The Hitchhiker - Interview with Madalyn

Last week, my friend Madalyn casually mentioned that she'd hitchhiked alone through parts of Europe. Intrigued, I asked if I could interview her about her travels.  I learned that Madalyn has hitchhiked both alone and with friends through parts of Europe, Central America, Canada, and the United States. She carries a backpack and the faith that she can handle whatever happens.


This is Part 1 of my interview with Madalyn, in which she reveals the truth about her hitchhiking adventures: the joyful, the uncomfortable, and the downright scary.

What role does hitchhiking play in your life?

It’s the mode of travel that I’m lucky enough to be able to do when I’m most free.  When I don’t have obligations or a schedule.  It can be on a small scale where I don’t have a schedule for the day, or it could be on a larger scale where I don’t know what I’m doing, period.  And I put everything in a backpack again and just go somewhere.

What attracts you to hitchhiking?

It’s something about surrender, and trusting the Universe and other people. It’s a joyful experience. The spontaneity I’ve always loved, and the unknown. It’s just magical to put yourself out there and not know where you’re going to end up or when.

It could’ve been the influence of Patrick in Central America, the person who really introduced me to hitchhiking for real. He’s just this extremely different person from anyone else in the Universe... very selfless and giving and loving and kind of naive and pure and trusting, and honestly all about love. I think I got swept up in that love for everybody, for everything.


What was your first hitchhiking experience?

I was 19 in 2011, and I was in Panama.  I spent 6 months meandering around. I hadn’t hitchhiked much before that, but I did long-distance hitchhiking with Patrick. Patrick was a traveler also. We met on a farm. We traveled from the middle of Panama to the very northern part of Nicaragua, then back down to Costa Rica.

How does hitchhiking enrich your travels?

When I say I’ve been to Europe people ask, “Did you go to Italy? Did you go to London? Did you hit all the spots?” And I didn’t hit all the spots. The thoroughness was in getting to know people, and little towns and places that aren’t frequently visited, and having really intense conversations sometimes while hitchhiking. Because people often pick you up because they want to talk. They want to share something.

I think I could hit all the beautiful buildings and tourist places and not have any really soulful conversations like that while traveling. Normally it’s all small talk with other tourists or locals, who ask “How do you like it here?” not people who just need somebody to pour their hearts out to.  I often felt like a therapist as a hitchhiker actually.

Do you turn down a lot of rides?

No. I don’t think I’ve ever turned down a ride right off the bat like that. The people that stop are the people that want to stop, and they’re all so interesting and diverse and take you new places that you didn’t expect.  A lot of my favorite rides were big, bearded, tattooed, grisly, scary men, sometimes in trucks, possibly with shotguns... You’d think they’d be the Mom’s poster example of who NOT to get in a car with.  And then they’re the nicest people! (laughs) They just needed to open up their hearts to somebody and talk about how hard life is and how they try to be a good father.  I’ve learned that.


Does hitchhiking shape your itinerary when you travel?

For me, it’s definitely not about getting from point A to point B. That’s the opposite of hitchhiking. I want to enjoy the experience between point A and point B, and have plenty of surprises.

For example, my friend and I were hitchhiking in Europe and we were aiming for Berlin.  The last place we’d stayed was Austria, and then a car picked us up that was headed to Prague, and we said, “Well, we wanted to go to Berlin, but... sure! Let’s go with you to Prague!”  In Prague, we met some friendly street musicians and spent the night swapping stories and sharing drinks in their cozy, off-grid hut.  

Where do you usually stay the night when you’re hitchhiking?

People tend to offer to host.  Not that I relied on that: I would often have a tent with me and would never use it because there would be great people who were welcoming.  Usually a ride towards the end of the day will offer to host me, and that’s great. I’ve only stealth camped alone once, in all my travels.

What is a typical day-in-the-life of a hitchhiker?

