We were both in our early twenties, the summer was about to bloom, and we couldn’t feel the weight of our backpacks.
The setting was familiar — yet another gas station in the middle of nowhere. Since I first started hitchhiking, some 5 years and 12,000 miles earlier, I have seen a multitude of these, and all highways begin to seem like an open invitation for yet another adventure.
Marta and I were long-time friends and this was not the first time we were hitchhiking together: a boy with a confident smile and a beautiful girl dancing with a red contact juggling ball was the perfect partnership for getting a lift.
Both Marta and I felt that our hitchhiking journey to Greece would become an important chapter in our lives. As we stood on that windy gas station somewhere in Belgium, we could subconsciously sense the weight of the lessons ahead.
When I first told my mother that I would like to hitchhike, she gave me a straightforward and non-negotiable “no”. Being a somewhat rebellious soul, this didn’t affect my plans and a few weeks later I was on a plane to Paris from where I was about to begin my adventure. I was 18 years old and terrified. It occurred to me that my mother could be right. Didn’t she tell me that the world was full of dangerous people whom I shouldn’t trust?
My friends foresaw a different issue. I was kindly advised to take some extra “plane money”, since people don’t trust strangers like me. “It’s not you, it’s the world”, they reassured me “but you’ll need the money for your flight back home”.
Despite my doubts, I had a feeling that neither my mother nor my friends could see the full picture. I had embarked on this trip because I didn’t want to trust the distorted depiction of the world displayed by mainstream media. To me, it seemed unreasonable to accept that strangers were there to harm me. Quite the contrary: deep inside I was sure that our natural instinct as human being is to help each other.
Approaching strangers to ask for a lift seemed like a good way to find out the truth.
The Importance of First Impressions
I was always a lucky hitchhiker in the sense that I rarely had to wait for a lift for more than an hour. However, this time we were remarkably lucky.
Our driver ticked all the boxes. He didn’t mind taking two passengers, he spoke English, and, most importantly, he was going all the way to Budapest, which meant we would cover more than a third of our way in one go. Moreover, he was driving a truck. I always loved hitching trucks. The difference between hitching a truck and hitching a car is similar to sitting on a comfortable couch in a spacious living room versus squatting on an uncomfortable chair in a cluttered closet.
Before dumping our bags inside I took a long look at our driver. I didn’t notice anything suspicious. Christian was in his forties and wore a simple dark green shirt. He seemed relaxed and somewhat clumsy. He also gave off a slight hippie vibe, perhaps because of his long hair and beard. If I would ever decide to be a truck driver, I thought, I would probably end up looking just like him.
Marta jumped into the truck and I quickly handed her our bags while Christian started the engine. I’ve learnt this trick from other hitchhikers: never leave your bags alone with the driver in the car. One of you has to stay inside. Not that we expected our driver to run off with our stuff, but you can’t be too careful. I guess our trust had its limits and our possessions were still way behind the line.
A moment later we started our journey South-East.
Why do strangers trust me?
I must have been around 7 years old when I first saw a couple of young people with their thumbs sticking up next to the road. My father explained to me the meaning of “hitchhiking”, but when I suggested to give them a lift, he didn’t hesitate to answer that he wouldn’t trust them into the car since he is traveling with me — his little child.
It takes as little as a tenth of a second to make a judgement about the trustworthiness of a stranger. This is particularly true in hitchhiking, where the driver needs to make a decision and stop the car in a matter of seconds. Even when approaching people in gas stations, the only weapon at my disposal was the first impression I caused: my smile, my body language, and perhaps a few sentences, often without speaking a common language.
It might seem like a lost battle, yet every time, without fail, there was always a driver willing to take me. I never spent the “plane money”. In fact, making strangers trust me was far easier than I thought it would be.
Whenever I had a chance, I would ask what made them decide to take me along. The answers usually started with something like: “I would never trust a hitchhiker, but…”
And the “buts” were fascinating.
Some drivers told me that I seemed nice, tired, or harmless. Others recognized that something I did make them genuinely laugh. Some had seen me juggling and thought I’d entertain the kids. On other occasions they simply wanted company and someone to talk to.
There were also more elaborate reasons. For example, that ‘Swedish people never take hitchhikers’. I heard that from all my drivers during my journey through Sweden, and each one of them told me I was lucky they had seen me and worried that I would be stuck in the woods without a lift for hours. This was the fastest hitchhiking journey in my life so far, throughout which I never waited for longer than half an hour.
I’ve read a study showing that we are more likely to trust people who remind us of someone we already trust. Perhaps I was lucky to remind some those drivers of a friend of theirs, or even of themselves. To be honest, my beard and hair were not that far off from Christian’s.
Breaking Through Small Talk
Christian’s English was far from fluent, but it was enough to have a decent conversation. The language barrier had never before stopped me from communicating effectively, but it was comforting to think that this time we would be able to talk to our driver about more complex subjects than the weather; after all, we were about to spend 12 hours together.
