There’s no better way to see a country and meet its people than to bum free rides from them. Oops, I mean hitchhike. After throwing out the universal thumb dozens of times across Australia, we’ve met a cast of characters more colorful than in any Kerouac novel — the kind of people that you’d never meet if you didn’t need them to drive you somewhere.
There was Helen, who picked us up on the way to a music festival on a small island off the coast of Tasmania. She was a chipper old hippie sporting a red bandanna, a pair of aviators and a serious buzz. It was only about noon, but when she picked us up, she looked at us in the backseat with a grin.
“I’m sorry if I’m a bit silly, but I was just at the pub and I’ve had a few beers,” she said.
I exchanged a glance of horror with my fellow traveler, junior Brandon Stauffer, and as Helen zipped across the island, skidding and sliding on the dirt roads, we gained a new appreciation for zero tolerance DWI laws.
She told us about tripping on LSD in the ’80s and her love for Janis Joplin before she dropped us at the music festival. Then she gave us a motherly hug and set us free with the admonishment to use condoms “so babies aren’t being made all over.” Good call, Helen.
Though our professor who told us hitching in Aussie was totally safe had obviously not met Helen, for the most part hitching down under isn’t a game of Russian roulette like it can be in the U.S. Back home, it’s just as easy to be picked up by a van full of dirty stoned hippies as a truck driver who also moonlights as an ax murderer.
Aussies really seem to enjoy picking up backpackers and doing their part to shepherd us through our youth. Many recall their own days of traveling on the cheap as a backpacker because it’s practically an unofficial rite of passage here.
They love to dispense traveling advice and free chocolate, argue about rugby, try to convince us to stay at their bed and breakfast, and update me on the latest slang terms used to describe redheads here (wranger, maggie, rednut). And none of the rides you get come with any expectation of payment — you leave with a smile, a thanks, and you get a “No worries, mate,” in return.
There’s also none of the inherent paranoia that most U.S. drivers have. One bloke who picked us up left us in the car with the keys in the ignition while he picked up a smoked salmon for dinner. You don’t do that in the U.S. unless you want to report your car stolen.
On the road in Australia, it’s all about trust and good conversation. It would be great if America worked that way.
Aaron Munzer is a junior journalism major. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.