Last week I was in Sheffield without the means to get home. There are precious few buses at the best of times, but at 8pm you're more likely to see a herd of reindeer heading out to the Peak. There was a train, but wasn't for an hour and would have required a two mile walk or getting a bus to the station. Hitchhiking it was then. I've thumbed a lift for many thousands of miles in my life in Snowdonia, the Peak, Norway, Canada and a host of other places. Without fail I find it to be a most rewarding way to travel, and without fail I've met interesting people and had really great conversations and experiences. There was the time I had a hospital appointment to check out my kidney stones and found myself stranded in Hathersage as the timetabled bus simply failed to turn up; I stood in the bus stop, put out my thumb, and was immediately picked up by a guy in a rather shaky looking camper van who got me there on time. I remember some sketchy rides in Canada, and one in Norway where a very young me learned the word 'paradox' as it was spoken by a native Norwegian. But last night's experience goes to the top of my list for sheer awesomeness.
It was dark and I'd foolishly worn a black jumper and some jeans so I was having to jog from street light to street light as I made my way towards the edge of town. I'd covered about a mile and was becoming increasingly cheesed off with the stream of one-person-to-a-vehicle commuter traffic hell bent on ignoring me despite the fact that it was dark and I clearly needed a lift. As is so often the way when hitching, just as you convince yourself that mankind has truly lost its way a little white hatchback literally screeched to a halt. I ran up as he wound down his window.
"Where are you headed?" came a pretty excited voice from inside. "Grindleford". There was a pause as he clearly tried to remember where in the world that is. "I'm not going there". A seed of doubt as he began to back out of what was clearly a rash decision to have stopped in the first place. "Where are you going?" Another pause. "Chesterfield". "OK, could you drop me on the edge of town? I reckon it'll be easier to get a lift from there". Another pause. Slightly longer. "Sure". And with that I met Eddy. No sooner had I sat down than he hit me with a barrage of questions. What was my name, how old was I, what did I do, where did I live, why was I hitching. I managed a few questions of my own. Most of his answers culminated in the word 'Mint' or 'Sorted'. Eddy had worked a 13 hour shift at a printers in town. He looked tired, but barely paused for breath. We discussed the route as we came towards the edge of town, at which point he sighed, and offered to go home via Grindleford. What a gent.
That could easily be the end of the story. A really nice ending too. But it wasn't.
As we headed uphill into the Peak a beam of light in the woods to our left caught his attention. We started talking about mountain biking. His plan for the weekend was to get drunk and drown his sorrows on Saturday and then spend Sunday biking on Blacka Moor. We swapped tales on biking and I mentioned the events I organise. I figured he may like the MTB programmes at ShAFF, and the Howard Street Dual. He was more than enthusiastic about it all. So full of life it was amazing.
As we dropped down into Grindleford I began to explain to him the route he needed to take to get home to Chesterfield, somehow sensing that he wasn't that familiar with the area. It was then that he looked across with a sheepish grin and admitted that he was 19, he didn't actually live in Chesterfield, but that I was the first hitchhiker he had ever picked up, he'd done it on the spur of the moment, and lied about where he lived in case I was a bad guy! It had taken less than five minutes in the car together for him to recalibrate and offer to take me home. It turned out he lived about a mile from where he had picked me up! I gave him a business card, told him to look at my website and email me to tell me which event he liked the look of most and I'd put him on the guest list. I got out the car buzzing. It had been a genuinely awesome encounter and only served to reinforce to me that hitchhiking really ought to be more commonly practiced on our roads.
It's a mystery to me why virtually everybody believes hitchhiking to be dangerous. In my experience, both hitching and picking up, the people who do it are amongst the most interesting I have met. Why wouldn't you spend a while talking to a stranger whilst simultaneously doing a good deed instead of simply driving home on your tod? The most frustrating thing is that I think it is human nature to get along and to find interesting things to talk about, and that had pretty much any one of those hundreds of cars that passed me last night stopped, we'd have both gone to bed last nigh a little more rounded and fulfilled. It's that act of stopping and engaging that it the killer. Sadly we are becoming more programmed to fly through on auto pilot and ignore. The same thing happened when I was cycling to London with the boys in the summer. We'd stopped at a pub on a very hot afternoon somewhere random. We were playing bar billiards and nursing some lime and soda's to avoid heading back out into the heat. There was a guy sitting at the bar chatting to the barmaid. We'd been there half an hour and they had ignored us, but as we were leaving I thanked the barman for having us, and the guy at the bar asked where we'd come from. When I replied Sheffield it prompted a barrage of conversation and genuine interest. It took a spark to ignite the conversation, and then human nature took over. Talk to strangers, pick up hitchhikers, and remember, we're friendly up north… Oh, and Eddy, if you read this, don't forget to get in touch and tell me which event you fancy. What a gent.