Avan Judd Stallard - Author
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Hitchhiking Died With The Hitchhiker

*This article was originally published in The Lifted Brow, no. 14, October 2012.

September 2010, the coast of New South Wales. So far I’ve clocked up 120 kilometres on shanks’ pony. The plan is to walk sections of beach and their rocky headlands, camping in a hammock as close to the water as the foliage allows, sometimes no more than two or three metres from the waves. After completing a walk, I hitchhike to my next destination.

There are stretches where it’s just me and my thoughts, but even the loneliest beach isn’t lonely for long. I offer a wave or holler to the inevitable passers-by; sometimes I even deploy the goose-step, my way of showing I’m willing to pull reins and stump for a chat if my counterpart is interested. When you’re the only two people on a fifteen-mile beach, anything less would be plain ignorant.

But, as it happens, most people are put out by the merest suggestion of interaction. Exchanging glances is a burden—actually recognising my personhood looms as a potential trauma. Worse still is the tribulation of a vocable utterance, harbinger of the dreaded conversation. So, as a rule, people keep their eyes down and give me a wide berth, or they deploy the thousand-mile stare. Mind, that sort of ignorance is preferable to the unconcealed scowls fishermen tend to offer: feral hippy, I suppose they figure.

When just after 1 p.m. on the beach of Crescent Head, a man stops and has a chat about what I’m doing—relishing in my journey as he remembers some of his own—it takes on unusual significance. I stroll off revivified, pleased that the drought of conversation has finally broken.

In town, I demolish a few pies, watch a portly chap prang his pushbike before hastily resaddling and speeding away from the embarrassment, observe a couple of fellows having a very audible barney about parking spaces, then on my way.

My legs are killing me, but I keep the thumb holstered. A bunch of cars hoon past. Another flies by—then slams on the brakes, cranks into reverse and weaves up the road.

“Hop in, brother.”

My first ever unsolicited lift. His name is Charlie. “Just chuck that shit in the back, brother. WATCH THAT GUITAR! That’s me guitar; play that.”

We roar off, gravel spinning under the wheels.

“Where you headed?”

I’m not going far, just five kilometres up the road to the next section of beach I want to walk.

“Ahh sweet mate, no worries, I’ll take you there. GET ON YOUR FUCKING SIDE, DICKHEAD!”

A car was approaching, edging too close to the white line for Charlie’s liking, so he swerved. At the car.

“That fixed him.”

I like Charlie—fear for my life a little, but like Charlie. I tell him how chuffed I am that he offered me a lift.

“Nah mate, I been there, I know what it’s like. I live up in them mountains. See that mountain, I LIVE THERE! I just come down to visit my family. I came down one time without the car. Was walking down this road, just been in town shopping, had to get some food, you know? Both hands was full with bags of food. Not one fucker would stop. NOT ONE!”

They look at you like you’re a piece of shit, I say. Charlie knew what it was like—better than I ever would.

“They’d pass me, locals, and I’d say to myself, I’ll remember who you are, fucker. REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE! See what you say when I’m in the street next time. WHY DIDN’T YOU GIVE ME A LIFT?! I’ll remember. What is it though, eh? Do I look that bad? Is it the colour of my shirt—don’t like the colour of my shirt?”

Reckon it might be the colour of your skin, I say.

“You’re on to something there, brother. But you be right with me—I’ll get you where you’re goin’. Eh, see in there, that transmitter? Ever need to charge your phone up, you do it in there, for free!”

My battery is full, but I file away the tip.

“Here we go, look out there—that’s where I’m goin’. I’ll take you a bit further up the road, but I’m goin’ back to say hello to the family.”

I look out and see one of the more beautiful beaches on one of the more beautiful stretches of New South Welsh coast. My gaze falls upon a cross-legged gathering, a modest camp-fire in their midst. It looks inviting. I wish I was stopping with Charlie and his people.

I’m not, but I ponder the question: would Charlie’s family speak to me if I were just wandering past and waved hello—or would they be too busy with their internal lives, too preoccupied to waste words on a lonely traveller?

We pull into a camp-ground. I begin to thank and farewell Charlie when, mid-goodbye, he starts screaming a friendly conversation through the now-closed passenger-side window of his car with a bloke sitting next to a caravan about twenty metres away: “HEY! HOW’S IT GOIN? ARE YOU THAT FELLA FROM—”

I walk on. Charlie’s exuberant voice is soon drowned out by the sound of waves rushing against rocks, but his words and actions stay with me for days, then weeks, now years. It was an encounter that caused a collection of perceptions to begin crystallising into an understanding: about myself, about my people.

