I don’t know if there was ever a golden age of hitchhiking, but I do know that it was challenging in Europe even forty years ago. When Patricia and I arrived in Luxembourg in the fall of 1970 on Icelandic Airlines, often in those days the cheapest transatlantic flight, we barely caught our breath, so eager were we to plunge into the uncertainties of the road. Ignoring the considerable charm of the small country where we had landed, the very morning after our arrival we stationed ourselves on what we, though mapless, figured might be a road that would eventually lead toward Paris, put out our thumbs, and waited for our adventure to begin. The adventure was not, however, at all swift to meet us. After several hours had passed, Patricia contrived to cut my hair with the surpassingly dull scissors attachment on our old multi-tool knife. We waited. The sun climbed. In spite of her craftsmanship, the poor tool with which she had worked may well have made my appearance more alarming yet. At any rate, we found ourselves waiting still. The sun had passed its meridian by the time some Algerians picked us up and, when they heard how long we had been by the side of the road, commented, “People are afraid of Charlie Manson.” (His trial had been sensational news a few months earlier.) This initial ride was our first taste of the great-hearted North African hospitality we were to enjoy so much in the months to come. The next morning I shaved. We kept moving, albeit in fits and starts.
Some days later we selected a spot near the Cité Universitaire in Paris, heading, we hoped, toward the land of the troubadours and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As in Morocco, Amsterdam, and Ibiza, we felt as though we were working through the itinerary of the hip version of a Cook’s Tour. Every utility pole in the area was covered by the comments of travelers like ourselves, not infrequently lamenting the lack of a ride. One said “What kind of a shithole is this?” though another counseled “When you feel down think where you are and where others are. Love and peace, Jane, Miranda, and Sher September 1970.” Many of our predecessors had, it seems, enjoyed ample leisure to linger in Paris and philosophize a bit before departing, and yet they had all eventually moved on, and we did as well, pausing in Lyons for a few days before heading further south.
Hitchhiking puts more than the traveler’s schedule at risk. Part of its charm is marginality. In America and elsewhere, while it may be tolerated, it invariably attracts suspicion. From our post on the on-ramp of the autoroute, we saw the cops coming. Though we dropped our thumbs out of respect, the gesture was useless. We were apprehended, questioned, and driven to the local station where the officers diverted themselves, going through our backpacks thoroughly, inspecting each item and then passing it around their circle. They took the most curious interest in our belongings. The excuse may have been to search for cannabis or weapons or poached truffles, but they seemed to be simply passing the time of day on a slow afternoon. I am afraid their rewards were few. One was delighted to come upon some condoms which he held in the air, brightening the entire mood and attracting a flurry of witty comments. Finding a recorder, a gendarme asked Patricia to play, and she managed to pipe out a creditable version of the Marseillaise. We now had the officers on our side, but not until all were thoroughly bored did they issue a ticket, assess a fine, and kindly drive us back to the on-ramp to continue awaiting a ride.
It was by then deep into the afternoon and we were pleased when, after a relatively short interval, a dark and gleaming luxury car, as though just arriving out of a dream, pulled to the side and the inviting door opened. We were not only on our way; we were in a factory-fresh Mercedes, just purchased by our driver, a small middle-aged Greek business owner with the pencil moustache of a leading man of the twenties or a villain of the thirties. To break in the new engine, he had decided to drive from his home in Germany to Spain and back. He was accompanied by an employee, the pleasant and strapping young fellow who had waved us in. The worker’s family lived in Barcelona, and the pair meant to stop there before turning around and heading back.
We appreciated the car’s fine suspension system as we cruised through southern France. The entire side of an outbuilding set among vines was painted with the visage of Louis Pasteur along with his enthusiastic recommendation of wine as not only the “healthiest” but also the most “health-giving” of drinks. Our sightseeing was punctuated by increasing outbursts of imperial irritability from our driver who exercised the last full measure of capitalist privilege, while the younger man was quietly compliant and submissive, patient as well, as the day wore on.
Among our host’s displays of ill-temper, he fulminated now and then against the hippies. In the fall of 1970 none were more aware than we that the crest in the masses now considering themselves in some way counter-cultural had coincided with a strength in the dollar, modest airfares, and a re-imagining of the old post-university Grand Tour, resulting in what must have struck Europeans as unseemly crowds of shabby semi-indigent young American tourists with backpacks. (Later, when we took a ferry to Ibiza, our cheap seats were in a large lounge where a Franco government channel played for hours on the television, warning the righteous Catholic Spaniards about the corruption that dissolute young addicts were bringing to their country. Patricia and I stood to the side while the other passengers, a working class bunch returning home for the Christmas holidays after working on the mainland, seemed to stare sullenly at the screen, glancing now and then at the American suspects before their eyes.)
