Adventures in Hitchhiking; Or, On My Own But Never Alone

Feb 17, 2016 | Belgium

It's true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. That's one of the reasons that we spend 1/4 of our year apart.
It's true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. That's one of the reasons that we spend 1/4 of our year apart.

Traveling with someone can be a wonderful experience. You have someone to help you digest all of the new things around you. And someone to help you figure out the archaic bus tables. But you also run into constant obstacles in deciding where to go next, what to eat, where to sleep, etc. One debate after another. So, after three months of traveling with my boyfriend, we realized that a break was long overdue.

He made plans to visit the Baltic States and I planned on staying in Belgium for as long as possible—because I’m in love with the beer, chocolate, and friendly people. He took the train from Ghent to the airport and I, foolishly, decided to hitchhike from the ring road of Ghent to Liège. (Hitching Tip #84: Never hitchhike on ring roads.)

As we walked our separate ways, tears ran down my cheek. I would miss him, but this was the right decision for our relationship. And it was good for my growth as a traveler, especially since I relied on him for all navigation. You can guess where this is going.

I used the website Hitchwiki.Org to find a suitable hitchhiking spot. But soon, I began to suspect that it was only a suitable spot for going the opposite direction because most people made the hand signal to indicate they weren’t going far, presumably just into downtown Ghent. After waiting for 30 minutes, someone pulled over 100 feet from me. I couldn’t tell if they were waiting for me or not, so I hurried to their car just in case.

He wasn’t waiting for me, he was on his phone. I kept walking just to lessen the awkwardness. That was the wrong decision.

I walked and walked and walked. It was all just motorway without any on-ramps. Six kilometers later, I found the tiniest on-ramp of all time. With no shoulder. It wasn’t smart, but what else could I do? Thankfully, the first car stopped. But he couldn’t take me far. He dropped me off once again on the ring road in Ghent—and once again, with no shoulder. How could they pick me up when they were already going at full speed? I needed to find an on-ramp. So I started to walk again.

And walk. And walk. I saw a sign for a bus station. Feeling defeated, I thought taking a bus to city center and then to the outskirts of the city would be my best decision. I arrived at the bus station 15 minutes later to find that it was closed during the off-season. So I kept walking. I walked over the highway and found some construction workers. Desperate, I approached them and asked them for help. They pulled up a map and pointed out the on-ramp—another 30 minute walk away, actually quite close to where I was at the closed bus station. So, another 45 minute walk and one loud scream at the sky (not necessary, but nice to do), and I was at the right place.

The deserted bus station that taunted me, like a mirage of an oasis in the desert.

From here, things moved quickly. I was picked up by a businessman in a snazzy suit took me to Brussels while he told me about traveling around Thailand on a moped without a map. From there I was picked up by an Albanian man who had never hitched or picked up a hitchhiker before. He dropped me off at a gas station on the side of the road east of Leuven, where a trucker who works 100 hour weeks and dreams of motorcycling America picked me up, gave me a Coke, and took me to the interstate outside of Liège. From there, a man from the Congo who only spoke French told me about missing the warmth of people in the Congo, his photography project showing the beauty of Africans, and focusing less on money and more on simpler joys.

Unlike the music, I didn't have the blues anymore.

When I arrived in town, I found that my host was no longer available to host me because I didn’t contact him during the day—since I didn’t have a phone. I sent out a flurry of last minute requests on Couchsurfing and, within an hour, I was invited by 4 people to stay with them. I was floored with gratitude. Even more, when I walked from there to meet up with my host at a blues bar, one person offered to help find my way there. He asked another person for directions and he too joined our motley crew as we walked down the streets looking for this place. Once we arrived there, they said goodbye and I met up with two Couchsurfers. The fellow who wasn’t hosting me bought me a beer and gave me an extremely useful present for a hitchhiker—a good, thick Sharpie.

All told, eleven people offered to help me today. I’ve never received so much kindness from so many people in one day before. It was my hardest day of the entire 3 month trip, wandering around lost, but that low allowed for the highest of highs to follow.

When did you last feel overwhelmed with gratitude for the people helping you? I’d love to hear about it below.

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