Hitching North

The most fatal poison to wanderlust is also its natural consequence; departure.  Often I’ll catch myself daydreaming about returning to this place or that.  I say to myself ‘I’ll come back and do that other thing. This place is so beautiful, I’ll spend another week here someday.’

But I’ve slowly awoken to the realization that dreams are all these are.  The world is too large, and life is too short.  Every place I travel reveals two more I ought to visit.

Worse still, than leaving wonderful places forever, are the farewells to friends.  A sunken stomach protests every impending leave.  An anxious longing to sit down and play another round, to miss that bus, hijacks the minutes before goodbye.  In those moments it’s a painful grind to just keep going.

And it never gets easier.

Many dirty bus seats have consoled my agitation.  I’ve stared pensively through many cold bus windows to relieve that lonely ache.  So it was leaving Brisbane in June of 2015.

I’d spent two days enjoying the luxuries of the upper middle class following two months of camping on the beach.  I made good friends out of two brothers over coffee, Backgammon, and Chess.  But hospitality for wayward drifters dries up, and I never stay until the reservoir is empty.

It was time to move on.

I took a bus to escape the sprawling Brisbane metropolis, but then resumed hitchhiking along more arterial highways.

Hitchhiking is a game of statistical inevitability. Like betting on green in Roulette. Minutes are waged. Kilometers are won. There’s the anticipatory high as every approaching car might be that lucky hit. And even the longest odds eventually strike. Maybe hitchhiking appeals to the latent gambler in me.

Success is a blend of factors. Traffic density, average speed of the cars, time of day, day of week, cultural regard to hitchhikers, people per vehicle, and gender all play a role. It’s not like these factors can be much controlled, but they can be measured to attune expectation.

When hitchhiking, I try not to look smelly. I try not to stand dirty, smile desperate, or stare demented either. Hitchhikers are soliciting alms, so I compose myself accordingly.

I search for a spot that’s clearly visible, gives cars sufficient space to pull over, and is preferably in the shade. I look for the funnel point of the cars heading my direction. Town roads are the tiny capillaries keeping municipal organs awash with the flowing blood of traffic. They are chaotic and diffuse. I avoid them. I stand alongside asphalt arteries, where the tangle of streets bundle together into one or two main highways. And I attempt to coagulate to a BMW blood cell.

There’s the choice between holding out a sign or a thumb. Signs will pull long hauls from city to city. An extended thumb will fetch more frequent, but less distant, rides. How sociable are you feeling? I’m a lazy clod who can’t be bothered to find a marker and a square of clean cardboard. Plus my handwriting’s shit.

I like hitchhiking. I didn’t always like hitchhiking. When I first began, tromping out to the pavement was a daunting task. Apprehension choked me. Failure and rejection were all I could envision. Spending all that time and energy to get nowhere or worse, to get halfway, was foreboding.

That all changed after Mardi Gras in Nimbin. After that weekend I stopped caring where I ended up, with whom, or with what accommodation. I was protected by a shell of ruggedness. Thank you Greene Man.

The inherent nature of hitchhiking suspends you in a perpetual state of pregnant uncertainty. A ride may come at any moment. It might be the next car. Or you might shrivel up and turn to dust before someone pulls over. You just never know. Cultivating patience on the road is like carrying bear mace. You may not need it, but it can come in handy.

The heavy swing between hope and disappointment with each passing car can grind. In the gym of optimism training, hitchhiking is the stress ball. Each car gives you the chance to remain positive.

Toyota Camry? Squeeze.

Ford Pickup? Squeeze.

Audi? Forget it, won’t stop.

Harbor resilience. I shrug off the fuckwits that smile and wave and leave me drinking fumes. I try not to call a plague of ass-warts on the smug kids who snicker at my stranded station. I reign in my indignation for lone drivers with out of state plates and an empty backseat. I assume a casual indifference. I’m asking for a free ride. I’ll get a free ride. So I relax into the process, and solicit with a smile.

When stars and headlights blink on I might be at a nowhere gas station. I might be stranded beside a peach orchard. I might be on the outskirts of a bum-fuck town with only a junkyard invite to spend the night. Then again I might be drinking beers with a 68 year-old legend in his beach-side mansion.

This is the story of my hitchhike from Hervey Bay to somewhere near Rockhampton.

***

My hostel spurned me. It wouldn’t let me ride the complimentary shuttle to the bus station. The shuttle was idling out front, ready to go, empty seats vibrating. But I wasn’t taking a bus, I was hitchhiking. It’s ironic that because I was looking for a free ride, I couldn’t take the free ride.

Fuck it. I’ll hitchhike through town then.

And I did. With a surfboard sagging me sideways, and my backpack humped, I marched toward the highway with a stubby thumb protruding into the street. A blonde buxom lady wearing a low cut, leopard-print blouse, driving a big pickup truck, pulled over. She was loud and fun and on her way to drive quads through the bush with her brothers. She was country, and I liked her.

She kindly deposited me under a large roadsign on the fattest highway heading North. I thanked her and said goodbye.

I leaned my surfboard against the sign, and propped up my backpack. I checked the time. Then I cast an invisble line with my thumb and began fishing for motorists.

Not twenty minutes later a black Porsche SUV sped past. I watched it shrink in the distance, then brake hard, then turn around. It pulled up alongside me. A tinted window rolled down, two dark blue eyes peered out at me, and a voice asked, “Are you hitchhiking with a surfboard?”
Yeah I am.

He says, “You know there’s no surf North of here. The Great Barrier Reef blocks it all.”

I wasn’t aware.

He told me to jump in. The engine purred, and my body sank into the leather seat. It’s the small things in life that make me smile; like German Engineering.

His name was Mark. He had ocean eyes, and a full head of crystalline white, crew-cut hair. A surfer himself, he’d decided to pick me up when he saw my board.

His arms were covered in scars. They looked like craters on a flesh battlefield. He’d waged war on skin cancer, took dry ice to it and burned off the multitude of growths that’d assaulted his limbs. This is the kind of man Mark is.

Mark was 68 years old and had twice the thirst for life that most people half his age have. His and my ardor fueled conversation about surfing, motorbikes, Muslims, women, money, and seizing each day. He and I shared our deep appreciation for life in a steady spill of conversation 300 km long.

Mark told me about riding motorbikes to their limit. His philosophy was that pushing limits is the only way to reach your potential. I nodded agreement. He told me about accidents that shattered his body. He told me of no regrets. I nodded agreement.

Each of us has to pick what kills us. Motorbikes at 48 or mashed potatoes at 84. This is the kind of man Mark is. I’d rather live 48 Mark years pushing the limit, than 84 default years going through the motions.

We stopped for beers and crab sandwiches. He let me spend the night in his beachside house. He fed me homecooked beef stew. We stayed up late drinking and smoking and talking like two old friends. He told me if I ever needed a place to stay in Oz, his door was open. I left my surfboard in his care.

The next morning, Mark dropped me off on the highway and I continued my hitchhike North.

Hitchhiking is a blind taste test of a culture’s people. It’s a mystery box of transportation. You don’t know when you’ll be picked up, or where you’ll be dropped off.

You don’t know if you’ll be sitting in the bed of a fetid pickup truck watching white lines shoot backward like ticks of a clock. Or if you’ll be lounging in a heated leather seat feeling the power of German engineering.

You may hitch a sleepy truck driver who’s face looks like he’s perpetually sucking lemons. Or you may get a legend, a guru, a madman drunk-on-life with stories to tell and wisdom to offer.
All this makes me love hitchhiking. The added benefit that I saved $175 that day alone hardly compares.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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