Hitchhiking is a paradoxical pursuit: abundant possibility rooted in voluntary scarcity. Hitchhiker, ‘vagabond sociologist’ and Driving With Strangers author Jonathan Purkis, far from seeing hitchhiking as a cultural relic, thinks hitchhiking tells us a lot about how we can live better.
At seventeen Jonathan Purkis decided to hitchhike home through the Lake District, having missed his bus. It kickstarted a passion for hitchhiking. Now, combined with his training as a sociologist, this passion has become a book. Purkis calls Driving With Strangers a “history of the present” exploring what hitchhiking can tell us about “how we can live now … how we can be more ecological and communitarian.”
Purkis’ vision of hitchhiking not as a cultural relic, but as a practice full of meaning in today's world, immediately piqued my interest. As a hitchhiker myself I know there have been many hitchhiking memoirs, travel books and guides published in recent decades, but surprisingly little about the ongoing value of hitchhiking.
Is there a lack of interest because hitchhiking is dead? Not so, argues Purkis.
Sure, hitchhiking has declined in many places due to rising car ownership, developing travel infrastructure and a general sense that hitchhiking is downright inconvenient and possibly dangerous. As a form of affordable adventure, hitchhiking has faded. But it remains a thriving subculture, as sites like Hitchwiki, the Wikipedia of hitchhiking, attest. When I last hitchhiked in Germany, back in the summer of 2013, I often found myself behind queues of hitchhikers at service stations.
But the so-called “decline thesis” is only a conversation in the West, Purkis says. “It’s not a conversation that would make any sense in the Global South. There is a whole continuum of formal and informal types of taxis, minibuses, quasi-hitchhiking buses which only go when they’re filled up.” From carpooling in Durban, through official Cuban amarillos and Israeli trempists waiting near bus stops, local models are many and varied. In many Eastern European countries - Russia, Lithuania, Poland - there is also a thriving culture of hitchhiking clubs. Considering this breadth, for Purkis, is crucial to considering what hitchhiking might offer.
'It’s not a conversation that would make any sense in the Global South. There is a whole continuum of formal and informal types of taxis, minibuses, quasi-hitchhiking buses which only go when they’re filled up.'
Driving With Strangers is a work of ‘vagabond sociology’. Danish photographer Jacob Holdt coined the term in his 1985 work American Pictures, for which he hitchhiked around the US documenting social inequality. Vagabond sociology is driven, Purkis says, by “that duality that those with the least to give give the most.” Holdt saw the mutual aid inherent to hitchhiking and road culture as deeply abundant - “security is being on the road with nothing,” he wrote - and Purkis also sees a similar promise. Vagabond sociology doesn’t presume the identity of a vagabond, but takes seriously the perspective it offers. What, asks Driving With Strangers, is a hitchhiker well positioned to see?
Purkis’ perspective has room for romance, but it isn’t blind to the risks hitchhiking undoubtedly carries. He’s well aware that ‘freedom of movement’ is heavily politicised, not available to all. And the liminal spaces hitchhiking occupies present blind spots in which violence can fester. One chapter discusses the so-called ‘Highway of Tears’, a stretch of Highway 16 in British Columbia, Canada along which at least eighteen Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing, many of them while hitchhiking.
Propaganda has only piled imagined dangers upon real dangers, blurring the distinction. This is especially true in the US thanks to the “virulent anti-hitchhiking propaganda” of state actors like the first Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Seeing hitchhikers as communist sympathisers and, later, civil rights activists up to no good, he spearheaded smear campaigns. Were they hitchhikers, or death in disguise?
Purkis questions the received wisdom that hitchhiking has waned because of this danger and an accompanying decline in trust. Increasing car ownership and transport systems offer a more compelling explanation, he says. And besides, our media-refracted understanding of trust is not necessarily to be trusted. Iran, for example, is widely regarded as one of the world’s best countries for hitchhikers. The lauded social democracies of Scandinavia, on the other hand, are among the worst.
Behind the veneer of danger, Purkis sees hitchhiking as a hopeful “allegory” modelling better ways we might live. Firstly, far from symbolising a decline in trust, hitchhiking continues to, as Purkis puts it, “reveal this remarkable tendency in society” to serve a disparate mutual aid network. To trust and support strangers. Purkis recalls a legendary German hitchhiker and one-man rescue service, Dieter Wesch, who patrols the autobahns around Stuttgart distributing stickers with his details for any stuck hitchers.
I recount to Purkis my first ever day hitchhiking, in the deepening winter of the Upper New York State Adirondacks. My second ever ride came courtesy of an old-timer called Jim, who told me to call him if I got into bother. I predictably did, and so I called. His wife answered, confused, then Jim was on his way. Then he was adamantly checking me into an inn, the receptionist’s wrinkled yes growing distant as he reminisced with us about his own hitching days. From a freezing forecourt to a soft hotel room, in the blink of an eye - all thanks to a stranger, my second ever ride.
The fleetingness and anonymity of the hitchhiking interaction can also be surprisingly connecting. They give licence to open up, space to talk, a neutral ear. Purkis recalls being picked up by a visibly upset man called Pete who had just fled a family dinner early because his relatives had been mocking his harelip. Not just picking up hitchhikers, but driving hours out of his way to deliver them to their destination, was therapeutic to him as well as helpful to them. For hitchhikers, Purkis writes, “it is often encounters with the likes of Pete which remain, to take out into the world as we try to be true to our better selves and the projects which we might establish with them.”
Purkis imagines, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, a mobile version of the Samaritans, hitchhiking around and talking, listening. When we consider the climate crisis, the 47 million daily spare commuter seats in the UK, the loneliness sweeping the UK and the car-sharing models available, it doesn’t seem so outlandish.
