SMOKE: Hitchhiking Hell

Originally published: 16 April 2004

I was having a chat with my mother the other day and she was telling me about her hitchhiking experiences as a teenage girl living in East London.

During the lunch break at school her and a couple of friends would leave the school premises, stick out their thumbs and hitch a ride to nowhere. When half the break was done they would get out of the car that had picked them up, move to the other side of the road and thumb a lift back to school, getting there as the bell rang for resumption of classes.

I was pretty impressed by that - that's cool. Do it today, of course, and you end up mincemeat, rotting in a ditch somewhere while all God's creatures gnaw you to the bone and the screams of the madman - fresh blood dripping from his maw - fade into the night.

It became almost a compulsive thing for my Mom, although she never did it alone - she always had at least one friend with her.

She said she would get a "feeling" about certain cars that stopped and would simply ignore them if she didn't think they were on the straight and narrow, and since I'm around - writing this - the madman was obviously kept at bay.

My Mom's capers ended when one day she and a friend were picked up by a bloke who drove around aimlessly for a while, questioning them about where they were going and what they were doing, only to reveal that he was a cop in plain clothes.

He gave them a stern lecture and took them to the door of the person they claimed they were visiting, and they never hitchhiked again.

That's my Mom for you - an ordinary, decent criminal.

Just like me, actually. I too am a prolific hitchhiker, with well over a hundred 'thumbs' under my belt, but unlike my mother I never hitched for the thrill of it.

I hitched simply because as a teenager and student at varsity I never had any transport or money, and somehow I always had long distances to travel. Usually at around 3am. Baked.

I was always looking to catch a ride from Gardens at the top of the Cape Town city bowl to Newlands in the southern suburbs, a trip of only about 10 kilometres.

On a sober night I would walk it no problem, but in two years of regularly hitchhiking that route I only had one sober night - a miserable walk over De Waal Drive and around the base of Devil's Peak, before joining up with the M3 at Hospital Bend and making the long trek up to the University of Cape Town nestled at the base of Newlands Forest, then slipping under the subway which bridges the freeway and trudging down to the leafy suburb of Newlands.

In the pouring rain. Obviously.

But in a half-paralytic state the walk was obviously impossible and many's the night I relied on the kindness and trust of others to get home.

3am is an odd time when you're hitchhiking, particularly in the city limits. There's usually a lift around at that time and it's almost always a bloke on his own who's even more pissed than you, so needless to say I had countless very interesting journeys home.

I had some hairy encounters. The worst of them involved a sullen, completely evil-looking character who didn't say a word and started driving the wrong way.

I tried to point out that I lived in the opposite direction but he said nothing, staring straight ahead with steely determination - and just a touch of outright insanity - and drove like he meant to get somewhere real quick where he was looking forward to doing something real bad.

He was forced to stop at an intersection and I leapt out, fully expecting the claw in the back or the shepherd's crook around my neck, but when I turned to look he wasn't even looking at me - it was like he wasn't even aware that I'd got out.

He just stared straight ahead, floored the pedal and sped off to whatever godforsaken evil dungeon he was going to.

Never said a word the whole time. I have absolutely no doubt that he was a) a cannibal and b) interested in pain, neither of which is an appealing thought to a defenceless heterosexual with a head-full of Jack and a neglected pillow at 3am on a Cape Town night in midwinter.

The best ride I ever had was when I was picked up by a bloke of about 50 who had a toyboy of no more than 18 in the passenger seat of his shiny Beemer, and the cd player turned up to almost unbearably loud volumes with some track by Erasure stretching the expensive audio equipment - and the tensile strength of the windows - to the max.

What made that ride great was that there was no way on Earth anyone could possibly have said anything, since the volume of the music was all-consuming.

I told him where I needed to get off and he drove straight there, flicking the occasional glance in the rearview mirror to size up the possibilities.

Since I was wearing a Guns 'n Roses jacket and stank like a bitch it didn't take him long to work out there was going to be no threesome that night, and he and muscle-boy dropped me at my destination and roared off at full throttle, leaving burning tyre marks on the asphalt.

I could still hear the Erasure for a good two minutes after they'd left, and hanging in the still air was just a hint of expensive cologne.

But I was always astonished at how many people were prepared to pick up a tall, dark, trench-coated apparition on the side of a lonely road - I certainly wouldn't.

I always mouth to myself "you wish" as I pass a hitchhiker, because although I know how unpleasant it can be to stand for hours on the side of the road, I'm also practical - don't pick up the villainous-looking bloke and you won't have your innards spilt and eaten by him.

I'm big on practicality.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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