By Paul Smith
11th July 2010
Once the identity of my alter-ego, the Twitchhiker, is revealed, the first question I am asked is always the same: ‘Where did you get the idea from?’
I wish I had some hilarious explanation but the truth is duller than Doncaster on a wet Tuesday. Some people are inspired by faith, others by great works of art.
For me, it was the bread aisle of Tesco in Gateshead. It was a Saturday lunchtime in January last year and my route to the fresh baguettes was blocked by a clatter of abandoned trolleys, their owners deep in conversation about Cheryl Cole or their recent holidays.
They were oblivious to other customers attempting to squeeze past. I began daydreaming, wishing I was somewhere else, somewhere hot with azure skies.
Like millions of people, I spend far too much time using Twitter, a social networking site that connects friends and strangers alike.
Some use Twitter to relay mundane messages – each limited to a maximum of 140 characters – about their day, while others share news and information as it happens, in real-time.
A Twitter page is a sort of mini-blog. Yet Twitter isn’t a one-way broadcast – it’s a two-way conversation, brimming with discussions and arguments, requests and offers of help.
I followed with interest the messages, known as tweets, of dozens of Twitter users around the world, and a similar number of people followed what I had to say.
And that’s where my idea came from – through Twitter I could reach out to people in other countries, who in turn could reach out to their friends and followers.
Could I somehow use this network to help me travel the globe? Could I, at 33, become the world’s first Globe Twitterer? A Globe Tweeter? A Twit Tripper? No, I’d be a Twitchhiker.
By the time I reached the checkout, my plan was taking shape – I would attempt to travel to the opposite side of the world in 30 days, relying entirely on the kindness and goodwill of fellow Twitter users.
Of course, everyone has exciting and occasionally ludicrous thoughts, but we rarely feel brave enough to follow them through.
Then, months later, we hear about somebody else who has had the same thought but also the determination to realise it. We mutter under our breath about how we thought of it first, kick ourselves and live with the regret.
I didn’t want that to happen to me. I didn’t have work ties preventing me from taking off.
Previously I had quit my degree in astrophysics to pursue a career in radio. I’d had fun as a producer and presenter.
On one evening show where I critiqued new releases, my co-presenter and I suggested that the debut single by an unknown group sounded like a bag of cats having their backs shaved.
We didn’t hesitate in ruling out any future success for that band. Their name? The Spice Girls. You just can’t buy that sort of intuition.
I later drifted into management and subsequently fell out of love with the industry. Since then I had been a freelance writer struggling to make ends meet. While I wasn’t quitting a secure job, there were a couple of potential obstacles to my Twitchhiking project.
First of all, I had no track record in attempting extraordinary feats and I was hardly an accomplished traveller. I had flown to several European cities on budget airlines and visited the United States on a handful of occasions, but I was hardly a modern-day Phileas Fogg.
Then there was the small matter of explaining the idea to Jane, my wife of four days. We had only just returned from New York, where we married in subzero temperatures at Brooklyn Bridge Park, wearing rather unorthodox wedding outfits of woolly hats, long coats and thermal underwear.
Jane was my rock. We met 13 years ago and she has supported my career and entertained my whims, so I had no doubt she’d share my enthusiasm for this latest plan. Well, perhaps there was a little bit of doubt.
All right, there was a lot. ‘I’ve had an idea,’ I announced in a manner that was supposed to suggest I hadn’t given it very much thought. ‘Go on,’ said Jane, in a tone that suggested she already knew what was coming.
‘I think I might try travelling around the world using Twitter.’ ‘Around the world? To where?’ ‘New Zealand, maybe?’ There was a moment’s pause as Jane stared at me to ascertain whether I was serious. ‘Seriously?’ ‘I think so, yeah.’
I held her gaze for a handful of seconds. ‘OK,’ said Jane. ‘Just put it on the calendar and let me know when you’re going.’ She meant it. That’s why I had married her.
First I created rules for my journey, to ensure people understood that nothing about it would be a certainty and there might come a point when their involvement would determine my fate.
Essentially, I couldn’t pay for any transport or accommodation during the 30 days; I could only accept offers of help from people using Twitter; I couldn’t plan anything more than three days in advance; I couldn’t spend longer than 48 hours in any one location – if I did, my adventure was over and I had to return home; and I could spend money only on food and drink.
More importantly, I couldn’t ask Twitter users for specific help – it was up to them to offer assistance and to decide on the route I would take. When I accepted an offer, I would arrange to meet the sender to pick up my ticket or whatever.
Followers would see from my Twitter site where I was heading and offer help if they wanted to. I was, to all intents and purposes, putting my life in the hands of strangers.
Within two days of announcing my idea and intended destination online, word spread through Twitter to all corners of the globe, and Twitchhiker became headline news in New Zealand.
