Hitch-Hiking by Mario Rinvolucri/chapter-1

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Chapter 1: Hitch-hiking and the Umbilical Cord

Still in the womb:

I personally have never hitch-hiked because ... well one of the reasons being that I haven't got this sort of love of adventure—I like to be certain of what I'm doing, have a sense of security, and also that I've never been in the position where I couldn't afford to go where I actually wanted to go .... As an only child who's a girl, Mother tends to want the best for her and protect her in a way, as far as she can. Even if she's not there, she knows you've got a train ticket and where you're going. Because I've been brought up with my parents, it's just never crossed my mind to hitch-hike, so far. I've just adopted their attitudes. (Cambridge University second year girl student)

Beginning to wean:

Well, it's a bit difficult because I don't hitch-hike, which my parents didn't want me to. They don't think it's a good thing ... if I can't afford the fare to get from place to place, I shouldn't sponge on other people. But ... I don't see why not; but being a girl it's more difficult. I live in Manchester and I can't go home during the middle of the term because I can't afford it .... I probably mentioned to them could I come home by hitch-hiking and they said: "No." I'm very tempted not to agree with them, but I wouldn't fight them saying I can hitch-hike, but I don't see why other people shouldn't especially if it's students, young men that want to .... (Teacher training college third year girl student)

Active revolt against parental domination:

When I was much younger I used to worry about whether I ought to hitchhike or not and I think with me it's associated with lots of guilt feelings because it's all, my parents always forbade me to do hitch-hiking. This is one thing they said I must never do, you know, that they would let me have freedom in every way, in every respect, but I must never hitch-hike.

In fact, even now I'm twenty years old, I still cannot say to my parents that I've hitch-hiked, even with a friend, which I think is ridiculous. I very much resent their attitude, and it's ... so it's very ... it's very personal sort of independence. I get out of it. I like hitch-hiking because it brings me in contact with people I wouldn't meet otherwise, because I was brought up in a very sort of upper middle-class atmosphere where you didn't meet anybody who did an ordinary working job or drove a lorry. My father is the managing director of a firm, and it's always represented a great freedom for me to be able to hitch-hike—freedom in a sense—a kind of, well, independence ...

My parents are very dogmatic about this and most of my friends, girlfriends, who hitch-hike, either their parents just sort of accept it and don't mind, never bothered about it, or else they have a kind of relationship in which they don't ask questions, and they, the parents, really know what's going on, but they're ... they just don't ask questions, whereas my parents are always asking and saying: "You mustn't, you mustn't do this, you mustn't do that, you mustn't hitch-hike. This is the most important thing .... My father once said to me very angrily: "Well, if you get ... have a bad accident and you're an invalid for life, I'm not going to support you—I shall put you on the National Health and leave you." Hitch-hiking was one of the first gestures of defiance I made against my parents—the first time I hitched was about four years ago when I was still at school, I was at day school. I think their generation, um, very often can't understand how people of my age live and the way we are. (Cambridge University second year girl student)

These girls illustrate three different stages of emancipation from childhood. The first one, though entering her twenties, is still tightly bound to her mother. In talking to the interviewer, a complete stranger, about her mother and herself, she apparently feels there is nothing odd or babyish in saying:

Mother tends to want the best for her, and protect her in a way .... The girl readily admits that she has not thought for herself but has simply adopted her parents' attitudes. She hasn't begun to become an adult

The second girl, though not daring to break into open conflict with her parents, is beginning to allow herself to doubt the sacrosanctity of their views. Hitch-hiking is a thing she sees many of her contemporaries doing and she sees nothing to condemn in it.

The third student sees hitch-hiking as a central factor in her open conflict with her parents, in her bid to demand that they accept her adulthood. In hitch-hiking she finds a way of physically escaping from home. The thumbing convention allows her to travel around almost without money, money which she would presumably have to get from home. Hitching also affords her psychic escape from her parents. Since they have made it an issue, since they have made it clear she must not hitch, by hitching she defies them and proclaims the integrity and independence of her own personality. Finally hitching offers her a temporary, perhaps illusory escape from the social background of her upbringing. Daughter of a company director, she has the chance of mixing with lorry drivers, of jumping, or appearing to herself to jump class barriers. In her case, as in the case of many young people, hitch-hiking emerges as both a practical and symbolic issue in their struggle for emancipation from their parents' psychological and sometimes financial control over them. The first tentative lifts hitched can sometimes resemble the Boston Tea Party. They may be the start of a long drawn out war of independence from 'parental colonialism'.

