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A Hitchhikers Guide to Freeloading

Mark Simpson fondly remembers when he depended on the kindness of strangers

When an ambulance rushing to Plymouth General Hospital with a man suffering from a life-threatening blood clot stopped to pick up a couple of hitchhikers, one of whom engaged the man, writhing in agony, in chit chat it made the headlines.

Probably because most people found it difficult to believe that people still hitch-hiked at all, let alone that anyone – ambulance drivers or otherwise – actually stopped to pick them up.

Likewise, the incredulity that greeted 66 year-old John Waters’ new bookCarsick, about an attempt to hitch from the East Coast of the US to the West, shocked people not just for its apparent recklessness but because he actually succeeded.

Hitchhiking seems to belong to the era of cassette players and leaded petrol. The outstretched thumb and bit of cardboard box with a hopeful destination scribbled on it in marker pen was once a staple of the driving scenery in the UK. No longer. Insurance issues, fears of crime, and probably a rise in general contempt towards ‘freeloaders’ have reduced the willingness of people to stop.

But the supply of hikers has also been stemmed by increased car ownership and by the arrival of stupendously cheap coach tickets. Megabus will get you from the North East to London for £5. And frequently stops to pick up punters in places, such as Scotch Corner Services, that would have been used by hitchhikers trying to thumb a ride. Megabus are in many ways a kind of commercial hitchhiking service.

As a freeloading layabout in the 80?s I used to do a lot of hitching. And it wasn’t entirely because I had no money and plenty of time. I used to enjoy the promiscuity of hitchhiking. And by that I don’t mean sex – the nearest I came to that was a pock-marked Frenchman near Perpignan, who was so embarrassed by my polite refusal that he drove 80 km out of his way.

No the promiscuity of hitchhiking is the casual randomness of whoever stopped to offer you a ride – which you almost never would reject unless they weren’t going your way – and the intimacy of the hour or so car journey with the ‘ride’. Who would often tell you, a complete stranger that they will never see again, more about their lives and their hopes and fears than their mates. Though admittedly quite often they would tell you mostly about their holidays. The one they’d just had or the one they were looking forwards to. ‘Only five weeks now. Can’t wait.’

I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I was always on holiday.

Many’s the time I stood at start of the M1 at Brent Cross – a spot once so popular with hitchhikers there was actually a queuing system – with my thumb outstretched to the world. And the world can answer your digital prayers in the strangest ways.

Such as the day in the Summer of 1985 when a brand new Volvo Turbo came to a precision-engineered halt in front of me. Behind the wheel wasn’t the expected sales rep (a common hitchhiking ‘john’), but a precision-groomed Max Hastings, first journalist to enter a liberated Port Stanley in the Falklands War and soon to be editor of The Daily Telegraph, on his way home to Northampton. We spent a very pleasant forty minutes together chatting, and I marvelled at his then very rare car phone, which he used to call his wife, who was disappointed because fog meant she couldn’t ride her horse that day.

Hitchhiking was a truly classless society – at least for the time you’re sharing someone’s posh car.

Probably my best hitchhiking experiences were on the Continent. I was once picked up north of Paris by a Professor of Philosophy at Lille University. Since I had just dropped out of a philosophy course at Oxford University we had a great deal to talk about – in his strained English and my much worse French. A glutton for punishment he ended up taking me for a meal with his wife at a swanky brasserie in Lille and putting me up for the night.

Gallic generosity didn’t stop there, however. The very next day I was given a lift by two young sisters on their way to a wedding dinner. They insisted on taking me along, and everyone was ridiculously kind and friendly to this sunburned, dishevelled English freeloader with very little French sat at the table gobbling their (very tasty) food and guzzling their fine wine. Afterwards they dropped me off at the ferry terminal in Calais.

Sometimes you ended up accepting lifts that you probably shouldn’t. Back in the UK, hitching to Brighton, I was picked up by a motorcyclist on a frighteningly powerful bike. We arrived, me riding pillion, breathlessly quickly. But doing a ton on a bike with no helmet can be very noisy, apart from anything else, and I was deaf for days.

Waiting times in the 80?s varied, and sometimes you could end up a bit stuck at a windswept roundabout, as the paranoia and the rain soaked into your soul. But the wait was generally a lot shorter if you were hitching with a young woman: one of the pair e given a lift by the Plymouth ambulance driver was a woman – reportedly dressed in a short skirt and blouse ‘despite the foggy weather’.

I once hitched back from Cambridge with a female friend. Although she wasn’t wearing a short skirt and blouse, I don’t mind admitting that I hid in the bushes while she stood by the side of the road. We waited all of two minutes before a Ford Sierra screeched to a halt. I can still see the crestfallen look on the driver’s face when he saw me scrambling out of the hedgerow. ‘Oh, and this is my mate,’ she said, smiling sweetly. ‘You don’t mind giving him a ride too, do you?’

Now that I’m a car owner myself do I stop to give lifts to hitchhikers? Well, no, not really. Largely because they’re so few and far between these days that the sight of one by the side of the road is so surprising that by the time you’ve got over the shock they’ve disappeared into the distance.

Plus I hate freeloaders. Unless they’re John Waters. Or cute.

Originally appeared on easiertoleaseplean