It wasn’t M1-style hitchhiking, the kind where you stand facing the traffic, 'Liverpool' scrawled on cardboard, holding out a thumb. Here, on the stray single road crossing the Isle of Arran, there were so few cars that the most sensible strategy was to assume you’d be walking. I was cold, wet and muddy, but that’s not the reason I remember the day so well.
That trip to the west coast of Scotland, at the age of 15, was one of my first independent adventures, planned on my bedroom carpet with maps requested by post from the Scottish tourist board and a booklet from the Youth Hostel Association. I’d persuaded three friends to come with me, the only way my parents would rubber-stamp my plans. We left by train from Watford for the greatest trip ever.
After running around Glasgow and the west coast, we ended up basing ourselves on the Isle of Arran that summer. The memories still make me smile, the seeds of a life in travel. We trekked, we swam, we made new friends.
That day we were hitchhiking in the rain had begun in glorious sunshine. We’d planned to climb Goatfell, the island’s highest peak, but it was tougher than we expected and we ended up circuiting jagged summits and granite ridges, among heather and juniper trees.
As the day rolled on, the clouds gathered, shifting from summer to winter in an hour, which is what everyone tells you about Scotland. It turned out to be a classic Atlantic squall with high winds and sheets of rain. The four of us started laughing, slightly hysterical, but that soon quelled into moody silence. It was still a long way on foot to our hostel in Lochranza on the north shore.
A few cars passed us by, understandably. There were four of us, sodden, each carrying oversized backpacks that were also soaking wet.
When I saw a Mini in the distance, I stuck out my thumb, almost as a joke.
It slowed, before stopping.
The driver was a young woman, just a few years older than us. “Pile in,” she said, with her warm Scottish inflections.
I looked at the four of us. “Are you sure?”
“Of course,” she smiled. “Water dries.”
We squashed in, wearing wet Macs and muddy trainers, our packs squashed on our laps. “Sorry,” I said. “We’re messing up your nice car.”
She shook her head, handing around boiled sweets, before giving us top tips on where to find the best chips, a sheltered spot to swim, her favourite pub, a good view of Jura. The windows were steaming up and she rubbed them with the sleeve of her denim jacket, pinned with badges, such as CND and Save the Whale; she was my instant hero.
She went out of her way, driving us right to the door of our hostel. I can’t remember her name, but I will never forget her effortless kindness. She made me look forward to the day when I might have a car and give someone unpresentable a lift.
Even before the coronavirus, hitchhiking was becoming less common among travellers, but it’s still one of the most elemental ways of moving around: asking a favour of a stranger, being awarded one. Arran was easy, it turned out. Texas was trickier. A friend and I travelling together had so many come-ons that we eventually flagged down only pickup trucks, allowing us to ride apart from the driver in the open air. One had a shotgun rack hanging in the back window.
Yet some of my most joyful road trips have stemmed from thumbing a ride: San Diego to San Francisco for Fourth of July celebrations; chewing coca leaves from Sucre to Potosi, Bolivia; Cologne to Frankfurt in a soft-top; Nairobi to Malindi, Kenya, where the driver invited me to have dinner with his family when we arrived.
But my most memorable hitchhike was in northern Laos after the bus I was riding broke down. Sitting cross-legged on the lay-by, a truck driver took pity on me and another traveller. We sat atop his cargo of rice till we reached the next town, five hours away, no money exchanged. That other traveller and I ended up continuing to Xishuangbanna together, in southern China. She and I stayed in touch for years, often talking about the driver who never knew he forged our friendship.
It is surely for these chances, these experiences, that we travel and why we will travel again.