It depends. If I’m trying to do a long stretch in one day, like if I’m trying to get from Montreal to Boston, I might start pretty early.  But generally, the early morning isn’t the best time to hitchhike because people are rushing off to work. I’d probably take my time, especially if I was being hosted by someone.  Hang out, have breakfast, get a leisurely start to the day. Midmorning is nice.

For lunch, usually my rides will try to feed me, and... usually I’ll accept. (laughs) But otherwise I might buy something somewhere, or I’ll travel with a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter in my backpack.

I usually make it to my destination in time, if I have a fixed destination.  When it gets later in the day, sometimes the sun’s going down and I think, “I don’t think I’m gonna get there,” and then somebody gives me a ride just in time.  I don’t like to hitchhike at night, though I’ve done it a couple times.  Then I get set up for the night, wherever I'm staying, and get to hang out with good company, whether it's old friends or people I've just met. I might write in my journal to record the day's most interesting experiences and rides.


What’s in your backpack?

Sometimes... lots of really useless things.  For example, I carried my clarinet for most of the Europe trip, in its case, which is really silly.  I usually have watercolors, a sketchbook, a notebook, a book that I’m reading, plenty of clothes, maybe bread and peanut butter, a sleeping bag, occasionally a tent, sometimes little gifts.  Whether it’s chocolate, or whistles, or gifts people have given me along the way that I can pass on.  It’s nice to have something to offer the ride.

Why don’t you hitchhike at night?

It’s hard to get rides.  They can’t see you as well, they’re tired and want to get home, they’re scared of you, they’re like, “Why is she out there at night?”.  Also, people who are awake at night, I’m a little scared of them, too.  They might be drinking or something.  

Which countries were easier for you to hitchhike in?

Once you get into Germany, hitchhiking is paradise. Everything is so fast, people stop instantaneously, no questions, it’s totally normal, and take you exactly where you want to go at, like, 90 miles an hour.

Canada was also paradise. I was in Quebec province and the Canadian Maritimes. That was either by myself or with a female buddy. It felt so safe, and it was fine to be a woman traveling alone.


Which countries were difficult?

The United States. In some places hitchhiking is pretty normal and people are more likely to stop.  Where it feels more dangerous are places where people aren’t used to hitchhikers at all: near metropolitan areas, like around Boston it was really hard. Any kind of congested area, and on the East Coast things can get pretty congested.

People are more scared because they don’t see hitchhikers a lot.  So the people who pick me up are often scared, which rubs off on me because I think, “Wow, you’re scared of me? Should I be scared of you?”  When people are scared of me, they pick me up because they think that I’m desperate.  They’d ask all kinds of questions, they’d assume I was homeless, and not by choice. They thought that I had no other option except to hitchhike.

What was the longest time you ever spent with one ride?

This really nice man, a Turkish truck driver, picked up my friend Johan and I in Bulgaria. He just kept us with him: we slept over in his truck, he somehow made room in the cab with the bedding. We cooked food together, shared stories, for a day and a night and another day.  But we weren’t confined in the vehicle, we made frequent stops.  The laws about trucking in Europe are really different.  They have to take frequent stops, they have to sleep through the night.

Another one of my favorites was this older guy who picked up my friend Maude and I on the way to the Magdalen Islands in Quebec, Canada. He lived in this tiny town.  He invited us to come stay anytime, and on the way back from the islands, I got one of my rides to drop me off at his house.  I stayed with him and his wife for a few days.  We cooked food, they made rhubarb wine, and I cleaned fish for the first time. I was learning how to eat fish after being a lifelong vegetarian. I painted, and met their friends, and played bocce ball.  It was really lovely.


What does your family think of all this?

My family definitely doesn’t like the fact that I hitchhike.  My parents especially, but also my extended family.  When I was in Central America they didn’t know I was hitchhiking, but they were worried sick about me the whole time in general because I didn’t communicate with them as well as they would like.  I was 19 and it was the first time I’d done this and I was in Central America by myself wandering around. I think that experience steeled them a little bit for more adventures.

