“You speak English?” A young woman clutching a wine bottle jumped out of the passenger seat of the van and threw open the side door. “Then hop in!” she shouted above the roar of the motorway traffic.
“We are from Belgium,” she added when we were safely inside, swigging from a bottle, lighting a cigarette and passing me one. “And this is Nikolai. He drives and drinks for us!” she laughed as Nikolai turned around, shook hands with us and then banged back of a shot wine. “But of course, he doesn’t drink as much as us. He will drive safe! Don’t worry Englishmen!”
My friend looked at me anxiously as Nikolai revved the engine and sped off down the motorway but hell, there was no turning back now. I shrugged, accepting the bottle of wine as the music was turned up.
The three Belgians in the car were heading to a festival in Arras, about an hour’s drive from the outskirts of Lille, in Northern France, where we’d just been picked up. Our destination was Paris, but we were happy enough to get halfway there.
When you hitchhike you put a lot of trust in the strangers that pick you up and equally they put as much trust in you. But Nikolai was really going for it, speeding down the French highway well above the speed limit, cutting in and out of cars, slowing down occasionally to light a cigarette or have another shot of wine.
The power ballads were roaring when Nikolai suddenly yelled, slammed on the brakes and pulled off the lane to reverse up the hard shoulder and get to the turning he’d missed. We jumped out on the slip road after some heartfelt goodbyes and photographs. The Belgians sped off towards Arras, leaning out of the windows and waving, while we stuck out our thumbs, holding up a cardboard sign with ‘Paris’ scrawled across it.
I was three days into my hitchhike trip, trying to get to Spain with a bank balance that left a lot to be desired. The idea was that hitching would save me the cost of bus travel or an Interrail pass and spare me the inevitable annoyance of sharing trains with loud Americans straight out of college on their first trip abroad.
My friend had jokingly warned that I’d end up in a shallow grave and graphically described the unspeakable horrors that would be forced upon me by Eastern European truck drivers in some harrowing roadside rendition of Deliverance – the usual scaremongering.
Ronald Regan hitched through Illinois in his youth, Terry Gilliam hitchhiked Europe and fell in love with it, while Tony Hawks (the comedian) hitched his way around Ireland – with a fridge. All were successful. This was to be an adventure, and as Kerouac wrote, “There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”
The hitching was to be wildly unpredictable though. We were left stranded on the side of a road for hours as no traffic came our way. Trucks could not pick up two people and many drivers would stop but not be going far enough for us to make it worthwhile. It was tough going, but the generosity of people was astounding, enlightening even. Some drivers just wanted company for the drive; the younger ones, like the Belgians, simply thought it was a novelty and loved photographing us holding up our hitching signs, while a few picked us up to relive the nostalgia of their younger days when they themselves had hitchhiked. Everyone said they saw few, if any, hitchers these days. Some just thought we were insane.
Having had no hitching experience before, I set off knowing that hundreds of students successfully made it to Morocco each year as part of the charity hitch. But that was where my knowledge ended. It was a steep, yet adventurous learning curve. There were, cold, wet and depressing times, walks of death along the hard shoulder, early starts and long waits, but if you’re willing to put in the effort, the rewards are incredible: free travel, a chance to speak the language and immerse yourself in the local culture, to meet the sane and the insane and have more than a few tales to tell at the journey’s end.