My Romanian sister in law was rather horrified to hear that I wanted to take her 12-year old daughter hitching. But she’s open-minded enough to realise that the chances of robbery, rape or abduction — or any of the horrors that the media feed us — are negligible in the Scottish Borders which is, after all, a scarcely populated wilderness where everyone knows everyone else.
She also knows that I’ve hitched hiked in Romania, and alo Asia, (see Hitching into Tibet), and that I’d be unlikely to sell her daughter into slavery.
Hitching is a great way to go. Not only is it a cheap means of transport but it’s a guaranteed way to meet people. It requires an element of humility and that’s something we all need. The risks are low, probably less than cycling, but the media love to sensationalise any isolated incident resulting in unfounded fears about this most brilliant way of getting around.
What makes hitching particularly relevant today is that it’s an excellent method of travel without producing carbon emissions. Of course you could say that by getting in someone else’s vehicle you are, in fact, emitting hundreds of grammes of carbon per kilometre — but these people will criticise, dissemble and rationalise anything you do to reduce your carbon footprint. It’s their form of defending the status quo.
Is hitching really so great?
The problem with hitching is that, more often than not, you end up at the side of the road — in the Scottish cold and rain or the baking heat of Romania’s summer — for hours on end; and the longer you don’t get a lift, the more you lose faith in human nature.
But when you do get a lift you get a rush of joy and your faith in humanity is instantly restored.
So when my niece and I got a lift, within a few minutes of standing at the side of the road, I was amazed. This just doesn’t happen to me; usually I have to walk for miles, or wait for hours and sometimes I cheat by hopping on a bus. But, looking at it from the driver’s point of view, picking up an adult with a kid is helpful and community-minded but picking up a lone, weird-looking man probably seems to the driver more risky (half remembered news stories of men with knives, and fragmented memories from horror films, probably flashes through their minds).
The kindly lady-driver took us for a few miles, left us at a junction and after walking a few hundred yards we got another lift — and then things started to get really interesting, as often happens when hitching.
Learning about dogs and war
My niece got into the back of a large estate car and was immediately covered in friendly dogs; she didn’t complain. I got in front and started chatting with the overweight driver, who looked like he was about 60 and sounded English. We drove on through the hills.
“You know what the fastest animal on Earth is,” he asked.
“Er…isn’t it the leopard?”
“You need to re-frame the question. The answer is ‘Over what distance?’”
“Eh? I don’t understand.”
“It’s like this. The leopard can reach the fastest speed over short distances, but it soon runs out of steam. Over a medium distance the dog is the fastest; but can you guess what’s fastest over long distances?”
“No. It’s a human. A man can run more or less indefinitely. Did you know that the American Indians used to hunt deer by chasing them for day after day, until the poor beast dropped with exhaustion? And they used to tame wild horses by chasing them until the animal just gave up, turned towards the pursuing man and accepted his domination.”
This guy was fascinating and I was an eager listener. As my niece was being used as a dog bed in the back seat I was plying him with more questions, trying to learn more about the wisdom of indiginous people — from whom we can learn a lot about protecting our planet. But he changed tack and started talking about the 1982 Falklands War, when Maggie Thatcher sent our armed forces to the other side of the world to reclaim some sheep-filled islands the Argentians had occupied.
“I was in the air force back then,” he explained. “I was in charge of supplying our base in the Ascension Islands which is half way between the UK and the Falklands.” These islands are located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but they’re so small as to be almost invisible.
He then told me something truly amazing, that I’ve never seen mentioned elsewhere in all the books and films I’ve seen on the issue. He explained that all the fuel needed for the Falklands War was stored in huge rubber envelope-shaped containers that were laid out by the sea-shore on the Ascension Islands. I know the kind of containers he meant as the aid agencies used to install them on hospital roofs during the Bosnian war, as vast water tanks.
“If the Argentinians had known about this fuel dump,” he said, “and if they’d had a few daring commandos in a rubber dinghy, they could have turned up with a mortar and blown the whole lot up. It would have been game-over in an instant.”
I love stories like these — offering an inside view and a new insight into an event that you think you already understood. It turns your knowledge on its head and makes you realise that you only ever really know a fraction of the full story (and, as long as you can accept that you don’t need to know everything, it’s fine).
It was also a reminder that hitching is one of the most friendly and interesting modes of transport, as you are more likely to have a conversation than on the bus, train or plane — and sometimes these conversations are fascinating.