Traveling with two feet and one thumb

As for “stranger danger,” outsiders think that the main risk is being picked up by a maniac, but that is the least of the problems. Source: Alamy / Legion Media.

As for “stranger danger,” outsiders think that the main risk is being picked up by a maniac, but that is the least of the problems. Source: Alamy / Legion Media.

The hitchhiking renaissance is nowhere near Route 66 or Main Street America, existing now on the long, lonely roads of the Russia. Debut prize winner Igor Savelyev writes about wanderlust and an existential longing in Russia's youth.

Hitchhiking is the subculture of the young, and a paterfamilias standing by the roadside trying to hitch a ride cuts an odd figure.

Once I was hitching myself to recall the good old days. I had to take off my wedding ring and tell everyone I was 22 and not 28. If you are picked up by a long-distance truck driver and it turns out that you’re the same age, it’s a bit embarrassing: It looks as if he works to feed his family, spends his fuel on you and you’re, well, a slacker.

Society seems to be growing older, leaving hitchhiking deep in the past. That’s the case in the West anyway.

The American readers of our book “Off the Beaten Track” said that hitchhiking as a phenomenon is anchored in the 1960s and 1970s. Today it is merely a memory of the Beat Generation and the hippies. Americans tell me you can seldom see a hitchhiker on the road these days, which accounts for the Western interest in Russian subculture: Is it true that Russia has restored the flag of roaming free?

From across the ocean, hitchhiking in Russia appears to be something exotic. First, there are the huge distances, sparsely populated areas and a harsh climate. Second (and this is always the main focus) it’s dangerous. All this makes a Westerner look at Russian hitchhiking as something like a space odyssey.

There are no pat answers to these questions. On the one hand, it is not “a space journey” and there is nothing terribly extreme about it. On the other hand, anyone who has ever hitched a ride can recall episodes that fit the cliche. That may give rise to some confusion.

I recall members of the audience at a New York Public Library event last year asking questions about the safety of hitchhiking in Russia. Fellow writer Irina Bogatyreva answered in the same ambiguous way as I am speaking now: She said hitchhiking was safe and then went on to tell the story of how she got a lift from a drunk driver who was being chased by police.

3 Facts about hitchers

1. There are about 10 hitchhiking clubs in Russia; the oldest one was founded in 1978. All of the clubs have workshops, some see hitchhiking as a sport.

2. Since 1997 there have been spring and autumn meetings between Moscow’s and St. Petersburg’s hithchikers, which take place in the middle of the road in a tent camp.

3. 500 miles is the longest distance one can travel on the lightest day in summer. Average speed is 34 miles an hour during the summer and 28 miles during the winter.

Distances. They lend an element of sport: Almost all hitchhikers keep a record of how many thousands of miles they cover and compare their distances. Taking on a long distance trip in this country is easy. For example, I live in Ufa, a city on the border with the Urals region, but officially part of the Volga region. The regional capital, Nizhny Novgorod, is more than 600 miles away. And it is still in the same federal district.

I once managed to cover that distance, without a stop for the night, between 7 a.m. and 2 a.m., with the benefit of a time zone difference. Usually, though, you can hitch a 400 mile ride during the day, but during the night few people dare to hitch a ride.

These figures create a certain hitchhiker’s euphoria: You feel that you can cover such distances alone, you feel the planet under your feet because you can trace your progress on the map. Because most hitchhike to Moscow, St.Petersburg, the Crimea or Altai (it is no big deal to go to neighboring big cities, and the distances are still considerable) they end up making long journeys that take them several days. The journey takes on existential meaning.

This is one reason for the cult of hitchhikers who prize distance, places where they spend the night, the people they meet in various cities and adventures. I should add that trips to Siberia and the Far East are tougher and slower and therefore costlier.

As for “stranger danger,” outsiders think that the main risk is being picked up by a maniac, but that is the least of the problems. Yes, gangs are sometimes active on the roads, but they rob heavy trucks and want no business with hitchhikers. Drunken hooligans? I’ve met them only near cities or villages.

The traffic cops have their own problems (usually to do with money and unconnected with our lot); at worst they may check your passport, and once a friend of mine was fined for walking on the road.

On a federal highway, as soon as you are clear of a large city, you do not encounter any outsiders: The truckers haul their cargo, motorists head for other cities on business, and it is unlikely that anyone will be there with intent to kill. At first I made some safety rules for myself (for example, not to hitch a ride in cars with license plates from the volatile Caucasus region), but then I decided it was futile.

You can see whether the person at the wheel is normal as soon as you open the door and talk to him. The real danger comes from traffic accidents on Russian roads.

In the 1970s and 80s, hitchhiking was part of the ideology of those who could be loosely called “Soviet hippies.” Hitchhiking today is mostly popular among those who are 20 to 25. The hitchhikers I’ve met are all brilliant, creative, thinking people. It’s as if the wanderlust is in their genes.

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