Hitchhiking Died With The Hitchhiker
On the articles page of my website I have just put up “Hitchhiking Died With the Hitchhiker”, an essay on hitchhiking I published in The Lifted Brow a few years ago. It recounts some of my personal experiences hitchhiking and tries to make sense of the decline in the practice. It’s meant to be an entertaining read, but hopefully offers a little illumination, too. An excerpt of what I’m calling “illumination” follows, and the full article can be found here.
So what does driving past a hitchhiker say about us?
What it doesn’t say is that we lack charity or good-will. Australian individuals donate around four billion dollars to charities each year, and something like five million Australians volunteer their time. But while our intentions remain good, what has changed is the nature of that charity and good-will: simply, ours is no longer a society willing to directly help the stranger.
There is a term for this—cosmopolitanism: the extension of hospitality, offered without coercion and without any expectation of something in return, to those people who are not part of our immediate community. It is the person stopping to help someone with their bonnet up on the side of the road; it is offering a bus seat to an old lady, or help to someone struggling with their shopping bags; it is saying hello to strangers, it is stepping in when someone is being abused or assaulted, it is helping to pick up the embarrassed student’s dropped bundle of books, it is asking someone in distress if they are okay.
At times we still see this cosmopolitanism, conspicuous and reassuring, but nearly always it takes a disaster to bring it out—the 2009 Victorian bushfires, for example, when scores of people banded together to offer assistance to the stricken. Or the 2011 Brisbane floods that saw people come from all over to help clear strangers’ yards and wash down muddy walls and pile debris on the curb, some even lodging dispossessed strangers in their own homes. So, yes, at important times people still rally to help strangers, and this is laudable.
But what if the important times are also the seemingly insignificant moments between the disasters: the moments when most of our living is done? Much as we may wish it were otherwise, life is rarely about the few big events that help push us in new directions. It’s about the fabric of everyday experiences that weaves these events together. It’s about the unexceptional, and unnoticed, and seemingly unimportant. If community and cosmopolitanism are intangibles that germinate and grow through our everyday interactions, the question becomes, how many of us embody these values in the moments when no one is watching, when there is no big psychic pay-off, when there’s no media and no ambassadors to tell us we should be helping? Because that’s when community and cosmopolitanism matter—if they matter at all.
Physical and not psychic distance is the true barrier separating two strangers. The barrier that determines whether someone is community or outsider, us or other. Breach that barrier—if only for a second—and strangers suddenly become party to an ill-defined but potent kinship. The instant two people connect in person, the altruistic impulse evolved in our species fights its way to the fore. It explains why the most successful hitchhiking is also the most proactive: approaching drivers at servos and truck-stops, anywhere you can have a brief conversation to remind people you are a normal person, just like them.
Every time I unholster the thumb, I see this quirk of nature at play. On the return-leg of my first hitchhiking trip, I was struggling to get a lift near the SA/NSW border. A truckie at the rest stop was having a meal before he turned in for the night, but he promised that if I was still there in the morning he’d help me out. Pete was his name. I was still there in the morning, bowling rocks at trees (0/0), so Pete gave me a ride, disregarding his employer’s no-hitchhiker rule. He took a bigger chance the next night when we parked at a popular truck-stop on the Nullarbor. Being in his cab was one thing; I sure as hell wasn’t meant to be sleeping on the deck of a dinghy lodged on the spine of his road-train. But Pete wanted to see me safe.
In fact, I can only think of one lift which was a bit unforgiving. I was a few hundred kilometres south of Canberra, taking a shortcut over the Snowies. Cars were few and far between. It was getting towards dusk when a leathery-looking miner stopped. I thought he said he was going to Tumut, which was good for me. Apparently he said Tooma. So about an hour later when he told me this was it, I was thoroughly discombobulated. All I could think to say was, “Thanks. Bye.”
Moments later the sun dropped behind the horizon. I scrambled to put on every article of clothing I had, which didn’t amount to much. Shivering in the dark atop a stark mountain tundra of grass and snow—yes, snow—I pondered just what use I could make of my hammock. Then along came some kindly semi-locals and rescued me, curious to know what a hitchhiker was doing at the turn-off to skiing fields in jeans, at night. I wasn’t sure myself.
Of course, most lifts are the opposite of that experience. In fact, earlier that day a couple and their son had picked me up, taken me to their home, given me a cuppa, offered me a bong, and then invited me to make use of their granny-flat. Maybe I should have accepted, I thought, watching my backpack roll out the back of their wagon as we did sixty down the main drag en route to dropping me off.
As it was, I had accepted a similar offer a few days before. A feller picked me up on the way to his mate’s place where he was set to go fishing, then watch the rugby and drink some beer. He asked if I’d like to come along. I said sure—sounds good. So we went fishing. I drank his beer. His mate gave me a bed. Next morning I was dropped at the turn-off to somewhere, while the driver headed to another mate’s for a bit of target practice. Yes, he did have a high-powered rifle on the back seat. No, I found nothing unusual about that.
The fact is, when people stop, or when you stop people, they want to help.
The only thing is, most people don’t stop.[Full article here]