Stephan Schlei: Most Travelled Hitch-hiker on Earth?

By: Bernd Wechner
© October 1, 2000

Stephan Schlei: Most Travelled Hitch-hiker on Earth?

Stephan Schlei: Most Travelled Hitch-hiker on Earth?

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: October 1, 2000

Aside from *. But I've always wanted to catch up with Stephan and Bill some time, for one of those Thumber to Thumber chats I guess, and to learn what kind of lifestyle lies behind such prolific thumbing. A lifestyle I had trouble imagining.

Well, one day in a small French town, I happened upon a copy of the Guinness Book on the shelves of a used book store. I flipped it open under "autostop" and lo and behold, there was Stephan. But there was something new as well, something not in the English versions I'd read, something useful, it read "Stephan Schlei, de Ratingen, Allemagne".

Well, I found a German phone book, and sure enough there was a Schlei in Ratingen, only one, but no Stephan. I let it ride. Months later, leaving Geneva, I reconsidered and put that phone call through. Sure enough it was Stephan's dad, and there was Stephan himself. We covered a lot of ground on the phone, and later I passed through Ratingen to see the man himself!

Imagine my surprise to see in the centre of Ratingen, the statue of three back-to-back boys, waving arms and thumbs in all directions, apparently trying to thumb a ride with each of them! What more fitting statue for the home town of the world's most travelled hitch-hiker! Called the Dumeklemmer, the boys commemerate the arrival of the holy Suitbertus in Ratingen who tried to convert the locals to Christianity. As a reward the locals jammed his thumbs in the city gates! It's said that as a consequence, the people of Ratingen have ever since been born with flat thumbs ...

As we're talking, we can hear the motorway running past his backyard, the jets taking off and landing overhead, and to add to the cacophany the facade renovations which been hammering away on this building for the last month are hammering away as well. Through the din of it, in this, Stephan's childhood home, I hear Stephan tell me, growing up in this environment left him neurotic!

He keeps a milaculously tidy room, conserves every scrap of recyclable material more fervently than the most ardent Greenie you'rve met. As fussy as he is with waste, he's unfussy about where he sleeps. Anywhere at all will do Stephan on his travels. He carries no tent, patronises no hotels, or hostels, relies on very few friends, usually just dosses out in the open, or in abandoned buildings, on a ground sheet in a sleeping bag. This, on many, many trips which occupied about two thirds of his time throughout the '90s, spending only the winters at home between tours - mostly to football games.

He's had a passion for statistics since his school years, where he kept notes on how often he said something so the teach couldn't berate him for not participating in classroom activities. That of course led to his keeping immaculate notes on his hitch-hiking excursions, which started in school when he'd hitch a ride with the local milkman to get to school in the mornings.

But he doesn't count those years, and his career as a thumber really started when he was 16 in 1972 with a hitch to Switzerland. Already before leaving school he'd hitched many times to Liverpool to see his favourite foreign football team in action and down to Iran just for a lark. From '79 to '89 he forund himself in Berlin ambling through a degree in Social and Economic Communication, and lingering some years on just taking courses for the joy of personal growth.

This passion for statistics though led him to pick up a map after every trip and calculate with miniscule precision how much ground he'd covered by thumb. He'd not include any stretches covered by bus, or even any stretches where he'd paid the driver he'd thumbed down (which happened rarely of course). Every detour though was included. Over time, he found it more difficult to recall the whole trip and took these nots underway at the end of each day. So, there were no odometeres involved, and no signatures from drivers, a simple personal log drafted from map recorded distances.

In '81 he read an article in Stern magazine about a man who, in the early '60s gave up a job in Italy and took up begging as his chosen profession. The man earned some DM120,000 (~US,000 with todays rates) in 3 years on the streets, as much as he'd earned in his earlier job, only tax-free. That inspired Stephan to give it a go. He was fascinated by the social position of beggars, could see it as a honest and valid profession much as Orwell did. So in '81 he thumbed to Rome and back with no money at all, begging in Rome, and cashing an average of DM11 per hour while there. He was impressed and since then has often employed the same strategy in his travels.

Most of his hitching, was on account of football and his passion for two clubs (Düsseldorf Fortuna and Liverpool) and a desire to visit all the stadia in Europe at least once. Just hitching back to Düsseldorf from Berlin almost every weekend (200 times in all) over the ten Berlin years clocked up and enormous distance by thumb, with regular trips to Liverpool over the years, and efforts to visit even the most obscure stadium Stephan has just about reached the million kilometre mark at which point he plans on retiring and converting his mass of journals into a book! He's already reworked some 9 years of his 19 years of journals ...

He has a passion for print rivalled by few. He's kept every newspaper clipping that relates in any way, shape or form to his person. About 50 articles from newspapers around the world, maybe 30 odd on his hithcing exploits, the rest on his soccer passions or other miscellany. He even has his birth announcement as published in the local paper, his first ever published letter to the editor and the report of a football game in which he scored a goal! He played football until he hit uni in '79.

For the record Stephan has seen 2109 live football games of a more or less professional standard to date (hitching to almost all of them), 643 Fortuna Düsseldorf games, 92 Liverpool games (28 seasons in a row once!. He's seen 1208 teams in action, on 836 playing fields in 14 FIFA countries, 34 UEFA countries (7 non-European)! He once hitched all 48 mainland states (in the U.S.A.) in 43 days, and has clocked a total of 941, 500 km so far.

How fitting that on the weekend I was there, the final of the year 2000 European Championship were playing and we watched the fervently on the television, catching one of the most spectatular finals on record as the favourites, France were nearly decimated by the Italians, who had scored 1 goal to nill by the end of the second half, and just missed another few goals by a whisker to a rather lame French defense. When a 3 minute extension was granted we all waited with baited breath, and France incredibly scored in the last minute! In the 30 minute tie breaker France went on to win, and become the only country ever to hold both the World Cup and the European Cup in the same year! Stephan ran necessarily to the window and screamed in elation with what must have been 1 million other fans worldwide, while the Italians hung their heads in sorrow ...

So, with patience we'll see Stephan reach his million, retire, publish a book, and in time perhaps see it reviewed here. This eccentric yet affable fellow dragging his weary feet across the land in pursuit of those last 60,000 km having lost his passion for thumbing, his thrill at adventure, driven only by a need for transport, and a personal goal ...

I later discovered!

An extract from the Discussions page at Suite 101 where this article appeared:

Author: The_Thumb
Date: August 15, 2000 1:57 PM
Subject:  I have a new record!

Yes in 1992, the German Guinness Book of Records, which I happened to pass on a street in Lindau, included Dieter Wesch who picked up 8519 hitchhikers! Much like Jim, only even more proficient and the German Guinness Book listed it! Of course they couldn't list Jim because it was lower, but they ought damned well continue listing Dieter!!!

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