Ideas & Stories

Hitch-hiking in a wheelchair

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Well, way back when I was a 15-year-old teenager, that’s exactly what I did. I had been a paraplegic for only three years and, much to my mother’s exasperation, I loved a good challenge.

It all started out when a few school mates started hitch-hiking. They asked me to come along with them. Initially around Melbourne (Australia), but then into the country to visit a wider circle of friends.

So, I did it too. Hitchhiking seemed easy … when I was with them.

I tried it a few times on short trips (on my own) near home. Hey, I didn’t want to spend my limited money on transport, so it seemed like a good idea.

There I was. Sitting in my wheelchair on the side of the road. With my arm extended and my thumb up in the traditional hitchhiker fashion. Cars would drive by in disbelief. Some would stop and ask if I wanted to be taken to a hospital. Back then, people stereotyped anyone in a wheelchair, and I was certainly not immune.

A much younger Chris AlpA much younger Chris Alp (yes long hair), German Shepard, and heavy wheelchair. Ready to hitch-hike.

But eventually, a driver would stop and confirm that I was actually hitchhiking and that I wanted a ride. I would jump in, they would fold my chair into the boot, and off we would go.

My mother was horrified. What if they tried to abduct me? How could I run away if they had my wheelchair in their boot? What if I was assaulted or robbed (not that they would get much from my near empty wallet). Of course, this was long before cell phones had been invented.

So, imagine her reaction when I told her that I wanted to hitch-hike (on my own of course) to visit my mate Mark who now lived in Adelaide, a long day’s drive, part-way across Australia from my home in Melbourne. She pleaded with me not to do it. She suggested that I took my (German Shepherd) dog (see photo) with me for safety.

That would guarantee I would never get a ride!

Naturally I didn’t listen to her wise words and set the alarm clock for 4.00 am a few days later. I excitedly woke and hooked my bag onto the back of my chair and headed off for a 2-week adventure. I can’t imagine anyone doing such a thing in 2021, let alone a 15-year-old paraplegic in my heavy (as they all were back then) wheelchair.

I ‘walked’ to the local Blackburn train station in the dark and navigated to the west side of Melbourne on the early morning trains. I found the Western Highway and plonked myself in the dawn light on the side of the road and put out my thumb and waited. And waited. For perhaps 2 hours in the cold.

Eventually, a car pulled over and asked where I was going. “Adelaide” I said. “Wow … I can take you as far as Ballarat”, only an hour down the highway. Great! I got in and then a while later, got out in Ballarat. He dropped me in an awkward spot, so I had to walk about a kilometre to a better location where I waited. And waited. For a very long time.

A bit after lunch time, a car pulled up with a couple of young lads driving. They were on vacation from their tough mining jobs in the North West of Australia and they were down south ready to party. And they were going all the way to Adelaide. Great! In 8 hours … I would be there before midnight.

They stopped to pick up another hitchhiker just a few streets away.

Between the two hitchhikers in the back seat, was a giant cooler full of ice and beers. Would I like one? Sure, I said. They didn’t really know I was just 15. I only had the one. As did the other hitchhiker. But the miners had more than one.

In fact, over the next few hours, they had plenty. They were now very drunk. Singing, laughing and driving erratically. My back seat colleague looked as worried as me as we sped down the (then) 2 lane highway. They were playing ‘chicken’ with the on-coming cars. I regretted getting in this car. I regretted not listening to my mum. But I doubt that my dog would have helped at this moment.

I needed to get out of this mess.

Eventually, we came into the town of Horsham. Not quite halfway to Adelaide. I told them I couldn’t go on. They seemed to be ok with that. The other hitch-hiker said he had to keep going so, I thanked them, and they drove off. To this day I wonder if they ever made it.

But there I was. It was getting dark, and I knew I was stuck. What to do? I tried hitching for a while but to not avail. Then, a guy approached me and said he had noticed I wasn’t getting any rides. He ran the pub (hotel) across the way and asked me if I wanted a room for the night (‘not too expensive for you mate’).

I had little choice, so I agreed. The tariff was $5 for the night (that was a lot of money back then) and it would dent my holiday wallet a lot. But he threw in a meal and even (another) beer. Drinking laws were a bit more relaxed back then.

When I woke in the morning. I realised that this was an amazing adventure. I was doing something that most young people would never dream of doing. And I am in a wheelchair.

This was probably the start of my passion to ‘do it better’ than those whose legs work perfectly well. I definitely think legs are over-rated!

Back out on the highway and things went a bit easier. Soon picked up a ride with an elderly couple all the way to Adelaide. Adelaide was a new city to me and a bit scary. Two bus rides (not accessible back then) later and I soon knocked on Mark’s door. Holiday begins!

Two weeks later, I am back on the highway out of Adelaide. Without too much fuss, a good ride to Bordertown (yes, on the border). Then I was picked up by the owner of the local Ford dealership. He was with his new girlfriend in a new demonstrator V8 Fairlane that had just been released. And he wanted to show us just how well it went.

It’s amazing how quickly you can reach your destination when you sit on 120 mph (a bit under 200 kph). Yes, we were impressed. We soon pulled into their destination of Horsham (yes where I had stayed 2 weeks before) and it’s not even lunch time.

But I am really hungry. I have just under 40 cents left in my wallet. I walked into a roadhouse and surveyed the menu. Hmmm. Don’t get much for 40 cents, even back then.

I settled on a big bag of French fries and a Coke. I still think they were the best fries I have ever eaten.

But now I have no money. None.

Luckily 2 rides later, I am eventually dropped off on the far (wrong) side of Melbourne and it is nearly dark. Even then, Melbourne was a sprawling city with an excellent and accessible train system that radiates from the centre. I need to get to the other side of Melbourne. The problem was, I have no money left for a ticket and to hitch-hike home from here would be very hard.

But like many young kids, I was pretty good at bluffing my way without a ticket. Anyway, I had no choice.

I was on the wrong side of the platform, so I proceeded down the underpass to get to the other side. Perhaps a bit too quickly in that old, poorly made, heavy wheelchair that all disabled kids had to endure at that time.

As I rounded the sharp bend at the bottom, my rear axle snapped. My wheel sheered clean off. I rolled several times on the pavement and sat up a bit stunned, scratched and bruised. Several passers-by came running to help.

My wheelchair was in 2 pieces, I had no cell phone, I was out of money and all I could do was sit on the ground.

Time to be resourceful. I would reflect on this moment many times in later years whenever I broke my wheelchair in far away countries. It is amazing what you can do when you have to!

A couple of people helped me back into my chair, with me sitting forward so my weight was over the 2 good front wheels and I held the broken wheel as a crutch to stop me falling. I was unable to move at all, so I had to be ‘pushed’ up the ramp to the platform.

Instead of trying to blend into the crowd (without any ticket), I decided to go for ‘fuss’. We got the station master (yes before railway stations became automated) to help. He notified the conductor of the next train, the central station where we changed trains and even the station master at my home station.

The railway staff were amazing. They all helped out and made it easy. They even asked a member of the public to drive me the last kilometre back to my home.

I made it. And I did that same hitchhiking trip 3 more times. Eventually I got a car and never hitchhiked again. You just don’t see hitchhikers in Australia anymore. The world seemed to be an innocent place back then.

What an adventure. It was exciting and scary. It was unique and impossible. And it I was something I just had to do.

Chris Alp