This Normal Life: Hitchhiking now and then.

One year after the murders of teenagers Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach at a hitchhiking post in Gush Etzion, the author reflects on the changing norm of hitchhiking.

Hitchbot, the hitchhiking robot, on Highway 17 in Ontario, Canada. (photo credit: KENNETH ARMSTRONG/REUTERS)
Hitchbot, the hitchhiking robot, on Highway 17 in Ontario, Canada.
Exactly 30 years ago today, I was in a car with a group of German strangers on my way to a standing-room-only soccer match just outside what was then West Berlin.
As part of a two-month trek across Europe, I was feeling young and adventurous when I decided to try hitchhiking. Getting to know the locals was part of the whole travel experience, I figured, and I wanted to make my long-awaited Eurotrip as colorful as possible, even if the train would have been faster and more convenient.
I was thinking about that trip recently as we passed the first anniversary of the horrific kidnapping and murder of teenagers Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach at a hitchhiking post in Gush Etzion.
At the time, there was a vigorous debate in these pages about whether yeshivot and other institutions that rely on their students grabbing a ride with strangers should instead offer free shuttle vans to students returning from a weekend at home. If the policies changed, it was suggested, seminary students – like the soldiers before them, after the army forbade hitchhiking – might find hitchhiking, tremping, less glamorous.
I never found hitchhiking glamorous – it was always more utilitarian, a means of getting from point A to point B without spending a lot of money – but I can understand the allure. A few years ago, when my daughter was in a pre-army academy, she boasted about how she tremped all over the Galilee. She raved about how nice the drivers were and how they cracked the system.
(Put the pretty girls up front, with the guys and backpacks tucked away behind a tree or a bus stop.) I didn’t dare hitchhike growing up in the US Hitchhiking was cool for the flower children of the ’60s, but by the time I was coming of age in the ’70s, thumbing a ride was already considered unsafe in America – for both sides. Too many alarming stories on the evening news about evil drivers or psychopathic hitchers drilled that message into my head, even without my parents having to state the obvious. And in any case, you could buy a used car for $1,000 and gas was still cheap. There was no economic imperative.
When I arrived in Israel in 1984, however, my personal financial situation was entirely different. I was a poor student; a car – be it a purchase or even just a rental – was out of the question.
While I mostly took Egged, for a few months I lived in the settlement of Ofra. There was a small ulpan there at the time, and I thought that immersing myself in a fully Hebrew-speaking environment would speed my language acquisition.
Transportation to Ofra in 1984 was inconvenient. There were buses, but they never ran when you wanted. The bus to nearby Beit El was somewhat more consistent.
Which is how I found myself frequently, late at night, at a trempiada (hitchhiking post) somewhere near Ramallah, hoping a friendly Ofra-bound driver would come by and give me a lift back to my dorm room. It invariably worked.
I often think back, both with wonder and thinly repressed horror, to how innocent and trusting I was back then. Or maybe it’s just that times have changed. Does anyone still hitchhike near Ramallah these days? In the shadow of that big red sign with the white letters reading in Hebrew, Arabic and English, “Entrance for Israel citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and against the Israeli law.”
But in the summer of 1985, I was feeling entirely carefree as I stood near the entrance to the Autobahn outside Cologne, waiting until I was offered a ride for the six-hour journey to Berlin. Several cars stopped, but they weren’t going the whole way. The fourth vehicle was the winner.
There were already three guys inside, so it would be a scrunch, but they seemed good-natured enough and, as I’ve pointed out, I was a trusting twentysomething. The only hitch: they were stopping at a soccer match along the way. No problem, I said, thinking I’d hit the jackpot: I’d get both a hitchhiking happening and a hooligans-in-the-bleachers experience – all for a modest contribution toward a shared tank of gas.
But wait, there was more: After vociferously cheering on some team whose identity I have long since forgotten, my temporary new best friends were headed out to a late-night punk club. Would I like to join them for a beer? The club was located deep in a basement in a grimy part of town. There was smoke and mohawks and glow-in-the-dark Spandex outfits that told me I was definitely not in Ofra… or Ramallah anymore.
We left around 3 a.m. and everyone crashed at the apartment of one of the guys. I lived to tell the tale, slightly hungover and hoarse, and ready for my next major hitchhiking endeavor: Japan.
I was still the same poor student, but now it was two years later, and I was spending a couple of months traveling in Asia. My brother was living in Japan already; he was teaching English in a smallish town called Shimonoseki.
I had started my trip in Tokyo and wanted to visit him. But the bullet train to nearby Fukuoka cost a small fortune. So I decided to hitchhike across Japan – a nearly 1,000-kilometer journey.
My brother had made me a sign that said “Shimonoseki” on one side and “Tokyo” on the other for my return trip. I knew exactly two words of Japanese.
E-sho-nee (which means “together”) and “okay” (that most universal abbreviation of agreement). I took a bus to the entrance of a highway where I stood with my sign and minimal communication skills and waited. And waited.
While it’s true the Japanese don’t have much experience with hitchhikers, I think my appearance might have contributed something to my general lack of progress: I was this scruffy bearded guy with a funny beanie on my head, looking as far away as possible from the typical clean-cut Japanese businessman, who I can assure you doesn’t hitchhike much.
The first driver who picked me up didn’t quite understand the concept of hitchhiking and left me off on the side of the highway itself, only a few miles after we started. My second ride was the police who, rather than arrest me for playing pedestrian on a fast-moving highway, courteously gave me a lift to the nearest rest stop and gas station. (They probably didn’t want to deal with this non-Japanese-speaking gaijin.) It had started to rain and I darted back and forth between the pumps and the convenience store for a few hours with my sign and puppy-dog eyes until a kindly truck driver agreed to take me most of the distance.
The truck driver did his best to be a gracious Japanese host, plying me with vending-machine-delivered cold canned coffee (long before Frappuccinos and Ice Aromas made the concept palatable) and pointing at my head trying to use his very limited English to understand what the heck a kippa was.
But he eventually drove his big rig off the highway through a series of narrow winding streets, seemingly impassable for a truck of his size, before letting me off at my exact final destination. Three weeks later, I hitched all the way in the other direction, returning to Tokyo.
Since returning to Israel in 1994, I’ve never hitchhiked since. No longer a poor student, I have my own car. And taking the bus is just fine. It’s what I recommend to my children – especially after last summer.
Not that they’ll listen. I probably wouldn’t either if I were their age again. There’s too much adventure in cold coffee and standing-room soccer.
The author is a freelance writer who helps companies, brands and organizations become their own publishers, in order to rank higher on social media and search engines.