The first time I hitchhiked was with my father, when I was 12 years old. We exchanged what-would-mom-think smirks as we boarded an empty cattle car towed by a semi-truck and then clanked our way through the Kalahari Desert to Lobatse, Botswana.
Even from that young age I understood the appeal of throwing up your thumb and lightin’ out for parts unknown. And as I graduated high school and progressed through my 20s, hitching became a viable mode of transport.
In the fall of 2007, shortly after dropping out of grad school, my thumb took me from Edmonton, Alberta to Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was a journey that’s been dwarfed by many readers, I’m sure, but it remains my personal best.
The reasons to avoid hitching are — let’s face it — reasonable. After all, it is nothing if not a parade of uncontrolled variables — the weather, for one.
There’s also time: acquiring a ride can take between 17 seconds and 17 hours.
And distance: a single lift can take you clear across the Prairie Provinces, or just to the T-intersection up the road.
Then there’s a question of comfort: you might enjoy an entire rear bench to yourself, or you might get wedged between a St. Bernard and the pepperoni.
And the company: Will the driver be interesting? Weird-good? Weird-bad? Will he yak incessantly? Will he try to convert me to his religion?
And safety: I’ve never felt unsafe, but some have.
Though these variables are enough to deter many, I have to admit they’re what I enjoy about the sport.
Yes, hitchhiking is a sport; or at least, thinking of it as one holds the key to enjoying it as a form of transportation.
We like our transportation easy. Who among us would turn down a first-class upgrade on a transatlantic flight? Not me.
Sport, on the other hand, is almost by definition supposed to be hard. Unlike travelling, satisfaction in sport is derived by testing one’s endurance, overcoming obstacles, keeping your chin up when the chips are down, and achieving victory. Satisfaction in hitchhiking is derived exactly the same way.
Furthermore, by viewing it as a sport, potentially dangerous aspects of hitchhiking become acceptable risks.
Snowboarding, for example, contains an element of danger, but people continue to snowboard because it brings them enjoyment; the payoff is worth the risk.
If we only think of hitchhiking as a way of getting from point A to point B, the danger is something to be mitigated by a safer choice of travel. But if we think of it as an activity that people enjoy, the element of danger inherent in hitchhiking can be written off in a cost/benefit analysis.
And I encourage more people to think this way, because it would be a shame if hitchhiking went extinct.
To stand on the shoulder of a dusty highway with an outstretched thumb is an act of rebellion against certainty; and the opposite of certainty is adventure.
At least that’s what I believed when I was 12.