An introduction to Driving with strangers: what hitchhiking tells us about humanity

Posted by Rebecca Mortimer - Friday, 7 Jan 2022


‘There are stories in these pages which will make your spine tingle, weep with joy, rage with injustice, make you want to embrace the next stranger.’

Hello. I’m a writer, tutor, independent sociologist and a musician. I’ve also been, since the age of 17 a hitchhiker. In that time I have hitchhiked over 40, 000 miles and received 1309 lifts from complete strangers (which is not, I should add, a particularly remarkable hitchhiking statistic). I have also done a lot of research about the history of hitchhiking – which has ebbed and flowed in popularity depending on societal needs and attitudes and is currently taking place on every continent (yes maybe even Antarctica). The longer that I have been researching the incredible diversity that has been sharing the road, the more that I have felt its importance as a way of looking at, being in and travelling through the world.

This is what my book with Manchester University Press – Driving with strangers: what hitchhiking tells us about humanityis about. I’m calling it a vagabond sociology of the motor age, where I use hitchhiking as a lens to think about cooperation, empathy, trust, freedom, economics and perceptions of risk across the last hundred or so years. But this is not a traditional academic book, and I am not an interesting enough hitchhiker for it to be a memoir – it’s a road trip with some of the most incredible and inspiring people who have ever set out to share their gifts of conversation with the wider world. There are stories in these pages which will make your spine tingle, weep with joy, rage with injustice, make you want to embrace the next stranger. 

And these are collective stories too: when societies have changed their economies and transport systems overnight to save lives, fuel or to generate new notions of nationhood. Maybe it has been as small scale as people lobbying to save their local hitching post or to establish one – what is clear is that there is a hidden history of mutual aid that can and does act as a default position rather than the suspicion and division we are so often encouraged to feel.

I discovered all of this by accident. I missed the last bus on a Sunday in Northern England in 1982 through my own stupidity, and yet somehow I knew that it was possible to stick my thumb out and people would help me get across the miles between Carlisle and Grasmere in the Lake District. Those first five lifts were something of a revelation (I have called it the discovery of an ‘amazing truth’ about humanity) but perhaps it was apposite that this was across the stamping ground of some of the Romantic poets, whose own journeys and exercises in verse were akin to sociological observations. They turned the act of travelling into reflections and commentaries on the inequalities of the society within which they were living; of seeking balance and coexistence between human and non human ecosystems, fearful of the might of technology, power and exploitation on the landscape and the psyche.

‘hitchhiking becomes allegorical of who we are’

Today we know we have to alter course fast as a species, to do more than just reduce our carbon emissions, we have to think and feel as global citizens. So, in this struggle, hitchhiking becomes allegorical of who we are, which is why we’ve juxtaposed a hopeful thumb against a burning sky on the cover of Driving with strangers. Small random acts of kindness reflect a wider vision. I am not asking you to stick your thumb or palm into the road to enjoy what is between its pages. Yet, maybe by dipping into these stories you will start to ‘think like a hitchhiker’ and find your own ways of sharing the road and helping others.

So please come along for the ride. There’s also going to be a musical accompaniment on Spotify and YouTube so you can tap your foot to some great hitchhiking songs whilst you are turning the pages or etching out your next destination onto a piece of cardboard.

My colleagues at Manchester University Press have helped me put together a rich vibrant history which is designed to inspire and bring hope: I’m grateful to them and the countless people who have helped me or feature in the book. It’s been a privilege to meet so many inspiring travellers and thinkers during the course of this long project and a joy to now share with you. See you out on the road.

Jonathan Purkis.

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