The unbridled joy of thumbing the open roads

I saw someone thumbing the other day. And I thought serial killer. Freak. What are they up to now, trying to stop cars with a flick of their thumbs. Should I call the guards. Get them arrested, these weirdoes standing by the side of the road, expecting people to stop and let them in. Do they not know that these people have seen Crimecall? And have Twitter. And read scary reports about freaks out at night. Even though this is the morning time. And serial killers tend not to thumb.

Oh, how we have cast thumbing aside all these years.

Mayo and Galway were always hotbeds of thumbers because it was a place people were equally trying to get into and out of in vast numbers every weekend.

I used to set off thumbing after my last lecture on a Friday. Bundle the dirty washing into a bag, walk into a cloud of Lynx and head off for the road outside Tirellan Heights and find my perch, scowling at anyone who got the first few perches, pointing my thumb in the direction of Ballinrobe. Making sure you never thumbed too near a turn in, so that drivers could indicate without mistakenly making you think they were giving you a lift.

You also chose a place where cars would naturally slow down, thus making it more difficult for a neighbour to pass you by. You needed to create an environment that allowed drivers to see that you didn’t have a half-mad look about you, where they could see your trembling lip, your tug of the forelock, your appreciation if they were informing you that they were turning off just a bit further up the road. They needed to see that if they didn’t give you a seat, that you wouldn’t hold it against them. You mastered a gesture that converted your thumb into a wave and then back again in time for the next car.

There were so many nuances to thumbing that made it the joy it was.

I loved thumbing. For many many years it was my way of getting around. As pure townies from Ballinrobe, we didn’t have spare tractors to learn driving in. Or spare cash to buy cars to learn driving in, so we took to the road with the only way I knew. For the first five years of my professional career, I’d get to places by thumbing. If I had to be in Carrick-on-Shannon to cover a match by 2pm on a Sunday, I’d set out early and plot my route and hope that with the help of God and the ability to spin a good yarn, I’d maximise the length of my journey so that I’d end up as near as possible to where I wanted to go. And you’d either be there three hours early or two minutes late. Thumbing always had a way of getting you there almost on time. Now with the car you calculate your time to the minute and end up late.

One night I was thumbing outside Tuam, after midnight when I got a seat from some flash Harry in a sportscar who took me from Tuam to Galway in 12 minutes. I kid you not. I just sat there in the front, knowing that if we were to crash, we would have been pulverised. And with jelly-like legs, I got out and muttered my thanks to the unsuspecting driver as he reared off into the night in his babe magnet (what’s that they say about a Porsche? Too small to get laid in but you’re guaranteed to get laid as soon as you get out of it? )

Thumbing was so much more than just getting home. So many times, the destination was not the goal — the journey was. The complete randomness of it all. The Russian roulette of urban transport in an age when Maggie Thatcher had told the world that public transport was just for losers.

In the same way that the next generation will never be able to work out the relationship between a C90 cassette tape and a pencil, so too will be lost the concept that used to see tens of thousands of people move around this country through pure seat-begging.

The modern thumber would probably demand wifi, and insist on drinking coffee and comment on your music. The modern thumber would prefer to thumb their thoughts into their phones, rather than thumb thoughts into their heads by having to talk to complete strangers for hours.

I’d love to thumb now, but passing time and pride and age prevents me.The modern thumber is probably put off by the inconvenience of it all, the faux humiliation of everyone knowing you didn’t have the bus fare. If I were to thumb tomorrow morning, there’s no doubt people would think I was someone who got early release from jail and was making my way back to the field where I hid the loot from that one, last job.

Oh, that open road, I miss you.

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