No Such Thing as a Free Ride? Times Serialisation

A Hitch in Time

The hitch-hiker was a figure that defined a free-wheeling era. But for both hitcher and driver, the outcome wasn’t always expected.

Jeremy Vine, broadcaster

In the States, in Texas I saw a man running along with his thumb out, so I picked him up. He was soaking wet and straight away I wished I hadn’t stopped because he was dripping all over the car. I asked him why he had been running and he said, “I was trying to wash in the river down there, and when I surfaced I was staring into the beady eyes of a crocodile. It opened its mouth and I jumped out – I’ve been running ever since.”

Michael Rosen – writer and broadcaster

In France, I was trying to get from Carcassonne to Perpignan with my friend Dave. We were seventeen. A 2CV stopped and the driver was a chubby man in a black woollen shirt, glasses. He spoke with a deep musical voice. We talked in French.
I said that we wanted to go to Perpignan. He said that he was going to Perpignan in a couple of days’ time, why didn’t we come back to his place up in the mountains? I asked him his job and he said he was a priest, a curé.

“Are you shocked?” he asked.

“No,” I said. I wasn’t shocked but he wasn’t wearing the clothes of a curé. He explained that he chose not to. He said that he was a priest in a small village up in the mountains. “You might be shocked. In the houses there’s no water or toilets.”

We travelled up and up and up and then on to some kind of plateau with the peaks still above us. Then we took a tiny lane that wiggled across the plain and down what seemed like a crack in the ground to a village.

“This is Espezel,” he said. “The people here don’t really speak French. They speak patois.”

His house was an old stone farmhouse, next to the church. Inside, he had a vase full of teasels and big black and white pictures of the sides of buildings and bas-reliefs from the cloister at Elne. He scarcely had any furniture apart from a couple of old wooden chairs and tables. He said we could stay with him and he would take us out to show us what life was like for the peasants in the high Pyrenees. So for a couple of days he drove us out and around. He showed us the village cemetery and explained that for the peasants it was a fetish. Death for them was a cult. It was a carry-over from pagan times. He showed us some tiny fields of grass that were almost vertical.

“You see those posts?” he said. “The peasants tie themselves to those posts and lower themselves down so that they can cut the hay. Then they wrap it up in huge bundles and carry them back to their barns, the women as well as the men.”

Out on the road, we saw one old woman, tiny under a huge bundle of hay, just as he said, and he waved and shouted to her and she grunted back.
The next day, he said he was going to go up to the lake, and asked did we want to come? Dave didn’t, but I went. Once we were there, he said that he was going to sunbathe. Did I want to? I said, no, I didn’t like sunbathing.

“Do you mind if I take off all my clothes?” he asked.

“No, no, you go ahead,” I said.

So he took off all his clothes and showed his chubby pink body to the sun. I walked about, throwing stones and trying to catch flying grasshoppers. He said he was going to read some Teilhard de Chardin. Had I ever heard of Teilhard de Chardin?

“No,” I said.

“You would be very interested in him,” he said. “He is both very modern and very ancient in his thinking. I think he is very important for Catholics.”

I listened without looking at him and mooched off again. Then he put his clothes back on and said that we would go back now. In the car, he asked me if I was shocked that he had taken his clothes off.

“No, no,” I said, “That’s fine.”

Mike Leigh – film director    

One time, coming south on the A5 between the M6 and the M1 (they weren’t yet connected in those days), I was picked up by a dapper elderly gent in a Sunbeam Talbot.

We drove along for a while in silence. Then suddenly he said, “Can I tell you something?”

I asked him what he meant, and he said he’d just had a traumatic experience, and

if he told me now, a stranger, then he’d have got it off his chest, and he’d never have to tell anyone else.

I was probably about 20 at this time. I told him I’d be happy to share his

experience, and he proceeded to describe how he’d just been to see an old friend of his, whom he was in the habit of visiting from time to time. Both men were married, the two couples going back to before the Second World War.

So he drops in, shares a cup of tea with his old crony, and passes the time of day.

Then his friend says, “Can I show you something?”

“What d’you want to show me?”

“I’m going upstairs, wait here and come up when I call you.”

So he waits, and after a few minutes, he gets the call. He climbs the stairs slowly.

His friend calls, “In here….”