I was still young and callow when the idea of hitchhiking Australia took hold of my imagination. My older and more adventurous brothers had for years been spinning tales of bummed rides across the country; from the little I knew it seemed the perfect way to cast off the funk of student life. All I needed was a destination.

One came sooner than expected. I’d promised my mate Sam I would be at his graduation from the military academy in Duntroon, ACT. I was in Perth when five days before the ceremony my chauffeur and ride bailed on me. Options were limited: a flight I couldn’t afford, an agonising trip on my hopelessly inadequate 250cc motorbike, telling Sam I wasn’t coming, or hitching a lift.

I wasn’t too worried about actually scoring rides. I naïvely assumed there would always be someone game enough to offer a stranger a lift. The thing that worried me was me—how I would react to my lift-givers, and how they would respond to my personality. As for the inherent jeopardy of hitchhiking, I was philosophical. No matter if I scored an amazing run of lifts with upstanding sorts or instead spent sleepless nights under bridges waiting for psychopaths and undesirables to pull over and tell me to “get in”, it was a worthy little adventure, full of promise.

That’s how my mother viewed it, too: with a twinge of unspoken trepidation at the prospect of her best-looking son getting raped or murdered, but accepting the journey had to be done, would probably turn out fine and, short of meeting a moustachioed Milat, would make for some good stories.

Of course, others were not so sanguine.

Have you really thought this through? What if you end up with a lunatic—someone who plays Neil Diamond cassettes and thinks he’s Napoleon? I like Neil Diamond… Or what if the driver smells? Or he’s boring (more boring than solitude?—well, actually, yes, that is possible, if the driver happens to be a middle-aged man in a campervan who stops at every memorial, statue, plaque and natural geographical feature between Tumut and Corryong)? Or what if you end up wedged between two pit bull crosses, one of which has fits every few minutes and has to be prodded to its senses, and whose owner, while a thoroughly nice chap, is on his way to hand himself in to the coppers to be formally charged with cultivation?

Or they may expect sexual favours. Perhaps worse, they may try to give sexual favours. And you must realise you can’t keep a schedule when hitchhiking—never know when your next lift will come, or how far it will take you. And what if you get stuck? What if you get stuck in the Nullarbor amidst endless desert, run out of water, die and are then eaten by dingoes? I didn’t think there were many dingoes left. Oh, there are, there are.

Post-midnight might not have been the most propitious time to start my journey, but, money being tight, I’d taken one last shift stocking supermarket shelves. It isn’t till the wee hours that I stow my final cans of spam and braised steak, then use bailing-twine to secure water bottles I can’t fit in my pack. A friend drops me off at a strategic spot: it’s just after a servo, past the convergence of a couple of main roads, at the foot of a mighty hill sure to strike sympathy into the hearts of even the most miserly of autoists.

Almost instantly a car pulls over, two women inside. I introduce myself, tell them my little story. The conversation is going well; both girls are pretty, young and teach primary school. They seem to like me. Soon we’re thirty kilometres out of Perth, nearing the girls’ home. I start saying my goodbyes.

“But it’s very late,” says the driver, “and you must be tired.”

“Oh, I’m feeling really good, actually, not sleepy at all.”

“Why don’t you come home with us? You can spend the night, and start off fresh in the morning.”

“Yes,” chimes in her friend, eager, “wouldn’t you like a warm bed?”

“It’s a very kind offer…”

The girls look at each other; the passenger turns fully in her seat to face me.

“Come spend the night.”

I bundle my belongings out of the car, thank the girls and wave as they drive off to their warm beds. It’s only later that it’s pointed out I turned down certain sex, possibly a ménage-a-trois. How was I to know? When you’re told repeatedly the only possible sex a male hitchhiker gets is called being raped, you stop thinking about scoring and start focusing on just scoring lifts.

It’s for the best. In the cool of dawn, I walk. It’s not long before I get another lift, then another, then another, till I find myself standing in the blistering red sands of Coolgardie, nearly six hundred kilometres from Perth. A chap in a rusting Toyota four-wheel drive stops. I get in.

“Where you headed?”

“Canberra. How about you?”

“Melbourne.”

I settle in for the long haul. It’s hot, and the vehicle has no air-conditioning. First thing I do is untie the jacket from around my waist. Absent-mindedly, I unclip the large fishing knife holstered to my belt, and throw it next to my feet. Driver Jake’s head turns a little; an eye cocks.

