The Neglected Art of Hitch-hiking: Risk, Trust and Sustainability

Photograph by Walker Evans, 1936

I waited for nearly 10 minutes outside the male/female toilets for T. He didn’t show. I went into the coffee shop and waited there for another 5 mins. No show. I went outside and tramped across 4 inches of snow to the car. The car was no longer there. T. emerged from the gas station waving. “I’ve been waiting for you” I said grumpily. “Well, I’ve got news” he replied ignoring my mood. “We’re taking two hitchhikers on their way to Berlin”. A young man and woman strolled up to the car and helped us move our suitcases from the back seat to the boot. They clambered in and we set off along highway 9. We got talking. J’s english was excellent. A. was much more shy which was strange given that she was a theatre student in Zurich, specialising in improvisation. J. was studying law in Berlin – “I believe in justice” he said and we all laughed. They were brother and sister. Their other brother was currently in Melbourne, Australia working in a Bavarian biergarten, surviving 30 degree heat on Christmas Day. The thermometer in the car tells us that here in Deutschland, it’s -10 degrees outside.

The hitchhikers asked me about my work in London and I told them that I am soon to begin a PhD in Melbourne, in March. I told them about Performance Philosophy – which neither of them had heard of. And, we started talking about the nature of self, mobility and our relationship to borders. As we spoke of borders, we crossed the border from West Germany to the former East. I looked out the car window, it was the same road, wet with salt. It was the same grassy hills covered in snow. It was the same blue sky, clear and cold as glass. And yet I know that for years nothing was the same between this now invisible line of division.

“Don’t mention the wall” I later joked with T. who laughed briefly and whispered “East German jokes are very un-pc.”

“So” asked J. “what have you learnt about your self through these years of performing philosophy?” I thought about that for a long time. In the end, I couldn’t answer it. So I told him instead about Marcus Coates’ attempts at vision-quests, in order to answer questions that Google cannot.

After that a brief silence fell between us before J. said “I am too plain to be an artist. I am not a visionary”.

We arrived at a gas station in Hirsbirch where we parted ways. J’s handshake was strong and steady. “Good new year” he said and I could tell he meant it. It was a relief in a way to say good-bye although I had so enjoyed this brief encounter. Back in the car on our own, I said to T. “I’m tired from entertaining the guests”. I realised that it’s my default social position.

Two hours later T. and I arrived in Weimar, to the Anna-Amalia Hotel. We lay in our double bed which was actually two single beds pushed together in room 324 and I read more of ‘A Life of One’s Own’ by Marion Milner while T. napped.

On page 51 I came across this:

‘Often I envy artists, musicians, dancer …. I think though I’m not quite sure, that it’s because they do one thing well, they show a mastery of technique – no, it’s not that only – I think it’s the play aspect. I don’t know – precision, colour, symbolism, the language of imagination, the freedom of the spirit, the criteria of what they do is impulse, not utility. Freedom from utility, from reality? fantasy, lure of folk tales, yet there’s precision of imagination that these people are aiming at even though failing often. It’s not in the films, at least hardly ever, it’s in music … a description, a simplification and precision, a clarifying concentration – the flight of gulls at Rye.’

And then, on p65 she wrote:

‘One day I showed these outpourings to a friend. We had been children together, often living in the same house, and had had exactly the same religious teaching. She said ‘But where on earth do you get such ideas! I never think like that!’ But I said ‘Nor do I. If you had asked me what I think about I couldn’t have told you a word of all that. It was only when I let my thoughts run on absolutely free in writing that I discovered such thoughts. Perhaps you have another mind too which has ideas that you’ve never guessed at.’

The meeting with the hitchhikers and later, reading these passages made me think how fortunate I am and have been to have had time, space and life’s good fortune to have discovered ‘another mind’ one that has ideas I never guessed at and, how a PhD is going to provide an even stronger framework for more time, space (and luck) to let ‘thoughts run absolutely free in writing’ – but only if I protect that time and space with a strong border? – that there are borders that limit freedom and there are borders that create freedom.

Btw, “The Neglected Art of Hitch-hiking: Risk, Trust and Sustainability” is the title of a book – one of the few academic discussions – by Graeme Chesters and David Smith.

And last but not least, after an intense discussion on the nature of self and its relationship to borders, J. said “and that is why I hitchhike.”

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