by Niall Doherty

Hello from Ireland. I’m back home staying at my parents’ place for a few weeks, before I embark on my big round the world trip without flying.

As a warm up for that adventure, I decided to return from Spain last week via land and sea, opting to hitchhike the 1,141 kilometers from Burgos to Cherbourg. It was a crazy few days to say the least, but I’m glad I did it and feel like I earned a few serious travel stripes along the way.

Notes and highlights from the trip…

Shrugging off the naysayers

Before I left Burgos, I told a few folks that I was planning to hitchhike all the way to the North of France, despite having done very little hitchhiking in the past (a total of about 140 kilometers in more than 29 years of living). It was interesting to note their different reactions. Some people assured me that nobody picks up hitchhikers in Spain these days, and that I’d either find the task impossible or end up dead in a ditch somewhere. Others were confident that I could do it and offered nothing but best wishes and positivity.

As I walked to the outskirts of Burgos to catch my first ride, I thought about which of those mindsets would led to a happier and more fulfilled life. No contest, right?

I’ve also spoken to some people recently who say they never pick up hitchhikers, because it’s so dangerous. I agree that it can be, just as walking down the stairs can be dangerous. Hitchhiking used to be a lot more commonplace, and I think the only thing that’s changed in the last few decades is that people now believe the world to be a more dangerous place. Personally, I don’t think it is, but that we’ve all been conditioned to believe so by the media’s obsession with negative news stories, and our tendency to lap them up.

All kinds of people

I was amazed by all the different people who picked me up. I was sure that most of them would fall into a certain demographic, but that definitely wasn’t the case. Here’s a full list of everyone who pulled over for my strange self:

  • A stern looking middle-aged Romanian dude, with no English and much better Spanish than me, tunes from his homeland blasting on the stereo.
  • A cheery pastor from Ghana with his wife and two kids. All of them spoke three languages fluently.
  • A chilled out thirty-something couple from Vitoria named Jose and Karina, on their way to spend a few days at the beach.
  • An elderly French gent with no English or Spanish, who picked me up within two minutes of thumbing in Irún.
  • Two French surfers named Julian and Xavier, both in their mid twenties, who ended my longest wait of the week.
  • A lively twenty-year-old salesman from Bordeaux named Guillaume, who went out of his way to drop me into the heart of his city.
  • A bearded, fifty-something French weather scientist named Hubert, who warrants more than a sentence (see below).
  • Another surfer named Arnold, whose van was breaking down but still brought me a few miles along the road so I could find a better spot to hitch.
  • An angelic elderly French lady with no English and a little Spanish. She drove me for more than two hours, gifted me some fruit at a rest stop and dropped me right at a hostel in Nantes. She’d return an hour later when she found I’d left my jacket in the back seat of her car, dropping it off at the reception desk for me to collect.
  • A middle-aged French lady named Izabel, married with three teenage daughters, who already had two male hitchhikers on board when she stopped to pick me up outside of Nantes. She was my chauffeur for about three hours, even taking a long detour at one point to show me a great view of Mont Saint-Michel.
  • Laurent, a young welder from Saint-Lô who picked me up at a roundabout in the middle of nowhere and dropped me at a much better spot about 20k down the road.
  • And finally, there was Didier from Cherbourg, a thirty-something father of three who took me the final stretch to Cherbourg, chatting happily in English the whole way.

Twelve people, all helping out a stranger they had no obligation to help. You bet your ass I’m feeling inspired to pay all that kindness forward 🙂

“I can feel your soul”

I’d been in Hubert’s passenger seat for about twenty minutes when he uttered these words to me in a thick French accent. A minute earlier he’d asked if I was interested in energy, and since I’d learned he was some kind of weather scientist I assumed he was talking about renewable energy, wind power, going green, that sort of thing.

But no.

He was talking about divine energy, about spirits and vibrations and that big dude in the sky. He spent the next hour telling me about his rebirth eleven years ago, how God often sends him to converse with souls trapped in hell, and how all the world’s believers are due to be taken to a higher realm within the next decade. Before dropping me off a couple of miles outside of Niort, he gifted me a tiny stone that he claimed came from the tomb of Mary Magdelene and possessed magical powers. Then he took my hands and performed a transfer of positive energy right there on the roadside as his emergency lights blinked and the trucks zoomed past.

