The Galactic Guide to Hitchhikers


A dozen or so South Africans stand on the same quadrant of the traffic circle that leads out of St. Francis Bay towards Humansdorp. There’s a small rain shelter nearby. It looks like a bus stop, but there are no buses here in St. Francis Bay. There is no public transportation at all. There are just thumbs, and the choices drivers make.

I picked up my first hitchhiker here on my previous visit to St. Francis. On my way to dinner one afternoon, two women on the side of the road put their thumbs out. I stopped. The place they were going was not far from the restaurant, so I took them all the way to their destination. Often, you just take people to the nearest major intersection, and they try again. They get closer and closer to their final stop in fits and starts of generosity and good fortune. While I drove, these two women conversed in Corsi, the pops and clicks melodic and soothing. A week later, I would be without a vehicle for a few days, hungry, and out on the side of the road, walking with my own thumb out. Cars drove past, their occupants working hard to not make guilt-inducing eye contact. Some drivers shrugged in apology. Until there was the red flash of brake lights that sent me scurrying for the passenger door in gratitude.

But hitchhiking is dangerous, right? And so is picking up hitchhikers?

The most dangerous part of hitchhiking is being in a car and around other moving vehicles. The authors of Freakonomics have an excellent podcast on the topic here. And there are some stats here. Of course, there’s risk in everything, but stranger danger is odd considering that most people are murdered by someone they know, often quite well. The same goes for rape. We do an amazing job of fearing the less dangerous things. Swimming pools are murderous inventions, and yet we keep digging holes in our backyards and filling them with water.

The truth is that the economy here in St. Francis Bay couldn’t operate without a network of hitching. The jobs and those who need them are kept distant from one another. I’ve never seen such heartbreaking wealth disparity in my life, nor such set boundaries for keeping people apart. Boundaries both physical and cultural. It makes me want to cry every time I drive past the township. It’s a jumble of homes straight out of District 9. And that’s not to paint these people as miserable; there is joy in the townships. Children kick soccer balls back and forth, and adults laugh at jokes. There is smoke from good meals. There is joy, but also a very difficult and brutal lifestyle that involves walking miles every day for work and dragging branches and driftwood even more miles to cook and warm homes.

Not far away, you have gated neighborhoods on manmade canals. You have mansions that sit idle save for two weeks out of the year. There are philosophical and economic discussions to be had here, but those discussions don’t help people who need work get to work today. In the here and now, what helps is a tap of the brakes. That red glow on the side of the road is as warm as any hearth.

I see long dotted lines of women walking from the Cape back toward the township or the circle beyond. The distance is enough to make your FitBit pass the fuck out. I see a cluster of men standing on the side of the interstate with folded bills in their hands and pleading looks on their faces. The money says, “I’m not going to rob you.” The look says, “If I don’t get a ride, how am I to live?”

I pick up one man on my drive to Cape Town, and we have half an hour to chat. Most drives are short, and you just get a name, where they grew up, what they do for a living. Roger and I had enough time to talk about his family. He was visiting his parents, which was why he was so far away, but usually he hitches twenty kilometers every day to get to his job with the park service. He works on a platform station looking for signs of fire. He has a wife and two kids, and he beams when he talks about them. I drop him off near an overpass. When he offers me the money for the lift, I decline, and again his look tells me everything.

You can stay busy picking up hitchers here. On that six hour drive to Cape Town, I picked up half a dozen people, always someone holding out money, which was a sort of ticket never torn in two. Never accepted, but the it showed intent. One day, I was heading to the boatyard to check progress, and the weather was just spectacular. This was back in May, on my previous visit. On this occasion, I picked up three women at the Cape. Housekeepers, whom the owners of these estates could not live without. We were nearing the circle, where I would drop them off and they’d have to wait for the next car to come along, but I decided, Fuckit, I’ll just take them all the way to Humansdorp. It’s just twenty minutes, and I’ve got the time.

The ladies were thrilled. And as we were about to drive through that circle heading out of St. Francis, I joked that we had room for two more (we didn’t really). That’s when they pointed and tapped the headrests and asked if we could pick up their friends. One of the women had luggage, so I got out and popped the boot. While I did, these five women somehow squeezed into spaces meant for three. My rented VW Polo was bottoming out with every pothole. The six of us laughed and chatted all the way to Humansdorp, and when I got out to retrieve the luggage, I had to go through a congo line of embraces. Bus tickets have nothing on gratitude lik.

Yesterday, I had this crew with me.


The only danger we had from hitching was me operating a camera while driving a manual from the right side of the car while going however fast kilometers mean on the wrong side of the road. Or dying of laughter. We all had the giggles. Except for the lady in the middle seat in the back. Middle seats suck everywhere in the world. There’s nothing funny about them.

Today I’ve got some errands to run. I’m damn lucky to be able to run them when I want, where I want, without having to walk and hitch. Over the course of my life, I’ve hitched dozens of times. When I lived in the Bahamas, traveling by sailboat and without a car, it and walking were my only choices. The only thing that’s ever happened to me by hitching is making new friends and feeling an immense sense of gratitude. Most people in the world are awesome. Most things we do have an element of risk. We just tend to ignore statistics where convenient. Just as we find it convenient to ignore people and treat them like statistics, even when the math doesn’t add up.



I don’t need your money. Seriously, I’m set. I’m going to write about my travels no matter what. But people have asked, so here you go. 

19 responses to “The Galactic Guide to Hitchhikers”

  1. Interestingly the Washington DC area has it’s own hitchhiking commuter system; it’s called the “Slug Line”.

    It’s a system that’s been in informal operation for decades that sprung up on it’s own after the creation of carpool lanes on some of the major (congested) commuter routes. The way it works is that somebody that wants to drive to work (and has a parking space) but not enough people to take the express lane will go to the slug-line gathering place on their route. They pull up to the curb, and shout out their destination and number of passengers they can accommodate. (i.e. “Three for the Pentagon!” or “Two for Commerce!”, “Four for Crystal City!”) If you work at or near their destination you get out of line and hop in. If you wait around too long and have to get to work, the commuters hop on one of the buses that serve the gathering spot and take the bus and/or subway to work. The reverse occurs on the way home, with the driver shouting out which lot they will drive by.

    The routes are used by all manner of folk; I’ve seen everybody from janitors to Generals standing in that line (and picking people up.) And of course the funny thing is that hitchhiking is quite illegal, just like it is most everywhere in the US, but since it encourages car-pooling, the authorities pretty much ignore it, and have for the decades the system has been in use.

    1. Brilliant. I’ve seen the same thing in San Fran for the same reasons.

    2. We have that here in Houston, too – it’s just at the Metro Park & Rides. Two completely separate lines. I rode the bus for three years before figuring out what that other line was for.

    3. I may be wrong, but as I recall hitchhiking in Texas from the roadway is illegal, but if you stand in the grass off the roadway (still in the right-of-way), that’s legit.

  2. Look at all the beautiful smiles in that car. Love this so much.

  3. I hitched quite a bit as a teen, because I was less fearful, and because I had no other way to get the places I wanted to go. Hitching is pretty standard many places in the world, and I love that you’re participating in it joyfully. Your random, fleeting thought of “heck, I can spend the 20 minutes” means a less exhausting day for these women who toil long and hard every day of their lives. And giggles for all, apparently.

    If I were a man, I would do the same. Being a woman, I would pick up women without hesitation, but I don’t think I’d pick up men. And as a woman hitching I would be fearful of taking a ride from a man. I hate that those fears are there, but they are. You have the luxury of moving through the world with less fear simply by virtue of having been born with a Y chromosome.

    I love the Slug Line described above. I would do that – I love that people are picking up multiple people for the same destination, as I think that adds a certain element of security to the whole thing. Or maybe I’m just kidding myself.

  4. This kind of essay reminds me that we can reach out and help someone else and find similarities in our emotions and attitudes. A lot of people hide inside a luxury hotel in exotic settings. Very admirable and expansive of you to track the economic disparities and share the story within your story. The best writers have done that throughout history, i.e. Steinbeck. Those kind of experiences make for a meaningful life and great stories.

  5. Honestly, as a woman, I would never pick up a male hitchhiker. (Statistics on rape be damned–it only takes one person. It’s harder for men to understand, because they don’t experience the constant street harassment we do.) I would still hesitate at a female hitchhiker, although in the right culture, I would do it. (Not in the US, though.) These ladies look pretty lovely, though.

    My family is from South Africa and I remember seeing hitchhikers back. I was told “everyone” used to pick up hitchhikers, but then there was supposedly some sort of horrific murder in the 70s or 80s that made many more people afraid.

  6. I hitchhiked with a friend all over Spain when we were in college. Only had one old guy in a Mercedes try to grope us. Wouldn’t do it now, but we have picked up people sometimes, usually elderly people. Figure we can outrun them if we have to.

  7. Rosemary Montgomery Avatar
    Rosemary Montgomery

    The wonderful people of South Africa. I love my country and its people :)

  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It warms my heart to see how much you care about the human race! It’s inspirational, and proof that each of us can make a difference. Rock on!

  9. I love this and I love the donate button because I know you will find a way to use any pennies that show up in ways that will multiply their worth.

    In the discussion about hitching, this is truly different than picking up someone on the side of the highway in the million vast an open miles of the midwest. This is a community. If I lived there, I’d probably pick up the same ladies every day. In fact, here, the ladies walking the road are probably in more danger from a predator than the drivers.

    I look forward to all the joy you are going to live and spread and share with us in your travels.

  10. When I was a kid, we lived in Belgium. And my mom was predisposed to come home with somebody’s wandering children. She would find them at the train station, or the metro carrying a backpack and looking for their next meal. They were usually from the States, but occasionally they were from Scotland, Ireland and in one case Australia. So it wasn’t unusual to come home to find a complete stranger bunked in your room. I have grown up with that same habit. My husband, being raised American is sadly steeped in that terrible mistrust. And when I give kids rides from Portland to Mount Hood where we live so they can go snowboarding, he becomes very angry with me. Most of the time the worst thing about these kids is that they smell like they were marinated in marijuana. I firmly believe, like you, that most people are alright.

  11. You’re a good man, Hugh Howey.

  12. Great stuff! As a South African, I’m always pulled in such situations – because it really can be dangerous. But maybe I’m being over cautious. I usually take people to/from places and organisations I’m familiar with.
    (PS the language is written as Xhosa, that first sound is a hard click at the front of your palate)

  13. Truly uplifting, yet sobering story. I’m glad you could brighten some lives with your generosity. I have my own hitchhiking memories, but with my thumb out and picking up strangers. No bad experiences.

    As boy I used to skateboard a mile or two down the foothill roads of Santa Barbara, then stick out my thumb to get a ride back to the top and do again, and again, again. It was a way of life back in the ’70s. And I met some cool people too.

    One ride I’ll never forget. A VW convertible pulled over to give me a lift. The driver was so tall that I think the top had to be down for him to drive it. At least his hat extended above the windshield. When I got into the car he said, “Hi, I’m Fess Parker.” And all I could say was, “Daniel Boone? Davey Crockett?” in total awe. He drove me all the way home, even though it was slightly out of his way. I met him several more times over the years, and he always remembered me.

    I can’t help thinking that Roger and those women will have similar stories to tell about the time that Hugh Howey gave them a lift.

  14. When my husband-to-be met me in Alaska, he was horrified that I, as a single woman, gave hitchhikers rides. I explained that it’s not a blind choice; I am careful of my safety. But you get a lot of European college kids who come in the summer to work the canneries or the tourist trade, and hitchhike into Anchorage on their days off. They don’t know how to drive in the USA, and they couldn’t afford the rental car anyway. When you see skinny guys and gals in a group with really odd fashion and very hopeful thumbs out, they’re all cool.

    Similarly, the only way to Whittier is through a combined vehicle/train tunnel, and pedestrians are verboten – but lots of tourists didn’t realize that. Since the toll is per vehicle, I’d load up on tourists at both ends, and go on through. And in the evening, if I’m on the last pass out before they shut the tunnel for the night, it’s easy enough to stop, park, and go to the bathroom. That’s enough time that I can easily spot the lone tourist (or three) who just realized how late it is, and that there’s no more rides in or out for the night, legging it down the long asphalt parking lot. Even if I’m not going the way they wanted, I can get them somewhere with a bed.

    The third option are young men wearing fatigues, combat boots, and that certain bearing the military gives all its members. They’re usually tackling the highway at a ground-eating pace, headed back to base from hiking or skiing. The uniform serves like the held-out money; it’s a sign of safe intent.

    Down here near Nashville, instead of a uniform, it’s almost always a guitar case. Pretty clear sign of where they’re headed, and what they’re hoping for when they get there!

    And yes, the giggles are legion, and the look in their eyes is all the payment I needed.

  15. Hey Hugh. I met you briefly at the Getafix juice bar in St Francis (you forced the macadamia protein rocket on me, remember?). I took your phone number but you wrote it on the back of a potentially world-changing local petition lying on the juice bar counter. Lynne’s partner was waiting for me later in the carpark and demanded its return so he could sticky tape it together with the other half you’d kindly torn off and left on the counter. Presumably it’s on it’s way to the UN even as I write. I have since subscribed to your blog and plan to catch up with you before you head out of the Eastern Cape.

    Your piece on the local hitch-hiking scene resonated with me; I also pick up people whenever possible from Chinatown as the wretched black “informal settlement” is known, or from the roundabout at the Links. In the interests of accuracy, however, I have to point out that the local, almost exclusively non-white workers, actually rely on taxis – those ubiquitous minibuses that people pile into at strategic or even random spots on the major routes. The hitch-hikers who manage to flag down a ride while they wait for the next taxi, are saving precious rands – and get a more comfortable ride. Which is why it’s sad that drivers with huge gas-guzzling cars roar past in blithe solitude. I can sympathise on the stranger danger front; I confess I am more likely to stop for women. But what these non-stoppers don’t realise is that they’re missing out on a great opportunity to get to know their fellow countrymen and women. I guess it helps to be interested in the human condition, which is not everyone’s cup of boerewors.
    As a returned South African, I am also affronted by the chasm between the haves and the have-nots in this beautiful country. But there is hope, especially with the younger generation of all colours. This is a global issue, and I believe that a new, more humane global consciousness is coalescing. We all have our role to play.

  16. Yes! Finallly someone writes abut louisville plumbers.

Leave a Reply

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