And he goes into the bedroom and there’s his friend, dressed as a woman!

Stunned, he says no, of course he doesn’t mind. Then our cross-dresser gets changed, and asks him to keep it to himself, because it’s a secret – even his wife doesn’t know.

Then the gentleman takes his leave, drives off, and picks me up.

Cut to me, getting out, thanking him for the lift, and holding up my thumb for the next mad motorist.

Stephen Bissette – comic book creator

It was 1972, when hitch-hiking and hitch-hikers were a key counterculture staple. I neither smoked pot nor had much hair. My friends did or had plenty of each, and regularly picked up hitch-hikers when we were out and about together. Short-haired uptight virgin non-smoking ex-Boy Scout Catholic lad that I was, I didn’t. I looked like a straight-arrow for years, and acted like one for the most part, and not picking up thumb-trippers was my rule. Sure, hitching was part of the scene, and there were plenty of longhairs hitching up and down the Green Mountain State, but — well, I did pick one up. Once. And never again.

It was around 11:30 on a sunny summer morning and I was on a comix hunt. It was such a lovely day, I’d driven ‘The Old Road,’ Route 2, from Waterbury to Richmond, and was coming to the interstate just after leaving Richmond village.

There was a fellow planted at the foot of the entrance ramp who looked about 17 – my age – with shaggy brown hair, scant beard, worn denim pants and jacket, back pack, and his thumb out. He looked like a regular enough guy; he was turning to look at the car that had just passed him by. He didn’t display the kind of body language you sometimes saw from a hitcher who’d just been passed by – no sagging of the shoulders, no dropping of the head, and no flash of the finger at the ass end of the car. Nothing in his demeanour suggested any disappointment. He just kept his thumb out and turned to watch them pass.

He had his backpack in the other hand; with it off his back I could see a fairly-decent version of Mr. Natural hand-painted on the back of his denim jacket, and I reckon that clinched it: I mean, here I was hoping to find some new comix in the big city, and here’s Robert Crumb’s comix guru on the road, so to speak. Besides, I thought, Burlington is just a couple exits up the road – that must be where this guy was headed, right? University of Vermont, probably. No sweat.

So I pulled over and picked up this guy, who happily jumped into my passenger seat with “Thanks, I’m Mike,” and off we went.

He was a little nervous, but so was I. I’d turned the radio down when he got in and kept it that way, it seems, for the duration. I wanted to compliment him on the Mr. Natural on his jacket, maybe get a better look at it, but that seemed stupid, so I just stuck to basics.

I asked where he was going, and he flashed a smile and said, “Oh, just a couple exits up,” and I told him where I was going, and he stopped smiling and then said, “Great, that’s good,” and shut up for a bit.

Though it was a hot day and he sported a marijuana leaf image on his T-shirt, he didn’t smell of either sweat or pot, but a bead of sweat did run down by his ear after he stopped talking. He fumbled around in his backpack for a minute, then put it down by his feet.

The radio was still low, the music unrecognizable and muted. “Hey, I’ve got a great tape we could play on the way,” he finally said, rather flatly.

“Uh, sorry, no tape-player in this car,” I replied; it was true.

Still, he said, “But I’ve got it right here…” and then trailed off. He fumbled around in his pack a bit; only in hindsight did his moving his right arm down to the edge of his seat before letting his pack slide back to the floor harbour anything of significance. He turned and looked out his window, and seemed a little furtive. Nothing unusual. I mean, he didn’t know me from Adam, I didn’t know him, and the artificial intimacy of the car’s front seat began to seem a bit imposing, but what the hell, we were just on our way to Burlington, right? We were just passing Taft’s Corners, an essentially vacant four-corner junction on Route 2 visible to the right off 89, with a run-down little store there. A landmark, though; the Shelburne exit was coming up soon.

“So, where do you want to get off in Burlington?” I said as evenly as I could. “I’ll be heading for Church Street, so I can go by way of Shelburne Road or get off by Gayne’s and go up by the dorms…”

He didn’t reply, just kept looking out his window, then cleared his throat a little. “Well, OK, huh, Church Street…” He trailed off again, then stole a glance over to me. He was beginning to seem really nervous. “I was kinda hoping to go up a bit further.”

