NOT many drivers will stop. Not grey nomads, not truckies, not women alone, not the elderly, not families with kids, not backpackers in rented vans, not young men – not young people in general, but especially not young men – not the pilots of vehicles with safety lights on top, not the risk-averse who turn their headlights on in the day, not owners of cars with leather seats, not owners of aqua-marine or burnt-orange speed machines, not owners of late-model Holdens and Fords – no, not them.
Above all: not young men driving leather-seated, late-model, burnt-orange Holdens with their headlights on.
I watched one whoosh by in Marla, South Australia, 230 kilometres north of Coober Pedy, 450 kilometres south of Alice Springs.
Few cars were passing. Marla is a roadhouse, hotel, shop and caravan park, and not much more.
I’d been dropped there by Amy, a Vietnamese woman wearing large sunglasses – a woman alone – who picked me up at Coober Pedy, and thereby proved my rules mistaken.
From where I stood, in opal territory:
She didn’t even pull off the highway; she just stopped. She was driving a Toyota sedan, its fender busted in a way that made it look like a racecar. That’s how she drove it. She didn’t have much English and wasn’t interested in small talk. She was driving from Melbourne to Darwin for a few months’ fruit picking. She was driving in a hurry. There was no rush, she said, except that she couldn’t sleep.
“Very tired,” she said, as I observed the speedometer chasing 130 kilometres an hour. The speed limit on that part of the Stuart Highway is 110. “Very tired,” she repeated, as she switched the music from smooth Vietnamese crooner to hard, relentless trance.
Amy had her GPS set for Alice Springs, but she was having trouble connecting times and distances. Not far into our race, she glanced at the device and said: “How long take Alice Springs? Two hours? Three hours?” The GPS said we had 620 kilometres to go.
I suggested she might consider staying overnight at Marla. “Very tired,” she said, as usual, and lit another cigarette.
Thankfully, she stopped. (“Very tired,” she explained, apologising for not taking me to Alice.) And so I stood by the road at Marla. It was about 1 pm.
I’d dallied at the campground that morning, talking with Jenny and Mike, a couple who’d camped nearby.
Mike had asked me a few questions: how was I going getting lifts? Where had I come from? His thick grey moustache was ambushed by several days growth, and it gave him a haphazard, approachable look. I’d noticed them the evening before, because they were camping in a simple tent, not hauling a fully appointed, medium-sized house, as is the fashion.
He couldn’t contain himself any longer: “You know you’re talking to two of the world’s biggest hitchhikers?” he said.
Through the 70s they’d hitched all around the world: more than a thousand lifts. Afghanistan? For sure! They worked in cabin crew for Qantas. Whenever they could, they picked a new spot on the map and went there. “We never had a plan for where we’d get to by the end of the day,” Mike said. “We met the most wonderful people, and we went everywhere.”
They hitched with their two toddlers, when they were aged one and three. “All you need is two backpacks and six cloth nappies. That’s what we’d say.”
They made me a cup of tea. Earlier, Jenny had gently discouraged Mike from talking too much. But then she warmed to the story-telling too, with an hilarious anecdote about sashaying into a stuffy, cigars-and-evening-dress British club in the Sri Lankan high country, their bohemian best caked with mud after a downpour on the way.
Mike was bursting with all these memories. Jenny suggested he get his thumb on the road again. But he wouldn’t, he said, sadly. He couldn’t: “I can’t go back. It was a magic time then. I don’t want to ruin it. The world’s not what it used to be.”
He gave me a lift to the highway, apologising for detaining me with their reminiscences, which had meant I’d missed the early morning travellers. (I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend the time.) “But it doesn’t matter,” he said. “You always get the right lift.”
So there I was in Marla, a few hours later. Arguably, the lift with speeding Amy had not been ideal. But the experience of hitching does lend itself to the metaphysical. One long-time practitioner told me recently that it had changed his life. He’d come to believe in manifestation: you get back what you put out. By the road, it feels that way to me too – at least in part.
I take off my hat and sunglasses for each passing vehicle and try to make eye contact. I smile and wave, whether they slow or not. Whoever stops, stops. It’s beyond my control. If nothing else, I’m fishing for a reciprocal wave, a small addition to the global stock of friendliness.
I’d been aiming for Alice that day, but maybe it wouldn’t happen. That wasn’t so bad. I was reading a magazine article about the conflict in Syria while I waited, scanning the wide desert horizon for people in cars. I pondered Mike and Jenny’s extraordinary adventures, and his view about how the world had changed. Had it? Could it change again?
The burnt-orange-Holden driver accelerated past and I waved and smiled, trying, as much as I was able, to inject a little something different into his day.
Two years ago, I hitched for the first time in Australia, to Cairns and back. I was very nervous. Thousands of kilometres later, on the way south again, I was humming, brimming with joy. I remember standing a while near Tenterfield, watching each passing car and thinking: “You missed out, dude! We would’ve had a great conversation!”
Perhaps the Bureau of Statistics could introduce a Hitching Index, tracking minutes spent waiting for a lift. It would be a proxy for the state of our society, a better one than Gross Domestic Product.
For now, not many drivers will stop. Many can’t, of course, for practical reasons. But someone always will.
It was Dave who pulled up, in a blue ute with a loaded trailer. He hobbled round the back, to shift his gear so I’d have room. He was going right through to Alice, four hours drive away.
“Just before I left, my sister called and told me not to pick up a hitch hiker,” he said. “But I saw you there and thought it wouldn’t be right to drive on.”
And my, did he have a story to tell.