I honestly don’t know where to begin with this story. Over the last five days, I traveled with a friend, Artyom, from Utrecht, Netherlands to Copenhagen, Denmark and Hamburg, Germany without paying a dime for transportation. This leg of my trip completely transformed my perspective on a means of travel I believed was reserved for homeless, hippies, and convicts: hitchhiking. To top it all off, the entire trip was completely spur of the moment; if it weren't for my detour to Cologne, I might never have met up with Artyom, but looking back is an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.
For some absurd reason, I assumed hitchhiking was a more complicated endeavor, but in fact it is just about finding a turn, onramp, or intersection near a freeway where cars have to slow down a bit. From there, you simply hold a sign with a nearby town that is in the general direction you're trying to go and smile... lots of smiling. That’s it!
To my surprise, the most difficult aspect of hitchhiking is something I never even considered - talking. Whenever you get into a car while hitchhiking you have to talk for the entire duration of the trip. Whether it's five-minutes or five-hours, you can’t just sit there in silence. I like to think that I can talk endlessly about nothing, but after the first four cars, I quickly realized that repeating my whole life story fifteen times a day becomes boring rather quickly and attempting to hold a conversation hours on end with a complete stranger is exhausting. On the upside, by the end of the trip Artyom and I could recount each other's entire life story.
And that Artyom could not go 20 minutes without mentioning something about Elon Musk, Tesla Motors, Space X, or Solar City.
What I absolutely loved about this trip was the sheer diversity and randomness of the people we met along the way. What is amazing is that unlike my usual trips where I simply sit on a bus for hours on end, the journey this time around was the destination. Artyom and I rode in 18 different cars (likely more, we lost count) and while we repeated our same story again, and again, and again, our generous drivers came from a remarkably wide variety of backgrounds. Every time a new person picked us up, I was excited to hear their story. Just to give you a taste of the variety of drivers we met along the way, here are some of the more entertaining ones:
Technical yacht designer for billionaires
Romanian truck driver/Classical music teacher/Chess master
Formula 2000 race car driver
Old school hitchhiker
Crazy techno Danish firefighters
Kazakhstani man who shipped windmills
I honestly would not be able to make up a more random group of people if I tried - and this was only half of them!
What surprised me most of all was the generosity of complete strangers; none of them had to stop and pick us up, but they all did. While the "success rate" of hitchhiking is less than one car per hundred, all it takes is one person to make your day. As I looked into the windows of the numerous passing cars, the people I expected to stop never did and the people I never thought would give us the time of day went out of their way to help us reach our destination.
The biggest terrors I encountered on this trip was that I never knew exactly where we were, where our next ride would come from, or if this was the gas station we'd be stranded in for the night. While the feeling didn't seem to faze Artyom, every time we stepped out of a car into a random gas station in the middle of nowhere I became surprisingly uncomfortable. I pride myself on not planning, but this was a new extreme for me. Without fail, someone always picked us up, but the repeated anxiety I experienced standing at the exit of a random gas station not knowing what is going to happen from one hour to the next is something I've never encountered before. I desperately wanted to know where the hell we were going, but after a while, I learned to just let go and trusted that at some point someone would take us somewhere closer to our final destination.
The who, what, when, where, why, and how were of little importance - because they were all unknown to us.
In retrospect, I could not have asked for a better companion for my first hitchhiking trip, Artyom is a seasoned hitchhiker, compulsive traveler, and the equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife when it comes to languages. We came across a myriad of people from all over Europe during our trip and Artyom could carry a conversation with every single one of them in their native language. I lost count of the number of times I sat idly by, smiling with a completely clueless expression, waiting for someone to kindly translate whatever it was we were talking about to English. The man knows Russian, English, Dutch, German, French, Italian and his Spanish is far better than mine.
And I'm pretty sure I missed a few other languages.
Our original goal was to hitchhike from Utrecht to Copenhagen in one day. I carried with me my one trusty backpack and Artyom threw some clothes into a hiking pack. That was it. We had no expectation of staying overnight anywhere, but after hitchhiking for 13 hours straight, we found ourselves stuck in a truck stop south of a town called Kolding at 10:00pm. Since nobody in their right mind picks up hitchhikers after dark, we quickly realized that this humble truck stop was our home for the night. At this point in my life I’m no stranger to sleeping outside and neither is Artyom, so we settled in as best we could.
For those of you keeping track at home, I can now add truck stop to the ever growing list of places I've slept in that include a bus station, train station, airport, and in one instance a phone booth.
Thankfully, unlike my phone booth experience, this time around I had company to share the misery with and while it was a difficult night, we simply laughed it off. For the first time since leaving the US I was finally able to put my camping hammock to use. I've been carrying the damn thing around for the last two months as a Plan B just in case I happen to find myself in this exact situation. Literally one week before this trip I seriously debated ditching the thing, but after this evening the hammock now has a permanent place in my pack. Artyom and I put on whatever clothes we brought and I gave him the tarp section of my hammock with while I kept the hammock portion of myself. We found a nice pair of wooden benches and wrapped ourselves up as best we could. I used a bag of old t-shirts as my pillow and Artyom an empty plastic water bottle.
For the next 6 hours that bench was our "home."
While exceptionally cold, we had no significant issues the entire night. Neither of us got more than three hours of sub-par sleep and we were up first thing in the morning to continue our journey. The second half of our trip was significantly more difficult because we were exhausted and neither of us had much of a desire to talk to anyone, but we eventually made it to Copenhagen in one piece and our later trip to Hamburg went off without a problem.
To my parents: Yes, your son left a high paying consulting job in Manhattan to hitchhike across Europe and now sleeps in truck stops.
It looks like all that money for college was well spent!
I loved my time hitchhiking and it will be certainly a memory that I will never forget. I am forever be grateful to Artyom for exposing me to this new method of travel which I never considered prior to leaving the states. Going forward, if I ever see a somewhat respectable looking person on the side of the road hitchhiking I will stop to see if I can help. Finally, less I get reprimanded when I return to the US, I also need to thank my wonderful friend Tam for putting me in contact with Artyom; without her this trip would not have been possible.
I’m now off to travel across the entire country of Germany by bus to catch a flight from Frankfurt to Dublin to meet up with Angela! At this point the term "exuberant" would be an understatement. While the entire trip will likely take more than 18+ hours to complete, I am very much looking forward to just sitting on my ass, writing, and not talking to another living soul.
Dublin here I come!