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The Way I See the Open Road

I recently traveled almost 200 miles across the far north of Scotland without a ticket or schedule. 

On the way, I learned about the area from local guides, saw about 40 species of birds and endless miles of heather, petted some very good dogs, and had excellent conversations about many topics with new friends. 

I got some exercise, picked up some last-minute items at a shop, and tasted food I’ve never had before (black sausage and chorizo tapas). I saw old castles, and new vistas. 

Hitching today is rare, obsolescent, and generally frowned upon. When I mention that I hitch while traveling, I hear the same questions: Are your finances really that bad? Isn’t it dangerous? Doesn’t everyone ignore you? (No, no, and no.) When I mention that I hitch for fun, people generally get confused. 

So, as an exercise, let me tell you about a particular day on the road. I woke up at a friend’s house in Fort William, having arrived in the UK the day before and taken the train to the west coast of the Highlands. 

At 8:30 a.m., after a light run, a shower, and being handed dozens of objects by his two-year-old daughter, my friend dropped me off at a petrol station on the edge of town. We hugged good-bye.

The petrol station was well-situated on the one road north to Inverness. The road goes through a beautiful valley called the Great Glen, where a hiking path follows lochs and locks on the Caledonian Canal for 70 miles. 

I’ve walked this path before, and knew it well. It took me three days to walk it 15 years ago, and two days to bike it last year. On this day, I hoped to drive through it. My friend suggested it might take all day. Perhaps two.

I stuck my thumb out. And then there was nothing to do but wait. This is one of the things I love the most about hitching — the waiting. I can’t compare this waiting to anything else; it doesn’t have the anxiety of being near a broken-down car, or having lost your house keys. It’s not quite like sitting in a dentist’s office. It is perhaps closest to sitting on a hill on a good day and watching the clouds. But that is an aimless act.

Waiting with a reason is different. Reading a book lowers your chances of getting picked up, music might have to be turned off if a car pulls up suddenly, and in my case there was no one to talk to. So, you do nothing. You wait. 

Soon the sound of the cars turns into waves on a beach, or the breaths of meditation. Your brain shuts off. With nothing to do, you learn to do nothing. You listen to birds, if there are any. Perhaps you sing a song under your breath. There’s no productivity in what you’re doing. You’re already doing what’s needed, with your thumb. And who needs productivity, anyway? 

I was busy with this act of nothingness when the first ride pulled up — a large white van with the steering wheel on the left, like an American car. The driver and I agreed he was going the right way (north), and, on this road, any ride works. I got in.

He was an American, Jeff from Pennsylvania, with a dog named Hoopie. He lives in his Spanish van in Europe a few months of the year, and this was his first time in Scotland. We talked about the best types of fit-out for campers, his daughter’s yellow Jeep, the war in Ukraine, invasive rhododendrons. He had volunteered with refugees in Berlin. He loved his bike. The act of hitching barely came up.

And then, after a brief half-hour, he dropped me off at the Bridge of Oich. The air was clear, the swallows twittered, and everything was just grand. I took out my notebook to write about it, but only managed one line. I got a ride from the seventh car that passed. 

With rides this fast, travel was easy. Nigel drove a Jaguar and was accompanied by his Tamaskan dog named Milo. (Tamaskans were used in “Game of Thrones” to represent now-extinct dire wolves, as he repeatedly told me.) Milo was as placid as Loch Ness. Nigel traded in his 4×4 when Milo wouldn’t jump up into it.

Brendan had modded his car to go faster. He works in Taiwan on windmills. He once ran into a waitress from his village of 400 people serving cocktails in Dubai. 

I’m not sure I heard Chief’s name correctly, but he told me, “I keep to myself mostly.” His massive, sun-spotted hands packed scallops and occasionally relit the slowest cigarette I’ve ever seen. He didn’t like shellfish, but never minded the smell. 

Four hours passed this way. I waited, in total, perhaps 20 minutes.

I can’t think of a more Zen way to travel — close to the land, close to the culture. I am, of course, privileged, not just by dint of being a semi-muscular white male, but also in terms of where I can hitch. Northern Scotland is safer than Vermont, which is safer than, say, California. I’ve still had close calls, and cars I’ve gotten out of early. But I’ve also hitched more than 20,000 miles in my life. Perhaps I’m lucky. If so, I feel it — with every car. I raise my hands in joy whenever someone pulls over. Cultivating gratefulness, I find, is an antidote to fear. 

On this day, after I’ve finally washed up at a restaurant, I wait for the ferry. It’s three in the afternoon as I write, and I have hours to wait. I sit outside on the pier and watch the terns. When the ferry drops me off in Orkney, I’ll start walking down the road again. If I make it to the next spot I’m going, good. If not, I’ve got a tent and a sleeping bag, and the stars will be out overnight.