All the same it would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that all parents oppose their children when they show a propensity to start hitch-hiking, if they do. People (see Appendix I) hitching at the London mouth of the M.1, near K garage were asked:

When you started hitch-hiking did both your parents approve?—
685 people altogether gave answers.
228 people reported that their parents approved.
 28 people reported that their parents approved with reservations.
156 people reported that their parents didn't mind, didn't disapprove.
240 people reported that their parents were worried or disapproved.
 11 people reported that their parents were one for, one against.
 22 people could not remember.

In other words around one third of the nearly seven hundred thumbers had parents who more or less approved of them hitch-hiking when they started; about one third had parents who disapproved or were anxious and rather more than one fifth had parents who didn't mind either way.

The above is in no sense a statistically trustworthy sample (see Appendix I). All that I intend to show by presenting these figures is that the parent-child conflict over hitch-hiking is a widespread phenomenon in families where teenagers suddenly take it into their heads to hitch-hike.

The likelihood of conflict depends on a great number of factors, how authoritarian or otherwise the parents are, the age it occurs to the child to try hitching, the sex of the child, the child's own personality and capacity to cope for himself etc.... Without knowing these factors and many more in each particular case, not much more can be said about the above figures. All they show is that conflict exists on a reasonably large scale—it is not confined to a fringe of families.

In order to get more of a picture of the ways parents and off-spring interreact over hitching 186 people picked up in my van were interviewed in more detail than the hurriedly questioned M.1 respondents (see Appendix II). The parents fall into various categories, ranging from those strongly for to those violently anti. To start at the positive end of the scale:

18 year old theatrical props maker, son of a tax collector:
I first hitched when I was 11. My father did a lot of hitch-hiking. I used to go with him.

20 year old student, son of town clerk, first hitched at 13:
My mother's attitude was: "Go away and be independent," and my father was the same.

Sometimes parents disagree about whether their child should be allowed to hitch-hike. One parent may foist the burden of making a decision onto the other:

15 year old apprentice mechanic, son of a bus driver, first hitched to away football matches at 13:
Mother didn't want me to go. Father was all for it. She is still against it and he is still for.

17 year old typist, daughter of a lorry driver, first hitched at 16:
Mother doesn't mind as long as I'm with someone. Father doesn't approve at all.

A small minority of parents who have children who hitch apparently feel violent antipathy to the idea of their own flesh and blood standing by the roadside thumbing. Two examples of this extreme group will suffice:

22 year old machine shop Worker, son of a civil engineer, first hitched at 18:
My mother was quite horrified—I don't know why—Father thought I had gone mad—he identified hitch-hiking with beatniks.

19 year old window dresser, daughter of an architect, first hitched at 17:
Mother hit me when she found out. She was frightened unless (sic) we ran off for good. Father hit me too, when he heard. They still feel the same now, but they let me go.

It may be relevant that both the civil engineer's son and the architect's daughter have got themselves jobs of lower status than their parents' presumable ambitions for them. This and the imaginable resultant tensions in the families might explain the violence of parental riposte

Quite a number of virgin hitch-hikers seem to fear strong negative feelings at home and avoid facing them by not telling their parents. What the eye does not see .... Sometimes the deception goes on over quite a period of time during which the teenager hitches regularly. The most extreme case found was that of a 26 year old, lah-di-dah, outwardly self-confident art dealer's assistant. She was the daughter of a rich farmer. When she was 16½ she lit off to Europe with her boy friend of the moment. Neither her father nor mother knew she was hitching. When her mother found out she was: terribly upset, she thought it degrading and dangerous. The father was never told by either her or her mother. Ten years later he still did not know his daughter had been hitching round Europe at 16½, and regularly thumbing for several years after that. Presumably he was never told because both women feared his anger.

The above is an example of total concealment. Several of the 186 respondents spoke of partial deception:

20 year old student, son of stock-checker, first hitched on holiday in Spain at 17:
My mother thought I was going with two friends-in fact I went alone.

