The last great hitchhiking trips are still taking place, somewhere outside Europe and North America. Here is a voyage around America in the 1970s: “The Americans”.
Previous posts in my series The Americans have included The Americans: prologue; The Americans: leaving New York; The Americans: Avenue of the Heroes; and The Americans: Valley of the Rogue. Feedback welcome. This is how the story begins.
Fast Trip to London
The first stage of my journey to Candy McCarthy, Cortez and beyond began in Manchester. That’s Manchester, England.
I left home at 3.30 Tuesday June 26thwith my usual red rucksack and fairly light load, my diary opens. Fast trip to London, as always.
I hitchhiked constantly in the ’70s and ’80s
On the third of May 1979, seven weeks before I wrote that diary entry, Margaret Thatcher had been elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. This event is not recorded anywhere in my journals.
I did note the fact of my attending a “Final Selection Board” for the British Civil Service in London on 11 April, 3 weeks before the election. The first question from the intimidating, all-male panel, sitting in the Old Admiralty Building in Whitehall, was:
“If the Conservative Party were to win the general election and you were asked in to brief the Prime Minister on the UK’s foreign policy priorities, what would you tell her?”
But that’s another story.
As a 21 year-old in Manchester travelling to London to catch a plane to the United States the following day, it never occurred to me to take a train. That would have been ruinously expensive. I stood by the road at half-past-three in the afternoon, and stuck out my thumb.
Not a good advert for hitch-hiking: Rutger Hauer in “The Hitcher”, 1986.
Mine may have been one of the last great hitch-hiking trips around the United States, although I would welcome evidence to the contrary. After 1979, hitch-hiking faded in the US, much as in Europe. This was not because of any change to the law, or increased danger (although Rutger Hauer’s The Hitcher, released in 1986 with the slogan Once you’ve met the Hitcher, you’ll never pick up another and The terror starts the moment you stop for the Hitcher may not have helped – see trailer above). The main reasons were increased living standards and the expanding network of motorways in the UK (freeways in the US).
A junction between two motorways, or freeways for that matter, offers nowhere safe or legal for cars to stop, or for hitchhikers to catch lifts.
Looking back, my action in walking out of a house and relying entirely on the goodwill of others to reach my destination when I had in the security pouch around my neck a non-refundable bucket shop ticket on a flight departing from Heathrow the following morning required an almost crazy optimism. If no-one had stopped, I would have missed my plane. Yet I didn’t even set off until the afternoon was half gone.
I was relaxed about time, and deadlines.
These days, my grown-up kids send me jokey stories about a man getting his family to the airport 14 hours early, to be on the safe side.
Excerpt from my diary for 13 April 1979, shortly before I set off for the States:
I’ve been reading a few good books – “Zuleika Dobson”, “The Good Soldier Schweik”, and “On the Road” – the last two in particular are magnificent in telling one how to carry on in an apparently indifferent world. The main key to a cheerful existence is highly obviously either a massive faith, or else friends, to whom one can explain one’s problems and anxieties and get answers and suggestions – like prayers. Anyone I make love to, I think, I really talk to – lying in the half-light. Remember how A. was a different, infinitely wiser and more beautiful person afterwards. “It’s funny how it brings you closer together,” she said, but it isn’t really.
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