Nuala McCann: Memories of life on the road and the kindness of strangers

Hilary Bradt’s adventures as a hitchhiker brought back beautiful memories - but the bug did never stuck

Nuala McCann

Nuala McCann

Nuala McCann is an Irish News columnist and writes a weekly radio review.

Woman hitchhiking on the road with a backpack. The concept of travel, tourism, and adventure
The hitchhiking bug never stuck for me (SasinT Gallery/Getty Images)

When I came across Hilary Bradt, the 82-year-old hitchhiker, she made me smile.

But she did not make me want to grab a piece of cardboard, scrawl a far-flung destination in block capitals and stand with my thumb out at the side of the road.

She has written a book, Taking the Risk: My Adventures in Travelling and Publishing.

Hilary has hitchhiked every decade of her life except the first one.

It gets a bit easier as you age – no-one wants to refuse an older woman with her shakily-handwritten sign at the side of the road.

But above all, hitchhiking teaches you the kindness of strangers, she said in an article for The Guardian.

She talked about holidays in Greece and the Middle East with girlfriends and later, in America, with her husband George, who hitched as a matter of course.

Once a man gave them a lift to his house, then threw them the keys of his car and told them to go off and explore.

Hilary Brandt has been hitchhiking all her life
Hilary Bradt (82) has been hitchhiking almost all her life

In apartheid South Africa in 1975, a black man stopped in a battered pick-up truck. They got in the back and he drove up front. The usual arrangement was a white farmer driving with black farmworkers squashed in the back.

“It still makes me smile when I recall the look on the faces of people we passed,” she said.

I had a short – sometimes hairy – career as a hitchhiker.

Memories tend to be of the misty watercolour variety; you paint out the hours spent in blistering heat at the side of an empty road holding out a hopeful thumb. You try to forget the stranger with the roaming hands and remember the good people you met.

No-one ever threw us the keys of their car, but a young French woman picked us up on a blistering hot day in the south of France.

We were on our way to Lourdes – two young Irish Catholic girls hitching to the grotto. She took us to her apartment, brought us into the garden and gave us each a glass of cold, white wine.

We were 19. it seemed so kind and so sophisticated. We wanted to be this French woman.

Roll on two years and on another blistering day in Berlin, we made our way to the traditional hitching spot for returning to Hamburg. It was at the time of the wall – the road was a straight, non-stop corridor, right through the east.

I still have photographs of us taking an impromptu shower under sprinkler hoses set out on public lawns in Berlin just before we hitched.

A swarthy man with a beard picked us up. The border guards took a keen interest in him… maybe because he was driving barefoot.

He spoke little English, we spoke little German but we smiled and laughed with him all the way back to Hamburg. It was laid-back camaraderie.

Hilary Bradt talks about the kindness of strangers – we found it too. We found it with free bed and breakfast courtesy of a stranger in Cottbus, east Germany. We tasted it in a dish of red berry jam offered by an old widow dressed in black in Bucovenia, Romania.

Back in the days of that Bagatelle hit, we all got on the road and stuck out our thumbs... but then we stopped

But unlike Bradt, the hitchhiking bug never stuck.

Yes, back in the days of that Bagatelle hit, we all “got on the road and stuck out” our thumbs... but then we stopped.

And maybe the Troubles had a role to play.

Despite the rare bad memory, there are beautiful ones.

On balmy days, I remember a battered car and a dusty road in France; windows rolled down; a soft breeze on our faces as the driver turns up Crystal Gayle and she croons: “Don’t it make my brown eyes blue.”

For we were young.