After I kept traveling, they got used to it... So I thought it wasn’t a big deal, and I started to tell them about hitchhiking.  But then it became a big deal. I would hitchhike around New England, and some of my destinations were family hangouts, like meeting my family in Cape Cod or staying with my uncle in Albany, New York on my way to Montreal. It became more of an issue, and they’d buy me a bus or train ticket to keep me safe. And I could’ve bought my own ticket, I just didn’t want to. But they wanted to do it for me, and I was like, “well, okay... I’ll just enjoy this train ride.”

Train rides aren’t as intimate as hitchhiking

Right, pretty sterile. Sometimes I’d lie a little bit, just white lies.  Because I’ve done some Craigslist Rideshares, and for some reason that’s more acceptable to the family than hitchhiking. Like when I was in Oregon, I’d just tell my aunt or uncle that I’d come there via Rideshares, when really I’d hitchhiked.

It’s interesting to me because I feel like Craigslist is less reliable. You don’t know people’s motives for posting on there, whereas people who stop to pick you up are just spontaneously deciding to help. And I’ve had some weird Rideshare experiences, actually.

Have you had some uncomfortable experiences hitchhiking?

One was a kid in coastal Maine, eighteen or so.  I think he was talking about being in Juvie (juvenile detention) and he was sharing these really intense stories.  He was making me feel really uncomfortable, it’s hard to describe but it was just an energetic thing.  I really wanted to get out of the car, and I asked him to let me out, and he did.

Another was in Europe. I got on the ferry in England with a truck driver, and he was super nice but he wasn’t going towards Belgium.  So he brought me up to the truck driver hang-out area on the ferry, where it seems like there’s not a word of English spoken. I was sitting at this table in a cafeteria with a circle of big Bulgarian truck drivers. And my driver was trying to find a friend to pawn me off on, and I think he really was looking out for my safety, but you never know if you can trust someone I guess.

The guy who took me seemed fine. We were driving in Belgium and it was nighttime and raining, warm for December but still cold.  He was going to stop and stay the night.  I didn't want to stay the night in the cab, but there wasn’t an open rest stop nearby, and not a lot of traffic and not an appropriate hitchhiking time.  We watched a movie on his little laptop, and we had very minimal communication.  He started kissing me, and I didn’t want to. I said no, but at some point decided not to protest further.  I thought, “If I just go along with this, it’ll be less painful”.

Looking back, I could have just gotten out of the truck and stood under a shelter somewhere.  Still, I think that my choice wasn’t as detrimental to me as it could have been.  I learned never to put myself in that situation again.  Which is really easy, I could’ve chosen not to start a ride late with a non-English-speaking Bulgarian truck driver that I didn’t know, and who hadn’t stopped for me: I’d been pawned off on him. I could’ve easily stayed somewhere that was open twenty-four hours, which there’s plenty of, and not done that. I learned that afterwards.

And you kept hitchhiking after that experience?

Oh yeah.  That was towards the beginning of that Europe trip.

How did that affect your hitchhiking?

There was never any situation that cropped up like that again for me to even avoid. And I think I could have avoided it if there had been. It’s a very rare thing. I’ve hitchhiked through many different countries including the United States which is pretty dangerous. All of those thousands of miles and people, and that one person seemed sad and pathetic, and very misguided and made a bad decision.  I pity him.  That one time, it didn’t really frighten me. And again, I would have avoided the situation if it came up again, but it never did.

So rather than rattle you, this event made you feel like you could handle it.

Yeah. And that it wouldn’t happen again.


Do you keep in touch with any of these people who pick you up?

Most of the time, no.  A lot of people insist on exchanging information, and we’ll become Facebook friends.  Years later, I’ll be like, “Who is that person? I’m not friends with them, who are they?” Then I’ll figure out they must’ve been a ride at some point.

Oh, and I met my boyfriend hitchhiking...

Yes, tell us that story!


To be continued in Madalyn Interview - Part 2

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Madalyn's also an artist! 

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