Take advantage of opportunities when you have them. And when you don’t, find them.
Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 28,2020
It’s a pleasant afternoon in late May 1968, and I’m standing on the shoulder of the Autobahn, trying desperately to flag a ride. I’m about an hour east of Munich waving my thumb at every passing VW, Porsche and Audi. But it’s been hours since my last lift and I’ve had no luck on this stretch of super highway. No one’s even slowed down to check me out. Hey, I’m not too disreputable looking—even with my scruffy beard and long hair.
Now the polizei have waved me off the road and might even return to issue me a ticket—or worse. Bummer!
Things had started well enough in late April, taking the ferry across the English Channel from Newhaven to Dieppe. Hitchhiking through Europe had always been a dream of mine, and now I was about to make it happen, far away from and floating serenely above America’s awful war and riotous traumas. I would go where the rides took me, generally south and then east, traveling six days a week and resting like God on Sundays. I’d stay at the excellent and highly affordable youth hostels scattered throughout the continent. This was to be the capstone of my “gap year.”
Technically, it was a junior year abroad, which thus far I had spent at University College London and traveling through England—first to East Anglia to visit A.S. Neill at the famous Summerhill School and then Manchester to reconnect with a med student I had met the previous summer in New Orleans. In November I spent a wet, gray weekend in Paris and at yearend joined a student group traveling by train to Moscow, Leningrad and Warsaw. There was a quick side trip back to Chicago in early April to re-register at the U. of I. Circle Campus (where I saw Jeeps loaded with National Guard troops heading to the west side after Martin Luther King’s assassination) and then back to London to say goodbye to the wonderful English family where I had been boarding, and, finally, at last, to hit the road.
I had my passport, backpack, sleeping bag, map of Europe, a few changes of clothing and enough money to travel 10 weeks on a budget of $25 a week. Mostly I had pluck.
The early going in northwestern France had been wonderful, luxuriating in the beautiful Normandy countryside and lovely spring weather, rarely waiting long for rides. There was an easy camaraderie at the youth hostels where other young people were doing the same thing I was—traveling the continent, meeting friendly locals, taking in the sights and exchanging useful hitchhiking tips about good locations and proper protocol.
Over the next few weeks I made steady progress through southwestern France, then Spain, Italy, Switzerland and southern Germany. There had been some amazing adventures along the way. In Madrid I connected with Diane, a college language student from Dallas, and we decided to hitchhike through southern Spain and catch the ferry to Morocco, then a popular destination with hippies (who were familiar with Paul Bowles’ books and had heard Crosby, Stills & Nash’s jaunty tune “Marrakesh Express,” which exactly expressed my sentiments: “Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind, had to get away to see what we could find”). Gibraltar was fun and we were excited to cross the Straits, but alas—disappointment! With no explanation Moroccan border guards at Ceuta turned me back but allowed my traveling companion into the country. We waved a final goodbye as she disappeared onto the bus bound some 50 miles southwest for Tangier. But several days later, in one of those you-gotta-be-kidding coincidences, I spotted her on a beach in Malaga. Turns out Diane had only stayed there one day: being a single female traveler hadn’t worked out so well. We teamed up again to visit Granada and environs. By early June I had arrived in Munich, a beautiful city torn up with construction for the 1972 Summer Olympics.
My plan from there was to head east to Austria, to see Mozart and Beethoven’s birthplaces. A few rides east on the Autobahn put me halfway to Salzburg when my luck ran out. The problem with the Autobahn is that cars are streaking by at speeds well over 100 MPH, almost too fast to see a hitchhiker on the shoulder, let alone pull over. Also, it’s illegal to pick up riders, a fact that became abundantly clear when a police care, marked “Polizei,” honked at me from the other side of the divided highway. I assumed it would be coming back so I quickly shouldered my backpack and started walking toward the nearest town.
That’s when a beat-up old Volkswagen convertible pulled over. “Where you headed?” the genial blonde German driver asked in good English. When I replied Salzburg, he said, “I’m going to Israel. Want to come along?”
So for the next two weeks Wolf, a Berlin veterinarian planning to travel around the world, and I and a handful of other young hitchhikers he’d also picked up, slowly made our way south through Yugoslavia and Greece. Midday every day we’d stop in some small town and buy bread, cheese, meat and wine and enjoy lunch by some local river. It was bliss to be alive, as Wordsworth said, but to be young was very awesome! Also awesome was the moment we crested a hill just north of Athens and got our first glimpse of the Acropolis. Our subsequent visit there was a highlight of the trip.
Finally we boarded a ship in the nearby port city of Piraeus and three days later (including a stop in Cyprus) landed in Haifa.
Welcome to Israel! Walking the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem was like a time machine spanning 2,000 years. I stayed two weeks with a friend from Chicago who was studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and made side trips to Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, Tiberias and the Dead Sea. With the help of a young rabbi I prayed at the Western Wall.
There was one big problem with my detour to the Holy Land, however. I hadn’t figured on traveling so far beyond the reach and cost-effectiveness of my thumb, so when I started heading back, first by plane to Athens, then ferry to Brindisi, then train to Rome, I burned through all the rest of my American Express Traveler’s Cheques. I was broke by the time I got to the Eternal City. My parents had promised to help out, but when I showed up at the American Express office to collect my mail, there was no money waiting for me. I had to borrow 2,000 lire to call home. The money had been sent three days earlier, my father assured me. Sure enough, when I returned to American Express that afternoon, $100 was waiting for me. I was king of the world!
The rest of the trip was pleasant enough, meeting young American travelers in Rome with their ubiquitous “Europe on $5 a Day” guide books and visiting the famous sights. Then I returned by train via Florence to London and flew home in time to protest the Vietnam War in Grant Park during the Democratic Convention in August. I even managed to meet Abbie and Jerry in person and get tear-gassed on south Michigan Avenue.
So this was my “gap year.” It was a “gap” in the sense that my normal progress through college was interrupted, since I got no academic credit for auditing classes at University College (thankfully neither my parents nor my draft board knew that at the time). But it was the best education anyone could have asked for, seeing the world and figuring out how to surmount the challenges of getting from place to place safely and negotiate the hundreds of decisions and difficulties that ensue when traveling on your own.
In Biarritz, France, near the Spanish border, where I washed up the first Sunday of my trip, I wrote my parents: “I am very thankful I plucked up the courage and initiative to make this trip. I have a tremendous feeling of freedom and joy of life…It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and who is to say I’ll ever be freer or happier?”
Why do I resurrect this long-ago journey, this once-in-a-lifetime experience? Partly it’s the joy of recalling it, seeing again in memory the evenings spent gabbing in the hostels, the fabulous sights (cathedrals, museums, famous buildings and streets), the gracious people, the occasionally perilous situations (broke and starving from Athens to Rome). And partly to remind myself (and others) to take advantage of these opportunities when you have them. And when you don’t, to find them.