I think the last time I stuck my thumb out on the side of a road I must have been about 22 years old. A friend and I were hiking in the far north of Scotland, the stretch of coast that runs from Wick in the east to Cape Wrath in the west. One night we camped beside a small loch near the Kyle of Tongue. We woke up the next morning to find the landscape littered with dead birds. There were thousands of ‘em, mostly seagulls. This was about 6 days after Chernobyl reactor No.4 blew its lid in the Ukraine. We thought it would be prudent to get out of the area as quickly as possible, so instead of walking the 15 miles or so down to Loch Eriboll we hitched. We got a lift from an old boy driving an ancient car (a Riley, I think). This part of Scotland has an undulating landscape, and everytime the car crested a hill the old boy turned the engine off and coasted down the other side, restarting again when we met the next gradient. “Petrol is very expensive, laddies,” he explained.
At the opposite end of the UK, and five years earlier, my cousin Andre and I hitchhiked down to Lands End in Cornwall, the most westerly point of mainland Britain. We pitched tent. It rained non-stop. Back then there wasn’t much at Lands End; just fields that tumbled rockily into the sea and a pub and a general store, both called ‘The First and the Last’. That evening we went to the pub to dry out and get drunk.
The next morning we awoke to discover that it was raining. We also discovered that we had a new neighbour: a small blue tent had been erected during the night.
“Allo boys.” He was fresh-faced with short brown hair. He wore a blue raincoat, presumably to match his tent. “My name was Wolfgang.” His English, whilst not perfect, was understandable.
We invited him in, a bad move considering the closet-like size of the tent. After some moments, during which our tiny stove got knocked over, we managed to fit ourselves around each other. At sixteen years old, Wolfgang was only slightly younger than us. He came from Dortmund and was walking the coast on his own. He appeared to be dying of terminal loneliness.
“We are having jolly time boys.”
The rain hammered against the tent. We righted the stove and got a brew going. There is nothing nicer in a damp tent than the heat from a gas stove. We turned on our cassette player and listened to David Bowie. Wolfgang put his shoulders back and puffed out his chest. His head nearly went through the roof of the tent.
“Do you have rock sex?” He lifted his eyebrows up and down and smiled. Andre and I looked at each other, startled. “You have rock sex, ya?” Wolfgang began making humping movements with his shoulders, then mimicked exhaustion before smiling again. The tent walls flapped as we began edging away from Wolfgang. Bowie sang Moonage Daydream.
Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe
Put your ray gun to my head
Press your space face close to mine, love
Freak out in a moonage daydream oh yeah!
When Wolfgang saw our reaction his young face dropped in disapointment. “You must have rock sex. I have rock sex.”
Then the penny dropped.
“Ah, rucksacks!” said Andre.
“Ya! ya! r-u-c-k-s-a-c-k-s.” He said it slowly, trying to get the pronounciation right.
“They’re outside, under the fly sheet.”
The following year I had another cramped, uncomfortable experience, this time in the French Alps. I was travelling with Mark and we were thumbing for a lift on a remote mountain road. Back in the day, the sort of people who would pick up hitchhikers invariably had small and/or beat-up vehicles. A small, beat-up white Renault 4 stopped for us. It contained a lot of luggage and we had great difficulty getting ourselves and our rucksacks into the back seat. The young Frenchman behind the wheel chain-smoked Gauloises and drove very fast along the narrow, twisting roads. We were coming out of the mountains, so it was quite literally downhill all the way. The Alps whizzed by. Our driver also liked to talk a lot. What with the actions of smoking and gesticulating, his hands were often not on the steering wheel.
Risking life and limb with bad drivers was part of the hitchhiking experience. I used to find that the best way to deal with it was to look out of the side window, and to keep your gaze fixed firmly there. Whatever you do don’t look ahead, or a panic attack might ensue. This particular white-knuckle ride lasted for forty minutes, then we screeched to a halt outside the station in Bourg-en-Bresse. Mark and I are both six-footers. We’d been crammed into the back seat of that Renault 4. Half way through the journey I started to get pins and needles in my legs. Now my legs had gone numb and I found I couldn’t move them. Mark was in a similar situation.
Due to all the luggage in the car, only one door was available. Mark had to go first. With a swinging motion, and using his rucksack as a counterbalance, he managed to get through the tiny door and upright on his feet. His legs instantly gave way and he fell down on to the cobblestones. Mark was now blocking my exit, and the young Frenchmen was getting impatient. I hissed at Mark to get out of the way. He did this by dragging himself and his rucksack along the ground. With the way clear I got out of the car by sort of rolling off the back seat, and unlike Mark I didn’t even make it to my feet. Me and my rucksack lay in a heap. I tried to reach the door handle, but was unable to. The young Frenchmen leaned over from the front seat and pulled the door closed. He gave us a wave and burnt rubber.
We were left in the middle of a busy roadway, unable to stand up. Cars tooted and swerved to avoid us. People stopped and stared. To reach the pavement and station building we had to drag ourselves across a bus lane and a taxi rank. Once on the pavement it took some minutes before sensation returned to our legs.
A big part of the hitchhiking experience is the people you meet. Andre and I were once hitching in the south of France, on the road between St Tropez and Cannes. It was a glorious summer’s day and we were standing in a long lay-by. We faced green hills with all those million dollar homes. Behind us was the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. There were other people hitching and we were at the head of the queue. Second in line was a young Dutch guy, behind him a woman and a girl who looked like mother and daughter, and behind them a man in his thirties who swigged from a wine bottle.
The woman and the girl drew everyone’s attention. The girl was very pretty, but more than anything it was the way they were dressed. Both of them were wearing very glamorous clothes, and despite the summer heat the woman had on a fur jacket that looked like it was worth more than many of the cars passing us by. Contrary to popular belief, hitchhiking is a relatively safe way of getting around; or at least, it was back then. However, dressed like that the woman and the girl were just asking to become a crime statistic. They looked like they were about to attend the Oscar night.
The Côte d’azur was always one of the more difficult places in which to hitch a ride, and even with that pretty young girl standing there we had to wait more than half an hour before a van pulled into the lay-by. The van stopped beside the Dutch guy, who deferred to the rules of the road and waited for us to walk down and claim the ride. Behind the wheel of the van we discovered Charles Manson’s brother. On the seat beside him were two young hippy chicks. Charles Manson’s brother spoke English with a pan-European accent. His eyes were two dark pinpricks of marijuana. We told him we were heading for Cannes. Charly boy told us to hop into the back of the van. We pulled the rear doors open and found three other people already sitting in there. Going by the rucksacks and worried look on their faces, they were obviously fellow hitchhikers. We climbed in and made to close the doors. Charly leaned over from the front seat and told us to hold it. The young Dutchman got in the van, followed by the woman and girl. We had to reverse back down the lay-by before the guy with the wine bottle got the message.
We hit the road. The air became filled with exotic smoke and Jefferson Airplane. In the back of the van we all started trying to talk to each other in four different languages. The wino passed his bottle around. Everyone lit-up a cigarette. Andre pulled the small camping stove from his rucksack and began making a cup of tea. I fetched up sitting next to the woman with the fur jacket. Her body pressed against mine with abrupt familiarity. She introduced herself as Eva and spoke very bad English with a thick, almost theatrical east European accent. The girl was her daughter and was indeed incredibly beautiful, with long, naturally blonde hair, perfect slavic bone structure, a neat row of teeth enclosed by sensual strawberry lips, and the sort of blue eyes that you could lose yourself in. But more than beauty, the girl had a certain formality and good manners. There was an aura about her that set her apart from the rest of us.
Andre poured out the tea. We were all fascinated as we watched perfection drink from a cup. The girl thanked Andre with a devastating smile. Eva told me that they were from Cracow and had been in Paris and were now on their way back to Poland. Everytime Eva spoke to me she gripped my arm and stared into my eyes, as though some kind of answer lay within them. It was never fully explained why they were returning home the long way round, via the south of France, or indeed why they were hitchhiking.
The two hippy chicks giggled a lot and kept glancing shyly at the nine people in the back of the van. Charles Manson’s brother remained silent and concentrated on the driving. He was probably trying to stay awake, which meant that just for a change we had a slow ride. The sun shone through the windows on the rear doors, making pretty patterns in the cigarette smoke. Grace Slick did her stuff…
One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall
Eva sipped tea and in her excruciating English she told us that they had enjoyed Paris and met many men and her daughter was a princess, a Polish princess. At the word ‘princess’ the girl gave us another devastating smile. It made me tingle all over.
We assumed that ‘princess’ was an affectionate term for the young girl; but no, she really was a princess, by marriage. Eva tried to tell us about an ancient European royal family and how her daughter had been connected to it. Eva’s English just wasn’t up to it; but we did understand the past tense. Perhaps this explained why two such incongruous people were hitchhiking. Andre and I never had a chance to get to the bottom of the mystery because we’d reached our stop. Eva gave me a long, emotional farewell hug, as though we had known each other for thirty years instead of thirty minutes.
We were dropped off on the outskirts of Cannes. Most of the hitchers in the van were going on to Nice, some to Italy. Eva and her daughter were going all the way to eastern Europe. Charles Manson’s brother did not seem to know or care where he was going, and would probably end-up in Cracow after picking up and dropping off hundreds more hitchhikers.
We watched the strange cargo of humanity pull away. Our heads began to clear after all the smoke in the van. Andre giggled. It was the first time he had made tea for a princess.
From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon or Smashwords – note: Smashwords offers a wide range of ebook formats, including Kindle and PDF.