A Harpists Guide to Hitchhiking

It seems almost a faux pas to be writing this blog now, as though this already somewhat taboo subject has just become more so.

But then, maybe that’s the perfect time to write about it.

Hitchhiking is one of those things that people seem to be equal parts fascinated and horrified by on, even on a normal day.

In this time of social distancing, with our newfound fear of handshakes and hugs, it feels almost unthinkable that as recently as three months ago I was happily climbing into passenger seats of unknown people, sitting next to their children, balancing dogs on my lap, and never once worrying about whether or not I might catch plague.

I started hitching when I was nineteen. Well, that’s perhaps not entirely true. I suppose it would be more accurate to say I started hitching solo at nineteen. Until then I’d always had a friend with me, or a parent even, and I’d never gone particularly far.

But then I started college and I had to get buses and I lived thirty km away from the nearest bus station and there wasn’t always someone around who could give me a lift.

So I thought I’d give it a go.

My dad dropped me as far as the main road, and I stuck out my thumb. I think I waited less than five minutes before someone stopped for me.

And that was the beginning. I got a lift off a lovely woman, who dropped me all the way to the bus station, and then I got my bus to Cork. Easy.

Everything is scary the first few times. First time I went busking I was shaking like a leaf. But you get used to it. You find your own rhythm. And so it was with hitching.

If I could get a lift, I would, and if no-one was available I would go to the main road, stick out my thumb, and usually be there in about the same amount of time.

Some days I would hitch just for the fun of it. Because I fancied talking to someone new and didn’t want to just sit on a bus, staring out the window.

Other times there just wasn’t any other option. Like the time I had to play at a wedding at St. Finbar’s oratory in Gougane Barra one cold November morning. In my defense, bus eireann claimed to have a bus route out to it, but when I presented my ticket to the driver he informed me that service hadn’t run in over five years. But he could drop me at the turning if I liked? Well, I had a wedding to be at so I said yes and he left me at the Coolcower Court turning, a neat 30km from my destination, with my harp, and wished me good luck.

I made it. The last lift was two young lads from the nearby village who stopped out of sheer curiosity and nearly died laughing at my predicament. They drove ten miles out of their way to drop me to the door.

And that is probably my very favourite thing about hitching. Sometimes the sheer generosity of strangers really does blow me away.

I should be used to it really. After all, my livelihood is entirely based on the generosity of others, but with busking there is a trade. You provide them with amusement, some pleasant music to brighten their day, and in exchange they give you a few coins and maybe a nice compliment to brighten yours.

With hitching the exchange is quite different. You reach out and not only ask for someone’s generosity, but also their trust. Their space. Their company. All rare and valuable commodities these days. And yet, I have never been left empty-handed.

I don’t remember every lift I’ve ever had, but I remember quite a few. Where bus journeys and Ryanair flights all blur into one long, impersonal haze of uncomfortable chairs and hoping no-one would try and strike up a conversation, hitchhiking journeys have flavour.

As a rule the people who pick you up will at the very least want to know the basics. Where are you going? Where have you come from? Who are you? And of course the most important one, why are you hitching?

These four questions, I find, are enough to fill a journey between five and fifty miles long. Sometimes I’ll hop out at my destination, wave goodbye to the person I’ve spent the last half hour talking to, and realize that at no point did we exchange names. It is a strangely intimate and yet utterly ephemeral connection.

Some of my more memorable journeys would be the woman who took me from Charleville to Cork who worked in a company that leases aircraft to airline companies, the woman who took me from CastleIsland to Rathmore during my tour (a journey where we both discovered that Rathmore has two towns a few miles apart and we were both very confused by this), and the man who pulled over in his artic lorry to pick up myself and Emma somewhere outside of Kells to drop us off near Ballinlough castle which turned out to neither be a castle, nor to be open to the public, nor to be on any kind of main road to …well… anywhere.

I was hitching once from Gort to Whitegate, over the Derrybrien backroads. For those of you not familiar with the geography of the Clare/Galway border these backroads are the real deal.

There are no people.

none

Well… there was one, I suppose.

I mean, I was there.

Now, it just so happened that I was carrying a pair of crutches at the time. I didn’t need crutches, but I had been seeing a friend to the bus and she had borrowed the crutches off us, and I had, on a whim, decided to take a different route home and visit a friend along the way.

So there’s me, walking along this road, with a pair of crutches slung over my shoulder. It was blisteringly hot that day and I had no water with me, but the walk was pleasant enough.

