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The Vanishing Hitch-Hiker

Adam Weymouth

Why do so few people thumb lifts nowadays? Leaving aside safety concerns and horror stories, seasoned hitcher ADAM WEYMOUTH detects a shift in our western notion of hospitality towards strangers.


Several months ago, after joining environmental protests at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, I hitched the thousand or so miles back to my home in England. It took a little less than two days. I met truckers from Denmark, Germany and Slovenia; plasterers; a driving instructor; a biologist; a butcher; an academic. Many of them had once thumbed themselves, back in hitching's tie-dyed heyday, and almost all told me it was a dying art, that no one will pick you up these days.

It seemed a strange point of view given that they themselves had stopped. As I ambled through the night in Matias' cab somewhere between Kolding and Hamburg, I pondered the anecdotal evidence trawled out by hitchers, drivers and media alike. They tell you about a spate of hitch-hiking murders several years ago. They tell you the world is a more dangerous place than it used to be. But for the first time that night, I found myself looking for something deeper. I began to wonder what this decline in hitch-hiking might tell us about ourselves.

There is a tale about a hitch-hiker that has entered folklore, and is retold and respun in a myriad of ways. It travels by the name of 'The Vanishing Hitch-Hiker'. It's the sort of tale that gets told round the fire late at night, and what follows is one version:

A man is driving home along a country lane late one night when he comes across a young woman hitching by the side of the road. He stops to pick her up - it turns out she's only going a few miles further, to where she lives with her parents in the next village along. The woman sits in the back seat. They talk for a few minutes, and then they fall silent. He switches on the radio and the car rolls along, until finally they pull up outside her house. He turns around, and she's disappeared. Shocked, he goes to the house to knock and tell her parents what has happened. An old lady opens the door. She tells the man that the girl he describes was her daughter, who died in a car crash several years previously at the very spot where he picked her up.

A simple, homely sort of ghost story. Yet interesting in what we can learn from it, and from its various incarnations. In many of the retellings, the hitch-hiker has some sort message, frequently a spiritual one, to deliver to the driver before they disappear.

In Indiana, the story has become entwined with tales about the Mexican spirit La Llorona, while in Hawaii a version has been told for close to a hundred years that associates the hitch-hiker with Pele, the goddess of volcanoes. Elsewhere in the USA, 'The Vanishing Hitch-hiker' has become associated with the Mormon 'Three Nephite' tradition, concerning beings who can appear to individuals in whatever form they choose, to help them through times of stress and need.1

And then there is another version, unrelated in derivation yet possibly related in the subconscious, which appears in the Bible. The apostle Philip hitches a ride with an Ethiopian eunuch in his chariot. Halfway home Philip takes the Ethiopian down to a river and baptises him, whereupon he disappears. (Acts 8: 26-39). The charioteer carries on his way 'full of joy'.2

What these stories are getting at, it seems, is that when you encounter a stranger, you never know who or what you're going to get. Hitch-hiking, where two strangers are placed in an enclosed and intimate space for a length of time, is an almost unique situation, and as such is a particularly good metaphor for this uncertainty. When we pull over to pick up a roadside stranger the person getting into our car may just be our salvation.

Unfortunately, we are more inclined to imagine that they'll be the end of us. A plethora of 80s horror films suggest this, the most well known being The Hitcher, starring Rutger Hauer as a psychotic and motiveless hitch-hiker, chasing a suitably tight-jeaned and wind-swept young man. It is his very lack of motive that makes him terrifying. Strangers are unknowable, it says. You cannot risk trusting them, because you cannot understand them.

How we feel about hitch-hiking, as individuals and as a society, comes down to how we feel about hospitality. Its etymology derives from 'hostiles', meaning stranger, and 'pets' to give power. Hospitality, then, is giving power to the stranger. Jacques Derrida gave much attention to hospitality in his later work, exposing and embracing its contradictions. What is true hospitality? It is having your door open, any time, to anyone, to the Other, and giving them whatever they ask for. We must be prepared to do this for whoever requests it. And it is here that his work on hospitality converges with his writings on the messianic. For the messianic, also, appears as a visitation, not an invitation.3

By nature this is riddled with risk, and taken to its logical extreme is more or less unworkable. This was absolutely Derrida's point. But it was not his point in order to show it as something futile. Instead, as John Caputo points out, Derrida aimed to 'open hospitality up ... For it is only that internal tension and instability that keeps the idea of hospitality alive, open, loose. If it is not beyond itself, it falls back into itself and becomes a bit of ungracious meanness, that is, hostile.'4