A sizeable group of parents opposed their children's hitching not on principle or because the very idea seemed to them outrageous, but because they did not like the thought of their children having to face the difficulties and dangers of the road. Imaginatively they lived through the accidents their children might get involved in, the lifts with bad drivers, the morally dangerous lifts and so on ...:

21 year old student, son of a labourer, first hitched at 17
She didn't like it when she found I was doing it regularly, didn't think it was safe, thought I'd get soaked.

18 year old student, son of company director, first hitched at 13:
My mother didn't like it at first. She didn't like me going in cars with strangers at that age.

20 year old student, son of a design engineer, first hitched at 15:
They were both very annoyed, because of the accidents on the road, frightened I might get a bad driver.

Some of the parents of the 186 respondents questioned in my van didn't make any fuss about their children wanting to hitch. They took it completely for granted. It seemed natural or even unimportant to them. A sizeable fraction of the parents of the nearly seven hundred M.1 mouth respondents fell into this category (about one fifth). Are they perhaps the most successful and mature parents? One of the students I interviewed in Cambridge was certainly surprised at his parents' equanimity:

Student: I started when I was 16, I think, I was very surprised because my parents didn't bat an eyelid when I said I was going to Greece with my brother and a friend and they didn't mind at all.

Interviewer: This suggests you perhaps thought they were going to mind?

Student: Well, judging from my contemporaries' parents' reactions ... um, you know, nobody went off at the age of 16 just like that ... and especially to ... Greece wasn't quite so opened up as it is now.

Whether this man's parents and the others like them are the most mature in their attitudes towards their offspring is perhaps a moot point—they are certainly the least uptight.

Children whose parents fail to grant them adult status as they are gradually growing into it have no alternative but to seize it for themselves. Hitch-hiking, which makes possible escape from the home and all that implies in terms of parental surveillance, and which allows for almost free mobility, without the humiliation of needing to rely on parents for financial support, has an immediate attraction to the young person in an incipient phase of the revolt that may be necessary for the afirmation of his own separate identity. When the paren tries to disssuade a child, especially a son, from thumbing he is probably reinforcing the desire to try it. The father says to the son: It's difficult, it's risky, you won't be able to get lifts etc.... This kind of paternal reaction immediately turns hitch-hiking into a challenge to the boy's courage and virility. If the boy has backbone there could be no more counter-productive way of dissuading him:

A boy may also, like Gibben's joy riders in Chapter 6, be reacting against the over intimate protectiveness of the mother. In the case of the 19 year old technical college student below, this is probably one of the factors pushing him to hitch—his mother certainly comes through as a personality who still over-shadows, even half submerges him:

When I'm hitching she's anxious. I don't know where this anxiety stems from, whether she's scared for me, that something might happen to me, but she still is fairly anxious .... It could be anything ... a car crash ... and if ever I have a long time to wait then as soon as I walk in the door I can feel this immense amount of relief coming out, you know: 'Thank God he's home'. But this is probably because we're a very close knit family, and she feels for all of us, of course, but I think this is ... she probably feels a great deal . . . I mean I never get worried to that extent myself. (He can't quite bring himself to admit to a specially close relationship between her and him.) It's a feeling she's still in charge of me as a person, you know ... caring for me. And this automatically comes over her when I'm doing something on my own, that she wants to be with me, to make sure that I'm doing it O.K. and I'm fine.

Lucky for this man that he does hitch-hike all the same!

In so far as hitch-hiking turns out to be a conflictual issue between parents and teenagers attitudes to hitch-hiking on the part of young people often tell one quite a lot about their rapport with their parents and evolution in attitudes to hitching about changes in this relationship. There are certain family situations in which thumbing is more likely to become a bone of contention than in others. Parents tend to be more apprehensive over girls hitching than boys. Their anxiety is greater over young children hitching than older ones. The smaller the family and the more protective the parents the more there is likelihood of a clash. On these criteria certain types of middle class and professional homes would seem more likely to witness conflict than larger working class families.

