If you walked to the end of Trumpington Street at the end of term in 1984, you would see something you no longer see today: a line of students stood at the end of the road, apparently queuing for nothing. Like most histories of hitchhiking, this comes to me by word of mouth – in this case, from a journalist who studied at Cambridge in the ’80s. These students were waiting for rides back to London, and he was occasionally one of them. Schlebecker (one of the few academics on hitchhiking I could find) suggests that something similar was going on in America, writing that many students in the ’30s “considered any other form of transportation as slightly reprehensible”.

That’s hard to imagine today. The “crazy, illuminated hipsters” that Kerouac describes “suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitching everywhere” jump into the mind without much effort – the entire graduating class of ’39, less so. But it happened. Even Ronald Reagan was once “ragged, beautiful, beautific in an ugly graceful new way”; his youth described by an interviewer as “the true American hero story – hitchhiking […] to get [a] job”. That isn’t counterculture – it’s just culture.

“My own grandmother, after hearing of my plans to hitchhike back to Cambridge, approached me as though I’d signed up to fight in a war”

So what happened? When I’ve asked older generations, the standard answer is that hitchhiking isn’t as safe as it used to be. My own grandmother, after hearing of my plans to hitchhike back to Cambridge, approached me as though I’d signed up to fight in a war. The other, who hitchhiked to Yugoslavia herself when that was still geographically possible, was less horrified and more personally sceptical.

Nevertheless, I felt I should give it a go. If you ask further questions of the safety answer, the reasoning becomes transparently unclear. What’s to blame for hitchhiking becoming so unsafe: general moral decline? Faster cars? Hitchhiker and driver are both caught, spider and human, neither sure who’s meant to be more afraid of the other.

Joshua's ticket to CambridgeJoshua Shortman with permission for Varsity

There are legitimate reasons to consider hitchhiking unsafe – I’ll return to those – but no less safe than the ’80s. Those hitchhikers left without mobile phones, often without paper maps. I was able to text photos of licence plates to my girlfriend, share my GPS, and use Google Maps to check the nearest train stations. If it all went wrong, I could bankrupt myself and call a taxi. It was with these reassurances that I stumbled out of my house one morning, and stuck out my thumb. Two cars passed, and the second pulled over. My immediate feeling was mild panic: the chances of this being repeatable seemed astonishingly low, which presumably meant I was about to be marooned on a roundabout for the rest of the day. I talked nervously to the driver, trying to focus on stories about her brother hitchhiking to Poland in search of wild bison. He was unsuccessful: although promisingly, due more to unsociable bison than drivers.

“I did have to wait for an hour at one point in suburban Bedfordshire”

I did have to wait for an hour at one point in suburban Bedfordshire: walking through turfed-up roundabouts and trying to stand out from roadwork signs. I’d tried hitching earlier, on a leafy street, and it was the only time I felt mad for holding up my cardboard sign. There’s something immediately explicable, and pitiable, about standing on the side of an A-road that didn’t apply to the ample pavements of Great Barford or Wyboston. Not possessing a car of my own was clearly ridiculous, and (in the eyes of the few drivers I was able to catch), a little embarrassing.

But when Cathy (my first ride) dropped me off, the wait was less than 20 minutes: and except for Bedfordshire, this held true for the rest of the day. I reached Cambridge in eight and a half hours – less time than it’s taken me to drive in bad traffic. All in all, I caught five lifts, with a further three drivers pulling over before discovering they were headed the wrong way.

As Allan – my third ride, driving his family in a caravan – pointed out, this raised the question of whether my premise was correct: perhaps hitchhiking wasn’t dead. He didn’t think so; he’d been doing it since his youth and regularly picked up hitchhikers with “trade plates” (the removable plates on cars being delivered to their owners – it’s apparently common practice for drivers to save money by hitching back). Lee, a lonely traveller – in his words “just mooching about Cambridge” – who saved me from Bedfordshire and shared his cigarettes, mentioned them too.

Everyone agreed, however, that hitchhiking had seen a decline. Allan put this down largely to the introduction of dash-cams in coaches and lorries – whose bored drivers had long provided the backbone of hitchhiking. With the knowledge that their bosses could be surveilling, alongside harsher company regulations, most wouldn’t risk it anymore. A coach driver himself, Allan said he’d only pick up hitchhikers when off the job.

“There was such a disparity between the size of my thumb and the huge smooth oblong it had summoned, that it seemed easier to believe there was no connection at all”

It was partly for this reason that, after being dropped off in a layby near Newbury, I hesitated when a coach pulled in. There was such a disparity between the size of my thumb and the huge smooth oblong it had summoned, that it seemed easier to believe there was no connection at all; it wasn’t until a hand leant out of the window and waved at me that I realised I should pick up my bags and run. After catching my breath, I asked the coach driver why he’d stopped to pick me up. “Ah,” he replied: “when I was your age, I hitchhiked Italy. You needed a lift.” We talked about his son – who wrote poetry too modern for Janusz to understand – and listened to James Taylor on Polish radio. From Newbury to Oxford, I rode at the front of the empty coach, surveying my lands.