That was because I’d decided I wanted to reach the furthest point I could on the other side of the world – so my aim was to make it to a tiny knuckle of rock called Campbell Island, several hundred miles off the southern tip of New Zealand.
Twitter users sent messages to Stephen Fry – an enthusiastic advocate of the site – to tell him of my journey. He, in turn, asked his tens of thousands of followers to support me. What had been an idle dream became scarily real.
Five days after my Eureka moment, I tweeted the following message: ‘Well, I’m all yours folks. I start in Newcastle on Sunday. Can you help me get anywhere else? Can you offer me a bed for the night?’ And . . . nothing. Nothing at all.
Two or three excruciating minutes passed where all the tweets stopped – it was like animals sensing an imminent earthquake. Where once there was a buzz of activity, now there was silence. Then, suddenly, came my first offer of help, from a local Twitter user called Leanne (known as @minxlj on Twitter).
minxlj @twitchhiker – Have you been to Amsterdam? I have an overnight ferry trip to Amsterdam for you.
I was ready to take on the world. Waved on by well-wishers, I took to the high seas on a 17-hour voyage to Holland. I immediately recognised it as a mistake – partly because I was out of touch with Twitter for nearly the whole voyage, but mostly because the only entertainment was an ageing house band performing songs, such as AC/DC’s Back In Black and The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), that were beyond their musical abilities. Fortunately, matters were to improve.
ikangaroo @twitchhiker – I’ve got a train ticket to Paris for you, and @ stchostels has accommodation.
Two Parisian Twitter users had teamed up to help me reach the French capital from Amsterdam Chris (@ikangaroo) was a gruff New Yorker who had recently emigrated from the United States with his wife, Sarah. They provided my train journey to Paris, while Saint Christopher’s Inn gave me a bed in its hostel.
The highlight of my stay in Paris was undoubtedly dinner in a lively restaurant in the city’s 19th arrondissement. Altogether less pleasant were the deafening snores of a giant Dutchman in the bed opposite mine later that evening.
pluripotent @twitchhiker – Could send you a ticket for TGV from Paris to Saarbrucken, accommodation and a lift to Frankfurt.
I never expected somebody like Andrea Juchem (@pluripotent) to support my adventure. Andrea was a middle-aged businesswoman who lived with her two teenage children in Eppelborn, a tiny German village near the French border.
Fortunately, Andrea’s English was infinitely better than my German. The story of the Twitchhiker was an extraordinary one, she explained, and the role played by Eppelborn in helping me would always be remembered
I enjoyed a superb evening with the Juchems. But there had been one unnerving moment, early on.
My playlist for the journey, based on requests and suggestions from other Twitter users …
Take Me Home, Country Roads John Denver
The Long and Winding Road The Beatles
On the Road Again Willie Nelson
Littlest Hobo Theme (Maybe Tomorrow) Terry Bush
Ramblin’ Man Allman Brothers Band
Born To Run Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
Road To Nowhere Talking Heads
Born to Be Wild Steppenwolf
Radar Love Golden Earring
Rocky Mountain High John Denver
It’s a New Day Will.i.am
Already Gone Eagles
Sweet Home Alabama Lynyrd Skynyrd
Don’t Stop Fleetwood Mac
Down Under Men At Work
Just after Andrea had picked me up and was driving me through the night to her home, she had spoken in German to a local TV cameraman accompanying us.
It occurred to me that, for all I knew, the exchange could have gone like this: ‘Where shall we dump his body?’ ‘I don’t care. We mustn’t disembowel him in the car, though, I’ve just had it valeted.’ I was taking an extraordinary risk by blindly accepting charity from whoever happened to offer it.
I consoled myself with the thought that regular tweets meant thousands of people already knew my location. Should my messages suddenly stop, somebody was sure to notice.
M4RKM @twitchhiker – I can put you up for two nights in the spare bed at my hotel in Manhattan!
Twitchhiker turned transatlantic within five days when a compliance manager for Siemens called Owen (@clocsen on Twitter) used his Air Miles to buy me a one-way flight from Frankfurt to New York.
And a Yorkshireman cal led Mark (@M4RKM) immediately jumped in to offer me the spare king-sized bed in his hotel room on Third Avenue.
I was initially bursting with excitement that my journey was exceeding my expectations but my mood nosedived when I realised that without a return ticket booked in advance, there was every possibility I would be denied entry to the United States.
My stomach churned every mile of the flight, so all I could do was cross my fingers that I wouldn’t be caught out by an inquisitive border control officer.
Thankfully, a tale of true romance distracted the female officer. ‘Well, you don’t seem to have a problem with filling in the paperwork,’ she noted, as she checked over my green visa waiver and blue customs form. ‘Thank you,’ I replied in relief.