Acting on these hunches I got girls in a fee-paying part boarding school in the North West to write essays on Hitch-hiking They were given no further guidance—the teacher simply told them the essays were wanted for research and asked them to write anything they felt like for half an hour.

20 fourth-form girls, aged around 13, came out as in the main congruent and acceptant of their parents' negative feelings about hitch-hiking. As a group they appear firmly entrenched in the particular prejudices of their parents' part of the previous generation. Only 3 or 4 of them state their parents' aversion and then point out that other points of view do exist. In other words, in early puberty, under the influence of small, tight families and an authoritarian, maternalistic, minor public school, they maintain obedient attitudes, and therefore very similar ones. Here are two examples of 'obedient' essays:

14 year old doctor's daughter:
'Travel by begging lifts from passing motor vehicles.' This is how the Concise Oxford Dictionary describes hitch-hiking. There have been and still are incidents where young children, or young girls, have been found cruelly murdered as a result of accepting a lift from a stranger. Supposing I ever did go on a hitch-hiking holiday I would certainly never go alone, but with a group of four friends.

14 year old dentist's daughter:
I personally would not hitch-hike because I think it can be dangerous if you accept lifts from the wrong type of people. It has been banned in some countries on the continent because of the dangers involved. (See Chapter 8.) Even if I did want to go hitch-hiking my parents wouldn't dream of allowing me to, because most 'hitchers' are lay-abouts that could not be bothered to pay the fare on public transport.

Even the 3 or 4 girls in whom there is a nascent glimmer of disagreement with their parents' views very quickly hedge their shy movement towards approving of thumbing with a massive exposition of the dangers and disadvantages. So for instance this 13 year old, civil engineer's daughter who carefully puts everything in the conditional:

If my parents would let me hitch-hike (which they would not) I would not mind hitch-hiking if I had the right clothes and if I was with a friend. I would not like to hitch-hike by myself unless it was absolutely necessary, because of the murders that have been happening to children, especially girls who accept lifts from strangers in cars. I would not feel very safe when I hitch-hiked even if people looked nice. I would not trust a man by himself, or a man and a woman by themselves

The 7 essays written on the same subject by sixth form girls in the same school were radically different in tone and attitude. Out of 7 only I was firmly anti-hitch-hiking, 2 were on the fence and 4 were in favour, despite parental objections. The girl who was anti was interestingly from a skilled working class home, presumably a socially 'rising' one:

18 year old master decorator's daughter:
I have never been hitch-hiking, and have never met anybody who really has, or at least mentioned the fact. (My italics.) The reason why is simple enough—Parents! My mother is the worrying type, and due to all the murders of young girls her mind would not be at rest at all during my absence. The actual send-off, as you could call it, would be terrible. My parents would be giving no end of advice such as: 'Be careful and for goodness sake do not accept any lifts from people you do not know,' which in the situation would be stupid advice to give. If we are in the car and happen to pass some hitchhikers thumbing, my parents are very disgusted and think people should catch a bus or a train like everybody else.

The most interesting thing about this essay is that it gives the key to the change in attitudes evident in this school between the fourth and sixth forms. The girl says: I have never been hitch-hiking, and have never met anybody who really has. She is the exception in her form—most of the other girls are beginning to come into contact with other teenagers outside the narrow confines of their sheltered school life. From new friends outside the mental 'clausura' they suddenly learn that you can go thumbing and not be automatically raped and strangled by the first man who picks you up. Given their curious, earlier conditioning this comes as a surprise to some of them. Their change of attitude brings them into a state of mental conflict with their parents. The change of attitude to thumbing and consequent stretching of the umbilical cord is excellently put by the 16 year old daughter of a Coal Board clerk:

Hitch-hiking is a thing I never dreamt of doing, having been taught from childhood never to accept lifts from strange men. But recently a girl from a nearby training college came to live with us. I naturally became very friendly with her and hitch-hiking came into our conversation quite frequently. It seems to be the done thing at college.

My friend and I went to college one night with the student and from there we all intended to go straight to Warrington by bus. The student suggested we hitched, and I, despite my upbringing thought this was a good idea, in a 3. My friend was dubious but we persuaded her to join us. We went across the road and stood on the curb and started thumbing. I at first felt embarrassed and burst into a fit of giggling. I finally stopped and recommenced thumbing. Then a lorry stopped. My next worry was being seen and recognised by any family friends and relatives. We reached our destination quicker and more cheaply than we would have done normally .... After hitching the first time it's far easier to do it again—one is more confident and it's easier to stand on the curb thumbing without laughing. The one fear I do have is thumbing anybody my parents know.