Joshua's hitchhiking signJoshua Shortman with permission for Varsity

Having children, I noticed, was a common theme: Jim and Kate, my lift out of Wincanton, had a son with my name who’d hitchhiked South Africa; Cathy was a pastoral lead at a local school; and Allan told me (I think) that I’d made him feel maternal. To some extent I’d manufactured this – shaving off my moustache and getting hold of a colourful jumper – but I was also lucky not to face any obstacles that couldn’t be overcome by a new jumper and a shave. I’m a young man, who probably resembles a Cambridge student in the minds of middle England. Especially in Dorset, where I began (and where Jim and Kate’s shop is named after a Rupert Brooke poem), I imagine this worked in my favour. The only lifts I potentially missed out on were from women driving alone, from whom I’d occasionally get a rueful head-shake. Although Jim and Kate stressed that anyone from their family would have picked me up (including Kate’s 80-year-old mum), Kate amended that if she was driving alone she’d only pick up girls.

It’s a valid concern, which I don’t wish to diminish. Websites like hitch-wikis, or ‘Wand’rly’ often attempt to prove hitchhiking is statistically safe – stating that you’re “three times more likely to die in a car crash than by being murdered,” and concluding that your chances of being murdered while hitchhiking are even lower. There are many problems there; the first being that if you choose to enter a room full of murderers, then your odds change – and nobody really knows to what extent getting in a stranger’s car equates to that kind of decision. The number of hitchhiking-related crimes is astronomically low, but we can assume the number of hitchhikers isn’t exactly high either, and the data we’d need to work it out just doesn’t exist. Apart from the odd book, hitchhiking doesn’t usually leave a paper trail unless something goes wrong.

“Thousands of us pay to get in strangers’ vehicles every night, and (providing you take the measures I did) the only thing making Uber safer is the guarantee that your driver has a license and no criminal record”

Nevertheless, I still think it’s safer than it used to be. Thousands of us pay to get in strangers’ vehicles every night, and (providing you take the measures I did) the only thing making Uber safer is the guarantee that your driver has a license and no criminal record. The reason we’re willing to pay for this service but turn it down for free – I’d argue – comes back to Reagan. As car ownership rose and commercial alternatives increased, the suburban distaste towards hitching sublimated into policy: ’50s legislation increasingly discouraged it, and by at least 1966 the FBI was producing posters of hitchhikers titled ‘Death in Disguise’ signed by J. Edgar Hoover. Hitchhiking was a bête noir of his, in part because it allowed students to gather for civil rights marches. By the ’70s, Police officers were distributing anti-hitching leaflets on campuses, and come Reagan – stranger danger and D.A.R.E – the triumph of commercial over communal travel was complete. Uber, with its underpaid and exploited drivers, was in some ways the inevitable conclusion.


Mountain View

Vying for royal attention: Cambridge’s history of pomp and ceremony

This has disadvantages that extend beyond the obvious. E. P. Thompson wrote about how employment (particularly during the Industrial Revolution) shifted our conceptions of time, from time perceived through natural rhythms or tasks, towards time-as-cost. I think a similar thing has happened to distance. If I want to be in Cornwall, Cambridge, or London, the obstacle is no longer distance but money. Cornwall isn’t 150 miles away from where I live – it’s £70 away by train, or £40 by car (not counting hidden costs or return journeys). There’s something uniquely miserable about this, even if you can afford the fare. It makes every decision financial – whether or not to see an old friend, or travel somewhere new. In a country with some of the worst, and most privatised, public transport in Europe, that decision is usually an uncomfortable one.

Hitchhiking is not an answer to this, but it provides a moment of liberation. It transforms not only how we see the world, but how we see each other – changing the relationship between driver and passenger, from consumer to human – something that was starkly obvious while talking to Janusz, in the front of his empty, branded coach.

There’s a tendency in our society for ‘freedom’ to become equated with ‘market freedom’: the idea that the market affords individual freedom through the transferrable medium of currency. Standing in a layby, entirely reliant on strangers, amid the dusty cans and plastic bags of worn-out A-roads, might not sound much like freedom either. But although the practice of hitchhiking has almost died, the cultural memory is yet to catch up. People still understand what you’re doing if you stand on the side of the road with your thumb out, and it turns out, they still pick you up. Walking around Cambridge with an armful of used cardboard, I’ve never felt freer.