“Expecting trouble?” he asks.

“Hmm—trouble? No, not at all.”

Fuck—the knife. It takes a moment for the gravity of the situation to sink in: this chap has just picked up a strange man, armed with an extremely long and sharp blade which he carries at the ready. Suddenly I’ve become the sort of hitchhiker everyone warns about—the killer with a knife. Yet somehow Jake keeps his cool. I explain that you never know who’s going to pick you up, so I thought I should carry some sort of protection. It’s nothing. An afterthought. My naïvety and honesty seem to put Jake at ease. It’s clear I’m just a dumb kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Still…

“You’d wanna be careful brandishing that thing,” he says. “Some people might not take it real well.”

I decide to keep the knife tucked away deep in my pack, only to be retrieved to cut chunks of cheese from my blue box of Kraft cheese. I attempt to atone by breaking out a can of spam, offering some to Jake. He declines. After a few mouthfuls, so do I.

The Nullarbor is littered with the corpses of dead kangaroos. The green grasses of the highway shoulder are the only fresh feed for two thousand kilometres. As the same John Butler Trio cassette plays over and over, night settles upon us, and before I know it we’re passing through Adelaide. We get a little lost, do a few circuits, come out on the other side. That’s Adelaide.

I’ve been napping. I wake as Jake pulls off the road into a bush clearing. My mind jolts—pulling off the road into a dark and secluded bush setting, unannounced… But Jake doesn’t seem like a killer. He gets out and strolls into the darkness. I get out, too. Jake returns to the car and tells me he’s going to stop here for a bit. Needs a quick kip.

As Jake reclines his seat, I wander off in the moonless night. Through the tall grass I find some sort of trail. But what’s that noise? I take a step back. The noise gets louder. I can’t quite figure what direction it’s coming from, then before I can comprehend what’s happening a freight train is thundering past my face, two or three yards away, at the exact spot I was standing moments ago. Dazed, I stagger back to the car. It can’t be more than fifteen minutes before Jake rouses, and we’re off.

Some hours later, Jake drops me off under a bridge. He’s taken me just under three thousand kilometres. Wherever it is I get out—I’d be more specific, but I can’t—I contemplate lying down and having a bit of a sleep. It is a bridge and, well, that’s what you do under bridges. But time is pressing, so I start walking along the highway.

The thing about highways is although they invariably contain a higher volume of traffic than other roads, no one is going to stop for you when they are thundering along at 100km/h surrounded by other crazed motorists committing assorted acts of lunacy. You can sit on a highway for endless hours, and nothing. Yet luck is with me this day—back when I still don’t know that you just don’t get lifts on highways. I get a lift.

It’s a lady, middle-aged, greying a little. She seems very nice, a bit restrained, not really the sort you expect to offer a lift. I ask her why she’s picked me up. After all, I’m a virile young man hitching a ride, the sort of dangerous hoodlum of whom we’re taught to be wary, and she, a defenceless old lady. Or so I thought.

“I’ve got nothing to lose,” she explains matter-of-fact. “My marriage broke up last year. Life has become a bit—oh, dull, so I figure why not give a lift to a hitchhiker?”

She smiles at me, giving me the old once-over.

“Besides, if anyone tries anything, I’ll just put my foot down on the accelerator, aim for the nearest power-pole, and kill the both of us.”

I sit back, shut up, and let her drive.

That was more than a decade ago.

Back then I’d just acquired my first-ever mobile phone, special for the trip. It was one of those blue Ericsson bricks, second-hand, already years into obsolescence. I jammed a piece of coat-hanger in the top where the antenna broke off.

In a world subject to the exponential growth of Moore’s Law, I guess a lot can change in ten years—hitchhiking included.

That hitchhiking has declined over the past few decades is uncontroversial. The question is not whether, but why. Most commentators cite a convergence of four basic factors. There is the increase over the last thirty-plus years in rates of car ownership, and in the percentage of the population licensed to drive. There is the decreasing price of alternative modes of travel, and the options available: air, coach, ship, train. And there is the stigma of soliciting a free ride in a consumer society. But the clincher, what really killed off hitchhiking, is apparently fear.

Perhaps we should blame Cameron Hooker. With his wife and baby sitting in the passenger seat, Hooker picked up twenty-year-old Colleen Stan from a busy Californian road. Seven years later Colleen escaped, having subsisted in a wooden box beneath the Hookers’ marital bed, brought out for an hour or two each day to be raped and tortured, and sometimes to help with household chores.