I wasn’t freaked out by Hubert. He seemed genuinely happy and in love with life, and I was interested to learn about his view of the world. Maybe he’s crazy, or maybe he’s tapped into something far beyond my comprehension. I don’t know.

But I did feel pretty jazzed after our time together. Perhaps it was that magic pebble in my pocket, or the positive energy he supposedly transferred to me. Or perhaps I was once again feeling that rush…

The Hitchhiker Rush

As you probably know, there are much easier ways to get from Spain to Ireland. I flew the reverse for something ridiculous like €40 back in May. And there are of course a whole bunch of nicely scheduled trains and buses that go that route.

Hitchhiking is slow, stressful and unreliable. You regularly find yourself standing on the side of some big ugly roads, far away from any footpaths, occasionally for hours at a time. For every person that stops to pick you up, hundreds drive by thinking you’re either a freak or a psycho.

The worst day of my trip was Tuesday. I got picked up outside of Irún within five minutes that morning, but later found myself having to walk almost 10k along the highway in the blazing sun, all my worldly possessions on my back. I had no map, no internet access, no idea where I’d find a good spot to hitch from. Just as hunger and thirst were beginning to catch up with me, I found a village that had shut down for the afternoon, and had to wait ninety more minutes for the shops to reopen so I could refuel. It was another three hours or so of hitching before I got picked up again, but later I found myself stuck at a rest stop and had to drop €85 for a night in the only hotel around.

All in all, I spent twelve hours on the road that day, but traveled only about 200 kilometers. I made it to Bordeaux the next afternoon, where I seriously considered bailing on the hitchhike idea and catching a train to Nantes, but knew I couldn’t let myself give up after just one bad day. And I’m glad I didn’t, because the next two days were an absolute rush. The sense of accomplishment and empowerment I felt upon reaching Cherbourg in time for my ferry… that’s something I’ve never come close to experiencing when stepping off a bus or a plane.

Hitchhiker for life?

All the above said, I don’t see myself hitchhiking everywhere from here on out. Given that I’m trying to run an online business here, it’s hardly smart to be spending several hours a day on the road when there are more reliable travel options available.

Plus, you just never know if you’ll make it to your destination before nightfall. Even though that rest stop hotel I stayed at was expensive, I was lucky it was there at all. I met another hitchhiker on my travels who had no choice but to sleep in a field alongside the highway the night before.

And then there’s the whole expense of it. I thought hitchhiking would be a pretty cheap way to travel, but that’s not always true. A few expenses that can creep up on you:

  • You have to figure out how to get in and out of cities, since you can’t just start thumbing down on Main Street. I consider myself to have been pretty lucky in this regard, as I only had to take trams to the outskirts of Bordeaux and Nantes.
  • Not knowing where or when you’ll arrive means you can’t book accommodation in advance. I didn’t even try to use Couchsurfing for this reason, and found myself paying much more for hotels than I would have liked.
  • Food can be costly, as you often have to buy it at gas stations and the like, and you also have no choice much of the time but to buy bottled water.
  • For me, spending hours on the roadside meant spending hours not working, which meant hours that I wasn’t able to earn money. I now find myself having to hustle to catch up on several projects and come through for my clients.

So no, you won’t find me hitchhiking all around the world, but I’m sure I’ll try it again in future.

Tips for first-time hitchhikers

I still consider myself very much a novice hitchhiker, but I did learn quite a few things on my trip through Spain and France. A few bits and pieces that should help out beginners…

1) Pick a good spot

Nothing is more important than finding a good spot to hitch from. If you can find a busy ramp leading up to a main road, with plenty of space for cars to pull in, you have a much better shot at getting picked up. If you’re trying to get out of a big city, usually it’s best to take local transport to the outskirts and hitch from there.

Before hitting the road every day, I would use Google Maps to find a good spot, checking satellite view for trees on the roadside where I could take refuge from the sun. Nothing worse than being stuck without shade for several hours.

Also, be careful with hitching on the highway. Not only is it harder for cars to pull over for you (and therefore less likely), but it’s also illegal in most countries. I was walking to get off the highway in Vitoria when la policia came along, none to happy with my presence there. Luckily I had enough Spanish to explain myself and they ended up pointing me in the direction of a good ramp where I got picked up pretty quick.

