Jul 172015

In 1967 and ’68 I boarded with an English family while studying history at University College in London. But mostly I traveled. I started out hiking the city, miles and miles a day, for London, with its crazy-quilt streets and magnificent Victorian neighborhoods, was a walker’s paradise. After I had London mapped out I took the train to Manchester to romance a girl I had met the year before in New Orleans, and when that didn’t work out I widened the circle, first to Paris over a long weekend in the fall, then to Germany, Russia and Poland over the long winter break.   Swapping traveling for classes was just fine with me, as long as my draft board and my parents didn’t find out. After all, I figured, there’s no better education than wandering free, meeting people and seeing the world.

In March I caught a cheap flight to Chicago to reconnect with my family and re-enroll at the University of Illinois, then flew back to London, packed a backpack, took a train to the south coast, and crossed the English Channel on a boat from New Haven to Dieppe, a four-hour, 90-mile crossing. This was it, the trip I had been thinking about for years, hitchhiking through Europe.

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 map of Europe, a directory of European youth hostels and some guidebooks. The general idea was simple: stick out my 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.

Of course, even hitchhikers willing to go where the rides take them usually have a rough destination in mind. My plan was to go south, toward warmer weather. From Dieppe I would travel down along the French coast to Spain, then sail over to Morocco. High up on the charts of the late ’60s was a pop song called Marrakesh Express (“Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind / Had to get away to see what we could find”), which made Morocco seem exotic and intriguing. Discovery – both self and geographic – was the point of the trip.

From Morocco I’d continue up the east coast of Spain and head northeast through northern Italy and Switzerland to southern Germany. From there I expected to go to Salzburg and Vienna (Mozart and Beethoven country), then to Budapest, and down through Italy to Florence and Rome. After that I guessed I’d be out of time and money, ready to get back to London and fly home.

On the boat across the English Channel I met a Scotsman named Paul, and two girls from California who had bought a van in England. They planned to travel around the continent and then finance the trip by selling the van. Their first stop was Rouen, and they invited Paul and me to join them. We landed at Dieppe about 4 p.m. The weather was cool but sparkling crisp, with the smack of sea salt in the air.

Ordinarily I’m pretty calm, even phlegmatic, but this afternoon I was in an almost frenzied state of excitement. After dreaming about and planning this excursion for years, here I was, finally – in France, on European soil, off to parts unknown! While the French customs agent poked around in my bag I imagined distant ports in faraway places, many weeks and miles down the road.

“Oui, oui, off with you,” the agent said in surprising English, and the four of us boarded the little camper van and turned onto Highway 27. Rouen was where Joan of Arc ended her miraculous journey, famous also for its magnificent cathedral whose spire juts above the French plains and dominates the countryside for miles, the same cathedral where Emma Bovary began her momentous affair.

The youth hostel, where I planned to spend the night, was on Rue Diderot, and after stopping for directions, the three travelers dropped me off nearby in the center of town. They had extended an invitation to join them at a nice hotel, and though I was tempted, I knew it would be more in keeping with the spirit of my journey – and a lot cheaper – to stay in a hostel dorm. But as I said goodbye and good luck to them and their van sped off, I was struck with a sharp sense of loss. We had spent less than a day together, but all of us shared the same sense of exhilaration and wanderlust. We were certain this trip would be our best opportunity to see the continent. The older you got, we agreed, the more difficult and then impossible it became to drop everything and go slumming through distant capitals. There was also a more practical regret, a pang of envy: would Paul spend the night with the girls?

After checking in at the hostel, where an ancient hostess informed me “ze door ees locked exactly een the tenth hour,” I set off for dinner and a little sight-seeing. By 9:30, tired and mindful of ze closing time, I returned to the hostel and unrolled my sleeping bag along one of the upper bunks at the far corner of the men’s dorm.

At the other end, young men were talking quietly, their shadows bouncing off the walls from the flickering light of a solitary candle someone had lit. The comforting sound of English drifted over to me, and I joined the group.

There were several Americans, two Englishmen, one considerably older than the other, and a handful of Western Europeans. It was just a chance meeting of a dozen travelers, mostly strangers to each other, each coming from some distant spot and heading off in the morning to another distant spot, drawn together for a quiet evening of sharing advice and swapping stories.

The younger Brit, swarthy and stocky with a neatly trimmed beard, described a long and roundabout trip he had made from Brussels. It had started off spectacularly well, getting a ride from a French fashion model to Lille, just over the border. At that point she was turning south, to Paris. He was heading further west, to Cherbourg, where a college friend of his lived, but he was tempted to stay with the model and take the ride to Paris. “I thought it would be easy to get a ride out of Paris to Evreaux or Caen, and then I would take a train or bus to Cherbourg. But a funny thing happened. There was at that moment a good deal of truck traffic crossing the highway going west, and I thought, ‘Ah, I’ll get a ride easy.’ Of course I didn’t,” he said ruefully. Instead the intersection quieted and remained nearly deserted for hours. Finally he walked the 20 kilometers to a little French town called Arras, where he stopped for some coffee and a sandwich. “It just so happened the man sitting next to me, drinking a beer, was coming here for the night, and he gave me a lift. What a spot of luck.”

