Without a hitch

“The trick is to try to look friendly. Not too friendly though, not crazy friendly, people don’t pick up crazies” I said to my friends for the hundredth time as I tried to explain how to hitchhike.

Ruth looked back at me with an amused look on her face as she scrabbled to keep her hair out of her face. As the eye candy of our group we had already explained to her that if times got desperate she would need to flash prospective drivers to improve our chances of getting picked up. She hadn’t said no outright to this, having merely slapped me across the face, and so I was hopeful that if the situation demanded she would not hesitate to do her bit.

Frodo, my long suffering travelling buddy, beamed at me from the other side of the banner

“How long do you think this will take?” he asked enthusiastically.

As the first ever hitch rep of Exeter it had been my job to help over forty hitchers organise their journeys across Europe to either Morocco or Prague, having gone to Morocco myself the year before. Because of this I was the ‘veteran’ of the group and was largely in charge of planning out the route we would take and tactics we should employ in order to get picked up.

“Not long now my young padawan, not long now…” I smiled sagely whilst secretly battling a horrifying feeling that nobody would ever stop and we would be stuck here forever until we died or more likely I found a pub.

I remembered to not be too hard on myself, after all I was Will Hatton, Exeter hitch rep, Hitch veteran, the planner of routes and bringer of snacks, I had already bought my wealth of experience to the group by purchasing a dubious tent and bestowing upon them my best hitchhiking advice “take pitta bread, and cheese… lots of cheese”. Straining against the banner I regarded it with quiet despair, Exeter to Prague Charity Hitch it proclaimed proudly, unaware that we were still outside an Exeter bus stop. We had been hitching for almost an hour now and no one had looked remotely interested in stopping yet. “It’ll be ok” I told myself “the banner will look less ridiculous once we are out of Exeter”. As this thought crossed my mind a can of coke whizzed past my face and hit Frodo in the chest spattering his much loved down jacket. I glared angrily at the chav infested Peugeot that had just zoomed past us. Whilst I began to assure my team that this was a rare occurrence another car glided to a halt behind us.

Barely stopping to ask where the driver was going, or if they had indeed stopped for us, we clambered into the car keen to begin our adventure. The driver’s name was Clara, a blonde, bubbly student at the university who none of us had had the pleasure to meet before. She said she was excited to pick up hitchhikers as she herself had hitchhiked to Amsterdam a while ago in a space of just two days. She spent much of the journey telling us how little she had enjoyed the waiting element of hitchhiking whilst I constantly interrupted her with things like “yes, but it can be fun to just relax and play cards” or “it really isn’t that bad” keen to keep my teams spirits high. I looked over at Frodo who was staring intently at something, “Is that a paper license plate?” he inquired disbelievingly. “I think it is, lets have a look” said Clara excitedly stamping down on the accelerator and bringing us to within mere inches of the several tons of lorry in front of us. After spending a good minute in this perilous position we were finally able to convince her that “yes it was odd to have a hand written licence plate, no it probably wasn’t legal and yes maybe we should give the lorry some more space now”.

Clara dropped us outside Southampton and we hastily set up our banner next to a service station, it didn’t take too long for another car to stop and soon we were on the road again with another ex-hitcher and, incredibly, a friend of a friend of Frodo’s. As we thanked her for the hundredth time we settled into what would become a well drilled routine where we explained who we were, where we were going and all of the good work which would be done with funds raised from sponsorship for our hitchhike. The hitchhikes to Morocco and Prague are run with the support of the charity Link Community Development (LCD) which operates in sub-Saharan Africa building and running education and development programs. Crucially this support included the right to wear the LCD t-shirts which over the past twenty years have become better and better known throughout Europe thus increasing our chances of being picked up by drivers aware of ‘the charity hitchers in green’.

To increase our chances of being noticed on the side of the road we had our massive hitch banner, a novelty foam inflatable thumbs-up hand which would quickly prove invaluable at soaking up tent spillages, and an A3 pad and pens to make location specific signs. We were dropped just outside Winchester and after fifteen minutes or so quickly became bored of merely smiling and settled into an advanced dance routine in order to amuse or horrify drivers into stopping. This included waving our arms up and down in the air whilst at the same time juddering to an imagined beat interrupted by short, sporadic twitches of our heads. This appeared to work when a shiny new BMW pulled up next to us containing the world’s widest smile “I’m going to London, that any good to you” it enquirer  I stared dumbfounded at the driver inside who reminded me of an incredibly happy, and perhaps rather high, Father Christmas whilst Frodo thanked the man but explained it was the wrong direction.

Next a caravan pulled up and after sprinting towards it I was almost on board before the couple driving it told me they were just letting the dog out. I quickly made friends with the dog and tried to persuade the couple that the dog would miss me if we weren’t all given a lift. This failed to work and so we once again unfurled our mighty hitch banner in the hope of attracting a lift. Shortly after a school teacher called Jackie picked us up and as we got chatting she told us that she often worked in South Africa teaching kids out there, she was keen to help once she realised we were representing LCD and drove us well out of her way.

Frodo and Ruth were shocked at just how kind people had been so far and I was reminded of good times hitching to Morocco. I had found that drivers were always very keen to help and would frequently provide us with food, drink or even a place to stay. On a previous hitching adventure I had slept in the back of a lorry, been bought numerous cups of coffee, been put up in a four star hotel for the night and been driven hundreds of miles out of the way by various kindly drivers. I was looking forward to seeing what highlights this adventure would bring, I was not to be disappointed.

Our next lift was a brilliant one, Steve was an incredibly amusing bloke who kept convincing himself to drive us “just three more miles” until he had actually gone a good forty miles past his destination. His erratic driving style was punctuated with frequent bouts of witty comments which had us giggling like kids in the back. He dropped us off outside a pub in Billingshurst which I knew reasonably well, we were only a few miles outside of my hometown, Burgess Hill, and decided to drop in on my parents for a night of luxurious cooking and soft beds. After half an hour of hitching, an elderly gent swerved to a stop and popped his boot for us, we clambered in happily and quickly learnt that this chap had actually gone to Exeter University when he had studied his degree “back in the day”. I cannot actually remember his name but Terrence seems to fit so we shall run with that. Terrence was an excited man that day, the South Downs had just been awarded the prestigious title of ‘national park’ and whilst myself and Terrence babbled excitedly about the changes this would mean for our homeland Frodo and Ruth looked faintly bemused at our level of enthusiasm for the couple of chalk hills which make up the downs.

With a bit of negotiating in which Ruth’s precious sweets were used as currency Terrence drove us pretty much right to my front doorstep and with a cheery goodbye drove off. We skipped, actually we lumbered due to the weight of our rucksacks, up to my front door and ran the doorbell. Twenty minutes later we were relaxing in front of a spread of crisps, nuts and chocolate with a bottle of wine and a few beautiful ciders provided by my lovely parents.

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