Most people in the US believe hitchhiking is a method of travel “below” them reserved only for the homeless, hippies, or criminals of society, but after my first hitchhiking trip I can honestly say this is untrue. Now this isn’t to say you won’t encounter these particular demographics of the population while hitchhiking, but much to my surprise I discovered there are important skills that can be cultivated by traveling in this manner. So instead of shelling out money for a self-improvement class, consider packing a bag and heading for the highway! Here are the top ten things I learned from my first hitchhiking trip!
#1 - Always Stay Positive
Standing on the side of the road watching hundreds of cars pass by can become disparaging quickly and it’s easy to get in the habit of negative, cynical thinking. Maintaining a positive mentality under such repeated failure for sometimes hours at a time is a difficult feat to accomplish, but the choice to remain positive drastically influenced my experience for the better. Complaining about a situation did not help to mitigate or remedy any of the issues my friend Artyom and I encountered during our hitchhiking trip. Instead, such negativity only served to bring down each other’s spirits and make an otherwise remarkable experience into a hellish chore. The same principle applies to life: it’s all in how you choose to look at it – and never forget it is your choice – so stay positive.
#2 – Assume the Best in People
Coming from the US, I honestly didn’t believe drivers actually picked up hitchhikers – who in their right mind offers rides to people off the side of the road? I can’t tell you how astonished I was when the very first driver, a total stranger, voluntarily gave Artyom and me a ride with absolutely no expectation of payment. More times than not, these same people even went out of their way (sometimes as much as 30 miles) to drop us off at a specific intersection/gas station they knew we could easily find a ride. These people had absolutely no reason to even give us the time of day, yet at every turn I was surprised by the generosity of society. By the end of my trip, I couldn’t even blame the cars that passed without stopping because that’s what I would have done. They weren’t inherently bad people, they were just fearful of who these two guys were on the side of the road. It’s surprising how remarkably kind people are, so always assume the best.
#3 - Embrace the Unknown
The biggest terrors I encountered on my hitchhiking trip occurred every time Artyom and I stepped out of a car into a random gas station in the middle of nowhere. I had absolutely no idea when our next ride would arrive, where it would take us, what kind of person would pick us up, or if this was the fateful stop where we get stranded for the night. While this didn’t seem to bother Artyom, the plethora of unknown variables engendered a feeling of anxiety within me. In this situation I had two options: 1) Stress myself out by incessantly worrying about things I had no control over (and could not possibly know) or 2) Simply let go knowing that it will somehow work out in the end. Just because you don’t know what the future holds, do not assume it will is the worst possible outcome. Instead of fearing the unknown embrace it and look forward to what surprises life has in store for you. Remember, a life without mystery would be a dull existence.
#4 - Don’t be Afraid to Ask
On several occasions Artyom and I spent over an hour waiting at various gas stations for a ride to no avail. In those instances we decided to walk around the pumps asking people if they were heading in our direction. At first I felt we were imposing on these complete strangers, but in fact our success rate was far greater than just standing on the side of the road. In one instance, Artyom and I ended up in a gas station with three other hitchhikers all doing the exact same thing as us. After waiting a while unsuccessfully, we began asking around for a ride and sure enough we got one within in minutes! We were the last hitchhikers to arrive but the first ones to leave and - best of all - we got an impressive Mercedes sports car to give us a ride! You’d be surprised what you can get in life if you just ask - all you need to do is take the initiative!
#5 – Be Grateful for What You Have in Life
There is a famous quote I remember reading as a child that went, “You’ll never know the price of water until the well is dry.” There is no greater way to fully appreciate what you have back home than by traveling, and especially hitchhiking, in a foreign land. It isn’t until you lose all of the creature comforts such as privacy, hot water, and speaking in your native language for you to realize how good you have it back home. Nothing in life will ever make you appreciate the simple joys of sleeping in a warm bed more than spending a frigid night outside sleeping on a park bench in a truck stop on the side of a freeway like Artyom and I did. You may not realize it, but you have much to be thankful for in life.
#6 - Let Go of Technology
Before departing on our trip, Artyom and I made a deal to spend 10 minutes planning out the waypoint cities for our trip from Utrecht to Copenhagen and then turn off all electronics until we arrived. When we got lost, had questions, or needed advice we simply talked to people! In our modern technological age, this sounds absolutely ridiculous, but viewing and experiencing the world without constantly be checking social media or taking pictures solely for the purpose of uploading them allowed me to simply enjoy the world and people around me. I received several messages afterward wondering where the hell I’d disappeared to, but it was a great feeling to simply not care. Sometimes to be connected to the world around you, you must first disconnect from it.
#7 - Hold No Expectation, Pass No Judgment
During our trip, every time we entered a car I subconsciously made snap judgments about people based solely on their car, dress, or appearance. I’ll never forget the Romanian truck driver who we met that I initially assumed was just a backwoods, country-bumpkin. I’ve never held truck drivers in very high esteem, but the man is a classically trained music professor and chess master. He became a driver to afford his wife’s cancer medication because apparently it is more lucrative to be a truck driver in the EU than a music professor back in Romania! I’ve never been more consistently wrong in my life and after a while I learned let go of my expectations and judgments about people.
#8 - Accept Change in Your Life and Adapt to It
Like any form of travel, hitchhiking forced me to accept that things change in life and that the only way to succeed is to quickly adapt to new environments. I am reminded of a famous quote that goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.” In hitchhiking, if one strategy isn’t working you need quickly pivot because if you don’t make it to your destination by sunset, you’re sleeping outside for the night (and nobody likes that). When leaving the Netherlands, Artyom and I noticed nobody was stopping when we held out a sign reading “Hamburg” so we picked a closer city. When that didn’t work, we simply wrote “Germany” and lo and behold someone stopped! Funnily enough if that sign didn’t work we were just going to write “East.” In hitchhiking as in life, your environment will inevitable change and you should be willing to do the same.
#9 - Patience is not just a Virtue, it’s Necessary
During our trip, Artyom and I were faced with a myriad of unexpected issues, delays, and complications and the only way for us to succeed was through calm perseverance. This is particularly applicable when things didn’t go our way or we found ourselves waiting on the side of a road for hours on end hoping for a generous soul to offer us a ride. These frequent problems can drive a person crazy and cause untold amounts of stress – but only if you let them. This skill is closely tied to remaining positive (#1) and not holding expectation (#7), but the ability to remain calm under difficult circumstances without acting on your annoyance or anger is one of the greatest skills a person can attain.
#10 - A Smile Is Everything
One thing I will forever remember about my first hitchhiking trip was how much my face hurt at the end of it. For hours at a time, Artyom and I stood by the side of the road, thumb out, sign in hand, and (most importantly) smiling at every single car that passed by, because nobody will stop for a pair depressed hitchhikers. In life as in hitchhiking, people are naturally drawn to positive, happy individuals and are more inclined to help them out because it looks like they’re having fun. The concept is rooted in the idea of emotional contagion that is a well-documented tendency where emotional states can be shared across individuals either implicitly or explicitly. A smile is the best means of communicating in travel because it’s the one expression that supersedes all languages, cultures, and histories and can be understood by every single human on the face of the Earth. Never underestimate the remarkable power of a simple smile.