'It is often encounters with the likes of Pete which remain, to take out into the world as we try to be true to our better selves and the projects which we might establish with them.'
Purkis sees particular promise in Poland’s ‘Social Autostop Committee’ model, founded in 1957 to encourage postwar hitchhiking through coupons that drivers can recoup and enter into a lottery draw. Seen as a way to channel young energy and encourage postwar national togetherness, an estimated 35,000 hitchhikers used it per year until it eventually folded in 1995 (although many purists opted out).
In practice any such model today would struggle to compete against carpooling services, through which drivers receive a payment for giving rides. This dilutes the generosity and spontaneity of the interaction, but still brings many of the same benefits: social interaction, affordable travel, fewer cars on the road. Indeed, getting people back out tumbling on the roadside may not be the most important aim, even if it were possible. Purkis’ main concern is that car travel is less individualised, polluting and consumerist. And carpooling ticks these boxes. An evolution of hitchhiking culture, carpooling still models a more collective way of organising socially and economically. As hitchhiking declines, that energy moves elsewhere and helps seed comparable practices. “If society impacts on the edge of a balloon, you just displace the air” Purkis says.
So where else does the air go?
Into other ‘institutions’ of the trust-based economy, is one answer. “Think about couchsurfing,” Purkis says. “Couchsurfing is basically hitchhiking! It involves the same levels of trust and below-the-radar economics and politics.” Hitchhikers are one of the key constituents across an ecosystem of related initiatives: Trust Roots, a hosting site; Warm Showers, for cycle tourers; Couchers, the new, non-commercial usurper of Couchsurfing.
Many such platforms, like hitchhiking itself, are firmly rooted in a free, open-source, decentralised ethos. For better or worse, Couchsurfing’s decision to become a for-profit company, and most recently to introduce a membership, has seen it haemorrhage users. Couchers pledges to be “Free forever. Community‑led. Non‑profit. Modern.”
These initiatives, in turn, connect to broader conversations around mutual aid and collectivism, and to movements like the platform cooperativism movement, which aims to build democratically managed platforms to challenge extractive models like Airbnb. As our need to exchange economic growth for more circular, local, cooperative models intensifies, we need such experiments. And hitchhiking, more than other forms of adventure, leads to those conversations, rebuffs business as usual.
'Think about couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is basically hitchhiking! It involves the same levels of trust and below-the-radar economics and politics.'
With all this said, hitchhiking as adventure is still impossible to ignore.
Especially for hitchhikers like me, privileged with a relative sense of financial and bodily security on the road, the unpredictability of hitchhiking, more than anything, leads to wonderful experiences. These episodes masquerade as divine coincidence, but experience eventually shows them to be the reliable magic of randomising social interactions in a way that foregrounds human kindness. I think again of Jim. And of Francesco, who invited me into his mountain home for over a week. And the many drivers who have offered me passage, shelter, food, gifts and company.
Hitchhiking also warps one’s space-time relationship. Purkis invokes the idea of “thumb lines” - a riff on the ‘songlines’ Aboriginal Australians use to record tracks across the land - to capture the jerky, episodic experience of hitchhiking through liminal environments like lay bys, service stations and fields. Just as a music festival, with its unbroken pool of time, can underpin transformative interactions and experiences, so can hitchhiking.
'The unpredictability of hitchhiking, more than anything, leads to wonderful experiences. These episodes masquerade as divine coincidence, but experience eventually shows them to be the reliable magic of randomising social interactions in a way that foregrounds human kindness.'
Nevertheless, the oft-cited idea that hitchhiking represents ‘freedom’ has always seemed slippery to me. Freedom from what, exactly? And freedom for whom? To some extent this language is a relic of earlier hitchhiking experiences, Purkis says. Particularly in the West after the Second World War, when hitchhiking offered an affordable escape from postwar cultural conformity (the cultural context that produced the Beat Generation and On The Road), the freedom from constraint - something that many of us, in the age of Megabus and Interrail, can take for granted - would have felt radical.
“There are gradations of freedom, gradations of equality, of adventure, depending on each generation, and depending on how liberated you want to be from conventions,” says Purkis. The postwar generation is one example, but you could also look at female hitchhikers. Faced, generally speaking, with more risk of violence and social pressure to be cautious, restrained, domestic, hitchhiking becomes a more radical, freeing act. ‘Freedom from what?’ is answered differently for hitchhikers in different circumstances.
'We need that element of uncertainty to make life interesting, and I think that’s why hitchhiking is so fascinating. Because it’s in that liminal space where things can happen, imaginations run wild, societal stories run wild. And our potential for being better people is hopefully nurtured there as well.'
“Subverting the normal nine to five, or normal way of travel, and adding a bit more uncertainty and risk, can be very beautiful and inspiring, and can be difficult on occasion as well,” Purkis reflects. “We need that element of uncertainty to make life interesting, and I think that’s why hitchhiking is so fascinating. Because it’s in that liminal space where things can happen, imaginations run wild, societal stories run wild. And our potential for being better people is hopefully nurtured there as well.”
Although he warns against assuming an archetypal hitchhiker, Purkis recalls a study that assessed hitchhikers’ personality types, finding likeness between hitchhikers and counsellors. It’s a chicken-or-egg scenario, but hitchhiking surely helps shape this mindset. “At their best, hitchhikers have this sociological analysis and a deep empathy for connectedness,” Purkis says. He likes to think of global hitchhikers, he chuckles, as “almost like outriders of a future human: more empathetic, more global, more interconnected, sympathetic.”
Hitchhiking won’t save the world. But unlike most forms of adventure, which tend towards personal recreation, hitchhiking does model subversive, experimental social and economic relationships. So as part of a bigger conversation, it might just have a say.