Hitchhiking is not without its perils, but it’s the positive things—like finally getting to your destination—that you remember. Nevertheless, there are always exceptions.
Once upon a time (although this is a true story), we hitched from Munich, Germany, to Zurich, Switzerland. When hitching, the fastest route isn’t always the best, so even though Zurich lies southwest of Munich, we decided to stay on a main Autobahn artery that skirted the Black Forest to the northwest before diving south to our destination. That was our plan.
After a late start, we got as far as Stuttgart, a little short of the halfway mark, and spent the night at a youth hostel: a warm bed in a noisy room. The next morning, we strode to an Autobahn entrance ramp, armed with our thumbs and cardboard signs pointing to our destination, and waited. And then we waited some more. The morning traffic came and went. We must have watched half the city’s population on their way to work.
Of course, we didn’t exactly look our best. After a night at the hostel, we were still a little bleary-eyed and (as always) hung over. We had backpacks and signs pointing to our destination, sure, but our hair was much longer then and we wore flea market army jackets over our jeans and sweatshirts.
Here’s Mark during his student days in Germany. This was a good day; out on the road, he looked a lot worse.
Meanwhile, the temperature plummeted and rain began to fall. The weather not only dampened our clothes, but our spirits as well. A dripping hitchhiker has as good a chance of getting picked up as a bowling ball at a Vaseline factory.
We stood there for hours before a car finally pulled over. Our German language skills were pretty sharp in those days, so we kept up our end of a scattered conversation as the kilos clicked by. Then we happened to mention we were exchange students from the US. The driver, a man in his thirties, replied, “You’re American?”
The conversation immediately switched to English. Our driver insisted we spend the night at his house. We were nowhere near Zurich, but we were the passengers and Horst, as he introduced himself, was our pilot. If not for him, we might’ve become icy stalagmites back in Stuttgart. As it was, we were hungry, tired, and still damp. In that context, acceptance seemed like a good idea.
A number of hours later, Horst’s Audi peeled off the Autobahn and sped through the deserted streets of a nondescript town. A kilometer past the last building, a driveway appeared. It wound up a small embankment to a house at the edge of the woods. A single light shone above a wooden door. As we climbed out of the car, Horst turned and asked, “Do you like dogs?”
A muffled bark drew louder and closer as we approached the house. Horst turned the key in the lock, and something heavy rammed the back of the door, reverberating with the force of a linebacker.
“Nein!” Horst shouted. “Zurück!” When he pulled open the door, a 100-pound German Shepherd leapt at us, straight for the throat. We froze.
The dog landed with enough momentum to knock us back a few steps. But it turned out he was friendly, energetically so. A big paw on either shoulder, the dog proceeded to lick our faces in turn.
Horst pulled the dog off and introduced us to his wife Sabine, who had appeared in the doorway. Two bottles of Riesling later, we felt like part of the family. Such trust, we thought, to invite strangers into their home. We repaid their generosity by telling their two children amazing tales of American life. Peanut butter. Wonder bread. Saturday morning cartoons.
Their hospitality stretched into the next day. They took us into the Black Forest to walk around some of the ruins and experience the trickling waterfalls. We spent the morning learning local German history and customs. Somewhere along the way, we also learned that Sabine had hitchhiked around the US when she was twenty. Their kindness to us was their way of paying it forward. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
After lunch, they drove us out of their way to an Autobahn rest stop where Horst asked around until he found us a suitable ride. Not every story ends in disaster. This one owes a big thanks to Horst and Sabine and their generosity.
Lessons Learned: Times have changed, and hitchhiking isn’t what it used to be. Spending the night with strangers might not sound like a good idea, but on the road, a good idea is anything that gets you out of the cold. There are generous people out there, and if you’re open to the possibility, you might find a great adventure waiting for you. Even one to write down.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 3/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: If we had money for airfare, we would have flown
Native Population: 3 of us in the car, including Horst
Normal Attractions: Besides being a relatively inexpensive way to travel (you still have to pay for food and shelter (most of the time), hitchhiking is great way to see the countryside and meet people.
Final Point of Interest: We made it to Zurich a day late but with a story we’ve always treasured. We’ve since hitchhiked in Austria, Belgium, England, France, Germany, and even Turkey.