Like the Falangists, the Greek could not stand hippies. His vituperation didn’t settle down for a good ten minutes after passing another hitchhiking couple. I wondered why he had consented to pick us up (even more or less shorn) and decided that it must have been to acquire two new subordinates whose place in the divine order was beneath even his workers who, after all, had at least some connection to his own interests. Secure in the knowledge that his new underlings were not quite of the filthy sort that would soil his leather upholstery, he could proceed down the road in his new car, comfortably provided with cushions of every sort of superiority.
It occurred to me that I might experience a crisis at the border. In my passport picture I had long hair and a beard. It seemed more likely than not that the border official would comment on the change in my appearance, perhaps even question my identity. Should our volatile host he see the picture what effect might it have? (Just to overdetermine the case, in addition to my mane, I sported in the picture a necklace and a handmade Paisley vest.) Might we find ourselves stranded in the middle of the night at some chilly high pass in the Pyrenees?
As it happened, the border guards hardly glanced at our passports and we glided through into Catalonia, but the boss’s irascibility had been increasing along with his fatigue. He told the Spaniard he had to keep talking to keep the driver awake. If he couldn’t think of anything to say, he should sing. Even this stimulation proved insufficient. Suddenly he decided he had had enough. Pulling abruptly to the side of the road, he announced that we would sleep there, though we were within an hour of Barcelona. There was no discussion. We tried to settle down.
Within a very few minutes we heard snores arising from the Greek, plangent roars that seemed to strive toward greater volume with each breath. Peeking back toward our rear seat, the Spaniard saw our eyes were open. He grinned. His eyes jumped from his employer to us and sparkled merrily. He began grimacing satirically. He could be browbeaten all day, but now it was the boss who looked ridiculous. He began pulling faces, then mimicking the snores with comic exaggeration. We gratified him with obvious amusement, making common cause against the rich man, the rich man who quite abruptly came to, realized he was being made a figure of fun, and, without a word, started the car again.
He drove silently into the dark city. Though he had been offering us the hospitality of his worker’s house all day, telling us we would have some brandy, some snacks, a special bottle of wine, now those notions had vanished. He pulled to a curb in a neighborhood darker than a film noir.
“Out! Out now!” he ordered. We obeyed, trying to exchange a warm parting look on the Spaniard to show that we were on his side, though we were relieved to be leaving his boss’s company. The Greek screeched away, and we pondered our situation. We had no idea whether we were near the city center or in the suburbs. There were few lights and less traffic in a neighborhood of large old buildings divided into flats around inner courtyards. Unsure what our next move should be, we considered our options. Unexpectedly, the Greek’s car came hurtling down the street and slowed as it cruised by us. It did not stop. We walked a way at random, looking for some sign of an open business or at least another human from whom one could ask directions. The Greek came creeping by again, unwilling either to abandon us or to aid us.
As he sped around the corner, I recalled another traveler’s saying that in Spain there still were night watchmen who patrolled such precincts, carrying the huge eighteenth century keys that opened the massive, ornately carved street doors. One could summon such a person, I had been told, by clapping. So I clapped and heard the sound echo somewhere far back in the darkness. I clapped again, only half-heartedly, when I was gratified at the sight of an ancient approaching watchman, wearing what looked like robes of woolen blankets, who kindly directed us to a railroad station, always a reliable location for cheap hotels. Our route lay through the produce market, where now, an hour before daylight, the workers were setting up for the day’s trade. Their faces seemed like caricatures, lit by many small kerosene lanterns, and they were drawn to us like flies to discarded candy as we stumbled by the spectacle and exchanged a few words, but the produce was an apparition of perfection. By the time we arrived at the Park Hotel where a desk clerk was still awake the sun was coming up and I found it difficult to appreciate the comfort of a bed due to my annoyance at paying for a night which was already virtually over.
Chance had whisked us swiftly through southern France. Tomorrow we would visit Gaudí’s Park Guell and recall Orwell’s descriptions of factional fighting between the building on the Ramblas; we would eat calamari alla romana and discover a few days later that condoms were illegal (though available) in Spain where Franco still was to linger another few years. Our utter stranding while hitchhiking in Algeria was months in the future as was our fortunate falling in with a genial crew when they gave us a ride in Austria. We would have Christmas in Ibiza, spend six weeks in the cafes of Fez, and suffer losses by theft, doubtless to our fellow Americans, at the Amsterdam Youth Hostel where people puffed chillums openly and Jimi Henrix played through the speakers. But we could guess none of that nor did we try. We lay in a cheap Spanish hotel – secure in youth -- welcoming the approach of an obscure future.