The rich life of hitchhiking in former communist countries
In the West, hitchhiking seems a highly individual activity, yet for millions of people growing up in the former Soviet Union and its East European counterparts, sharing the road was part of everyday life for decades. Active promotion of hitchhiking in Poland and Russia in the 1950s and 1960s through voucher schemes to benefit the economy and national pride generated hitchhiking clubs and competitions, which have ironically become a huge inspiration for twenty-first century hitching in the West. This chapter traces these events and presents some of the big names of Russian ‘free travel’ and hitchhiking expeditions (Anton Krotov and Alexej Vorov). It contrasts their organisational culture with some of the networks in the West (e.g. the European Hitchhiker Gatherings) and considers how important they are to one another. The chapter also explores the paradox of competitive hitchhiking and illustrates how inspirational such things might be for generating international connectivity and problem-solving.
Hitchhikers sometimes reflect on their road days as being the 'freest' moments of their lives. Arguably the most unburdened cohort of roadside travellers was the immediate post-war generation, able to explore places which to their parents were just names on a map. In doing so, they glimpsed an optimism and sense of internationalism forged out of new roadside alliances with the young of other nations also looking beyond the era of war and austerity. This chapter assesses the broadening social as well as geographical horizons of a handful of diarists and authors whose perspectives steadily challenged the liberal democratic assumptions of freedom that the new Cold War politics tried to impose upon them. Rather than seeing liberty as a quality defined by the 'political contract' between State and citizen, we see the evolution of new narratives of freedom – firstly questioning the sexism of hitchhiking culture and then the assumptions of post-war consumerism as an end in itself – with some choosing to broaden their political horizons on the so-called ‘Hippie Trail’ in the 1960s.
Being on the kerbside affords one a different view of the time and space through which one is travelling. It has led many hitchhikers to write, paint, sculpt and photograph the world in a unique, direct and arguably more overtly political manner than might be achieved by other forms of mobility. Such a position warrants more research, one might think, yet hitchhiking has rarely had much in the way of systematic academic or even popular analysis, beyond the specialist article or generalised news feature. Using Jacob Holdt’s notion of a ‘vagabond sociology’, the author proposes a way of building up an understanding of the nature of power in a society as viewed through the eyes of the hitchhiker as a prospective roadside theorist.
This chapter examines the politics of the travelling song – in particular, the struggles of different marginalised groups or sections of society, moving from Woody Guthrie and ‘Memphis Minnie’ during the years of the Great Depression, to how ‘the road’ became central to the politics and culture of the civil rights campaigns during the 1960s. Many of the same themes are reprised in the 1980s, with a short case study of the moral panic about New Age travellers (whom the author stayed with on one of his hitchhiking journeys) and the closing down of some ‘public spaces’ to control alternative lifestyles. Today, activists and musicians sculpt their own songs of the open road via more niche web-based communities that overlap with a globally connected resurgent hitchhiking culture, some of which is a result of enforced migration.
This chapter offers a clear position on the beginning of hitchhiking by contrasting the early twentieth-century rambling gentleman vagabonds of the likes of Tickner Edwardes and Vachel Lindsay with the 'first hitchhiker' of the motor age, Charles Brown Jr, whose 800-mile journey from Fort Wayne to New York City in October 1916 marks the moment when a new form of lift-seeking became possible. Brown’s journey is a touchstone for looking at the place of hitchhiking in the history of mutual aid and transport: how the basics of signalling have evolved and differed across particular cultures, as sharing the road has moved from pragmatic economic experience to an ‘art’ or ‘science’ worthy of guidebooks and cultural commentary, to online ‘twitch-hiking’.
All conversations about hitchhiking dovetail on the subject of human nature. Where better then to examine the topic in truly challenging sets of circumstances, when people’s best and worst sides come to the fore? This chapter starts with the story of Ida and Maurice Piller, two Jewish Belgians hitchhiking across occupied France in 1940 trying to find enough kindness and hope en route to ensure a passage away from the Nazis. The chapter suggests that the experiences of those on the road during times of conflict allows us insight into the realities of human cooperation and are lessons in terms of how we organise our societies to prevent the slide into what Zygmunt Bauman called the 'ambivalence' of modernity or Hannah Arendt called the 'banality of evil'. The anthropological record offers much cause for optimism if we humanise one another and see less 'like a state' and believe more in our potential for mutual aid (as occurred with the massive reorganisation of transport in Britain between 1939 and 1944 – although history seems to have omitted the narrative of a 'nation of hitchhikers'). Many of these arguments are reprised at the end of this chapter in terms of responses to the ongoing 'border crisis' in Europe, with some remarkable examples of mutual aid shown by contemporary hitchhiking organisations towards their refugee and asylum-seeker counterparts.
Hitchhiking and the increasing levels of trust in the world
Hitchhiking and the Fall! Everyone has a theory about why hitchhiking declined in many parts of the world, from the practical to the conspiratorial. Some of these speculations have been facilitated by the concurrent rise of litigation culture and the globalisation of the media. The roadside realities are the massive increase in private car ownership and cheaper public transport which has impacted on the capacity of hitchhiking to continue from one generation to another. The narrative of declining trust, often linked to nostalgia, belies a more pronounced and positive democratic shift within societies rather than the reverse, largely down to the emergence of new social movements and critiques of power that have emerged in the last half century. The chapter suggests that trust ties have become stronger in a global age and that the kind of trust underpinning hitchhiking can be seen in many local transport or hospitality organisations outside the formal economic sector. The millennial generation, responding to the climate crisis, are better placed to see this than the baby-boomer generation, and the renewed interest in hitchhiking through global television series such as Peking Express, the ongoing realities of hitchhiking in Cuba and the rise of 'casual carpooling' in the USA suggest a more positive future for trust relations.
Economics and tourism work best when they involve the participation and respect of those they impact on the most. As the ecological consequences of unlimited growth economics become ever more evident, it is helpful to think about alternatives to it, from the point of view of the 'experience value' of trade and our connection to others – as evidenced by the rise in interest in 'gift economies' and alternative indices to gross domestic product (GDP). Drawing on the anthropological ideas of Marcel Mauss and David Graeber, the chapter uses a number of hitchhiking situations in a variety of African nations to take a more people-centred way of solving complex problems outwith the top-down solutions proposed by the World Bank or International Monetary Fund. This is similar to how to think about travellers and their connection with the cultures they visit. The chapter follows a number of exemplary 'responsible travellers' over the last half century and argues that a 'slower' approach to travel facilitates a more ecological and just set of economic transactions in the future.
Travel and talk in the age of pandemics and extinction
The COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing climate crisis have made us all think more seriously about our mental health and the importance of communication and meeting other people, whilst raising questions about the future of travel itself. All societies have so-called confessional spaces, and hitchhiking has played a significant (but non-quantifiable) role in allowing many a frustrated driver to let off a bit of steam, as well as imparting advice and company in return. This chapter tackles the idea of mental health and travel, and suggests that we need to factor in our isolation when we devise sustainable communities and mobilities in the future. Drawing on the own reasons for the book being written, the chapter suggests that we might look to integrate mobile counsellor figures into our transport system to help alleviate some of the escalating problems within our societies at a time of isolation, social uncertainty and ecological breakdown.
A ‘romantic and gallant and even brilliant adventure’
Many hitchhikers experience a moment of revelation the first time they do it, regarding its possibilities for cooperation in the wider world. This overview of the themes of the book, contrasts the more Romantic view of travel with its Hobbesian counterpart and suggests that the (largely hidden) history of hitchhiking provides us with a critical position from which to examine how we look at one another and why we organise our societies the way we do.