Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 1, 2021
My 12-year-old grandson Ben still calls every night so I can read to him. We’ve been doing this for five years, starting with the Harry Potter series, which we’ve read twice. We’ve also read “The Hobbit,” two of the Redwall books, “The One and Only Ivan,” the Hunger Games series, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, “The Yearling,” “Old Yeller” and a few others neither of us can remember anymore.
Most recently we read “Shoeless Joe,” the novel which was the basis for the movie “Field of Dreams.” The story of the ghostly ballplayers who appear mysteriously on an Iowa cornfield has a special place in my cinematic heart. As a young man my dad, who taught me to love baseball, played semi-pro ball. It would’ve been in the 1920s, not much later than the phantom players in the novel. I cherish an old photo of him in his baseball uniform posed stiffly with his teammates like a still from the movie.
When we finished “Shoeless Joe” I gave Ben the book to keep and wrote on the title page, “To Ben, from Pops. Follow your dreams.” I doubt he’ll happen on the inscription anytime soon, if ever. But if he does I hope it inspires him to do something outrageous and amazing, as I was once lucky enough to do.
The time was spring of 1968. I had been living in London as a student at University College London, though to call me a student would have been a misnomer: I attended class occasionally, which was fitting because I was an “occasional student,” meaning I received no credit. Fortunately, neither my parents nor my draft board knew.
This astonishing arrangement left me free to travel, first in and around London, then to Manchester to kindle a romantic relationship with someone I had met the previous summer in New Orleans (where I had been playing my violin on the streets of the French Quarter to make enough money to get home, though that’s another adventure story), then to Paris in November and Moscow, Leningrad and Warsaw in December. The whole 16-day trip to Russia and Poland, including train travel, meals, tour guides and even entertainment, cost only $170.
For years this sort of overseas adventure had been my dream, and now by a combination of luck and grit I was living it. But the ultimate goal – the outrageous, crazy and possibly dangerous fantasy – was to hitchhike across Europe.
As I later wrote in a short story I wrote called “Wandering” based on my adventures traveling the continent, “I had no responsibilities and four hundred bucks in American Express Travelers Cheques, which I figured was plenty for eight or ten weeks of cheap youth hostels, simple food and free transportation. America’s problems – King’s assassination, ghetto uprisings, GIs fighting a jungle war, campus protests – seemed far distant, and the beguiling Old World with its festive cities and pastoral countryside beckoned.
“In my backpack was everything I needed: my passport, three pairs of clothing, a sleeping bag, a few toiletries, a Hallwag road map of Europe, a directory of European youth hostels and some guidebooks. The general idea was simple: stick out a thumb and go wherever the rides took me. I would travel six days a week and then, like God, rest on Sunday.
“That was the chief advantage of hitchhiking. Against the uncertainty of knowing where you’d wind up, the journey would be cheap, serendipitous and full of adventure.”
The joys of serendipity notwithstanding, I soon established a routine. I would stay in cheap youth hostels, where the experienced travelers would share helpful tips about good sites to visit and good places along the road to flag a ride. My rough plan was to head south through France and Spain, dip into Morocco, then head back north and east to Austria. From there, money and luck would determine my itinerary. I traveled all day every day, as if hitchhiking were a nine-to-five job, albeit the niftiest ever: sampling the world from scores of country roadsides or the passenger’s side of dozens of cars and trucks, experiencing new horizons and challenges at every turn, and meeting and often traveling with new-found companions. As I wrote in my short story, “It was part of the inimitable adventure, making friends of strangers.”
I stopped only on Sundays to rest and write home. A typical letter would review the previous week’s adventures and reassure my parents that everything was fine, that accepting rides from people I didn’t know, thousands of miles from home, often in a country whose language I didn’t speak, was the most normal and marvelous thing to do – which to me it was.
The first Sunday I washed up in Biarritz, a seaside resort town in southwestern France, and the following week made my way over the border and south to Madrid, where I spent a few days, and then, with a female companion I had met in Paris the previous November, headed down to Gibraltar. At the remote North African border town of Ceuta, Diana and I were surprised to be escorted off the Tangier-bound bus. No explanation was offered. We tried again the next day. She made it through, I did not.