Ever-agreeable, I said, “Well, OK, I can get off at Winooski, cross over the bridge, and drive up toward the campus that way -”

He cleared his throat sharply, cutting me off. “No, that won’t do it,” he whispered, and stole another sharp glance at me. “I’ve got to go a bit further.”

Well, this sucked, didn’t it? At this point, I wasn’t worried, but I was beginning to get a little ticked. I mean, I had said where I was headed and all.

My passenger shifted in his seat, keeping his eyes ahead, and said it again: “I’ve got to go a bit further up.” A beat. The radio, still muffled, kept droning. God, it was nice outside. “I mean, really, I do. I mean, I’ve got to get to Montreal.”

Now I was nervous. What the fuck? MONTREAL? I think I stammered, “Uh, but, I’m not going to Montreal.”

“No sweat, I’ll let you out at the exit further north, then,” I recovered.          “You’ll be a lot closer than you were…”

“You’re not hearing me,” he said, “I’ve got to get to Montreal.” He looked over to me, dead serious, his hair hanging in his eyes a bit, more sweat dripping down by his ear. “I’ve really got to get to Montreal, like, today… Now.”                Now, Montreal was a bit of a haul, way past my game plan. Besides, that’s not how this was supposed to work; I mean, I’d been with my friends when they’d picked up hitch-hikers, and it seemed to be the rule of the road as far as I could tell that you went where you were going, and unless they were headed in that direction, the ride was refused — or ended at the nearest exit that would get them further along.

“I’ve got a joint I can offer,” he said with the same flat voice. “It’s pretty decent, if you can take me–”

“Thanks, sorry,” I replied, “I don’t smoke, but thanks. OK, look, I’ll let you off at Winooski –”

“You’re not hearing me,” he replied, neither raising nor lowering his voice, but sounding a bit of a threat now. My mouth was dry, chalk-dry, and now I didn’t want to look at my passenger. I especially didn’t want to look when something glinted by his leg – metal – and without a word he tipped the blade of a medium-sized hunting knife up into view and with a casual tip of his right hand, lay the blade down flat atop his right knee, pointing away from his door. To me.

I looked at that blade, then into my rear-view mirror, then out to the road, then back to the mirror, then back to the blade, and finally back to him. He wasn’t looking at me; he was looking away, out his window.

I tried to say something, and choked on whatever it was.

He looked back at me, and said, “Montreal?” I nodded, unable to say anything. “Yes?” he said, still no change in tenor or tone, and I nodded again, breaking a sweat.

And with that, the blade was gone, he was reaching back down into his backpack, and the radio droned on, and I don’t recall saying another word until I was asked where I lived. But it took a while – between a half hour and forty-five minutes — to get to that.

In fact, I don’t recall any details of the trip; everything that led from the Richmond entrance ramp to the revelation of the knife and the implicit threat is vivid in my memory. The rest is a blur; not so much forgotten as denied at the time of the occurrence. A long, interminable blur — only the duration seems real — sans any detail to speak of. No cops were visible along the road at any point; countless cars, trucks, and tractor-trailers whizzed by, but what could I do? The only salvation seemed to be in getting him to Montreal. I could do that, couldn’t I? It wasn’t that much further to go. Well, an hour and a half or so. A ways. But I could make it, couldn’t I? Nothing more happened, really. I drove him to Montreal. That’s it. It’s a blur, I suspect, because it was so uneventful; the event – the glimpse of that blade, the threat – had already passed. All that was left to do was endure the trek. I recall looking somewhat wistfully at the St. Albans Drive-In screen, visible to the west from 89 after we passed the St. Albans exit, and hoping I would be able to see a movie there again: one of the few concessions my mind made to the worst happening. Like, what if I didn’t survive this ride? What if he pulls that knife out again? What if he uses it? He wouldn’t, would he? What was I thinking when I picked him up?

Oh, ya. Mr. Natural. He had Mr. Natural on his jacket. Be cool, Flakey Foont. Flakey picks up a hitch-hiker. Zen lesson. Hope this stays a Mr. Natural comic and doesn’t become Thrilling Murder Comix; Crumb’s psycho Manson caricature came to mind, fucking and killing. Don’t go there. Montreal. Go to Montreal instead. Just get to Montreal.

