She may not be a stranger but she is one of the kindest people I know, so my mum dropped us off at a service station on the edge of Glasgow at 8am on a Monday morning and waved goodbye.
We were surprised to see another hitchhiker in the service station, having not come across any myself in a few years in Scotland. He looked cold, tired and downright miserable. From what I read the UK is not a great place for hitchhiking. Was this a bad sign of what was ahead?
Not wanting to voice these fears to Tanya, we said hello and wandered off.
After a few less than successful chats with lorry drivers we wander down to the exit from the station where a van driver tells us the best place to catch a ride. We drop our bags, plaster on out smiles (trying to hide our nerves), stretch out our arms and thumbs up…
Though many people smile and wave, some look at us like we are crazy and others gaze right through us. After less than 30 minutes a car pulls up and a smiling face tells us he isn’t going far south but would be happy to take us to a larger service station some 40 miles down the motorway. And so, craming ourselves and our backpacks into Richard’s mini, our story begins.
Richard has never picked up a hitchhiker before. It seems fitting that we are his first, when he is our first of many on this trip. He shares details of his life and work and we tell him of our travel plans. It feels natural, like talking to an old friend. After we are dropped off and bid our fairwells we decide to write a sign (Tanya doing the first dumpster diving for cardboard) and only wait a few minutes before we are in our next car. Who said hitchhiking in the UK was difficult…? Heidi, a mum of 5 who is originally from the Midlands but moved to Scotland for love, drives us for around 4 hours sharing stories of her past hitchhiking and ours, as well as our plans. We hear of her varied career, family and passion for cycling – this woman seems like a super hero! Over the next three rides that day we have tails of drug addiction, sex tourism, death, love, divorce and true human compassion. It is beautiful how strangers open up to each other when there is a feeling pure anonymity.
Coming close to London and feeling rather good about our accomplishments for the day, we agree to call it a night. As we never practiced pitching the tent or using out new Kelly Kettle stove, we take full advantage of the last of the dwindling daylight – the tent is quickly up in the woods behind the service station and after collecting some kindling we soon have cooked food and a hot chocolate before a well deserved (if very restless) sleep. The camping lifestyle may take some getting used to for me.
By 7.30 am we are up, packed and full of enthusiasms to get back on the road. By 11:30am we are not. Apparently our luck ran out. The motivation is dwindling and we soon are feeling desperate for anyone to take us anywhere that isn’t Beaconsfiels services. As we debate if we should take a break (have you ever tried standing, arm outstretched and smiling for 4 hours as most people pass by ignoring you?) it happens – we are offered a ride to Uxbridge. I have no idea where this is but I’ve explained where we are trying to go and he seems to think it will work. Mostly we just want to get away from where we are to start in a new spot. So off we go. This was maybe not the best of places to try for our next hitch (in the middle of a busy roundabout in West London) but soon enough a white van man stops for us (again he had never picked up a hitchhiker before). We were feeling like out luck was changing – and it was! Heading around the M25 I think we both silently feared the next leg of the journey – getting to Maidstone and across the channel (I had read the only way for free is for a lorry driver to take a passenger on the ferry, meaning we not only have to get to Maidstone but convince two lorry drivers to take us on the same ferry, and make sure we had a ride off the ferry so as not to be left in Calais.)
Again though, our luck was on the up when Dave picked us up. He travels a lot for work and is heading to Belgium and says he can certainly drop us in Maidstone. Soon into the journey he questioned why we don’t want to cross through on the tunnel. I sheepishly tell him again that our plan is no public transport and the only way for free is the ferry (hoping he understands it’s not about being cheap, it’s about the challenge and the people we meet). My research is wrong and the next thing we know Dave has bought us all a coffee in the waiting area for the euro tunnel. Next stop France! For a place that’s notorious for susspission and distrust toward hitchhikers this had been easier than I expected. True, had we not met the people we did we may still be at Carlisle. But we did meet them. They had trust in us and us in them.