As we drove through the woodlands of Germany, Christian told us about his life.
He said his boss didn’t trust him, and therefore he had fitted his truck with a GPS tracker. Christian had to drive at a specific speed and could only take a limited amount of breaks. He was delivering apples from Portugal to Hungary and had barely had any rest on the way. His truck was old and not as comfortable as the newer models. His salary was miserable. Yet, it was the only job he could find after his small tech company was pushed out of business by a giant corporation, which snatched all his customers with a promise of a slightly inferior service at a significantly lower cost.
His story was brutal. Within a few months, Christian’s life had turned from a comfortable and exciting entrepreneurial career into plain despair. Since he was not able to maintain his previous lifestyle, his wife had demanded a divorce. She took their two kids with her and left Christian feeling completely broken, willing to accept any work he could find.
He also told us about his youth. His vision of the world back then used to have a lot in common with ours, he said, and he used to be a vibrant and positive person. He used to seek more than the mundane reality of “nine to five”, as well as actively pursue alternatives.
Hearing his story made me see our driver in a very different light. I empathized with his feeling of being disillusioned. Christian seemed like a good person whose life hadn’t turn out the way he wanted.
Our conversation made me feel as if I was supporting a friend, rather than listening to a stranger. As we approached the Austrian border, our words too were closing the gap between us at a steady pace of 50 miles per hour.
Strangers Are Not Villains
“What happens when people open their hearts? They get better.” – Haruki Murakami
While my mother continued to request SMS updates with my precise location at regular intervals, my experience of hitchhiking confirmed what I suspected: strangers are not villains.
Numerous times I felt particularly vulnerable, especially when hitchhiking by night or getting into the car with a bunch of guys who looked like they could beat me up with their pinky if they wanted to. Nonetheless, I kept trusting the goodwill of my drivers, and instead of hostility I have only encountered kindness and generosity.
I have been offered food, place to stay, and coffee — the last one particularly in Macedonia, where every single driver invited me for a cup, bringing me into a constant state of hyperactivity (there is a limit to the number of espressos I can handle in a day).
Some drivers helped me get another lift by “advertising” me to other drivers, others went out of their way to bring me closer to my destination. One of them actually did a u-turn to pick me up while I was hitchhiking on the opposite side of the road, and then drove around 80 miles out of his way to get me to the next gas station. I could keep on going with examples.
On top of that, people trusted me with their personal stories, often going into juicy details or letting out of their chest things that had been clearly troubling them for days. I was there, fully present and ready to listen and to hold space for them. There were times when we hugged or exchanged contact details. There was a time when a driver cried.
Not only have I traveled across the entire continent for free, but I have also created numerous powerful bonds with people with whom I would never talk in a different context.
Studies show that using smartphones makes us trust people less and our capacity for empathy is dropping. I’ve experienced that in myself while traveling by public transportation. Similarly to other passengers, I’d rather be left alone, entranced in my own devices, rather than connect with other people. Our “guards” are too high up and there is no space for trust or vulnerability. Anyone could be a pickpocket. I’d better watch my stuff.
Yet, when I stick my thumb up in the air waiting for another car, I immediately transform into another person. And I like this version of myself.
I guess, more than anything, hitchhiking made me realize that by allowing myself to be vulnerable enough to trust strangers, I naturally become more open and empathetic, while experiencing the same from people I meet along the way.
It’s perhaps slightly counter-intuitive, but trusting strangers makes me a better person.
A few miles before the Austrian border, Christian told us that he wanted to meet with his friend. They both worked for the same company and at the moment they were traveling in opposite directions, which gave them a rare opportunity to meet on the way.
Some moments later we took an exit from the highway and turned into an empty rural side road. The trees on both sides of the road cast long shadows on the ground, as the sun was about to set. As I exchanged a few gazes with Marta, her eyes confirmed that I wasn’t the only one feeling slightly nervous.
Christian slowed down the truck and we entered an even smaller dirt road.
We finally parked in front of a small complex of abandoned buildings. Their dirty yellow walls seemed to barely prevent the darkness inside from escaping out onto the driveway: there was something disturbing about this place, and I couldn’t help but feel that I was about to enter a Stephen King’s novel.
A single old dirty truck was parked in front of the buildings. As we approached, its doors opened with a sinister squeak, and Christian’s friend came out to greet us. The sun disappeared behind the horizon.
After spending a few moments with the two men, we realized that Christian’s friend didn’t speak a word of English. Adding to that the fact that the two clearly hadn’t seen each other in a long time, Marta and I went for a little walk to give them some space.
As we came back, they invited us to share a smoke — some “legal high” that his friend wanted to make use of before driving through Germany. Slightly unsure how to behave, we nervously joined the circle and shared a few puffs.
The substance only amplified the awkwardness of the situation. Here we were, in the middle of nowhere, smoking some unknown stuff with two suspicious individuals who were about to drive their solitary trucks to the other corner of the continent.
