Lock the doors, cellphone turned on and at the ready at all times, perfection a steely gaze while walking through the city and avoid all human contact. We’ve been raised to believe in our vulnerability and the vicious, cruel intentions of anything and anyone outside of our circle. Minds poisoned with television dramas and police thrillers, reeling with all the ways we could possibly be hurt. So we bury ourselves away in protective layers – perpetual distraction with the swipe of a finger, closed to the world passing by.

The first time I ever toyed with the idea of hitchhiking was as a lanky preteen joking around with my best friends on the side of a quiet road in rural North Carolina. There was something thrilling  at the thought of a perfect stranger stopping at the sign of a thumb, not to mention the deliciously satisfying element of the forbidden. Amid giggles and friendly shoving, we stuck our thumbs out and waited. But at the sound of a car rounding the bend in the road, we’d lose our nerve and pull our thumbs away at the last minute, erupting into fits of laughter and high-pitched squeals as drivers cast confused and disapproving looks upon our little group. Egging one another on, our thumbs stayed up longer, the winner to walk away with the glory of being the bravest. I can no longer remember who won the dare but I do remember our failed experiment ending when our church pastor at the time recognized us and pulled over to see what on earth was going on. First lesson of hitchhiking: don’t do it in your small hometown.

Then my friend Bri and I began planning our trip to Ireland. She brought up the idea after reading an informative article written by seasoned traveler and solo hitchhiker Ana Bakran, who addresses many of the myths and concerns of hitchhiking as a woman today. Her confidence and sage advice made us excited to try it for ourselves as we drew up an itinerary for our 10-day trip around Ireland. Not only was it sure to be an adventure but we’d be saving lots of money on bus tickets, a bonus for travelers on a budget.

So after a weekend in Dublin, we headed out beyond the western city limits in the direction of Galway. Although Ireland generally looks favorably upon hitchhiking, it is illegal to hitchhike on the highway. Therefore, we made sure to place ourselves as far out of town as possible right before the highway junction. Shivering with excitement and nervousness despite the sunny blue sky, we stationed ourselves near an intersection, feeling a bit self-conscious as drivers swiftly rushed past. Thumbs out, a handmade sign made of cardboard with our destination in bold letters, and high spirits were all we needed. The initial timidity quickly fell away as we committed to the task and drivers began signaling with their hands, indicating they were turning in the other direction or simply offering up a little wave. Whether they stopped or not, suddenly these strangers all seemed less removed and fear of the unknown began to retract.

We stood there for about 30 minutes, doing our best to look cheery and confident, before an older gentleman in a worn driver’s cap and white whiskers getting off at the bus stop nearby came over and kindly informed us that we’d have much better luck if we moved further down the road a bit. Tip number two: listen to unsolicited advice from locals. In nearly every location, strangers walking by or driving would pull over and offer us this type of advice and it always served us well. After standing in our new spot for a little while longer, another man with whom we’d spoken earlier as he put up campaign signs drove up beside us and offered to take us even further so that we’d really only be getting traffic headed out West. A 10-minute drive up the road and a 15-minute wait later and we soon had hitched ourselves a direct ride to Galway!

Our luck in finding rides from friendly, respectful drivers continued as we wound our way down the Atlantic coast. In Galway, a shared meal with a young man staying at our hostel led to an invitation to join him down South to the Cliffs of Moher. In his rented car, we rode through the rolling countryside of the Burren on narrow back roads, ancient pilings of stone walls winding beside us. Routes that would be impossible for bulky buses to weave through, this unexpected opportunity to experience Ireland’s backwaters left us breathless and hungry for more, so restorative was all the lush green after months of Paris’ stiff grey. It was all we could do to restrain ourselves from shouting “Stop!” every five minutes in order to pull over to take pictures and breathe in the crisp fresh air. One mustn’t abuse one’s host’s generosity, after all.

Ireland 2016 215
Cliffs of Moher at sunset, February 2016.

