but at the same time you need to either keep a certain distance or be the sort of person they want to look after.  It’s quite tricky but also great fun, if you like that sort of thing.  With each lift, you’re reinventing yourself.  It can be very liberating.  Of course you could try and sit in perfect silence and ignore them, but that tends to get you dumped in unhelpful places, which is in itself unsafe as it usually leads to you needing to hitch off the road.

This is where you are earning your lift.  If they want you to listen, you listen good.  Everybody’s story, however banal, is important to them.  If they want you to tell them a story, you tell them the story they want to hear.  Who do they want you to be?  Some people fall for the myth of the traveller and want a share of your excitement.  Some like to think they’re performing some sort of social service and like a sad story.  That can get you serious perks too – food, drinks, presents.  Once I got given a wodge of money so I could buy new shoes, as mine had a massive hole in them.  I played the “little girl on the road because her family doesn’t care about her”, where the truth was that they had no idea what I was up to, and it worked.  Only very rarely you can relax and just be yourself – that’s not the name of the game.  You’re not making friends and sharing experiences.  This is not a social activity.  You’re hitchhiking.  You can’t lose sight of that.  The only exception is when you get picked by ex-hitchhikers, with whom you can just chill – after you have determined that they really are what they tell you they are, of course.

Establishing a rapport doesn’t necessarily keep you out of the sticky, though.  Plenty have been the times that I sat through a lift being bored rigid by a man talking about his wife and family only to be asked if I wasn’t up for a quick roll in the grass somewhere.  Still, it does help prevent most guys from getting predatory, unless you’re in the wrong car.

For those times where your assessment may let you down, there are practical steps to take.  Obviously, you need to dress well enough to be picked up, but not at all attractively.  You need to be dressed comfortably too, as you might be walking miles if things come unstuck.  You can’t carry too much luggage, as you need to keep your bag with you, ideally on your knees.  Bags on knees obscure a lot of your body, boobs and groin in particular, and can help keep wandering hands at bay.  If things go really wrong, you can throw them at someone while you execute a tuck-and-roll out of the door.  Bags on feet get in the way of bailouts.  Bags in the back of cars you have to be willing to wave goodbye to in the event of things getting at all iffy.  Heavy bags may be handy as blunt tools, but they weigh you down and should be avoided.  Your essential items (passport, wallet, keys) should be in your pocket, not in your bag, just in case.

This may seem silly, but you also need to find your emergency exits.  Mind you, this was in the days before central locking and child locks, but you need to know where the door handle is.  You need to be able to find it without looking.  In fact, if you can, it’s worth opening and closing the door on some pretext prior to setting off.  If you ever need to get the hell out, you don’t want to be fumbling around.  If you find that the door doesn’t open, you have a problem.  Not wishing to be alarmist, but it may be one of the last problems you are ever going to have.  The occasion should not arise as generally speaking you do not get in a car with more than one person in, but you never sit in the back of a three-door car.  You need to have a way out.

It is advisable to carry some sort of protection.  You can’t carry a weapon, obviously, as chances are that at some point you will end up under police scrutiny, but it’s handy to have something you can stick in someone if things go completely wrong.  I always carried a metal mechanical pencil – perfectly legal and with a beautiful sharp point.  Oh, and you could write with it.

I don’t want to give you the impression that hitchhiking is all about paranoia.  I guess you could bumble about and hope that your luck and people’s general goodwill will keep you safe.  By and large, however, safe hitchhiking, like life in general, depends on careful planning and awareness.  Make the necessary practical preparations, get your brain in the right gear, and you stand a better chance of making it to the end of a trip.  You can’t switch off.  But then again, you can’t safely switch off when travelling in general.  I’d say you can’t safely switch off whenever out of doors, really, unless you’re with somebody that’s got your back.  The need for awareness is not without its rewards.  There is a level of excitement derived from your heightened state of awareness which is incredibly enjoyable, if you’re into that sort of thing.  I guess it’s just an adrenaline rush.  It is also a very tiring business, particularly on long hauls, but not any more tiring than travelling alone on a long train or bus journey.

I love my hitchhiking days, and I would do it all again.  At the same time, I would kneecap any young girl in my care rather than allow her to get into it.  Yes, I’m a hypocrite, so what?  There are plenty of things I did when I was younger that I would not do now.

I stopped hitching when I moved to the USA.  I’d hitched throughout Western Europe and was aware of national variations.  I know one should not generalise, but if you want some bother, go to France.  Italy is probably the second worst.  Switzerland and Austria, on the other hand, present no problems beyond the fact that hardly anyone picks up.  In America, however, the game changes completely, for the simple reason that guns are legal.  I got my first and last US lift in the middle of a serious snowstorm, and only spotted the shotgun on the dashboard AFTER I got in the pickup.  It might have been a rifle, I’m not that technical.  Anyway, I thought it was curtains.  As it happens, the driver was a lovely guy, who just happened to carry a firearm in case any deer came his way.  Still, it put me off.  One of the many limitations I am aware of is that I can’t run away from a bullet.  So, that was the end of my serious hitchhiking career.  By the time I got back to Europe, I’d got it out of my system.  I have done it sporadically since, when it was necessary, but it never became a lifestyle again.

What I learnt from hitchhiking, however, has served me well throughout life.  Plan ahead.  Be prepared.  Stay aware.  Be flexible.  Mind your own back.  Keep out of trouble.  Be prepared to run away.  Fight as dirty as you can if you need to fight at all, because it’s not a duel, it’s survival.  Remember what you’re doing and where you are.  Have faith in people’s better nature, but don’t rely on it to keep you safe.  Trust your instincts, but make sure they’re as honed as possible, too.  And enjoy yourself.

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