In an hour, one car passed me. I stuck out my thumb, but they didn’t stop. So I shrugged my shoulders and kept walking.

Eventually, and inexplicably, I came to a pub. It was open and I wandered in to ask for a glass of water. Duly refreshed I set off again.

About five minutes later the same car from before passed me again. Going in the same direction as before. It pulled over and waited for me.

It turned out that the man driving it had driven ten miles or so after passing me before the guilt had become so strong that he had turned around and driven back, missed me because I had stopped in for that glass of water, thought he had somehow managed to miss me along this one single stretch of road, or that I had vanished, turned around again and then finally found me on a stretch of road he had already covered.

And that is actually an incredibly common theme in my hitching journeys. Here’s a phrase I hear about one journey in five:

“I couldn’t just leave you there. You’ll never get a lift out here.”

No-one ever seems to see the irony in this and I never point it out. Wouldn’t want to jinx it.

In fact, there is only one other stock phrase that I hear more and it is this one:

“I used to hitch myself, when I was your age. We all did. Wouldn’t do it now though. Far too dangerous.”

And this is by far simultaneously the most understandable and most baffling conversation I have while hitching.

People seem to be afraid to pick up hitchers, because they fear that they might pick up a dangerous psychopath. But they pick me up, because I might get picked up by a dangerous psychopath. Whereupon they proceed to tell me how when they were younger everybody hitched and nobody ever got picked up by a dangerous psychopath, but it was different back then.

Yes, I agree. Back then nobody had a mobile phone, or satellite tracking, or gps built into their cars. Nobody was updating their progress on Instagram so if you went missing on a journey from Cork to Belfast it was anybody’s guess where along the road you went missing.

Back in the good old days when people didn’t insist you buckle your seatbelt.

Back in the days when it was perfectly acceptable to smoke with a passenger in the car.

Yes, I’m sure it was a lot safer. Back then.

I really do try not to get annoyed about this, but I’ve never been good at being told I shouldn’t do something because it isn’t safe, or because I’m a woman, or because it isn’t safe because I’m a woman. Especially when I’m being told not to do the thing by another woman, who did the thing herself at my age and suffered no ill consequence from it, but that was then and it was safer then, as we have discussed.

It was in fact, not safer then. It is not safe now. I have done my reading and looked at my facts, and the most dangerous part of getting into a car with a stranger is in fact getting into a car. People die in car crashes every year. Cars are dangerous. Things were a lot safer before we had cars.

Unless you got run over by a horse and cart of course.

Which happened a surprising amount. Horses are very large and heavy and spook a lot easier than your average Ford Fiesta.

And now we finally reach the ‘Guide’ part of this guide. Honestly, it is mostly just common sense.

When I hitch, I do so in the daylight. There is one route I will hitch in dusk and it’s the road back to my dad’s house because I am almost invariably picked up by someone I know. Or who knows my brother/mother/father/dog. Such is rural Ireland. Other than that, if it is getting dark out, I find another way.

Don’t hitch at night.

Keep your stuff with you as much as is possible.

This is perhaps a slight paranoia of mine, but I like to keep my belongings where I can see them if at all possible.

Sometimes, when you have a bag and a harp and an amp and you’re squashing into a car with three children you just have to put your luggage in the boot, but I personally feel more comfortable if there isn’t a possibility of me getting out and the driver just taking off with my stuff.

That might just be me though.

When a car pulls up I look who’s in it and ask where they are going. I stay friendly and open, but I take a good look at the person/persons in that car and I get a vibe for them. Usually it’s fine, but sometimes people stop and I just don’t like the look of them, or their car, or something, and I will make up an excuse. Change my destination. Decide that they are going a different route to where I want to go. Or simply decline their offer. If they are decent people they will take it well, and if they don’t then you made the right call not getting in the car.

Everybody has a vibe. If it is a bad vibe, don’t get in the car.

In all my time hitching I have had exactly three lifts that I was less than ecstatic about.

Twice the man in the car decided I needed to hear about Jesus for the duration of the trip, and once a woman decided to chain smoke the entire time.

That is it.

On the flip side, I have met incredibly interesting and generous people. I have been given excellent advice and hilarious stories. I have learned local knowledge and passed on some of my own. And I have made what would otherwise be long, lonely, expensive journeys into experiences that give me joy to relate and to relive. After all, good company on the road is the shortest cut.

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