15 August 2009

The vanishing hitchhiker

No, I'm not talking about the well-known urban legend (Legends from a small country: Legends that go bump), but about the fact that one no longer sees hitchhikers on the road. It came up in a discussion on the alt.usage.english newsgroup, where someone asked why one doesn't hitchhikers on the road any more. Was it paranoia on the part of motorists, cops cracking down, or what?

I used to hitchhike and give lifts to hitchhikers in the past, but no more.


Perhaps, but I think the change came when hijacking became a popular method of car theft, possibly due to the increased effectiveness of car anti-theft devices.

Until about the mid-1980s I think most car thefts were of unattended vehicles, and robbery was rare. But with electronic ignition systems and satellite tracking that has become more difficult, so robbery, and especially armed robbery, has become far more common. People are reluctant to pick up hitchhikers, and hitchhiking has become a futile method of getting from place to place.

Concerning the urban legend, I found this interesting:

The first possible variant of the urban legend The Vanishing Hitchhiker occurs in Acts 8: 26–40 with the conversion of an “Ethiopian” by the hitchhiking apostle Philip. More recent variants in the Gambia and Somalia exhibit a different plot, but retain the vanishing hitchhiker motif. A female hitchhiker spends time with a man, who is later unable to locate her, but who finds his coat on her grave. The found-coat variant is part of a widespread cycle of vanishing hitchhiker legends. Could the story have originated in Africa? This article deals with this issue and with widespread occurrences of this legend.

But back to the actual vanishing hitchhiker.

Hitchhiking could be quite interesting. One sometimes met interesting people that way, though sometimes one also met very dull ones.

In 1960 I was told a story of an Anglican monk, Fr Victor Ranford SSM (of the Society of the Sacred Mission) who was based at Modderpoort in the Free State, and used to hitchhike wherever he needed to go. One driver who picked him up told him he knew he was an Anglican and not a Roman Catholic. Fr Victor asked him how he knew. "I can tell by your socks," the driver said.

In 1964, when I was at university in Pietermaritzburg, a friend and I decided to hitchhike to Grahamstown, 500 miles away, on a long weekend. We got as far as Ixopo, 50 miles away, and no one gave us a lift, so we walked back into town and took a bus to Springvale Mission, where we hoped to get a bed for the night. The bus was supposed to be for blacks only, but the driver allowed us to board. The priest of Springvale, whom we knew, was away, but someone let us into the house and we spent the night there. There was a lot more trust in those days.

The next morning we hitchhiked to Highflats village, and planned to go down to the coast and up to Durban where my friend lived. Our first lift out of Highflats was from a witchdoctor in a pre-war Packard. We sat in the spacious back seat and watched the gall bladders and goat horns and other paraphernalia that festooned the car swinging as he drove rather erratically along the winding road. He took us as far as Hlutankungu, where he turned off.

From Hlutankungu we walked, waving our thumbs at passing cars, but they were few, and none stopped for us. After an hour we reached Jolivet, which was at the third mile, so we knew we walked at three miles an hour. There was a station on the narrow-gauge railway, and we heard a train whistling and could see it coming winding in and out shosholoza through the hills, so we waited for it at the station, and asked the guard if we could get a ticket to the terminus at Umzinto on the South Coast. He said the train no longer carried passengers. It seemed that the information in Alan Paton's novel Cry the beloved country was out of date -- he describes someone travelling one one of these narrow-gauge trains. But eventually the guard took pity on us, and allowed us to travel in the guard's van at the back of the train, sitting among the mail bags. That was the only time in my life I managed to hitchhike a ride on a train, and it reminded me of the hero of Jack Kerouac's novel The Dharma bums. It's my favourite Kerouac novel, and on that trip I felt a bit like a Dharma bum.

Four years later, as a student in England, I hitchhiked with another friend from Durham to Manchester, where we stayed with his parents in the village of Saddleworth. Then we went to Liverpool, and took the ferry across the Mersey and stayed with another friend in Cheshire, and from there down to South Wales.

A couple of years after that I was living in Namibia, and we had a visitor, an English guy who had been teaching in Tanzania, and when his time was up and he had to return to England, he discovered that if he paid 30 shillings (R3.00) more, he could change his plane ticket to go from Johannesburg instead of Dar-es-Salaam (those were the days!) He did so, and hitchhiked from East Africa to southern Africa, and saw quite a lot before going to Johannesburg and getting the plane back to the UK.

So people hitchhiked quite a lot in those days.

But I rarely see hitchhikers nowadays, and if I do, I don't stop. I think it's rather sad.


Dave said...

I've only ever picked up on hitchhiker. That was on the Isle of Skye in 1992. His name was J├╝rgen and he was trying to get to Uig to catch the ferry to the Wesern Isles. He wasn't in any hurry as the ferry didn't leave til the afternoon, so we did some of the sightseeing I was going to do anyway and visited Dunvegan Castle.

James Higham said...

I understood form my one or two South African friends that since the change of government, it has become highly dangerous to hitchhike or go to beaches on one's own.

Obviously, I'm in no position to comment on that.

JanuskieZ said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jenny Hillebrand said...

People still hitchhike in the Eastern Cape. They call it 'hiking' and it took me a while to figure out it wasn't a sort of recreation. There aren't many taxis away from the major centres and there is no alternative! People alse feel a lot safer here than in Gauteng.


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