A few years ago, a friend and I went hitchhiking together. It went well, but ever since that summer I’ve wanted to see what it was like to do it alone. In truth, it consumed me.
Indefinite travel has always been high on my list of things to tick off of my list of stuff I must do before I die. Being in a full time job, however, I’ve had to get my fix where I can. I thought I would try hitchhiking solo for a week to see how I liked it – to wet my appetite.
On Sunday 5th April, I woke up after a fairly messy stag do, strapped on my backpack and left London to thumb my way through France, Belgium and Holland. These are some of the things I learned. Things you can use, too:
1. It’s okay to be scared:
“I’m going to head South, I’m afraid” explained Richard as we drove on to the Ferry at Dover. This scuppered my plans as I wasn’t planning on staying in France for the evening, and didn’t have anywhere to stay.
I spent half an hour of the ferry ride feeling absolutely fucking terrified of freezing to death in Calais. It was Easter Sunday and I didn’t have the chance to buy a tent. Well that’s a lie, I had plenty of chances. But by the time I actually tried, it was too late.
This sort of stress required me to bend with the universe and get creative. I checked out Richard’s route on the map and made a new plan. I’d stop in Lille, find a place to stay and then head North into Belgium the next day.
Making big plans makes us feel bold. We feel powerful. Sometimes the lack of nervousness as we anticipate our actions is levelled out by a crippling fear when judgement day comes. And this is okay. It’s what we do with this fear that matters. It’s what we learn from it that truly counts.
I found some WiFi, scrambled to register for an AirBNB account and stayed with a very kind man named Miguel. I adapted and things worked out.
2. Rules are there to be bent:
Okay, I admit it. I discovered a bus that runs from Ghent in Belgium to Holland for £15. I had four days left of my trip, and wanted to enjoy myself. What would you do?
Most of the time we impose rules upon ourselves. We put them there because we’ve said “I’m going to do this, and I’m going to follow these exact rules.” If we do anything outside of those rules we feel like we’ve failed.
Sometimes it’s worse — we care too much about what others think, and then fear their judgement. As long as you follow your gut feeling then what they think doesn’t matter.
Rules are there to be broken, but this is especially true of the rules we put on ourselves. If there’s a better option, a shorter way of doing things, then always follow your gut. I did, and I ended up on a beautiful Dutch beach. I ended up hitchhiking to Amsterdam the next day anyway.
3. Human relationships can be fleeting and intense:
During my stay in Bruges I met a bunch of awesome people who quickly became my friends. One night the nine of us sat down in a back alley bar and drank some insanely strong beer. The following day I shook hands, hugged, fistbumped and went on my way.
Anyone who’s ever travelled for long periods of time will know this scenario all too well. We meet people and bonds are created quickly. Whether this is because of similarities in personality or an acknowledgement of how fleeting it is doesn’t matter.
Sometimes you’ll meet people, have great experiences and never see them again. You can try and add them on Facebook and stay in touch, but it won’t matter. These connections were designed to be fleeting.
It could happen in a hostel or down your local bar. The importance is in the memories of the experiences you shared together and what you learned from them. Because every interaction you have is a lesson if you look deep enough.
4. You can’t do everything alone:
Ever since I was a kid I’ve dreamed of going on grand adventures alone, seeking out new experiences, meeting new friends and overcoming challenges.
This notion has stayed with me all my life – until this trip.
The truth is, you can’t always overcome challenges alone. The Frenchman at the McDonalds in Lille showing me directions to where I needed to go helped me far quicker than I could of done myself.
If it wasn’t for Miguel, I might have ended up sleeping in a train station. Instead he responded to my plea at 11:00 PM at night and came to my rescue.
Be open to the input and guidance of other people and don’t ever fool yourself into thinking you’ve got everything sussed out.
5. You don’t need to see where you’re going, just a little bit in front of you:
After my freak out on the ferry I remembered that uncertainty was unavoidable and that, in reality, it’s actually a good thing.
Being comfortable with uncertainty allows us to be creative. It pushes us to try new things and wander with excitement.
When you realise the fear you’re feeling is more a fear of the unknown, rather than a present and immediate danger, you can start to flow with it. You only need to see the next step in front of you to make progress. This goes for your work, relationships and other aspects of your life – not just travel.
6. Solitude is a double edged sword:
Not only do you need others to help you, but experiencing things with people is often far more enriching. Yes, you do need to experience the joy of being alone. Sometimes, however, it’s far sweeter sharing the ride with a good friend.
