Automotive history

The galaxy’s guide to hitchhikers

by Brendan McAleer
16 August 2023 4 min read
The galaxy’s guide to hitchhikers
Getty Images

Sometime in the late summer of 2015, a cheerful little Canadian robot named Hitchbot was making its way from Boston to San Francisco. Hitchbot was a very basic device resembling a trashcan with arms and legs, equipped with a GPS to track progress and an onboard camera to periodically take pictures. Unable to walk, Hitchbot relied on the kindness of strangers to give it rides, and was a social experiment intended to answer the question, “Can robots trust human beings?” It had already successfully crossed the entirety of Canada from coast to coast.

But then it encountered Philadelphia.

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The City of Brotherly Love is also the town with a reputation for throwing batteries at opposing professional athletes during sports games. (Cue the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia title card, “The Gang Murders A Robot.”) Hitchbot was eventually recovered, but it had been completely eviscerated. On the plus side, when the AI robot dogs come for us all, Philly will clearly be a good spot for humanity’s last stand.

For the fans that had followed Hitchbot’s travels on Twitter and Facebook, it was a dose of harsh reality. As recently as 20 years ago, hitchhiking was still a relatively common practice. It’s still legal in 44 US states and across most of Canada and Europe. However, police usually caution against hitchhiking, and there are any number of hair-raising stories about why it can be dangerous.

You would think that with the rise of ride-sharing, car-sharing, and even electric scooters there would be multiple apps for hitchhiking. But while there is a solid instructional guide for would-be hitchers at HitchWiki, hitchhiking itself is sort of a lost art. Thumbing a ride is something that’s mostly disappeared from society. Which is a bit of a shame. True, you never knew who you were going to meet when you pulled over for an extended thumb, but you also might end up meeting someone with a great story to tell.

U2 could be surprised

Lincoln - European Premiere - Red carpet Arrivals
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Sometimes, even Bono needs a ride.

Driving in a downpour in the West Vancouver area ten years ago, Edmonton Oilers hockey player Gilbert Brule spotted a hitchhiker on the side of the road, getting drenched. In the hitchhiking world, this is called a pity lift – someone stopping because the ‘hiker looked miserable.

In this case, however, it was U2 frontman Bono and manager Paul McGuinness. The pair received a short lift to the Horseshoe Bay area, and Bono later sent tickets to Brule and his family.

At the concert in Edmonton, Bono even gave a little speech about the ride: “I like ice hockey because people who play ice hockey are the kind of people who pick up hitchhikers. I’m ever so grateful.”

Out of the way

Facebook | Vilnius Hitch-hiking Club - Vilniaus Autostopo Klubas
Facebook | Vilnius Hitch-hiking Club – Vilniaus Autostopo Klubas

If Bono was happy about the lift, imagine how two members of Lithuania’s Vilnius Hitchhiking club were when they caught a ride from a 55-year-old German man in Berlin. The driver, in a Toyota Corolla, was at the time only taking a short 30-mile ride but he instead ended up driving his passengers for an entire week, through Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Paris, Brussels, the Netherlands, and then all the way to Vilnius. Total distance was recorded as just under 2,500 miles, not including the driver’s final leg back home.

What would possess someone to go that far out of the way for total strangers? Hitchhiking isn’t just a potential adventure for those who are asking for a lift. Whoever this unnamed driver was, he was suddenly dropped into a week-long tour of Europe, one that he might not otherwise have ever done himself. If nothing else, being open to possibilities landed him with a great story.

Der Engel der Anhalter: Angel of the Hitchhikers

Autobahn Germany
Jennifer Latuperisa-Andresen / Unsplash

What is it about Germany that encourages drivers to so willingly offer lifts? Among several unofficial hitchhiking records is top speed attained by a driver after giving a lift – the top two are in an Alpina 5 Series and an AMG E63, the former achieving nearly 200mph on the Autobahn.

However, if you got picked up by Dieter Wesch and his Proton 416, it wasn’t the speed of the passage as much as the number of rides. Wesch kept a guestbook for all the hitchhikers he’d picked up over the years, and it ran to more than two dozen volumes containing messages of thanks in multiple languages. In 1980, Wesch was picking up more than 200 people every month.

Things slowed as Wesch approached the 10,000-passenger mark. In a 2002 interview with Autobild magazine, Wesch said that there were fewer people than ever out hitchhiking. He was hoping to meet just a few dozen a month. “That’s kind of my life support,” he told Autobild. “I want to accompany people on part of their journey.”

Guinness World Record Hitchhiking… Fridge

As with any oddball pursuit, hitchhiking is ideal for pointless record-setting. The Guinness Book of Records listed the quickest times to hitchhike across the length of the UK, from Cornwall to the tip of Scotland (and back). It also noted the feats of the perpetually peripatetic, like Frenchman Benoit Grieu, who began hitchhiking in 1979 and had traveled more than a million miles until he disappeared in 2011.

Also, there’s a record for longest distance accompanied by a fridge. 

To win a £100 bet with a friend, English standup comedian Tony Hawks hitchhiked around the circumference of Ireland accompanied by a small fridge. In a shocking revelation, it seems a late-night drinking session was involved in the making of the bet, but Hawk got a Guinness Record out of his trip: 1,025.26 miles hitchhiked with fridge, certified May 1997.

He also wrote a fun book about his trip, the aptly titled Round Ireland with a Fridge. In it, he takes the fridge surfing, gets it christened, and generally meets interesting character after interesting character. The last is part of the lost joy of hitchhiking.

On the Road

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The great American opus on hitchhiking is, of course, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The story is not all hitchhiking, of course, but it tells of a time when traveling in the company of strangers was common. As the decades passed, memories of this phenomenon faded.

We interact with our fellow travelers less and less. This is even true when traveling by rail or airline, headphones on and noses slammed against screens.

The real death knell for hitchhiking in North America was less the bloodcurdling stories of dangers and more rising rates of car ownership. In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, people could rely on the thumb to get around. In more recent times, most of us swoosh along silently, isolated by steel and glass.

As hitchhiking fades almost entirely from our roads, there is the sense that something is being lost. Do you have any memorable meetings or adventures involving hitchhiking? Perhaps someone told you a story. Maybe once you stopped to pick up a wonky-looking little robot, took it home to meet your family, and offered a little advice about the necessity of always packing a towel.

Via Hagerty US

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Comments

  • Nico says:

    Hitchhiking is a wonderful thing and I hope it doesn’t die! As a 25 year old I’ve had some remarkable experiences with my thumb and use it to get around Britain all the time. Amazingly it’s rare that Ill have to wait more than half an hour for a ride so it’s definitely still alive and well. I’ve been writing a blog about it here if you’re interested which details all the characters and journeys: NicoLethbridge.substack.com (don’t worry it’s free to read!)

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