‘I was here in January to get married and I visit whenever I can, so I’ve had plenty of practice.’ ‘You got married here? Is your wife American?’ ‘No, she’s English but I wanted to bring her here to get married because I love your city so much.’ ‘Wow, that’s so romantic. Have a great time in New York.’ ‘Thanks, I will!’
katyhaltertop @twitchhiker – I’ll fund a bus ticket to DC on the Bolt Bus and lunch if you’re extra nice
From New York to Washington DC. Marketing executive Katy (@ katyhaltertop) offered me a bus ticket while Allison (@ateedub) set me up with a hotel for the evening.
Allison had originally agreed that I could sleep on her sofa, but her boyfriend became wary of allowing ‘a stranger from the internet’ into their home. I understood. This was my first opportunity to be a tourist.
Katy and I walked down the magnificent National Mall, past the wonderful museums that flank it, up to the Washington Monument and across to the White House, which is far more modest in size than television shows and films would have you believe.
Paul at Venice Beach, California and one of his Twitter followers at Newcastle Central Station
yenra @twitchhiker – A road trip from DC to Pittsburgh, Columbus OH, or Charleston WV.
Ken (@yenra) lived in a city called Frederick, an hour’s drive from Washington. A father of two who had supported my cause for several days before I had even arrived in the country, Ken was perhaps my most enthusiastic follower. There was a deeply secretive side to my host, too.
Despite my best efforts, as he drove his convertible Mustang past the Appalachian Trail towards Pittsburgh, Ken refused to reveal the exact nature of his employment. ‘I work for the government,’ he finally admitted.
‘That must be interesting. Which department?’ ‘Hmm. Can’t really say.’ ‘Oh, really? Why not?’ ‘Can’t really tell you that either.’ ‘Is there anything you can tell me?’ ‘Sure, it’s a government job I can’t tell you anything about.’
aikaterine71 @twitchhiker – I will sponsor you and provide a place in Wheeling tonight!
Katherine (@aikaterine71) and her husband Alston embodied the spirit and generosity of the people I met on my journey. There are more than two million people in Pittsburgh, which I presumed would mean I would have no trouble moving on. It didn’t happen.
Despite plenty of activity of Twitter, not one person in Pittsburgh came forward. The word-of-mouth that had seen me progress so far, so quickly went silent. It was only while en route to Pittsburgh that Katherine contacted me.
She lived with her husband in Wheeling, West Virginia, an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh. The previous year, their home had been destroyed in a fire, so they were now living in a tiny rented apartment.
They had lost everything they owned, but were still willing to offer a stranger hospitality for the evening.
Orbitz @twitchhiker – What you’re doing is awesome! We want to offer you two nights hotel in Chicago.
Awesome indeed. Except by this point, just eight days into my trip, I was beginning to feel exhausted. Far from being the breathless adventure I hoped it would be, it was becoming a long, sleepless blur that was proving anything but enjoyable.
I was missing my wife, my bed and plentiful supplies of clean underwear. All that changed the following day, when I accepted a ten-hour bus ride from Chicago to Kansas, travelling hundreds of miles along endless freeways under a crisp, clean sky.
We stopped at broken-down truck stops and zipped past images of Sixties Americana plastered across roadside billboards, bleached of their colour by the sun.
What I thought would be an unbearable misery beforehand in fact transformed my mood and my perspective – a few hours’ rest away from the online chatter of Twitter made me realise how privileged I was to be making my journey.
benasmith @twitchhiker – If you have no other offers, you can stay in Lawrence, KS, tonight.
A tale of serendipity. Kansas City has a population of around two million, the same figure as Pittsburgh. And like Pittsburgh, all the chatter on Twitter about me had passed residents by.
It was looking likely that I would spend my first night sleeping rough until Ben (@benasmith) offered a bed for the night in Lawrence, a town west of Kansas City.
How did expat Ben hear my plea while two million people were seemingly ignoring me? Several months before the idea for Twitchhiker crossed my mind, Stephen Fry made an amusing comment on Twitter about something or another.
Ben was one of his Twitter followers – he read the message and duly replied to Stephen. Ben then searched through all the messages sent by other followers, curious as to what they might say. He found a message that made him laugh out loud, which was sent by a woman called Leanne.
And so Ben in Lawrence became friends with Leanne in Newcastle upon Tyne – the same Leanne responsible for the ferry ticket that began my adventure. Through happenstance, she knew the right person in the right place to help me at the right time.
Mark, who provided a hotel room in New York and Twitter follower Ben in the hills outside Los Angeles
chiarraigrrl @twitchhiker – I can send you to Wichita by Greyhound if that’s any good.
The Greyhound bus is hardly a stylish way to travel across America. Passengers were sprawled across their seats, hugging black bin liners full of possessions, and the only free seat was opposite the onboard lavatory.
Behind me, a woman slept along the back row in her sleeping bag, occasionally stirring to shout and swear. From Wichita, I got a ten-hour road trip to Austin, Texas.
A stranger in Zurich paid for my flight to San Francisco, after which I travelled north to Petaluma and Sonoma, and south to Los Angeles.
It was from here, hopefully, that I could fly to New Zealand.
AIRNZUSA @twitchhiker – Have you made it to New Zealand yet? We can help you from the West Coast.
Air New Zealand provided the means to cross the Pacific. During my final week, I travelled the length of New Zealand by plane, ferry, car and camper van before arriving at Stewart Island (population: 300), a fleck of savage rock and fauna.
Most New Zealanders never brave the catamaran service required to reach it. Now I know why – the hour-long voyage left me sick to my stomach. All I could do was sit and wait to make the final leap to Campbell Island.
But it never happened. It was nearly April, the beginning of winter in the southern hemisphere, and only the hardiest of trawler captains would dare venture into the turbulent waters of the Southern Ocean.
To complete my challenge, I needed to find a captain willing to risk his crew for the six-day trip, unpaid. And that captain had to be on Twitter. Among a population of just 300, the odds of success were astronomical.
After all, Twitter isn’t powered by technology, computers or the internet – it’s powered by people and relationships, and there were simply too few on Stewart Island to see me progress.
flyairnz @twitchhiker – We will fly you home!
Despondency soon passed when I realised my journey’s end meant I had permission to return home. Some 30 hours after leaving Auckland, I was in Gateshead once more.
Jane was there waiting, no tears but an enormous smile and a hug that lasted for ever. Did I ever feel threatened or in danger? Not really. I thought I had been abandoned in San Francisco when my ride failed to show, and there was an incident with cockroaches crawling over my face at a hostel in Kaikoura, New Zealand.
There was mild panic when I got lost on the Metro in Paris, and my heart leapt into my throat as Andrea accelerated along the German autobahn in the dark and pouring rain at speeds that loosened my fillings.
Thousands followed my journey through Twitter, determined my course and kept me safe. Eighteen months on, I’m still in touch with those who helped me, and through me they’ve become friends with one another.
I’ll often check Twitter and spot that Lisa in Dublin, who provided my bus ticket for the Greyhound, chatting to Josh in Wichita, whom I met while passing through. So that’s how a mundane day at the supermarket turned into a journey to the other side of the planet and the greatest adventure of my life.
During my 30 days as the Twitchhiker, I discovered that kindness is universal and that the whole can be infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. Moreover, I received a life-changing lesson in self-belief and living without regrets.
Twitter has changed since I hitchhiked around the world with the internet as my digital thumb.
There’s less of a sense of wonder as social media becomes a routine way of working and communicating – but if I thought I could get away with it, and could travel the world for free once more, I would pack my bags in a heartbeat.
Or perhaps my wife would have something to say on the matter this time.
The night Hollywood fell for my Geordie charm
I spent my first night in Los Angeles as the guest of a divorced 50-year-old, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of his apartment. On the second night, I checked into a boutique hotel in West Hollywood, courtesy of an advertising director who took me to one of his regular Friday night parties.
They were anything but regular to a lad from Gateshead – one of the first people I spotted was actress Liv Tyler. ‘Hello, excuse me, Liv?’
‘Yes, hi!’ ‘I’m Paul, I’m hitchhiking around the world and . . . ‘ ‘Hitchhiking? That’s so cool. Nobody hitchhikes any more. Tell me about it.’
Unreal. Liv Tyler wanted to talk to me. There wasn’t a shred of doubt, in my mind at least, that this Hollywood A-lister found my Geordie lilt and travel tales irresistible. ‘Really? Oh, OK, so I’m hitchhiking around the world using Twitter, and . . . ‘
‘Twitter?’ ‘Yes, it’s a social media network that . . ‘
‘Oh, right.’ Instead of maintaining eye contact, Liv began searching for the faces of her friends and an exit from our conversation. To be fair, she humoured me for a couple of minutes longer than necessary, and didn’t call security when I asked for a photo with her.
At another Hollywood party, I recognised Jorja Fox, who plays Sara Sidle in CSI. Buoyed by my earlier success with Liv Tyler, and fortified by several beers, I loitered with intent, waiting for the right time to introduce myself.
It is possible that I appeared to be a wild-eyed, leering madman. Apparently sensing that I was standing a little too close to be innocently passing by, Jorja stood up and, well . . . ran away from me.
The only positive thing to come out of this encounter is that the police were never called.