A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 2 August 2008

On The Road With A Towel

Where was I going? What was I doing? I'd soon find out. On The Road JACK KEROUAC

The problem with the rat race is that, even if you win, you're still a rat. The Hitch-hiker's Guide To Europe KEN WELSH

On the drive back home from the Lake Distict I picked up a hitch-hiker in Ennerdale and dropped him off near Windermere railway station. He was a young climber and would-be climbing instructor and had never been to the Lakes before. His method was simple: decide on the direction you feel like taking as soon as you wake up, then walk, scramble and climb all the high ground you encounter on the way, regardless of footpaths. He was travelling as light as possible, but sensibly carrying a tent, stove and maps with him.

I tend to pick up hitch-hikers (not that there are many around these days) for I was once one myself. In the late 60s/early 70s hitch-hikers were a lot more common than they are now. It was quite usual to see them congregating in a shabby line at the top of motorway slip roads - thumbs in the air, Ban the Bomb and Che Guevara motifs on the rucksack, and cigarette papers in the top pocket of the blue denim jacket.

I'd like to believe this 'sharing a car' philosophy was a pursuit of 'green living' way ahead of its time - but the reality is: we were all completely skint. That - plus we entertained excitingly seductive hippie notions about Zen and Jack Kerouac (his book On The Road was our Bible) and interacting with strangers and the randomness of life. Hitch-hiking was a way of life itself, an existential attitude - going with the flow, rejecting convention and the rat race. On the road we felt closer in spirit to our Beat heroes.

Apart from On The Road, the other book poking up out of the side pocket of our rucksacks was The Hitch-hiker's Guide To Europe by Ken Welsh. This was a cult book of the 1970s. First published by Pan in 1971, I can't believe the final edition came out as late as 1996 - by then it had surely long since had its day. Among the book's many claims to fame are these: its youth-oriented and budget-conscious style makes it the forerunner of today's Rough Guides and Lonely Planets; it was the inspiration for Douglas Adams' The Hitch-hiker's Guide To The Galaxy; it was the book most stolen from public libraries in the 1970s; and its lightweight philosophy was far ahead of its time - remember Ken's 6 uses of the towel, for him one of the most important items of kit? (Scarf, groundsheet, extra layer of clothing, poncho, flannel - oh, and something to dry yourself with!)

My own much-used, grimy and beer-stained copy disintegrated in the back of a truck on a German Autobahn many decades ago. But I still retain an affectionate place for it in my memory. It was invaluable for its sound advice on when and where to hitch, and where and how to find cheap food and accommodation; for giving the low-down country-by-country on food markets, flea markets, youth hostels and campsites; for its useful list of addresses of embassies and suchlike; and for what seemed at the time its shiveringly dangerous knowledge of pawnshops, black markets and red light districts.

The early 1970s were golden hitch-hiking years for me - and I covered many miles this way in Britain and Europe. I remember Britain and Germany were always pretty good - but France was a hard nut to crack. A friend and I spent more or less one whole day fruitlessly sticking out our thumbs on the Parisian ring road. In the end a young student in a 2CV took pity on us and invited us back to his parents' house where we camped in the garden. He turned out to be a skilled maker of custom-built guitars. The next day he drove us to the Porte D'Italie - an egress from Paris where he (and Ken Welsh) assured us we would get a lift without too much trouble...

After several hours we gave up and caught the train to Lyon - then later camped in someone's field in Vienne. (You know how it is when you're young - it doesn't enter your head whether something is 'private' or not.) We made a kind of barbecue out of some bricks and metal grilles which were lying around. The next day Louis, the kindly but eccentric, Frenchly mustachioed owner of the land, told us some thieves had come in the night to hide their stash in one of his outbuildings. In fact we'd heard them and seen their car lights. Amused by and (I think) secretly admiring our effrontery at camping without permission on his property, he offered us a lift down to Avignon in his dusty old Citroen camionette. He was an itinerant knife grinder, and had all his knife-grinding equipment in the back of the van. It took us all day to reach Avignon on back routes through a wonderful landscape - I remember the miles and miles of vineyards - and it felt good to be speaking French with a genuine Frenchman.

These are the kinds of things that used to happen when hitch-hiking in those days. I could recount many more. But things got a little heavy when I had several unpleasant experiences - a string of lifts with some total weirdos, and one with a couple of guys out of their minds on drugs. Finally I packed it in after a crazy lorry driver tried to scare me a little with a knife. I got out the cab rather hurriedly and hardly ever hitch-hiked again.

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