The galaxy’s guide to hitchhikers

X | @hitchbot

Sometime in the late summer of 2015, a cheerful little Canadian robot named Hitchbot was making its way from Boston to San Francisco. Hitchbot was a very basic device resembling a trashcan with arms and legs, equipped with a GPS to track progress and an onboard camera to periodically take pictures. Unable to walk, Hitchbot relied on the kindness of strangers to give it rides, and was a social experiment intended to answer the question, “Can robots trust human beings?” It had already successfully crossed the entirety of Canada from coast to coast.

But then it encountered Philadelphia[Tread lightly, McAleer. We Philly natives protect our own! —EW]

The City of Brotherly Love is also the town with a reputation for throwing batteries at opposing professional athletes during sports games. (Cue the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia title card, “The Gang Murders A Robot.”) Hitchbot was eventually recovered, but it had been completely eviscerated. On the plus side, when the AI robot dogs come for us all, Philly will clearly be a good spot for humanity’s last stand.

X | @hitchbot

For the fans that had followed Hitchbot’s travels on Twitter and Facebook, it was a dose of harsh reality. As recently as twenty years ago, hitchhiking was still a relatively common practice. It’s still legal in 44 states and across most of Canada. (On both sides of the border, there are often restrictions around highways.) However, police usually caution against hitchhiking, and there are any number of hair-raising stories about why it can be dangerous.

You would think that with the rise of ride-sharing, car-sharing, and even electric scooters there would be multiple apps for hitchhiking. But while there is a solid instructional guide for would-be hitchers at HitchWiki, hitchhiking itself is sort of a lost art. Thumbing a ride is something that’s mostly disappeared from North American society. Which is a bit of a shame. True, you never knew who you were going to meet when you pulled over for an extended thumb, but you also might end up meeting someone with a great story to tell.


U2 could be surprised

DUBLIN, IRELAND – JANUARY 20: Kathy Gilfillan, Paul McGuinness, Bono and Ali Hewson attend the European premiere of ‘Lincoln’ on January 20, 2013 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Phillip Massey/WireImage) WireImage

Sometimes, even Bono needs a ride.

Driving in a downpour in the West Vancouver area ten years ago, Edmonton Oilers hockey player Gilbert Brule spotted a hitchhiker on the side of the road, getting drenched. In the hitchhiking world, this is called a pity lift—someone stopping because the ‘hiker looked miserable.

In this case, however, it was U2 frontman Bono and manager Paul McGuinness. The pair received a short lift to the Horseshoe Bay area, and Bono later sent tickets to Brule and his family.

At the concert in Edmonton, Bono even gave a little speech about the ride. “I like ice hockey because people who play ice hockey are the kind of people who pick up hitchhikers. I’m ever so grateful.”

SHANGHAI, CHINA – NOVEMBER 04: Gilbert Brule #17 of HC Kunlun Red Star vies for the puck in the 2017/18 Kontinental Hockey League Regular Season match between HC Kunlun Red Star and HC Sochi at Feiyang Ice Skating Center on November 4, 2017 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images) Visual China Group via Getty Ima

Out of the way

Vilnius Hitch-hiking Club - Vilniaus Autostopo Klubas hitchhikers
The lead photo on the Vilnius’ club’s Facebook page. Facebook | Vilnius Hitch-hiking Club - Vilniaus Autostopo Klubas

If Bono was happy about the lift, imagine how two members of Lithuania’s Vilnius Hitchhiking club were when they caught a ride from a 55-year-old German man in Berlin. The driver, in a Toyota Corolla, was at the time only taking a short 30-mile ride; he instead ended up driving his passengers for an entire week, through Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Paris, Brussels, the Netherlands, and then all the way to Vilnius. Total distance was recorded as just under 2500 miles, not including the driver’s final leg back home.

What would possess someone to go that far out of the way for total strangers? Hitchhiking isn’t just a potential adventure for those who are asking for a lift. Whoever this unnamed driver was, he was suddenly dropped into a week-long tour of Europe, one that he might not otherwise have ever done himself. If nothing else, being open to possibilities landed him with a great story.

