A Decline of Hitchhiking, Trust and Civility

                                                                         By John W. Prince

Hitchhiking, trust and civility have declined, almost to the point of extinction some might say, over the past few decades. I believe that there is a connection.

My primary mode of travel for many years was hitchhiking both in North America and Europe. It was as natural as breathing. All you needed was a smile, a good attitude, patience and a desire to go somewhere. I’ve hitch hiked alone, with other people and as part of a group.

We would leave from north London around 9 pm on a Friday and meet in meet in North Wales in time for breakfast on Saturday morning. We hitchhiked several hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. And the people who gave me/us rides were trusting, sharing and altogether wonderful.

They gave us countless meals, hot showers and overnight accommodation, tours of their favorite places, innumerable beers, souvenirs and stories galore. Many of them didn’t speak English, or any language that we understood. But there is a universal lingua franca among people that combines hysterical hand gestures, facial expressions and sounds that supersede formal communication. Everyone got the joke. Eventually.

A man from Oslo stopped at a police station and found an officer who spoke English. He wanted to offer us an overnight stay, showers, dinner and breakfast at his beautiful high-rise apartment overlooking the Olympic ski jump. Two American military officers backtracked for miles to find me and return the camera I had inadvertently left in their car. I spent an incredible weekend in the Black Forest with the family of a well-known artist because their son picked me up and took me home for the weekend.

I could go on for many pages.

Hitchhiking was just the vehicle – no pun intended – for a vastly larger quality: Trust and civility.

People, generally speaking, trusted each other and were civil, even when there were severe cultural differences.

An old Greek gentleman in the South Peloponnese plied me with ouzo at an outdoor wedding while announcing that even if I was Turkish (the Turks and Greeks are not exactly the best of friends), he would welcome and offer me hospitality because I was a guest in his country. That, in my estimation, is civility at its finest.

Just the act of picking up an unknown someone on the side of the road is an ultimate act of trust. How could the driver be sure I wasn’t going to rob or kill him for his shoes? While hitchhiking I was often in dire need of a bath, haircut and laundromat having spent the night in a cozy ditch or farm field. People stopped anyway because, I like to believe, they wanted to help no matter how disheveled I appeared.

But, the world has moved on and we have lost some good things in the process.

I’m not sure which came first: The decline in hitchhiking, trust or civility. Maybe they all failed together at the same rate. I seldom see a hitchhiker any more. When I do, I pretend not to notice them, like most other people. I’ve read too many stories about drivers who were stabbed to death while the hitchhiker stole their car and money and shoes. I don’t trust them like before. I should, but I don’t.

Civility has also died a similar slow, painful death. We sit in restaurants and stare at our smart devices instead of talking with each other. We don’t lean over and ask the person at the next table, “How was your meal?” or “Where are you from?” Instead we glare at them because they said grace before beginning their meal or their kids are noisy or they’re dressed strangely (by our arbitrary standards). Do we talk to our neighbors? The people sitting next to us on the bus? Do rabid Republicans actually talk with diehard Democrats? And vice versa? Do we offer them hospitality just because they’re a guest in our country?

Another quality we lost with hitchhiking – it’s an ideal environment for contemplation. Somewhere on a windy Austrian highway many year ago I developed Hitcher’s Law.

“The longer the wait between rides and the further you walk, the better the next ride will be.”

Civility and trust may have gone by the board but, at least for me, Hitcher’s Law remains true.

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