Before he passed away, Chris McCandless (yeah yeah, travel cliché – whatever) wrote in his diary “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED”.
I agree with this sentiment to an extent. You still need to feel the ecstasy that freedom brings when making your own choices. You’ve got to experience throwing yourself into a strange land with no one to take care of but yourself.
Saying this, having a good friend along for the ride makes it even sweeter.
7. People are (usually) kind:
I spoke to many strangers on my travels, and many people approached me. Not once did I feel threatened or fear for my life.
Whenever I was in a bind, people tried to help me. My shortest wait for a ride was 5 minutes. He was an old man, didn’t speak a word of English, but he was going where I wanted to go and he took me there.
He would say things in French and then laugh, and I would laugh with him. I didn’t understand a word he said, but I could feel his passion and his joy and it was just too contagious to keep in.
People always tell you how dangerous the world is, but I think only a very, very small percentage of humans want to hurt others. The world is good, you just need to step outside of your comfort zone to see it.
8. Have your house in order:
Although I had a plan when I arrived in Lille, I still had nowhere to stay. The entire journey from Calais had me filled with fear.
I was afraid of sleeping in the train station, or on the street and being discovered and beaten up. Because of this I couldn’t think straight.
The thing is, I didn’t have my mindset tightened before I set off. My house wasn’t in order. Both my internal world and external conditions – equipment, preparation, lack of tent etc. – were not effectively setup.
This relates directly with my next point below, and although being comfortable with uncertainty can help, you will make it much easier on yourself with some preparation and forethought. Always be prepared.
9. Alcohol messes with your head long after the initial hangover:
I thought hitchhiking after a stag do would be easy peasy. Boy, was I fucking wrong.
It wasn’t because of the headache or still feeling a little drunk, but because of what it did to my mindset and spirit. The fear and yearning for comfort, I believe, was a direct consequence of the amount I drank the night before.
I know this because I’ve put myself through far worse situations and kept a much more level head. I also know this because I began to feel more confident, competent and excited as the days went on and I shook off the effects.
Hangovers last far longer than the day after a messy session. It screws with your productivity, drive and overall confidence. This is just scratching the surface, but from now on when I endeavour to do something outside of my comfort zone I’ll do it well out of the clutches of booze.
10. Drink water:
I was sat near a motorway in Ghent and that feeling of fear, disappointment and anxiety started creeping in. It was around 3:30 PM, and I realised I had drunk barely any water that day.
I got out my bottle and chugged it all down. The next thing I knew, a soothing wave washed over me and I felt the connections between the neurons in my brain start to link up again. The engine was jump-started.
Water is my God Juice. It’s not just important for your physiology, but also for flushing out bad hormones and other emotional-inducing chemicals.
If you ever feel a bit out of sync with yourself, a little hazy or uncharacteristically anxious, try chugging lots of water and see what happens. It’s not a one-size-fits-all but it certainly works for me.
11. Always remember to smile:
When I first started working in London, I would notice how everyone walked around with a frown. They seemed so weighed down by their own thoughts and stresses, it was as if they forgot about the beauty around them.
So I made an effort to remember to smile. I would do it while walking through the underground station, while ordering my cup of tea and at work.
I noticed people I interacted with would smile back and become more engaged with the conversation. It was as if the smile was contagious and they remembered the smile themselves.
During my travels, I forgot to do this. I was so stuck in my own head I didn’t consider that smiling would make me feel better. When I wore my smile again, people began approaching me for directions and sitting with me in the bars. I made new friends.
The other benefit of course is that, by putting on a smile, you actually begin to feel happier. Who cares if you look crazy? At least you feel good.
12. Be honest with yourself:
Hitchhiking and indefinite travel has always been a big dream of mine. What happens to a dream when you realise it isn’t really for you? You fight it.
But you can’t fight what doesn’t feel right. If something isn’t congruent with the truth, even after you’ve craved it for so long, then it’s easier to opt for honesty than denial.
Now that I’ve accepted the fact that my dream isn’t all it’s cracked out to be, I have recovered from the disillusion and started to refocus. I’m starting to plan a cycle to Italy as well as a long distance drive in a shitty old car, because I’m always looking for stupid shit to do.
It’s all about course correction. You take action, you receive the feedback and you make corrections to your journey. You’re going to feel crappy at first, as disappointment and frustration are inevitable, but once that’s passed you can focus on what’s really important – the truth.
I’m glad I put myself through the level of stress I did. I discovered how far out of my comfort zone I could go. More importantly, I discovered how important it was to get out of my comfort zone in the first place.