While the decorator's daughter did not hitch because she had never met anybody who had, in other words because no one had introduced her to the idea, the clerk's daughter had the idea suddenly thrown at her for the first time by a 'student'. She was still a mere schoolgirl and here was a college student willing to be her friend, though she was only 16, willing to take her into college society. When she found that hitch-hiking seemed to be the done thing at college, she naturally didn't want to be out of step. After all most of her training both at home and at school had probably been directed to making her accept group values. The college group was now the one she aspired to join and so she easily accepted the idea of hitching, despite her earlier reservations.

You might object that the difference in attitudes to hitching between the fourth form and sixth form girls is simply due to the fact that it is less imprudent for older girls to go thumbing and so there may have been a common sense relaxation in parental policy. This does not seem to be the case. The sixth formers who come out in favour of hitching report just as much hostility to the habit on their parents' part as do the fourth formers.

So for instance this 16 year old commercial manager's daughter:

Hitch-hiking to me is one of the best ways to have an inexpensive, exciting holiday. I think most people go hitching for the thrill of it and for the chance of meeting lots of people. One can travel a fantastic number of miles by hitching one or two lifts. I myself know some people who by hitching three lifts travelled along the coast of Wales in one day.

My parents disapprove of hitch-hiking. They think it is a way that many people, especially girls, can be murdered or bodily assaulted. Perhaps this is true but not every person you hitch a lift from would dream of murdering you. It's a risk one has to take—you have to take a risk in life sometimes.

Poor parents, how negative they seem to these 16 year olds:

Hitch-hiking like almost everything else these days, causes a lot of opposition, usually from parents. They like to know with whom you are going, and to see if they approve of the person, and also where you are going. (Violin teacher's daughter)

To young people thumbing isn't always just a question of narrow conflict with their parents. Often it is a means of broadening out of extending horizons to achieve a kind of human freedom it is very difficult to evoke with words. It's an emancipation in terms of place and time. You no longer feel bound by these two factors which in ordinary life hold you to the board as firmly as pins do a butterfly. It is an emancipation from your role in society, be it as a child, a brother, a sister, an apprentice, a student, a worker or whatever. It is release from ordinary responsibilities. In a way hitchhiking is a kind of long drawn out, pleasurable fantasy—this is what makes it so attractive to young people, what makes its relative hardships seem so trivial and unimportant to them.

Many people who have hitched long distances speak of the sense of liberation it gives them. So this Mexican Indian girl:

I think it's a nice feeling ... a feeling of freedom. I remember being way out in a country, a long road I could see for miles and miles, miles away in the distance and no one in the world knows I'm here except me. It's a good feeling. It's a nice way to see the land because you can stop off any place you want and go climb a mountain, play by a river ....

Nobody has tabs on her, she can go where she likes, when she likes, for as long as she likes. This kind of hitcher avoids planning and thus lives the fantasy of freedom to the full. In All The Time In The World Hugo Williams tells how he got himself a lift across the desert from Jordan to Kuwait on a huge truck:

Chazi seemed to live on curds and bananas and he shared everything with me. He said if I gave him a pound in Kuwait, we would pay for what we ate along the way, though in fact it was all put down on the slate. I never once saw any Saudi currency. I set out without any currency or supplies. But not entirely by accident. I prefer it that way. I hate landscaping my life as far as the eye can see. I like arrival to be something more than the result of my calculations. I like it to be a sense of bonus satisfaction ....

In an odd sense, though, Williams' feeling of freedom from planning is calculated self-conscious and very Western. He plans not to plan, and he is not the only one to do this. Maybe as a civilisation we are so tense and overwrought that this is the only way we can let go, short of using chemical means, like drugs or drink.