As you hitchhike, you learn pretty quickly what you’re comfortable with and about its exigencies. We quickly devised a system to ensure that we both felt comfortable in accepting lifts from the drivers who pulled over. By the end of the trip, I had accumulated a collection of photos of Irish license plates on my phone, as I always discretely snapped a quick picture of each driver’s plate as we loaded our bags into the car; just a precaution should a driver need incentive to drop us off when and where we asked. No such problems arose, however. It also became quickly apparent that there is no downtime when hitchhiking; most drivers want to chat and learn more about you and your travels, and it’s best to stay aware of your surroundings as well. Though this may have impeded us from catching up on any lost sleep from early mornings and noisy hostels, the conversations we shared in with our drivers were rich and informative, from the wine vendor who gave us tons of festival recommendations to the man from Belfast who gave us a tour of a seaside town. We arrived in each of our destinations well-informed of their history and best spots to see, eat , and drink, and other insider tips we never would have learned otherwise. Not to mention the long list of places and events to discover next time go to Ireland that our Irish hosts eagerly shared with us.

As with every trip, of course, there was a moment of discouragement, when we would have given anything to just be back in our warm beds at home. The infamous Irish weather that we’d somehow managed to evade all week descended upon us on the last leg of our trip from Cork back to Dublin, making for quite a soggy evening. Trying to take advantage of our short amount of time in such a cool, quirky city, we dawdled in the lanes of English Market, odors of fresh bread, cheese, and sausages wafting through the bright, enclosed space. While we sipped our cappuccinos in the hip little café of the Triskel Arts Centre, a converted cathedral that now serves as a concert and film screening venue and equipped with a record store, clouds gathered in the sky and unleashed their vengeance: a drenching cold rain that didn’t let up for hours. By the time we returned to our hostel to fetch our bags and head out of town, it was too late to correct our mistake. Though only 4:30pm, darkness had rolled in with the weather front and with it, our chances of catching a direct ride all the way back to Dublin were looking pretty bad.

Nonetheless, we wrapped our backpacks in garbage bags and reiterated our belief to one another that someone, just one person, would pull over and give us a lift. A ten-minute walk up the road towards the edge of town through sheets of rain and our faith began to quiver. The temperature had dropped by a couple degrees and our extremities were already beginning to numb when we stuck our thumbs out at a spot with plenty of Friday rush-hour traffic going in a northeastern direction, though in truth, the weather had made us complacent and we probably should have moved further out of town. The rain was falling so hard and windshield wipers moving so fast that all hopes of making crucial eye contact were lost. Still, we waited, trying to will a lift into existence and singing out our pleas in silly rhymes to lift our mood, huddling together and jumping up and down to stay warm, until the cold rain soaked through our layers and we had to admit defeat. No free ride to Dublin was worth catching pneumonia. A Guinness, a warm fire to dry off in front of, and some friendly chatter in a pub and we were on the bus to Dublin. My shoes will probably never be the same but it was one of those nights to look back on with a smile that distance affords.

Growing up in a small town where the closest thing to stranger driving by was my church pastor, I don’t think my 13-year-old self would ever have thought it possible for such generosity to exist. The world seemed so much larger and distant, separate from our little bubble. As I’ve entered adulthood as a woman living in a big city, that view of our global society has come into greater focus but my sense of vulnerability often remains. We are made to think, especially as women, that we must form thick walls around us at all times as we move through our daily lives. Perhaps this is why not one woman stopped to offer us a ride or give us directions. Times have changed, people say, they’re too dangerous for hitchhiking. But after Ireland, I disagree. Of course, there are bad people in this world. Of course, you have to be careful, follow your instinct, don’t take unnecessary risks. But I don’t see how this day and age is more dangerous than the previous decades when my own parents followed their hearts and instincts across miles and miles of foreign territory, with only their thumb to guide them. The only difference I see is a closing off of people, of our willingness to really see others and form real connections. Five strangers and 436.5 miles. Call it beginner’s luck … or maybe people are just a little kinder than we are led to believe.

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