Legendary explorer and publisher Hilary Bradt talks about her many years of hitchhiking ……
I admit it: it’s not that common to see two elderly ladies standing at the side of the road with their thumbs out, holding out a sign with the requested destination and a thank you in the appropriate language. My friend Janice and I had hitchhiked in our youth and still saw it as an obvious way of getting around the Greek Peloponnese when we first explored the Mani Peninsular together in the late 1990s. And after that we never stopped. In fact my ‘youth’ had extended seamlessly into my 30s, when I married an American hippy who just assumed that one hitched everywhere (I thought all Americans had cars. It was a bit of a shock on our first date in Boston). And into my 40s when I even tried – none too successfully – hitchhiking with a horse. More about that later. In fact I’ve hitchhiked every decade of my life except the first.
Hitchhiking is Life-Affirming
There is nothing more life-affirming than hitchhiking when it comes to experiencing the kindness of strangers. It’s probably this as much as anything that has given me my incorrigibly optimistic outlook and enabled me to undertake adventures that others might find daunting. All those memories of people who not only stopped for me but provided so much more than just a lift! Too many incidents to describe here, but I recall with particular fondness – and continuing amazement – the driver who handed George and me his car keys on an island off the Maine coast, saying “You kids go and explore. This is my house – just bring the car back when you’ve finished.”
And the Catholic priest in Nova Scotia who invited us to spend the night so we could help him eat all the produce his parishioners had given him. Or the elderly man who just asked us where we wanted to go, explaining that now he was retired he liked to meet young people so drove around looking for hitchhikers. “Yes” he said “My wife says some young lady is going to accuse me of rape. But look at me! Do I look capable of rape?” and he gave a wheezy laugh.
Touring The Dordogne
Now I am older than that ‘elderly man’ I see no reason to stop hitching if there is no other way of achieving my destination. The last time was a couple of years ago in France when my white-haired friend and I were touring the Dordogne by public transport. Having taken a train to a village with prehistoric cave paintings we discovered it was the last train of the day and the station was a mile from the village. A lift into town was easy, and hitching back to a different train station showed us a side of France we wouldn’t have seen in our own car. We stopped at a bakery to buy baguettes and then called in on Maman to deliver it, chatting all the while. Because, the thing is, two old ladies present no threat so why wouldn’t anyone stop for us?
A Connemara Journey
Back to trying to hitchhike with a horse. In 1984 I travelled alone on horseback through Ireland with no back-up support and only vague plans. I describe this journey in my forthcoming book A Connemara Journey (published on April 8, price £12.99 bradtguides.com) . The most serious barrier to my route was the broad Shannon river, which normal travellers easily cross using the ferry. I naively hoped that I could simply lead my pony, Mollie, on board along with the cars and lorries. Not so said the very stern ferry man, it must be in a cattle truck.
For a couple of hours I tried to hitch a lift in an empty cattle truck but not surprisingly was unsuccessful. So I sought help from the nearby pub. The publican, Pierce, was busy serving Guinness to the drivers waiting for the next ferry but said “I’ll see what I can do”. Ferries came and went, and I grew increasingly despondent, particularly when the barmaid told me Pierce had left. Then I looked out of the window and there was what looked like a large orange crate on wheels pulled by a rather smart red car. We loaded Mollie on, drove onto the next ferry, unloaded her and waved goodbye to my saviour as he turned round to return to serving his customers.
Will Hilary Bradt Call It A Day Soon?
After that, ordinary hitchhiking was a doddle! Later this year I’ll be 80 so I think I really must thumb one more ride before I call it a day. I wonder where?
By Hilary Bradt co-founder of Bradt Guides