Der Engel der Anhalter: Angel of the Hitchhikers

autobahn Photo by Jennifer Latuperisa-Andresen on Unsplash
Photo by Jennifer Latuperisa-Andresen on Unsplash

What is it about Germany that encourages drivers to so willingly offer lifts? Among several unofficial hitchhiking records is top speed attained by a driver after giving a lift—the top two are in an Alpina 5 Series and an AMG E63, the former achieving nearly 200 mph on the Autobahn.

However, if you got picked up by Dieter Wesch and his Proton 416, it wasn’t the speed of the passage as much as the number of rides. Wesch kept a guestbook for all the hitchhikers he’d picked up over the years, and it ran to more than two dozen volumes containing messages of thanks in multiple languages. In 1980, Wesch was picking up more than 200 people every month.

Things slowed as Wesch approached the 10,000-passenger mark. In a 2002 interview with Autobild magazine, Wesch said that there were fewer people than ever out hitchhiking. He was hoping to meet just a few dozen a month. “That’s kind of my life support,” he told Autobild. “I want to accompany people on part of their journey.”

Guinness World Record Hitchhiking… Fridge

As with any oddball pursuit, hitchhiking is ideal for pointless record-setting. The Guinness Book of Records, always a fun read if you were in grade school in the 1980s and 1990s, listed the quickest times to hitchhike across the length of the U.K., from Cornwall to the tip of Scotland (and back). It also noted the feats of the perpetually peripatetic, like Frenchman Benoit Grieu, who began hitchhiking in 1979 and had traveled more than a million miles until he disappeared in 2011.

Also, there’s a record for longest distance accompanied by a fridge.

To win a £100 bet with a friend, English standup comedian Tony Hawks (not the skateboarding American) hitchhiked around the circumference of Ireland accompanied by a small fridge. In a shocking revelation, it seems a late-night drinking session was involved in the making of the bet, but Hawk got a Guinness Record out of his trip: 1025.26 miles hitchhiked with fridge, certified May 1997.

He also wrote a fun book about his trip, the aptly titled Round Ireland with a Fridge. In it, he takes the fridge surfing, gets it christened, and generally meets interesting character after interesting character. The last is part of the lost joy of hitchhiking.

On the Road

jack kerouac on the road museum exhibit
A visitor views an exhibit with a thirty-six foot section of scroll which contains the origianl manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s famous beat generation novel “On The Road” at the San Francisco Main Library January 18, 2006 in San Francisco, California. Getty Images

The great American opus on hitchhiking is, of course, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The story is not all hitchhiking, of course, but it tells of a time when traveling in the company of strangers was common. As the decades passed, memories of this phenomenon faded.

We interact with our fellow travelers less and less. This is even true when traveling by rail or airline, headphones on and noses slammed against screens.

The real death knell for hitchhiking in North America was less the bloodcurdling stories of dangers and more rising rates of car ownership. In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, people could rely on the thumb to get around. In more recent times, most of us swoosh along silently, isolated by steel and glass.

As hitchhiking fades almost entirely from our roads, there is the sense that something is being lost. Do you have any memorable meetings or adventures involving hitchhiking? Perhaps someone told you a story. Perhaps somebody gave you a tip on the best cheesesteak in Philly. [Better off with a roast pork sandwich from DiNic’s in Reading Terminal. -EW] Maybe once you stopped to pick up a wonky-looking little robot, took it home to meet your family, and offered a little advice about the necessity of always packing a towel.




Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: Is depreciation back? Yes, suggest 911s and Corvettes


    In late summer 1970, I was driving eastbound on I-84, heading home from out-of-town work into Boise, Idaho. About 3 miles outside city limits, I saw two young, svelte blondes with thumbs out. Had to take an exit and circle back about a mile to an emergency crossover, and was totally surprised they were still there when I came back around. I know this is going to sound inflated, but these ladies were gorgeous and quite friendly. Their story was that they were Aussies traveling from the west coast to the east to “see America”.
    Would ride with me as far east as I wanted to take them. I was driving my soon-to-be wife’s ’65 Impala, and she was supposedly waiting for me at home. So long story short, tempted as I was to head to NYC, I took them only to the eastmost exit ramp in Boise (total of about 6 miles) and dropped them there, gave them a wave and headed into town. I often wondered how the story was continued when the next driver picked them up… 😜

    They probably waited until they were a few more miles east of town, then pulled pistols out of their purses and robbed the driver blind and stole their car. I’m probably one lucky guy to have remained loyal to my girl, right? Right? RIGHT? 😍