Looking at Christian’s truck made me feel worried. It seemed older and rustier than I remembered it from a few hours before. The wheels looked like they were barely holding on. I made a mental note not to slam the doors after getting inside — I really didn’t want the wheels to fall off while we’re driving.
Marta pulled my hand to stop me from staring at the truck. She was clearly anxious, but we didn’t have much choice. Staying in this creepy place was out of the question. It gave me chills just to think of it.
Slightly uneasy, we climbed back into Christian’s truck. I forgot not to slam the doors, but the wheels didn’t fall off. Not just yet, I thought to myself.
Our driver could perhaps sense our concern. As he started the engine he explained that the substance keeps him awake and helps him concentrate on the road. He turned up the volume of his psytrance playlist and relaxed into his seat, as we crossed the Austrian border.
Christian’s ambition was to be in Budapest around 1am, but around midnight I realised that this was clearly not going to happen.
My fear regarding the wheels falling off the truck had disappeared a while ago, but I was still far from relaxed. After driving through the whole continent with barely any breaks, Christian’s tiredness started to show. His head seemed to be nodding slightly and sometimes I couldn’t tell if he was awake or not. None of us said anything for a long time.
At some point, I looked at Marta and noticed that she was sound asleep. I guess she trusted that Christian would continue to drive and everything would turn out okay — or perhaps she had just decided to numb her anxiety with some sweet unconsciousness. I couldn’t tell whether I was jealous of not being able to sleep myself, or angry to acknowledge that I should stay awake in order to keep all of us safe. I certainly didn’t trust Christian to stay awake and he didn’t seem open to consider the possibility of taking another break.
As I kept watching the blurred lights of the highway, I realized that I was absolutely exhausted and the only thing that was forcing my eyelids to stay open was my sense of responsibility. Unable to start any conversation, I continued to turn my gaze between the road and Christian’s face. Time was barely moving at all.
Around 150 km away from our destination, my predictions came true: Christian finally fell asleep at the wheel.
As I heard a slight change in his breathing, I looked at him only to find his eyes completely shut and his faced softly relaxed. Time had stopped. I didn’t know what to do. As my subconscious self browsed through all the possibilities, it eventually came up with a solution: I had to speak to him.
I can’t remember what I said — the content of my words wasn’t important — but my voice brought the desired effect. Christian opened his eyes and replied to my question. He didn’t notice that he had fallen asleep.
I told him what had happened, and I suggested taking a break. After a moment of consideration, Christian agreed to a change of plans: instead of going all the way to Budapest, he suggested we could stop by his parents’ house, which happened to be in a nearby village, and continue our journey after a few hours of sleep. The house didn’t have enough room for all of us, but it had a spacious garden.
Half an hour later we pitched our tent and collapsed into a dreamless sleep.
Trusting the Universe and Trusting Myself
When I tell people about my hitchhiking stories, I often sense that the listener feels the call for adventure, yet they cannot imagine themselves stepping into a stranger’s car.
The obvious reason might be the fact that they are not used to trusting people they don’t know.
Christian could indeed turn out to be a blood-thirsty rapist pulling us into a trap with his strange friend. The wheels of his truck could have indeed fallen off. But the horror-like scenario is almost never a reality. I admit that watching him smoke a joint before driving and fall asleep at the wheel felt far from safe and reassuring, but it didn’t mean that he was a bad person, or that he meant us harm.
Quite the contrary.
My experience with Christian didn’t end in his parents garden. We went on to stay in his place in Budapest for a night, met his kids and attended a crazy party. Some of the things that happened over the course of that journey brought us a great amount of discomfort (and even fear for our lives). However, what I want to say is that, despite all his problems, mistakes, and a slightly distorted idea of “basic safety standards”, Christian’s heart was in the right place. He always went out of his way in order to help us, and he seemed to genuinely enjoy our company.
This whole journey made me reach three major conclusions:
a) Christian trusted us,
b) we trusted Christian’s intentions and good will, and
c) we trusted our ability to handle any turmoil that we might end up getting into.
Bad experiences can happen, but what’s the point of living a life directed by fear? I don’t mind the fear to be present, but I refuse to let it prevent me from living my life to the fullest.
Instead, I choose to trust that everything will unfold well. Which doesn’t mean that I will fall asleep as it is unfolding — I’d rather watch it as it happens and be ready to act if I need to.
Throughout my hitchhiking adventures I’ve experienced numerous moments when I felt challenged, exhausted or scared, often without having anyone but myself to rely on. Experiences such as Christian falling asleep at the wheel reassured me that whatever happens, I can fully rely on myself.
I can trust my senses, intuition and reflexes to get me out of potential trouble. Together with allowing myself to be vulnerable, it creates a powerful combination.
Vulnerability makes me trust people. People reciprocate this feeling. The challenges I face make me trust myself.
Just like being tossed into deep water without knowing how to swim, I have no choice but to figure it out. I have to keep swimming. I have to get another lift. I fully trust that I will.
It might not be graceful, but it is effective.