“There is no solace on earth for us, such as we
who search for a hidden city that we shall never see.
Only the road, and the dawn, the sun, the wind, and the rain,
And the watch fire under stars, and sleep, and the road again.”An extract from a poem called “The Seekers”, by John Masefield.
I found this in what was my bible back in the 80s.”The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe,” by Ken Welsh.
In the days before Google and smart phones, we used guidebooks and paper maps to find our way around. Ken’s book was The Guide for hitch-hikers. My copy died after being rained on, coffeed on and used as a pillow🙂
Ken told us how to live on $10 a day while travelling through Europe. The lines from Masefield’s poem struck home because it was the the truth about hitchhiking.
Wasn’t looking for the fastest way from A to B. It was about the experience. Often I found myself sleeping under the stars, warmed by a small fire. Those lines highlight the whole hitchhiking experience. But there’s one thing not covered in Masefield’s poem.
Stories and the people.
I’d finished a summer season on the West Coast of France. I’m hitchhiking, looking to head south.
Thinking of heading down to the beach or hitting the mountain slopes and a winter season job.
I’d been on the road for a week. it’s an absolutely gorgeous, warm late summer evening.
I hear the birds singing as the sky turns into this beautiful sunset colour. The stars are making an appearance.
I’d been dropped off close to a massive roundabout in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like one of these random concrete things with a bloody pillar in the middle. This was basically an island of countryside surrounded by road.
It was beautiful, full of fruit trees, with bushes covered in berries.
I hadn’t eaten for a couple of days so the fruit and berries were welcome. After dinner, I pitched my tent, got into bed and fell asleep.
I woke up in the morning to birdsong and an incredible dawn. Absobloodylutely stunningly. No traffic noise, no people noise. Only the sound of nature waking.
I packed my tent, ready to move. Now here’s the thing.
There are four roads. Four possible directions to take. As I look around I’m thinking “which road should I take?”
I didn’t recall which way I’d come in from.
And in that moment, I realised it didn’t matter which road I took.
When was the last time you were able to stand there, not having to worry about anything? Bills, bosses or baggage?
I had nothing to worry about. Everything I own, sitting neatly packed, in my rucksack.
Not a care in the world. Nothing mattered. It was such a unique, blissful experience.
I point myself in one direction and think “thattaway.” I started walking.
I must have walked for a couple of hours. I spot a road sign telling me I’m 20 kilometres from Grenoble, a beautiful old city, about two thirds down on the right-hand side of France.
I come across this lay-by full of caravans but only a couple of battered old cars. Strangely I see several women out, cooking over fires, making breakfast, drinking coffee and smoking.
My first I thought, Oh, they must be travellers. As I get closer the women start calling out to me “cuckoo, hello young man, you’re a good looking lad.” 🤣
It turns out they’re working girls, and the lay-by is the local pickup point. They’re all together, protecting each other.
The police leave them alone, because they’re out of sight, well away from the town. The parking space is their home and office.
I’m invited over, given a cup of coffee with a hunk of bread and cheese. The girls are curious asking me, ” Who are you? Where are you from? What you’re doing? Where are you going? ” It’s a friendly banter. I’m a distraction before their working day begins.
People just curious, they don’t get to meet many strangers (as opposed to clients) that often.
Have to be honest, I loved the attention. They check me out, give me the once over, don’t forget, I’m in my mid 20’s, look about 15. I’m in my element🤣The girls are mothering me, having a bit of a giggle, a bit of a laugh. Passing the time, sharing funny comments and jokes with each other.
After around an hour traffic starts to build up and I think about making a move. I say goodbye to the girls – they tell me to “go stand over there. ” A group of them walk with me to the place they suggested.
They start waving traffic down to get me a lift. I can’t stop laughing. Picture all of surrounding me, getting cars to stop and give me a lift.
“Bye. Have a lovely time. Nice to meet you. ” In a few minutes I’m in a car and on my way again.
It was a unique, almost surreal experience.
Not having a care in the world meeting those incredile women.
The biggest lesson I learned from hitchhiking is the generosity of strangers.
I’ve been welcomed into beautiful homes. I’ve slept under motorway bridges after dining on leftovers taken from rubbish bins. I’ve been chauffeured in luxury motors and ridden in cars I’ve had to get out and push. I’ve broken bread with the rich, the poor and the dying.
The one thing that gets me every single time is how friendly, helpful and generous strangers are.