Someone said this was the typical lot of a hitchhiker, bad luck followed by good, or more often the other way round. One man told of coming from Paris (just 130 kilometers away, a poor day of hitchhiking); others from Lyon and Bordeaux to the south. A German had sailed on the same ferryboat as I had, coming down from London. He had his bicycle with him, and was planning to pedal to Paris the next day and then make his way to Spain before turning back. Like most of the others he was a student on holiday.

Except for the older Brit, a Brummie we learned later, because he was from Birmingham, who was pony-tailed and gray-haired, none of us was over 25, and we were all traveling on tight budgets. Economy was a point of pride as well as a necessity, and it dominated the conversation, along with the best routes and locations for rides and other tips.      Traveling with a female companion was considered the best method of hitchhiking (though none of us were), and the ideal was to latch onto a pair of young American girls with a van who were willing to chauffeur you around at your pleasure. I realized I had stumbled onto something very much like this my first day out, and without realizing how lucky I was had stumbled right off.

We considered what appeal hitchhiking might have for people who could afford to travel more conventionally – here we were speaking hypothetically, since none of us could afford the luxury – and agreed that meeting new people was a plus. Of course it helped to be sociable, enabling one to enhance and thus lengthen rides, and it was best if you could schmooze in the driver’s language.

Nevertheless, some people considered the talking part to be a burden. No less an authority than Jack Kerouac, who might be considered to have written the book, said in On the Road: “…one of the biggest troubles with hitchhiking is having to talk to innumerable people, make them feel that they didn’t make a mistake picking you up, even entertain them almost, all of which is a great strain when you’re going all the way and don’t plan to sleep in hotels.” Jack notwithstanding, most of us enjoyed this aspect. It was part of the inimitable adventure, making friends of strangers.

And so we did. The evening talk meandered pleasantly along these lines for quite some time – the best places to get a ride, the benefit of destination signs, backpacks versus duffel bags, standing in one place versus walking – when someone mentioned safety. One fellow, from Holland, informed us a hitchhiker had murdered a driver near Munich a week earlier, and as a result no one was getting rides in Bavaria. Generally though, we thought it was the hitchhiker who was the more vulnerable in the driver/rider equation. Nevertheless, we agreed it was one of the safest and best ways to travel. We were very pleased with ourselves, we explorers of the open road, daring and reckless adventurers, brimming with self-regard.

“But there is one thing you are overlooking,” interrupted the Brummie, speaking up for the first time. “You don’t always know where you’ll wind up, when you wander off, or how you’ll get there.” With this he paused to light a cigarette, took a deep drag and slowly blew the smoke across the room.

He said he’d been on the road for years, traveling across Europe and South America. He’d witnessed revolutions and “all sorts of wonders” and met people of all colors and dispositions. He sounded a little like the actor Peter O’Toole, with a broad, slow cadence to his speech. He moved hardly at all as he spoke, looking off in the distance somewhat vacantly, speaking without emotion. We listened attentively, for he seemed to be settling into a story. Surely this was the voice of hitchhiking experience.

“I was on my way south from Berlin to Athens last winter,” he said quietly. It was now past 11 p.m. and the few other hostelers at the far end of the dorm appeared to be bunked down for the night. The candle flickered its light against the wall, shooting up small flames at odd intervals, so that our shadows had the exaggerated motion of a silent movie.

“It was very cold, and I was having poor luck getting a lift. There are times when you can be choosy picking a ride, and other times when you’ve got to give in and find a bus or a train. Twice I was two or three hours out of Dresden. Each day I had to come back to town and hire out at a hotel – the hostels are closed there in the winter – and Dresden in the wintertime is a closed and forbidding city, to an outsider.

“The third morning, as I was leaving my hotel with my rucksack at my side, getting ready to walk to the train station, this ancient lorry pulls up at the curb and a dark-skinned balding man yells at me, ‘Goin’ down, my man? Goin’ sout’ to de ocean?’ He was Jamaican, and had come to Europe to make some money. He had purchased the lorry for one hundred deutsche marks and was trucking produce and anything else he could transport.

“I got in the cab with him and we drove out of town together and headed south. He told me he had gotten his first order in weeks just the day before, from a Scandinavian iron merchant, carrying a load of beams for a construction job in Thessalonika. ‘This is a stroke of luck,’ I thought. ‘I can be in Athens in 24 hours.’ And he was as bent on getting there as I was. We whipped down the road, through Bavaria into Czechoslovakia, stopping only at the border of Austria, south of Graz, for a late-night meal.

“When it came dawn we were heading down the coastal highway of western Yugoslavia, a rolling two-lane road where autos could sometimes crawl for hours behind tractors and farm animals.

