When I first saw Vitaly I thought he was drunk. I was standing outside a petrol station near Fulda, in central Germany, when he pulled up in a battered Saab. Mud covered the entire left side of his car and the rear bumper hung like a drooping bottom lip. His hair was greasy. He looked as if he hadn’t slept in weeks. Only later did I discover that he had just fled besieged Kyiv. He was now driving to Bern in Switzerland, where he hoped to find work. I was heading to Morzine for a family skiing holiday. Vitaly offered me a lift.
My decision to hitchhike the 428-mile journey from Fulda to Morzine had been in part to test whether it was possible. I hitchhiked across the Balkans and then the Caucasus when I was at university. Now I wondered if the fear of Covid would put drivers off picking up strangers.
Some people claim hitchhiking became redundant years before the pandemic. The Guardian declared its death in 2016 after New Zealand police arrested a French hitchhiker for abusing local residents when he failed to catch a ride for four days. But the article failed to mention that the man had been attempting to leave a remote coastal village with a population of only 70.
A eulogy to hitchhiking may be premature but there’s no doubt it’s in a dormant period. In the mid-20th century it was common to see hikers sticking their thumbs out beside the road. Hitchhiking’s golden age was in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks in large part to the popularity of the hippie trail across Europe and Asia. Today, hitchhiking’s decline is down to a lack of willing hikers, if anything, not a lack of friendly drivers. A successful hike requires only one driver to pull over, after all.
Most people who are averse to hitchhiking cite ‘danger’ as their principal reason. In the act of raising a thumb, a hiker offers up him- or herself to the mercy of whoever drives past. It requires a certain faith that the driver offering the ride will be a good person (or, at the very least, a decent driver. And bad driving is, as the online hitchhiking guide Hitchwiki states, the worst most people can expect to encounter). Dismissing a centuries-old mode of transport over concerns for safety seems bizarre, but also typical of our era of no fun. Bad things have happened to hitchhikers. But they’ve happened to horsemen, drivers and motorcycle riders too.
Hitchhiking provides a solution to several of the crises of our time. It’s cheap when transport costs are higher than ever. It helps the climate by filling seats in empty cars. And after two years of Covid making it nearly impossible to meet new people, it offers a unique way to interact with people from any background you can imagine.
Vitaly confessed late in our journey that he had run out of money. His phone had no internet connection, which he needed to navigate to his Chechen friend’s house in the Swiss countryside. It was dark outside. I offered to remain with him to help on the condition his friend could host me for the night. That evening we sat around a pot of lamb stew while Vitaly and his friend shared stories of Russian oppression. If I had taken the train or plane, that interaction would never have taken place. I was glad to have stuck my thumb out.