Monday, 18 February 2008

prisoner of the white lines

When the world was a lot younger and dinosaurs still lived in Wales, I used to hitchhike when I wanted to travel. I got to meet interesting and usually very nice people. Old soldiers would tell hair-raising stories of their campaigns; one, a retired Lt Col, pointed out the regimental badges carved on a Dorset hillside by Kitchener's army as we swooped by in his MG, me sharing the passenger seat with his affable labrador.

"Had those CND johnnies up there last week," he said; "Carved their symbol on there. Took us all weekend to fill it in again."

I nodded sagely and failed to mention my political leanings.

Caught in a rainstorm on the A4, I took refuge in the Brillig Centre in Bath, and ended up staying overnight with some new-found friends and having a wild evening at the Hat and Feather.

I hitched through blizzards, I hitched across the English Channel. I was benighted in beautiful places, and occasionally stranded in vile ones and despairing of ever getting another lift. There were high highs and low lows.

Fun, adventure, serendipity, the microbiographies and casual friendships of the road. Nasty things could happen; I'd heard about some of them; it didn't stop me, though. A man who rescued me from a rainswept roadside near Strasbourg in his Renault 4 one night invited me to stay in his flat; I accepted gratefully; later he appeared in his underpants and invited me to join him in his bed. "Merci; je prefer mon sac a coucher," I said. He didn't push the point... I guess I was lucky.

Here's my first car; a van. Most of my friends at the time didn't have anything transportwise beyond bicycles, so it got used for house (or squat) moves, and I took some friends up to Greenham Common in it for the 'ring the base' event.

I used to pick up hitchers as I thought I had a sort of moral obligation to do so. Again, it was interesting; and it answered the question I used to ask myself; "How good a hitcher am I compared with other ones?" -you know, the unspoken obligation of the hitcher to provide some form of company and entertainment for the person giving you the lift.

The answer was, mostly, "Fairly OK, I guess..."

..and sometimes...

...we picked up a shadowy figure at the Exeter services one night. He was dead scary, and didn't seem entirely sure where or if ever he wanted to be let out. I was thinking of parking outside a police station and calling for help... but he got out in the end.

After that, I swore never again to pick anyone up after dark.

I broke the rule a few weeks ago, driving out of Wells and homeward-bound for Bristol. A girl was hitching. "She could get into trouble doing that," I thought, and stopped.

She had missed the bus for Bristol and was in haste to get a coach for London, where she was attending a Tibetan Buddhist training course. She was (of course?) from Glastonbury. It was quite like the old days.

So I was glad I'd stopped.

Yesterday, heading up the M5, we were pulling out of the car park at Strensham when I saw a chap with a rucsac saying something to me. Wound window down.

"I was saying, it's a nice looking car. Don't see many of those around," he said.

He was obviously after a lift. I told him I was going as far as the next services on the M42. He was heading for the M1 and gratefully threw his rucsac into the boot. Katie flounced into the back seat and sat there radiating disapproval at her Nintendo.

He was a bit worrying. OK, make that "he was the sort of person you'd avoid making eye contact with if you met him on the street". He was dishevelled, looked as though he'd taken too much of too many things for too long.

He was smelly.

I watched out of the corner of my eye. His head hung forward as a default posture, so I could see it quite easily. He stared at my feet, my hands.

I was a bit bothered. I kept my talking to a minimum. Some men can get a bit funny if they find out that a woman used to be a man, as it were.... Funny in the sense of not being at all funny, of course. And I was uncomfortable enough as it was.

O well, it's a bright sunny afternoon and it's only twenty minutes, I told myself, checking the position of the mobile phone.

So we got there. He thanked me and shambled away.

Katie gave me a severe telling-off. We agreed that I wouldn't do it again.

Driving south again, the sun set spectacularly behind the Malvern Hills, and, tuned in to Radio 3 I heard Stockhausen's Gesang de Junglinge for the first time. That was good.