2) Have a good sign

Make it big and clear, and it can help to put two destinations on there, one being the next big city and the other your final stop. Cardboard is pretty easy to find, as you can just ask at any shop or business for an empty box and then fold that open and cut off the flaps. My last two days of hitching, I attached a long stick to the back of my sign with tape so I wouldn’t have to hold it open every time a car passed.

As for the lettering, it’s good to sketch out the words in pen or pencil first, then use a heavy black marker for the filling. Less likely to end up in Chenbourq that way.

3) Appear casual and friendly

The following from my buddy Benjamin, who has hitchhiked all around the United States:

I would point at people as they were driving up… real casual and friendly… kind of like, “Hey, your here… Great, now we can go.”

I never really got the hang of this, but given his success I’m convinced there’s something to it. Benjamin also advised me not to wear shades while hitchhiking, which I believe turned out to be pretty good advice.

4) Stand up

I came across a couple of other hitchhikers who would just sit down on the roadside with a sign out in front of them, reading a book or something. That always came across as pretty lazy to me, and I can’t imagine myself having much of an urge to pick up folks like that if I was driving past.

I liked to stand up and hold out my sign, pointing it towards the vehicles as they came closer, and holding it up high for trucks. I wanted to get across the message that I’d be fun to pick up and chat with, and I think that worked well for me several times.

5) Have internet on your phone

I didn’t have this, and methinks I suffered a bit because of it. Having access to Google Maps when you get dropped in the middle of nowhere should not be underestimated. It also comes in pretty handy when you reach a strange town and need to find a reasonably priced hotel or hostel.

6) Bring food with you

You should have enough with you to last a whole day, just in case you get stuck on the highway with no rest stop in sight. Now that doesn’t need to be much. For my vegan self, it usually meant a couple of apples and bananas, a tub of peanut butter, some cereal bars, and a tin of beans or olives. Plus a big bottle of water.

7) Don’t be afraid to say no

This was never an issue during my trip, but I would have turned down a ride from anyone who appeared really suspicious. Like if a driver is wearing a hockey mask and has a chainsaw in his backseat, probably best to say thanks but no thanks, even if papa was a hockey-loving lumberjack.

Just as nobody is obliged to pick you up, you’re not obliged to accept a ride from everyone who offers. Keep your wits about you and trust your gut.

Life lessons from hitchhiking

Let me end this post with some important lessons I feel can be learned from hitchhiking.

1) Acceptance

There’s plenty we can do to help ourselves succeed, to make ourselves happy, but at the same time there’s a whole lot of shit out there that’s beyond our control. We just have to accept the uncertainty and roll with the punches as best we can, make the most of whatever situation we find ourselves in. Being stuck without a lift for several hours that Tuesday kinda sucked, but I knew that getting angry or miserable about the situation wasn’t going to change anything. So I did my best to enjoy every moment. I sang aloud to myself, I listened to some podcasts, I savored the food that I had. Everything turned out okay in the end.

2) Rejection therapy

As mentioned earlier, the vast majority of people drive past you when you’re out there hitchhiking, most likely writing you off as some kind of fruitcake. This isn’t at all fun in the beginning, but after a while you stop caring about the split-second judgements of complete strangers. I’m convinced this carries over into other parts of your life. Case in point: since starting my hitchhiking adventure I no longer find myself so concerned about doing my daily exercise routine in plain sight of other people. There I was in Bordeaux doing chin ups in a kids playground as a bunch of burly French dudes played basketball a few dozen feet away.

(By the way: hat tip to Matt Ramos for introducing me to the term rejection therapy. You should definitely check out his site 30vanquish, he’s up to some cool stuff.)

3) People are fantastic

Although I was pretty confident that I could hitchhike all the way to the North of France, I’m still pretty amazed by all the generosity I received along the way. All those folks who pulled over to pick me up had little to gain from doing so. They could have just left me there on the side of the road and not felt one bit bad about it; they owed me absolutely nothing. I’m pretty humbled by their kindness, and inspired to pay it forward as much as I can.

Likewise, I owe a huge amount of gratitude to Uzuri and her family for hosting me in Donostia, and to @joncampo1 for hosting me in Irún. My last few days in Spain definitely left me with a positive impression of the place.

Hitchhiking and you

If you’ve had any hitchhiking adventures of your own, I’d love to hear about them in the comments. And for those of you who’ve never tried it, what’s the main turn off for you?

Leaving you with my last view of France on Friday. More pics from my trip can be seen over at the Disrupting the Rabblement Facebook page.