Certainly there is a risk in hitch-hiking, for both the hitcher and the hitched. To pretend that there isn't is facile. Following Derrida's thinking, its inherent risk is part of the very point. It cannot be ordered and it cannot be controlled. When it becomes coordinated by vouchers and internet profiles, when it becomes lift sharing, it stops being hitch-hiking. And while the various forms of pooling cars are all good things in their own way, they are no more hitch-hiking than a train up a mountain is the same as rock-climbing.

'While Derrida is not encouraging reckless behaviour, he is saying that the only way to eliminate the risk built into hospitality is to eliminate hospitality itself by screening the guests so carefully that every trace of wel-coming the other has been extinguished. There is always a risk in everything worth-while.'5
We no longer seem to speak of good risks, of risks worth taking. Instead we obsess about control. We live in a world in which we attempt to control as much as possible. We do this, perversely, by destroy­ing the sorts of things that truly keep us safe. I am thinking in particular of com­munity and of hospitality towards the stranger. We shift the pressure of control onto ourselves in a never-ending and escalating frenzy as the world outside the window, outside the windshield, be­comes increasingly scary. Our attempts to remove the risk from life seem to do little more than make us terrified of life's shadows, while risk itself seems to be less connected to individual events, and more of an amorphous phantom that looms over everything we do.

And yet, while the horror films, the decline in hitch-hiking and an hysterical media all seem to speak a truth about our perception of strangers today, and therefore the resultant decline in hitchhiking, it does not appear to tell the whole of the story. It is tempting to say simply that we are now terrified of the stranger,  but there is something more complex going on. For, as I've said before, hitchhiking does not seem to be dead. It is just woefully under-practised. A friend recently carried out a study of a hundred lifts he was given in Scotland, and found that his average waiting time was 24 minutes. Not that much more than a bus. So what is going on?

I'm led to this as a possible conclusion. What if it is the hitchers that are the ones that are scared of the Other, rather than the drivers? What if it's my generation, the twenty-somethings, the supposedly tough and fearless youth, that are the ones who are too scared to relinquish their control to someone else. After all, we have grown up in a more controlled and ordered environment than any generation before us. What if it is us that cannot bear the uncertainty, who see strangers increasingly less like the Messiah, and more like Rutger Hauer? Certainly I am picked up less by young drivers than by anyone else, and I don't believe that this is because young people are less likely to own cars. Enough of them give me the finger as they drive past.

In the Second World War, there was a boom of goodwill towards the servicemen and women found hitch-hiking home on leave. The baton was taken up by the culture of the sixties, and those who had hitched through the wars now had cars and a debt to repay. Many of the drivers who pick me up now themselves hitched in the sixties and seventies, and are looking to reciprocate the hospitality shown towards them. They were strangers once, and they open their doors to the strangers of today. So the cycle continues, for the moment. Yet I wonder who will pick up the next generation of hitch-hikers as they stand by the road for weeks on end with their signs dissolving in the rain. If my generation does not hitch, this cycle of hospitality slows to a halt, and fear of the stranger knows no bounds. Hitch-hiking is not a dead art, but it may well be one generation away from extinction.

Often during these rides I am asked if I hitch for environmental reasons, and yes, I suppose I do. But there is a danger of reductio ad carbon emissions - whether you are measuring the carbon footprint of a home-cooked meal or a baby - in that it can suck much of the beauty from an act. I believe an openness to strangers is a much deeper environmental benefit than one fewer car journey could ever be. This is not an intellectual argument, but a practical one. Stick out your thumb and see what happens. And, if you can find a hitch-hiker, stop and pick someone up. Without beginning to cultivate a deep empathy for the stranger, and without learning to trust the unpredictable nature of the world, it's difficult to see what else we can achieve.

1 Bruvand, J. H. (1981) The Vanishing Hitchhiker at
2 See Wechner, B. (2010) Hitch-Hiking in the Bible at:
3 I am indebted to both Gerry and Carson Aiken for their discussions and ideas on hospitality and hitchhiking.
4 Caputo, J. D. Deconstruction in a Nutshell: Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University, 1996), p112
5 Caputo, J.D. What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), p77