Or perhaps we should look closer to home, and blame Ivan Milat. Milat buried the corpses of seven hitchhikers in the Belanglo state forest, men and women alike. His chilling signature was the deft insertion of a knife between the spinal vertebrae, thereby immobilising his victims before he started raping, climaxing with a bullet to the head.

Or blame Bradley John Murdoch, killer of Peter Falconio. Falconio wasn’t even hitching a lift at the time, but it involved roads and cars and… just watch Wolf Creek. In fact, blame Wolf Creek.

The point is, hitchhiking is dangerous. Rapes, murders, muggings, kidnappings, it all happens in the confined space of a stranger’s vehicle. If you want to know why people no longer thumb lifts and drivers no longer stop to offer them, the reason is plain: hitchhiking died with the hitchhiker.

Right?

Maybe.

Certainly the fear is real and alive amongst broad swathes of our population. But does fear really stop people from hitching or offering a lift—that is, stop the people who otherwise would? Are there really people behind the wheel, watching a backpacker shrink into a blur of colours in their rear view, thinking, “I wish I could have helped that poor stranger, but what if he’s a rapist?” Certainly there are people thinking, “Rapist.”

When hitchhiking, one of the things I tend to talk about with drivers is hitchhiking—a meta-conversation on our little dalliance. It’s taught me a lot about how things used to be. I remember one such exchange, the driver recounting a recent lift he’d given to a pension-aged woman.

Wow, I mused—what pluck, what verve, what opportunity. It must be so easy hitchhiking as a granny. “Were you the first car?” I asked. “Did she have to wait long?”

Apparently the old lady had been waiting for twenty minutes or so. Not bad, I thought, considering I’ve had to wait an entire day for a lift—but that still means ten to twenty cars cruised past before whatshisname happened along. Surely one of those other drivers had a spare seat. This suggests that it simply cannot be fear that stops the sort of people who used to give lifts, giving lifts today. It’s not who granny is that prevented people from stopping, it’s who the drivers are—who we are.

When you think about it, there are just too many scenarios where the explain-all of fear doesn’t make sense. Try big gruff truckies; strong and independent farmers; blue-collar hard-men—the same blokes who used to regularly give lifts in the 60s and 70s and 80s—but now just drive on by. Something has changed—that much is clear—yet fear just doesn’t fit. What about the cocksure young fellow who thinks he’s smarter and tougher than any backpacker—the same types of young bloods who used to give lifts, and used to regularly solicit lifts themselves? I mean, these guys are the natural risk-takers of society, so why are they not willing to take this risk?

The fact is, there are scores of people—both male and female—who don’t fear hitchhikers, but nevertheless stick to the white line. Some of these people would have stopped in years past. Some of them would even have hitched a lift if caught in a bind. But not anymore.

One of my older friends, Terry, has a rollicking good yarn of his own days hitchhiking across the country. He was picked up by a trucker with a muscular Slav accent who nevertheless managed to sound a tad effeminate in Terry’s telling. After a few hours rolling through the South Australian red dirt, the Slav stopped at a roadhouse and cajoled Terry into having a drink. They started playing pool, the Slav insisting on a beer-a-game wager. Somehow Terry, not the greatest of pool players, kept winning. Ten in a row. By the time they hit the road again, Terry was tanked. Before long he was dozing contentedly.

He’s not sure how long he was out, but Terry remembers jerking awake, something amiss. They’d pulled off the road, stationary. Terry looked down. His pants were unbuttoned, his fly undone. The Slav’s hand was worming its way into his underdaks.

Terry let rip with a tirade of abuse, and the Slav recoiled.

“I’m sorry, Terry, I’m sorry,” he kept repeating in his funny little accented whine.

Normally it’s at this point that the hitchhiker flings himself from the truck and runs for the hills. But Terry was in the middle of nowhere. He wasn’t going to let a little molesting get in the way of a good lift.

“Just drive. Drive!”

And so they drove, Terry steely-eyed and freaked out, his Slav molester cowed behind the steering wheel. Terry made damn sure he didn’t fall asleep again, barely blinking as he chain-smoked all the way to Alice Springs. Today, he tells the story with relish.

So, bad things can happen, if rarely. Nothing bad has ever happened to me.