    I have picked up two hitchikers in my driving career – they both ended up being drunks wanting rides to the liquor store. That pretty much cured me. Hitchhiking is like train hopping where if you are relatively fearless and don’t have much to lose in life, I’m sure it’s a blast. Wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else tho

    So many hitchhiking stories but given its Hagery’s i’ll share that my first ride in a Porsche (a 911 no less) was thumbing a ride from Detroit airport back to UofM while in grad school – must have been about 1984. I’ll also mention my year of hitchhiking. My parents moved at the end of my junior year of high school. With a bit of a chip on my shoulder I hit h hiked to school and back my entire senior year.

    I remember stories my dad used to tell of trying to hitchhike home to South Carolina on a weekend pass when he was in the 101st Airborne Division stationed at Ft Campbell KY. This would have been in the early sixties. Several people asked after picking him up if he could drive and dad would take over and let them get some rest! I guess being in uniform gave the folks a little trust in the stranger they were picking up. Other times he would make it as far as Chattanooga or so, run out of time, cross the highway and start hitchhiking back to base. With communication being as limited as it was in those days I don’t know how my mom kept up with what he was doing.
    I guess the times have really changed as I could not see myself doing anything like that today!

    I used to hitchhike across rural southern MN to see my now wife in college. My most interesting ride
    was from a guy in a VW bug. There was no front passenger seat so I crawled in back and spread my legs around a small tank where the front seat used to be. Seems he worked for ABS – American Breeders Service. He was making the rounds with prize bull semen in liquid nitrogen. Guess someone has to have that job…..

    A great story on hitchhiking which is a list art due to a far more violent and dangerous society. Pity that we as a nation have lost that gentle spirit of helpfulness to others.

    Hitchhiked several times from SDSU (Go Aztecs) to the Bay Area circa 1977-80. Had a small sign that said “NORTH”. Usually, truckers would take me most of the way on highway 5. Once I was stuck in a driving rain under an overpass in Morgan Hill. Had to walk to the nearest gas station for a pay phone. Called Dad and he drove an hour to get me. Finally got my first car senior year. 1964 VW Squareback S with dual Webers. Fantastic ride until a drunk lady totaled it. Side note. Many SDSU student lived at Mission Beach and Hitchhiked every day to school. Most made custom signs saying STATE, SDSU, AZTECS etc.

    I rarely see somebody who tries to hitchhike these days. I admit I’m not going to trust a stranger in this climate.

    “As recently as twenty years ago, hitchhiking was still a relatively common practice.” Not in my midwestern area; I bet I have not seen more than a dozen hitchhikers in the past 30 years, maybe longer. And that would include several trips to other parts of the country. It always seemed incredibly dangerous to me, even as a late-teenager in the 1970’s.

    Early 70s, Stockholm to Copenhagen. There were a few hitchhikers at a junction so it was going to take awhile. Then a pretty young blond rides up, drops her bike in the bushes and gets picked up in less than 30 seconds.
    Nicest ride was a XJ6 with a stick. Last leg was with friendly drug dealers in a Rover 2000TC.
    I wouldn’t pick up anyone today.

    In the mid ’70’s I hitchhiked from Texas to California, and from Florida to Maryland. I met many nice, generous people, including some who put me up for the night in their home. Hitchhiking was a wonderful, carefree way to travel. It’s a shame that it’s no longer a viable way to go.

    My brother and I were kids in Connecticut around 1978 and we thumbed a ride with another friend in a dude with a 65 Thunderbird. Tom Waits Pastied and a G String was playing above the total silence for about 20 minutes. We thought we’d either die or get to town to hang out. I never knew who did that song until the internet came along. Now I am a Tom Waits fan. But always have been.

    I did a lot of hitch-hiking in the 60’s, and sometimes think about writing a book. The strangest one was being picked up in the dead of night – dead tired, in a semi. After dozing off and almost falling out of my seat a few times the driver suggested I move back to the bunk, which I did. Some time later I woke up with the tractor rocking side to side, no engine noise, but a strange roar. I pulled the little blind aside on the window and saw a wooden wall – just a few feet away. We were inside a grain elevator, being loaded. Scared the c–p out of me.

    Late 70s and early 80s, it was the way to get around. Not so much today…one of those things we’ve lost along the way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *