Hitchin’ a Ride

Hitchhiking seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years. My husband Douglas and I hitchhiked whenever possible when we were travelling in the Eighties not only because it was a free means of transportation, but also because it afforded us the opportunity to meet people and go places we would otherwise have missed.

When we were hitching in New Zealand in 1985 we rarely had to wait more than an hour before some kindly Kiwi would pick us up. One day, however, we ended up standing at the side of the road for almost two hours with only a flock of sheep for company (not surprising in a country with 22 sheep per person). Eventually Douglas got bored and started noodling around on his harmonica as he was wont to do. We are all familiar with the saying, ‘Music soothes the savage beast’, and my experience on the side of the road in New Zealand that day confirmed that music also mesmerizes the docile and stupid beast. The sheep all looked up at Douglas and headed towards him as soon as he started playing, as though being pulled by a tractor beam. I have a picture of them all bunched together on the other side of a fence looking raptly back at use. It was hilarious and kind of touching at the same time. It’s always nice to connect with animals, whatever the reason.

Eventually a man picked us up. We started talking and soon learned that he ran a sheep station (surprise, surprise). He kindly offered us room and board for the night which we gratefully accepted. I asked him how he had chosen his job, and he launched into a long tale which reminded me of “It’s a Wonderful Life” recast on a New Zealand sheep farm with our host George – a name I’ve given him for the sake of the analogy – and his younger brother Harry. His father, who had run the station for decades, had died about five years previous. George had agreed to manage the place while his younger brother went off to university in England, and then Harry was supposed to return to take care of things allowing George the opportunity to go off and see the world. George was currently waiting for his brother to come back, but hadn’t heard from him in some time and was beginning to worry that Harry might not hold up his end of the bargain.

We came around a curve at this particular point in the story and had to stop to allow a large flock of sheep to cross the road, a common occurrence when driving through New Zealand. I was about to ask George if it would really be so bad to continue living and working at the station when suddenly he slammed his hands on the wheel and said in a quiet voice dripping with disdain, “I hate ficken’ sheep!” (New Zealanders pronounce most vowels with a short “i” sound, turning Douglas’s cousins Pam and Dennis into “Pim” and “Dinnis”.) So that answered that question.

We headed to Australia after New Zealand and bought a used van to make our way around, putting us in a position to help out other hitchhikers. We picked up a Japanese fellow just as we were heading into the Outback. His name was Seiji, a name I remember because I tagged it with that of famous conductor Seiji Ozawa. Australia was his first stop on the year-long, round-the-world trip he was taking before heading back to Japan to attend university in his hometown of Tokyo. Seiji’s English was very good although he had a fairly pronounced Japanese accent.

We made idle chit-chat for a while and then fell into silence. We ran out of things to discuss once we’d laid out our respective travel plans, and there was nothing worth talking about in the monotonous landscape. At some point later in the afternoon I noticed an especially large termite mound by the side of the road. I commented on it and asked Seiji if he could see it. There was no reply. I turned in my seat to ask the question again and saw Seiji sitting frozen, eyes wide and jaw dropped, staring out the window. After I said his name a few more times, he slowly turned to me and said in his heavily accented voice, “So mucha space! So mucha space!” He had spent the whole of his life in one of the most heavily populated cities in the world, and the vast emptiness of the Outback was freaking him out. I tried to reassure him that he was safe, and although he did calm down somewhat, he was clearly uncomfortable the rest of his time with us.

A few months after leaving Australia we were hitching in a mountainous part of Italy. European cars are much smaller than those in North America, presumably because gas is so much more expensive there. Eventually we were picked up by a woman driving a car which was small even by European standards. It was customary for me to sit in the passenger seat when we were picked up in non-English speaking countries because Douglas was absolutely tone-deaf when it came to foreign languages. He once ordered a bottle of sparkling water using words from three different languages. The waiter, much to his credit, didn’t laugh at Doug’s mistake but rather promptly went and got the item he actually wanted.

We got into the Italian woman’s tiny car and I sat next to the driver as usual after Douglas had crammed himself and our bags into the back. The hilly terrain was already proving difficult for the car’s small engine, and our added weight made upward progress even more problematic. The embarrassed driver kept turning to me and saying, “Che macchina!” (“what a car”) while rolling her eyes in exasperation at her gutless vehicle. We soon found ourselves repeatedly rocking back and forth on our seats in an attempt to spur the car forward, much like the motion one uses to get a reluctant toboggan started down a snowy hill. I don’t know if our furious movements made any difference to the car’s progress, but we all certainly felt better for trying.

Late that afternoon we drove into a small village that Douglas and I had never heard of. It was quite lovely and as we had no set timetable, we decided to stay for a while. We settled into a charming family-run hotel and headed out for dinner. The piazza (town square) was at the end of the first street we went down, and it was abuzz with activity. Men were setting up chairs and long tables on which women were laying out plates and cutlery along with huge platters and bowls overflowing with food. Several TVs were set up on tall platforms around the edge of the square. Douglas and I must have looked completely bemused because a kind gentleman stopped to explain in serviceable English that Italy was playing a very important soccer match that night and the whole town was coming out to watch. He then recommended a restaurant where we could get a good but not overly expensive meal, and we wished his team luck as we headed off to eat.

The trattoria he’d suggested was tiny, containing only a dozen small tables. The waitress, who it turned out co-owned the place with her husband the cook, encouraged us get the house specialty and we gratefully took her suggestion. It’s always difficult to know what to order from a menu written in a foreign language. First came an absolutely delicious, freezing cold and fruity white wine that was bottled in-house, along with a warm loaf of crusty bread and a small dish of herbed olive oil. Next came an olive, greens and tomato salad topped with shavings of a local cheese which, the waitress informed us, was famous all over Italy. The entrée was a creamy, savoury pasta topped with salty ham, fresh green peas and nutty parmesan, and for dessert a refreshingly tart orange gelato with a decadent double-chocolate biscotti on the side. I describe this meal in detail because it definitely ranks among the best dinners I’ve ever had, rivalling anything I have eaten in the many fine restaurants I’ve visited over the years. All of this in a little town we would never have known existed were it not for hitchhiking.

We strolled through the winding streets back to the piazza after dinner, and stepped into a scene of utter despair. People were cheerlessly disassembling all the trappings of the expectant celebration we had encountered mere hours earlier. Clearly Italy had lost the match. The next morning we headed out to explore the town and ended up visiting a small church which stood above every other building in the village. The church was cool and damp with paintings scattered throughout of various saints being persecuted. In other words it was a typical Italian church except for one noteworthy difference. There was a niche in the wall off to one side of the altar containing a rectangular glass box, about 30cm wide by 1m tall, lavishly adorned with gold filigree. Inside the box was a small piece of bone, the length of a clothespin although much thinner, nestled in the centre of a tasselled deep-burgundy velvet pillow. This, according to local lore, was a hand bone from a saint, although I forget which one. Once a year the village held a festa (festival) for the saint which involved parading the relic through the streets then sharing a huge celebratory feast. If you’ve watched the scene in “The Godfather, Pt. 2” that culminates in Robert De Niro killing the don in the white suit, then you have a pretty good idea of what an Italian festa looks like. I could believe that the bone in the box was human, but there was no reliable proof that it had come from a saint. Its provenance hinged on a story which had been orally passed down the generations from parent to child, and that was good enough for the townsfolk. Faith is a baffling thing.

Our first foray into hitchhiking occurred four years previous to our trip to Italy when we had visited France. At one point Douglas and I were hitching through the Massif Central, a very old volcanic mountain range, when we were picked up by three pimpled, gangly teenagers in an old Citroën which was more rust than car. The roads were extremely windy and the young man driving began taking the curves at a patently unsafe speed. Douglas and I cried out in alarm as we careened along, and all three young men reacted with peals of derisive laughter to our growing concern. I asked the driver in French to please slow down, and he responded by shooting me a mischievous smile and then speeding up. After another minute or so of this increasingly dangerous situation, Douglas had had enough. He barked for the driver to stop in his most authoritative voice, and seeing as he had several inches and a good thirty pounds of muscle on the driver and both his scrawny mates, our cowed chauffeur meekly pulled over and let us out.