In fact, the closest I’ve ever come to a chancy encounter was a lift with a fellow who’d lost his dog the previous night and was on his way to look for it at the fishing spot where it had disappeared. He mentioned at the start of the conversation that some people in town were scared of him, but he assured me it was all a misunderstanding. I readily concurred, for though he was a mightily scruffy fellow, he seemed genial and mild of manner. It was only later, when he suddenly broke off a sentence and started talking to the other bloke in the back seat, that I started to wonder. You see, there was no other bloke in the back seat. I duly got out where he said I’d have a good chance of getting a lift, wished him luck in finding his (imaginary?) dog, and politely declined his offer of the telephone number to a friend of his I might like to look up once I reached Mallacoota.

Now, I won’t lie: there was a moment there where I did wonder if I was in trouble. But, as it turns out, I wasn’t. I learned as much years ago: the lift-givers of this world are nearly always good and kindly people, even the schizophrenics and sociopaths.

Which reminds me—I did make it to Sam’s graduation all those years ago. A bloke who was still on probation for armed robbery and who’d recently exorcised the ghost of his dead sister picked me up. He took me ninety kilometres out of his way to drop me at Sam’s doorstep. One of the best lifts I’ve ever had.

So, yes, hitchhiking can end in trouble, but you can run into trouble anywhere. You can walk into McDonald’s these days and, if one of the unlucky few, end up getting king-hit or knifed. In fact, hitchhiking and going to McDonald’s probably share a comparable level of inherent risk. There’s the odd rare lunatic or drunk hoodlum looking for a Big Mac and fisticuffs, just as you get the odd lunatic driving a car and offering unsuspecting hitchhikers lifts. The difference is not in risk, but in what is socially acceptable, and the narratives we employ to help make sense of our own pre-conditioned behaviours.

What I am suggesting is that when we drive past a person thumbing a lift on the side of the road, we tend to automatically rationalise our actions through the accepted narrative of fear. “Society has changed”; “it’s not like it used to be”; “people are more dangerous”; “there are too many crazies”, “too many criminals”, “too many psychopaths out there”, in cars, or on the shoulder of the highway. “That’s why I don’t hitchhike, that’s why I don’t pick hitchhikers up. Self-preservation.”

But here’s the rub: the people who do stop to give a stranger a lift are nearly always the ones with good intentions, the ones who are willing to take that risk of picking you up simply because they are charitable, interesting humans. We malign the very people—the lift-givers and the thumb-riders—who make hitchhiking the honest and gratifying spectacle it is. Thus, if we are to understand the decline of hitchhiking, we need to forget the stereotypes, forget the fear—because the story of hitchhiking isn’t about the people who stop. It’s about the people who don’t.

Seeing the change in attitudes to hitchhiking first-hand, it’s hard not to become disheartened. In fact, I recently did the unthinkable and abandoned a cross-country hitchhiking trip, mid-hitch. I wasn’t enjoying myself, so I caught a bus then flew home from Melbourne.

The moment I decided to holster the thumb came just after a car-load of hoons had driven past, yelling obscenities and salutations. The third of the day, actually. Yet it wasn’t the Wagga Waggan bogans that pushed me to the point of despair—they were just the last straw.

Across two thousand kilometres of tar and blue-metal, I’d begun to feel overwhelmed by silent scorn. People in polished SUVs had been stealing glances, the sort of looks normally reserved for the disfigured and disabled. Drivers of v6 sedans tended to openly ogle, without embarrassment. Retired gentlemen in four-wheel-drives towing half-million dollar caravans couldn’t even bring themselves to look at me. Their wives could—the pity, disgust and contempt plain from all manner of facial contortions.

The only sorts to whom I appeared immaterial were truck drivers, my carcass just another obstacle to add to the wombats and emus and kangaroos feeding on the green of the shoulder. Then there were the women driving hatchbacks, deploying the thousand-mile stare in sometimes comical fashion the moment they registered my presence. I guess they would be the ones thinking, “Rapist.” The only people to wave were cyclists.

Absorbing this day after day, I began to wonder how it was that our lives had become so safe, so sterile, so insulated that just to see a hitchhiker made people’s eyes boggle. But more than that, I wanted to know where this disdain of the stranger, this unwillingness to reach out to an unknown member of our extended community, had come from.

Community—it begins with the bonds between people who know each other, but extends to bind together strangers who share nothing more than a place, or a culture, or a nationality. Formulate it in abstract terms and community becomes a swirling mess, yet we all know it, we all understand its limits and boundaries and conventions.

And we all understand that as part of a community we make choices in how we respond to other members, and in how we respond to those we consider outside our community. In doing so we define, in some measure, who we are, and who it is we want to be.

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.

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