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Rediscovering the Thumb

Halfway through 2008 I was standing by the road just outside Helsinki with my thumb out and the feeling of hopelessness curling in me. My Finnish friend, Paivi, and I just spent Juhannus (Finnish Midsummer festival) in a lakeside cottage and she suggested we hitch back. Several cars had passed us – some made embarrassed shrugging gestures, others stared steely at the road and one answered my thumb with the finger. This wasn’t how I remembered it.

More than 15 years earlier Paivi and I hitched more than 200km from Helsinki to her home town of Jyvaskyla. It could just be nostalgia but we’d gotten some great rides including a truck driver with beer cargo and stories of driving into Russia where bandits dropped from low-hanging bridges. Our worst ride was with a Swedish woman who couldn’t speak any English. We’d waited less than fifteen minutes for most rides, but the world had has turned since the 1990s.

For starters there was the high-profile case of Ivan Milat, who’s murder of seven hitchers was the basis for the horror film, Wolf Creek. Every passing driver was making a quick assessment to see if I could be a serial killer – based on their eyes-ahead driving, they’d decided I was. But some things about hitching have endured – it remains a cheap way to travel that’s popular with the homeless and the penniless backpacker particularly in expensive countries like Finland.

Back in early 1990s Finland, the famous thumb of Bernd Wechner was also uncurling. German-born Wechner moved to Australia when he was five, but never really settled and began hitching in 1991. In Finland’s north near Rovaniemi he was told “No-one hitches that stretch, there is nothing but tree and reindeer out there”. Struggling with hefty bus fares he found that “thumbing was more convenient”. He kept on cadging rides at petrol stations, thumbing his way across Finland, Japan New Zealand and Malaysia. He learnt the word for hitching in several languages: “The French like Faire du Pousse (doing by thumb)… The Germans more commonly say Trampen than Autsotop and... clearly there’s a relationship with the English words tramp and tramping.” As a king of the road he wrote a column for the Suite101 website and earned the nickname The Thumb.

Today he lives in Tasmania working as a project manager, but he still reckons “a passionate hitch-hiker never retires” and his famous digit can still be seen occasionally getting a ride outside Hobart. “I always get where I’m going and usually in good time,” Wechner explains. “It’s just that the opportunity doesn’t arise nearly as often because I have a job, a family…”
Far from being worried about safety, Wechner enjoys the anonymity of being a hitcher and the bonds it develops. “The relationship is – in spite of all the crazy cultural suspicions to the contrary – one of the socially safest you are likely ever to encounter. If you embarrass yourself, no worries, you never have to see this person again. They are transient.” But then there are those few high-profile media cases. “It’s not risk free, don’t get me wrong. People do get killed. They get killed everywhere though. Just look up how many people die in their own bathtubs every year, but we keep taking baths.”

And most of the people he met were generous with stories that killed a few kilometres. If hitching is fading, he believes “The last remnants will be the anthropologists, the social and cultural explorers who aren't really aiming to get from A to B, but in recognition of the… unique nature of the relationships offered by hosts offering it, will use it to explore and adventure.” Wechner balances the safety against his own anthropological curiosity. He likes to paraphrase Ken Welsh, “The beautiful thing about hitch-hiking, is that all the ass-holes drive right on by.”

Welsh was the author of the canonical Hitchikers’ Guide to Europe, a book that inspired generations of hitchers from the 1970s to the 1990s including a young Douglas Adams who borrowed the title for his satirical sci-fi novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some of Welsh’s advice is timeless: “Choosing the right place to hitch a lift from is crucial. Make sure you can be clearly seen from a distance, so that drivers have a chance to decide whether to pick you up or not.” Other tips – holding a sign with your destination or being sure to shave – seem quaintly dated. The books included some extreme money saving tips like how to pawn your belongings and finding local black markets. For a budget, both Welsh and Wechner agree it’s hard to beat hitching.

As travellers are tightening their belts for the global economic crisis, hitching seems poised to make a comeback. Wechner also hitches for the environmental benefit as he’s “into car pooling and efficient use of our resources”. Worldwide the ‘green thumb’ is taking on a new meaning. Wechner cites the US Sierra Club’s recent promotion of hitching as proof of its ecological credentials.

In Washington DC, ‘slugging’ has broken the one-car, one-driver model as Americans pick-up middle-class hitchers on the daily commute to work. Drivers get to use High Occupancy Vehical (HOV) lanes, which makes a quick trip for them and their free-riders. The practice is so common that there are ‘slug lines’ along the road to North Virginia. Business-suit hitchers are a long way from Kerouac’s On the Road, but hitching has evolved since Paivi and I first waited by the side of the road.

The US website digihitch is pulling hitchers off the highways as they can source rides online with rideboards. Drivers post their journeys online with preferences like petrol money or number of seats available. Hitchers can organise a pick-up enroute and save on the long roadside waits. Another US site, PickupPal offers rides and carpooling in Australia and has a feature that lets you browse drivers and passengers before you hop in their car to Woop Woop.

Technology can make old-style hitching safer. Digihitch suggest that women travelling solo use their mobiles to “send each licence plate number to a friend as soon as you’ve got into the car. In case the driver gets difficult, you can always tell him that his licence number is already in your friend’s cell phone.” It might not have worked in remote Wolf Creek, but it would make most dodgey drivers think twice.

Digihitch identifies road safety as the biggest concern and Wechner agrees that “the greatest risk by a long, long way that the hitch-hiker faces is being hit by a car.” He compares the national road toll with the relatively few acts of violence perpetrated on hitchikers. If as Welsh says “Hitch-hiking is a game of chance,” then you have to play the odds as in the rest of life.

We finally got a ride back to Helsinki. It took about half an hour, but the driver turned out to be a writer who kept his USB key with his latest book around his neck. He’s since sent me photos of the lake in all seasons and still regularly emails. A driver who’s become a friend. And when I got home I pulled out the photos from that 1990s trip and found one Paivi had taken of me coaxing passing cars. She’d written a caption that I’d forgotten had virtually become my hitching mantra: “We’ll never get a ride.” But on the photo’s glossy flipside my thumb sticks out hopefully.

An edited version of this piece originally appeared in The Big Issue No. 319, 26th Dec-2008 – 12th Jan 2009


  1. Nice post, George. My brother used to hitch everywhere, until a brief relationship with a girl with angry convict brothers led him to get the bejesus belted out of him one day. The lead-up was creepier, if less painful: hitchers on the Nepean Highway were being asked if they knew him, (by name). If they did, they were asked to send him the message that his days were numbered. Nice. probably not surprising I grew up to be a driver.

  2. Ah hitching. Long ago when i was an awkward teenager I caught the bus from the beach to the ice cream shop and caught up with my friends. They had hitched the same route with a crazy man in a van with three sandy kids. The man told them all about this kooky thing called the 'El Nino effect' and how it was causing the big waves that summer. We all laughed at the crazy man and agreed that hitching can be a gamble. When I got home all the talk at the dinner table was about how Dad had picked up these cool surfer dudes and embarrassed the hell out of my three siblings as he told them about some crazy 'El Nino' thing he had clearly made up! Ah, he's always been ahead of his time.
    On another note the moderation function is asking me to type 'slymork'.


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