Traveling through Iceland on a recent family vacation granted us everything the travel websites promised. It’s a small country so dense with wonders and surprises that one is tempted to find the pull-down screen with Disneyland creators behind it.
Wild horses. Geysers and glaciers. Waterfalls and volcanoes. Oddly ubiquitous hot dog stands with delicious offerings. Twenty-two hours of daily sunlight during our visit.
Ours was a physical, stupendous, unforgettable trip. So it seems ungrateful to admit that among the most profound images I left with were not fire and ice, or puffins, as adorable as they are.
It was the steady stream of men and women, some with children, most of them solo, with their thumbs out along the Ring Road that encircles the island.
Hitchhikers. Everywhere, hitchhikers.
The image made me weirdly sad for my country. When was the last time you saw a hitchhiker in the United States?
Sure, our country is huge. Our highways are vast and complex and potentially dangerous if you meet up with a speeder or drinker or texter.
None of that stops us from getting into our cars, mind you. So, what might push us out of our cars again, to hitch a ride? Or, at least, push us out of our comfort zone to pick up somebody?
There are compelling reasons to do so, starting with aiding our precious and vulnerable planet.
But the societal benefits would be enormous, plagued as we are now with unfounded fear and growing disdain of one another.
I’ll admit that my take on hitchhiking is powered by romance and nostalgia, and a long-lost paperback copy of Tom Robbins’ “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.”
Less controlled than a Study Abroad Program (the route I took), thumbs-out travel seemed to my young adult mind a freer way to meet the world, taste its spices, develop skills and confidence emboldened by uncompromised freedom.
Ultimately, hitchhiking was a powerful statement that the world was largely safe, that people were mostly good.
So I was heartened on my return home from Iceland to find many young people confirming that the world remains largely safe, that people are mostly good and that hitchhiking is alive and well for all the right reasons.
“In many people’s eyes, hitchhiking is super scary and dangerous, but there are rare reports of any incidents in hitchhiking groups,” said 19-year-old Max Boelk, responding via a Facebook group called HitchGathering.
It has brought together adventurous travelers from across the world since 2008.
‘People … are good’
Boelk, who was born in Germany and works in Canada, has hitchhiked in his home country as well as a dozen more, from Denmark to India.
Alessio Amato, 24, e-mailed me while he hitchhiked from Barcelona to his hometown about 30 miles north of Milan.
“I have hitchhiked approximately 25,000 kilometers between Europe, Western Asia and a couple of times in Africa,” wrote Amato, who was featured on the Italian website viaggiaredasoli.net, after hitchhiking solo from Italy to Armenia and back.
“There seems to be a heavy fearmongering in North American media when it comes to hitchhikers,” he said, when asked why young Americans seem to be less adventurous.
He is among many young people who hope that will change.
“When hitchhiking, you get picked up by all kinds of people,” said Ivan Dogic, a 32-year-old from Croatia. He’s hitched through more than 20 countries over the past three years (including a war zone in Asia), and never feared for his safety.
“You get picked up by old, young, male, female, rich, poor, happy, disappointed, and they all tell you their opinion about something so you can form your own middle. There is no better way to learn than to talk to random people and be exposed to random situations.”
And random Americans.
Thomas Francine, a middle school teacher in Edison, N.J., has hitchhiked plenty in the U.S. — including Minnesota, which he calls “fantastic.”
“Hitchhiking through America was incredible,” said Francine, 30, who did most of his traveling in his early 20s, tallying more than 26,000 miles in 35 states and 15 countries. He produces documentaries for his website gogreatergood.com, which promotes his hitchhiking experiences — and his belief in humanity.
“People across all spectrums of gender, race, politics, careers, education, are good,” he countered. “We have more in common than we think we do. The world is much safer than ever before. And, risk-taking is important for meaning and joy.”
He recalls a family that picked him up in Nevada, heading to Washington state. “By the time we got to their town, it was quite late, and they said I should stay with them for the night, as often happens. But one night turned into a few nights, and that turned into a few more nights. I ended up living with them for a few months and they became my second family, who I still regularly keep in touch with and visit.”
He added, “Thousands and thousands of hitchhikers have had the same kinds of experiences. That’s why I made my documentary: to show that kindness is typical across the world.
“You can’t live in too much fear, because even though the world can be dangerous, it is to a greater extent truly beautiful, and full of wonderful and kind people.”
Despite an assumption that hitchhiking is even more dangerous for women, plenty share his sentiment. “I usually feel safe hitchhiking on my own,” said Nina Sodin, 29, who has hitchhiked in her home country of Israel, as well as Europe and South America. (She sometimes carries pepper spray or a whistle, but has never used them.)
“The exceptions are hitchhiking in areas where it’s hard for a pedestrian to be standing safely (which I avoid when possible) and hitchhiking in the dark,” said Sodin, who makes comic strips about her adventures at roamingpencil.com.
For young Americans interested in hitchhiking, she suggests they visit blogs and Facebook groups, such as Hitchwiki (hitchwiki.org) and Hitchlog (hitchlog.com), where “they can find authentic experiences, rather than advice from people who have never tried and assume it’s dangerous or impossible.”
David Fry is the senior pastor of Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church in Georgia, retiring after 32 years. This week, he wrote about hitchhiking, about feeling nostalgic for “faded memories of rides caught from age 15 or so until my senior year of college … of my first time in the cab of an eighteen-wheeler semi; my first offer of a toke (let the record show that I declined); the ride when I soon realized my driver was blind. Not a single memory of being in danger from my temporary host.”
A hitchhiker, Fry believes, needs three qualities: “A basic faith in the kindness of strangers, an embrace of adventure, and a willingness to change routes.
“I’m beginning to think of hitchhiking as an act of faith, which requires the same qualities,” he said.
“I wonder if the early Apostolic Fathers ever thumbed.”
Hitchhiking resources and reads
Books: “Riding With Strangers: A Hitchhiker’s Journey,” Elijah Wald; “Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America,” John Waters; “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” Tom Robbins; “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Douglas Adams; “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac.