Hitch hiking was a common way to get around in the UK when I was a teenager, and I was a confident hitch hiker up to my late 30’s. In those 20 years or so, I probably hitch-hiked more than 10,000 miles in the UK, Europe, Asia, North Africa, Canada and the USA. I owed my success to cardboard signs advertising my destinations.
In 1968, I hitchhiked from London to John O’Groats to Land’s End and back to London. John O’Groats is in Scotland, at the far northeastern tip of Great Britain. Land’s End is in Cornwall, at the far southwestern tip. It would be about a 1500 mile trip. In the 1960’s, when freeways were very rare, that was quite a journey. I hitched alone, to satisfy an insistent itch for travel, adventure and solitude.
Using a pen and cardboard I made a sign declaring “John O’Groats” which was sufficiently novel and ambitious a destination that people seemed eager to pick me up. I traveled up the east side of England and Scotland. When I got to John O’Groats, I made another sign reading “Land”s End” which was even more ambitious and amusing and headed south by divers roads along the west side of Great Britain (the big island in the British Isles).
I do not recall ever being nervous about the many people who picked me up. I was a decent enough looking young man – I had longish curly hair, the shadow of a mustache, and open blue eyes. I think I was channeling Donovan – freedom seemed very glamorous to me, although I was not a wild enough to be a hippie. But I could converse well and that was my main job as a hitch-hiker – to keep the drivers company. Lorry (truck) drivers picked me up the most and no doubt were amused by my chipper chatter.
In Thurso, at the very top of Scotland I went to a dance in my clunky hiking boots. I was an energetic dancer (still am) and had a grand time with American Sailors on shore leave. They were the first Americans I ever danced with – there were so many of them and so few local girls we had to share.
Near John O’Groats, I recall being picked up by a Lady traveling in her Mini to her family home in Edinburgh. She picked me up because her son was traveling somewhere in Europe and she missed him and was worried about him. She was graceful, kind and sad. She told me she was Lady Something as I left the car. She was landed gentry owning a chunk of the Shetlands or Orkney islands – I was impressed at her classiness in not telling me during the previous many hours of chatting.
While traveling I slept in a sleeping bag wherever I could. I once slept on fresh, fragrant straw in a cattle market. In Inverness I slept in the unlocked cabin of the Trout Fishers Association of Inverness (or somesuch). Early that foggy morning, I met another graceful lady, walking beside the river. I forget her name, Grace maybe. We talked and she took me home to meet her mum and fed me breakfast. Grace was a high-class girl and going soon to university. I was a working class bloke doing a Donovan, sleeping under hedges. Her mum was wary of me.
Grace and I went ice skating that morning. She skated gracefully as I watched. I had never skated before and did not want to appear clumsy as well as Working Class. We walked down by the sea; me likely chattering about the freedom of the road. Perhaps she talked about wanting to travel but needing got go to school because her parents insisted she must. We kissed a lot. Maybe we did more than kissing – but we certainly would have laughed a lot. That was another of my other jobs when younger – to be charming and witty and funny. Grace was sad when I hitched onward. I must have been heartbruised, too; her stain was indelible because I still remember her. I sent a letter or two when I got home but she never wrote back.
The cardboard sign trick to hitch hiking stood me in good stead over the years. The only time it got me into trouble in over 20 years was in Japan in 1985. I was in Nara, near Kyoto, trying to get to Tokyo. The previous day I had met young people at the famous temples in Nara. A couple of impish young men eager to practice English, had given me many Japanese expressions which they told me would me be useful for me to hitch to Tokyo, or if that failed, to go by train. They wrote the phrases in English and kanji characters in my diary.
The next morning I found a piece of cardboard and copied the kanji characters for “Tokyo” and stood beside the freeway ramp. Hours passed, cars passed. Folk honked, wave, smiled, shouted; but none stopped. I gave up and took the Bullet train to Tokyo (which is a no-no if you don’t pay the high fare. I didn’t know, and almost got thrown off the train by an irate conductor). In Tokyo I was later told that what I had written, copied from my dairy, was nonsense. One lady told me the the kanji was juicy Japanese swear words. If so, the joke the Young Men of Nara had played on me was graceful and funny. If we had kept in touch, Grace would have laughed, too.