The next car to pick us up was a Citroën as well, but this one was brand new. The whole car lowered when in park to allow easier entry, and then rose up when put in drive to improve the suspension and make for a smoother ride. It had a sage-green finish buffed to a sparkling sheen and, much to our delight, incredibly comfortable plush white leather seats. The driver looked to be middle aged and monied, sporting slicked-back hair, a well-tended moustache, and a tailored suit. This ride proved infinitely smoother than the one we had just experienced in the young man’s heap. We were probably going as fast as we had been in the previous car but didn’t feel the least bit unsafe owing to the expertise of the driver and the maneuverability of the vehicle. The driver clearly didn’t want to talk, choosing rather to periodically exchange silent smiles with me. We were both soundlessly acknowledging our gratitude for his beautifully engineered car and the wonderful drive we were sharing.

Later that month Douglas and I were making our way to Paris when we were picked up by a truck. There were three lavender air fresheners hanging in the cab – one on each visor and another on the rear view mirror. Now I like lavender as much as the next guy, but the floral smell was so intense it almost caused us to choke. We learned in fairly short order that the driver smoked but couldn’t stand the smell of cigarettes, and that he most likely had OCD. Every time he lit up he would open his window about a third of the way down, letting in a blast of cold air, and then hold his lit cigarette outside the cab. Each drag was short and intense, and he would blow the smoke out the window through the corner of his mouth, keeping his eyes glued to the road and his hand so tight around the wheel that his knuckles literally turned white. When he was done he would throw the butt on the road and then frantically close the window. Evidently he could still detect traces of dreaded cigarette fumes in the cab because he would immediately reach under his seat and pull out a can of lavender air freshener which he sprayed liberally around. We had planned to take this ride all the way into Paris, but the overwhelming floral smell was so noxious and the driver so intensely odd that we bailed out at the side of a deserted road over 100 kilometres outside the city.

Douglas and I realized as soon as our feet hit the pavement that the chances of getting a ride this late in the day on such a quiet road were slim to none. We dejectedly hitched our bags up on our backs and started to walk, hoping to come upon some kind of habitation before the sun set. Only a couple cars passed us in the next half hour or so, but neither stopped to pick us up. Eventually we heard another lone car coming up from behind, so we half-heartedly stuck out our thumbs. It drove some distance past us and then pulled over and stopped on the shoulder up ahead. A man stepped out of the car and began walking towards us. He looked vaguely familiar, but was far enough away that we couldn’t yet make out his features. As he got closer we could hear him calling out to us by name. How was that possible?!

Eventually the approaching man coalesced into the form of Douglas’s younger brother Robert. He was also travelling in Europe, although last we’d heard he was making his way around Portugal. Robert had begun hitching northward from Lisbon the previous week and had just picked up this ride to Paris about half an hour before seeing us on the side of the road. They had been driving quickly enough that he hadn’t been able to make out our faces, but the 10 inch disparity in our heights had registered somewhere in his brain, prompting him to yell at the driver to stop. She asked us, after taking Douglas and I into the car, if we had set up this rendezvous, and was as gobsmacked as we were that our meeting happened completely by chance. The odds against us leaving the truck at exactly that place and time, and then of Robert driving by at exactly that place and time, must be infinitesimally small. This unlikely incident remains the greatest coincidence I have experienced in my entire life.

I never see hitchhikers on the side of the road anymore and it’s been at least 15 years since I picked up my last group of them. They were three young adults – two women and a man – huddled at the side of the road holding a hand-drawn “Toronto” sign. I initially had been fully prepared to go past my exit and take them to the 401 so they’d have a straight shot to the city, but wound up choosing not to because they clearly hadn’t washed in quite a while and were extremely stinky. It was some days after our encounter before their gamey smell fully left my car. I’m not sure why people don’t hitch as much as they used to. Perhaps all the TV shows, movies and social media dealing with horrible people doing unspeakable things to one another has something to do with it. I am just grateful that I lived in a time when lots of us were out there hitchin’ a ride. My life has been enriched enormously by the people and out- of-the-way places I got to experience because of it.

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