The heady falling in love with hitch-hiking seems in most 'addicts' lives to be a stage passed through but which gets naturally sloughed off. This is precisely what happened to the amazing Barbara Starke who in the late 1920's hitch-hiked alone across the USA, from her home in the East and back. She did it to escape the pressures and the narrowness of her environment, her protestant Yankee family and the obscurantism of her college education. In her book Touch And Go she describes the psychological point of her journey:

A bus roared powerfully up the hill, choking me with dust. I rose and left the trail, walking back among great headlands and red rocks. I was elated at the tremendous isolation. Something which had always oppressed me had become ridiculous, I waved a hand to the tall cliffs and they smiled grimly back at my laughter. For almost the only time since I had left them I pictured vividly the fussy little principal who had guided the desperate clamour of the business school and the thirty three meek girls working at their typewriters. Something left me which had never allowed me any peace before; perhaps because of the self I had been forced to be. The desperation with which I had started this pilgrimage seemed unbelievable .... To be sure I knew my family could still have thrown me into a guilty panic, but after many weeks of making my own decisions and not listening to correction and criticism I was beginning to feel that I might hold my own in the world at last, and still do things with my own particular flare.

Though she didn't feel very happy about going back into the net, after a time on the road she wanted to go back to a more normal life:

The idea of competing with people on the ordinary conventional basis of everyday business frightened me more than anything that might happen as I jogged precariously across the country dressed in corduroy and hitch-hiking. But when I decided I had had enough of wandering and it was time I went to New York and tried getting a job and living like other people, I became impatient to start ....

Barbara Starke went back to ordinary life with potent regrets. She had partially worked through the emotions triggering off wanderlust, but not by any means completely. To some extent she had to force herself back into the net. She still saw life in New York as a net. Most people who have lived through a prolonged 'hitch-hiking fantasy' find leaving it, coming out of it, hard, yet at a certain stage in the development of the personality the abandonment of hitching seems to impose itself. I was lucky enough to catch a Cambridge undergraduate in the middle of the sloughing period, a time of consolidation, an inevitable but very sad part of the growing up process. He spoke first about the freedom he had found in thumbing and then about the fall-away period:

The reason I went out, the reason I hitch-hiked, was to be free, as free as possible from any sort of civilised ideas.... You're free from any timetable, you're free from anybody, except the people who are giving you lifts. Your travel is independent, time is independent, you're dependent on nothing really. if you don't want a lift you just sit there and stew—you can go where you like, do what you like.

But now ... um ... the sort of interest of hitch-hiking has grown less and less, and now I only hitch-hike when I have to, so to speak. Now it's a means of getting from A to B as opposed to being a pleasure. This change goes hand in hand with various other changes ... a complete sort of different outlook on life, sort of things no longer sort of seem fresh and appealing, and everything dries up. I consider it a change for the worse, ... as far as I can see there's nothing I can do about it. It's a sort of growing up process. For the last 19 or 20 years impressions are flooding in upon you and then you get to this stage where you have to consolidate and so naturally things don't seem so fresh and so terrific ....

Why do people stop hitching? Usually they don't suddenly consciously stop—one day it dawns on them that they haven't been hitching for a year and maybe wonder why. The two practical events that most often mark the end of a person's thumbing career are the acquisition of a car or the arrival of a baby. It is extremely strange, but I have never seen or even heard of a couple hitching with a small baby, at least not in Britain. You often get young marrieds thumbing but not once they have a baby to cart around. Having a baby or getting a car seem to be much more often the end of hitching than leaving college or finishing an apprenticeship. (None of this, of course, applies to the 'industrial' hitchers, the car delivery men.)

Cars and babies get more frequent among people in their late twenties, which perhaps explains why, platers apart, most hitch-hikers are under thirty.

The end of hitch-hiking is clearly most often determined by practical factors, but it is rare for emotional elements not to be involved behind the scenes. When hitch-hiking loses its attraction, and from a pleasure turns into a bind, then a man is much more likely to want to buy himself a car. When two people, whose hitching started off as adolescent rebellion against over protective parents, marry, establish themselves and push their parents into grandparenthood, then the emotional need to hitch is likely to be on the wane. They don't need to make gestures of independence, or live out mile after mile of freedom fantasy; they are factually, economically, and if they are lucky, psychologically independent. Hitch-hiking has played its part in stretching, if not slicing, the umbilical cord.