Hitchhiking is an amazing thing. All it takes is a little courage to get to the side of the road and stick your thumb out. Once you're there it's all up to the driver. On the one hand it's great, it's freeing, just you and your bag and the road. You may have a destination in mind, but who knows where you'll end the day. No need to follow the schedule of trains and make rigid plans. You just go and see what the day brings you. On the other hand you're completely dependent. You're waiting for some goodwill and open seats heading in the right direction.
It's really all about human interaction. You have a short window of time in which to make an impression on a driver. Maybe it's your sign, maybe your smile, maybe you remind them of their son, maybe they used to hitchhike, and maybe they're just looking for some company. If you're at a gas station it can be easier to make a connection. You can talk to them. They're spending some time there so maybe while they're going to the bathroom they're thinking about you and in that extra time they decide to take you. You become more than just another stranger on the side of the road, you become a fellow human being looking for a hand. It's harder to say no to a fellow human being than it is to just keep driving past a stranger.
In that way hitchhiking is a truly amazing thing. It's a chance to reach out to strangers and just trust and recognize the humanity of others. You get to experience strangers helping each other for no reward first hand.
Real interaction with strangers is a rare thing. During our days we rarely have sincere human interactions with strangers. Most of the time people buy their groceries with barely acknowledging the cashier. Most of the time people drive their cars, locked away in the steel frame away from everyone else. Even when people do take public transportation there is rarely much interaction between passengers. These day to day interactions are just little skits we've learned to act out, our culture is full of little formalities and roles that we perform to expedite things. So it's pretty unique to hop in a car with a complete stranger and just get to know each other for the next few hours.
Hitchhiking isn't all glorious though. Sometimes you wait for hours in the cold, the heat, the rain, on the side of a busy road, at a gas station. You know where you want to go but you don't know how you'll get there. It's not always fun and sometimes it's depressing to just stand around waiting. It's a humbling experience to completely rely on the goodwill of others. But it's also an amazingly euphoric experience when you get that ride. Miserable hours spent waiting at a gas station vanish when you get in a car heading the right direction. Each time someone reaches out and gives you a lift it re-energizes you, inspires you. The people you meet and the kindness you experience feeds you (sometimes literally) and gets you back on the road again.
It is exhausting too though. While waiting you may start to second guess your location. Maybe over there would have been better, maybe I should move here. What should I write on my sign? Should I even use a sign? After a couple hours maybe you start thinking of heading back the direction you came and trying at a different location or on a different route. And then there's the question of where you'll sleep that night. Even when you get in a car it's rarely going exactly where you need to go. Chances are you'll have to find a good spot for them to drop you off along the way. And getting out of cities? Oh man, that's no fun. Nothing is worse than lots and lots of local traffic.
If you can just get it all out of your mind and just take it one step at a time then you'll be OK. The worst part isn't the waiting or the uncertainty. The worst part is the self inflicted anxiety. It's really hard to not start thinking about it though. When I start thinking a few steps or hours ahead then I just have to stop and tell myself I'll see when I get there. I found that when you can just put all those worries away you'll realize that things tend to work out pretty harmoniously, and in ways you couldn't have planned.
I've been back in the States over a month now. It was a great 6 months out on the road, but it feels good to be back too. It's nice to be in one place, to know where you're sleeping, and to just relax. Especially at the end of my trip I was constantly on the move and that got tiring. Am I done traveling? No, but I do need a break. There are still so many places I'd love to see. But I don't want to just be a tourist going from place to place all the time. Next time I go out travelling I want to spend a lot of time in each place, find some work, and meet some people.
When your only goal is the next destination then when you arrive the only thing for you to do is to find another one. I found that didn't change when I got back to the states. Whether it was a job or a place to live I was still looking for a destination. And the same old worries kept cropping up, where are you going? How will you get there? Maybe you should have done this or that instead? What will you do once you're there? For now i'm that guy who's living in his parents basement (at least I'm not 30 yet). I'm OK with it though, and i'm trying not to look for destinations. I'm just trying to enjoy each place and moment I find myself in. Just as with hitchhiking, I don't have a clue where i'll end up or how i'll get there, but i'll deal with that when the time comes. And it's nice to know that, when you need a lift, people will pick you up.
Check out this video: http://vimeo.com/16712683
It's a great documentary on hitchhiking and it will give you a good sense of what hitchhiking in Europe can be like.