Three or four days later, heading north along Spain’s Costa del Sol, I was dropped off at a beach near Marbella. Amazingly, I spotted Diana strolling near the water! She had felt isolated and vulnerable by herself in Tangier, she informed me, and had fled Morocco after 48 hours. We traveled together several more days, marveling at the wonders of Granada and the stranger-than-fiction coincidence of meeting up again, then parted company for good.
I continued alone through northeastern Spain and across the French Riviera, northern Italy, Switzerland and southern Germany, spending a few days in Munich. Next stop: Salzburg, then Vienna, to visit Mozart and Beethoven. Or so I thought.
But getting a ride on the Autobahn east of Munich proved almost impossible. Hour after hour I persisted, the cars whizzing by so fast they probably couldn’t even see me. In any case (I later learned), hitchhiking on the Autobahn was illegal. When a squad car marked “Polizei” honked at me from the other side of the divided highway, I knew it was time to head back to the nearest town. Just then a beat-up old VW pulled over and the driver swung open the passenger’s side door. “Where you headed?” he asked in a light German accent as I got in. When I told him Austria he looked at me, smiled and said, “Want to go to Israel?”
It took me about a nanosecond to accept. As we headed south, Wolf related his story. He was a Berlin veterinarian who had given up an office practice to follow his dream, of which this was the first leg: to travel around the world. Along the way we’d pick up other hitchhikers, whose names and home addresses he’d duly write down in a little notebook so he could visit them if he ever came to their city. There were often two or three of us jammed inside his ancient double-clutch Beetle. We’d stop for lunch at a picturesque town where we’d make sandwiches from fresh bread filled with slices of cheese and sandwich meats, washed down with white wine. Wolf insisted we eat along the bank of some lazy river. It made for an idyllic little traveling party.
We mostly bypassed the coastal super highways, preferring the secondary inland roads, where sometimes we’d have to wait for herds of sheep and goats to cross both lanes.
We spent a few days in Belgrade so a local friend who owed Wolf money could convert dinars to Western currency, then continued down to Greece. It was there, on the road cresting a hillside just north of Athens, where I first saw the Acropolis, an unforgettable sight. That evening we partied in the Plaka, the entertainment district below the Parthenon, before driving next morning to the port town of Piraeus, from whence we sailed to Haifa.
In Jerusalem I reconnected with a dear college friend who let me sleep in her dorm room at Hebrew University. My two weeks in Israel, especially the time I spent in the Old City of Jerusalem, were fantastic, except for a brief scare when a Tel Aviv cab driver dropped me off and then zoomed off with my backpack, passport and cash inside his trunk. Fortunately I located him at a cab stand a few blocks away.
But there was a bigger problem. My journey to and from Israel – the ship from Piraeus to Haifa, the plane back to Athens, the ferry from Piraeus to Brindisi, the train from Brindisi to Rome – entailed major outlays of cash, so much so that I managed to burn through all the rest of my Traveler’s Cheques and was broke by the time we arrived in Roma Termini Station. I surrendered my passport at a pensione near the train station and waited for the American Express office to open next morning, expecting a fresh infusion of cash from home. But when I got there I discovered, opening my mail, that there was no money. I managed to borrow 2,000 lire to call home. My dad told me he had, as requested, wired $150 four days earlier. Sure enough, when I returned to the American Express office in the afternoon, the cash was waiting for me!
After that, flush with my newfound wealth, I luxuriated in Rome and Florence before taking an overnight bus back to London. I flew home to Chicago in time for the Democratic convention in August. But that’s yet another story.
There were times before I left Chicago to begin my fabulous odyssey that I questioned the wisdom of it. Living alone in London? Hitchhiking through Europe? Missing a year of school? It all seemed so extravagant, so far-fetched, so impractical. And it meant sacrificing all the comforts of home, including the great meals and the warm company of friends and family.
But there was that dream, and the dream buoyed me up and energized me and changed my life. I knew after returning home that I had pulled off the trip of a lifetime.
There have been many adventures since, of course, but none so vivid and memorable as that spring and summer over half a century ago hitchhiking through Europe chasing my dream.