“We passed Zadar and Split, skirting the giant Balkan mountains. Finally Toots, that was his name, announced he had to stop. He hadn’t talked much, not at all about himself, when he said, ‘Hey mon, I gotta duck out for some shuteye. You welcome to stay or go, don’t make no difference to me.’

“I thought I might try to keep going outside of Dubrovnik, the ancient walled city, but my bad luck was still lingering and by late afternoon I was heading back to town to find a train or bus. And who do I spy? Toots, waiting at an intersection. He sees me and leans out his window and says, ‘Hey mon, climb on in and let’s go.’

“We raced down the road so that I was afraid the lorry would tip over, we were rocking so. In a few minutes we had slipped away from the sea and started climbing the great southern Yugoslav mountains. Snow fell all around, flakes as big as diamonds, swirling around the trees and distant hills.

“Soon it was nightfall, darkness coming early and thick. There were no lights on the little two-lane road but the glare of our headlamps and the racing white snowflakes being sucked into our windscreen by the crazy flapping wipers. Toots was plunging all over the road; the beams in the rear rocked against their cases and the cases scraped against the sides. He said, ‘We be in Tessylonika ’fore long, sure,’ and sang a little song to himself about sweet island breezes.

“As frightened as I was by the mountain and the snow and Toots’ driving, I was so tired I couldn’t help but keep drifting off to sleep. The thick snow swirling past the lorry was all you could see: the darkness had consumed the road, the trees, the mountains. I was mesmerized by the hypnotic dance of snowflakes. My eyes kept tracing their fall, one and then another and then another, until I couldn’t see them at all. I remember just the fuzzy edges of a thought as I drifted off to sleep: ‘Either I’ll be in Thessalonika in the morning or lying under a thousand feet of snow on the side of the Balkan peninsula sleeping under the light of the eternal moon.’ Tell you the truth, either one sounded good to me just then.”

He paused to sip some water from a paper cup on the table in front of him. We looked at each other wide-eyed.

“Some time later I heard a sharp noise and awoke with a start,” he resumed. “We weren’t on the side of the mountain and it didn’t look like we were in Greece either. It was morning, a dim-lit morning with a washed-out sky. The lorry sat at the side of a desolate road. I turned to Toots but he was gone. Some peasant farmers stood a distance off, with their farm animals, peering in at me. Something felt very dodgy, I have to tell you. I groped for the door and started to get out but as I did a soldier jumped up and looked at me, speaking in a loud voice with harsh, foreign syllables. Then it came to me. We were in Albania! That’s the country, gentlemen, where no westerners ever get to go and from which no natives ever leave, the dark Stalinist mystery at the heart of southern Europe.”

With that his eyes, which had been mostly lost in the flame of the candle, drew back. He collected himself, looked into our faces and smiled as if to say, ‘Now that’s something you’ll not run into in a year’s worth of traveling.’

“Where was the driver, that Toots fellow,” the other Englishman asked in astonishment. The storyteller’s narrative, the flickering candlelight with its licks of dancing flame spitting off the wax and the fierce, blunt shadows on the wall had drawn us as completely into his story as if the farmers and their sheep had been in the room.

“Toots was under arrest. In the crates in the back of our lorry were guns, not beams, and he had been running them to a cell of rebels in southern Albania, near the Greek border. In the thick of the storm he had wandered off his familiar country back-road trails, and we had driven up to a police blockade set up outside an Army post near Tiran.           “When he saw the blockade it was too late to turn around. He stopped the lorry about a hundred yards from the barricade. The soldiers started to run toward the lorry, motioning with their guns for him to get out. As they approached he jumped out along the road and tried to make a dash into an open field. They cut him down before he had gotten 25 yards. That’s when I awoke, as if from a nightmare.”

He scanned our faces impassively and for a moment we thought that’s what it was – all a bad dream.

“Only it wasn’t a nightmare,” he continued. “I saw soldiers kneeling over his body and pecking at his clothes. The soldier by my door looked in and sneered, in rough English, ‘Death to traitors!’ The others came back to the lorry and took me off to jail. I was there for a month until the embassy could get me out, most of the time under sentence of death by a firing squad.”

Abruptly he stood up, stretched his long thin frame, and shifted for a few second in his loose clothing. Then he stepped from among us and shambled off to his bed in the far corner of the dormitory.

We sat there for a minute, no one stirring, until someone snuffed out the candle, and we made our way by the light of the soft French evening pouring into the room to our beds.

“Do you think that was true?” one of the Americans whispered to me, from his perch on the next bunk, as I settled into my sleeping bag. “Probably not,” I replied, “but it makes for a good story.”

He thought about it for a second and said, “I don’t know. I don’t think you can make that stuff up.”

I lay in bed a while, staring at the ceiling, imagining Toots and the ancient lorry with its cargo of contraband weapons careening down the Balkans under a blanket of snow, wondering about the wisdom of the wandering road, until I fell asleep.