There was customs to deal with – by my experience, Canada was easy to get into, but the return trip (especially for a teenager) often involved the car being searched and stern looks with stern questions. But that would be coming back — going up was usually a piece of cake, but it still made me nervous, the scrutiny and questions and all. Like I said, uptight virgin ex-Boy Scout lapsed Catholic boy and all, I always felt guilty.

“Where do you live?” the customs agent asked me, and that’s the next thing I remember vividly.

I just said, “Colbyville, Vermont,” and I reflexively added, “by Waterbury,” as I always did, because nobody knew where Colbyville was, and the agent looked from me to my passenger, and asked the same, and I heard the name of some town and then, “Connecticut,” and the agent asked where we were going, and my passenger said “Montreal,” and was it business or pleasure, and we both said “pleasure,” at the same time, which was a lucky thing, and the agent looked me in the eye, and asked how long we’d be there, and I said “just today,” and I almost said, “Jesus Christ, I’m coming back as soon as I can,” but didn’t, which was also a good thing, and I think he asked if we were carrying anything into Canada with us, and I said “no” and then the customs guy waved us on, and we somehow got through, though I was playing all kinds of whacked scenarios of what I shoulda said, shoulda done, and my passenger just said, “Cool,” and said to me, “Stay cool, it’s OK, I just need to be in Montreal, please just get me there, I’m not going to do anything, just get me to Montreal, OK, please?” and we kept driving, and I thought, “He just said please?,” and it was fine, it was OK now, but it sucked, it sucked sooooo bad, and I was so scared.

We drove that seemingly endless stretch through rural Quebec, where the land goes dead flat, peppered with just a few houses and farms and farm stands and French signs and vast expanses of corn. The radio was a low hiss by now, long out-of-distance of WDEV, the Waterbury radio station, and at some point my passenger reached over and turned it off, and hummed to himself, off and on, and said something to me, but nothing registered until he said, “up here, you stay straight,” and he began to occasionally give directions, “up here, you’ve got to get on 10,” and I listened and followed every one of ‘em and the road got wider and traffic heavier and the corn was gone and there were more billboards than I’d ever seen (they’re illegal in Vermont, natch) and we somehow got into Montreal without my making a single wrong turn or error and somehow there we were in the hubbub and he said “I’ll get off here,” just as we got into the city proper, and I pulled over and almost hit the curb and stopped short and he opened the door and he actually said, “Thanks, really.”

I don’t recall him getting out, but I do remember the backpack — with the knife inside – being lifted off the floor, and drifting out the door, and that was when I knew I was OK and it was alright and I’d get home just fine.

He leaned back, my heart thumped in my chest, and I looked over, and he looked at me one more time and said, “No, really, thanks, and sorry, I mean, really, I had to get here now, I — ” and, “uh, OK, well, bye,” he was gone, and the door shut, and Mr. Natural waved before the backpack was slung up and over his face and beard and nose and robe and seeing it again for a moment, it didn’t really look like such a good copy of Crumb after all –  why did I stop and pick this guy up? – and Mr. Natural was gone and the backpack shifted into place and hitch-hike guy was walking away, up the street, and I began to shake, and almost hit a truck pulling away from the curb, and somehow found my way around a few blocks and out the fuck of Montreal.

I got lost twice before the straight, steady shot back to Vermont. I pulled over twice, once to puke my guts out and once cuz I couldn’t stop shaking. I was shaking the way one of my father’s heating-oil-delivery drivers used to when he was needing a bottle: spastic shakes that started mid-spine and shook me to the core, coming in waves I couldn’t stem. I’ve only felt them one other time in my life (when a Port Authority cop wouldn’t let me board my bus and left me stranded in New York City without a dime), and I thought they’d never stop. By the time I got back to the border, I’d calmed down enough to make it through customs — didn’t even get searched — and then I was driving into Vermont, blessed green Vermont, and when I saw the St. Albans Drive-In screen again I almost cried, and started to shake again, and pulled over one last time and just sat by the side of the highway until I realized I was hungry and thirsty. And safe.

When I came up over the crest of the highway by the Sunset Drive-In in Winooski, I remembered the radio and turned it on again. I even went to the Little Professor and picked up a couple of comix (no Mr. Natural).

I didn’t tell anyone what had happened; I didn’t want to lose car privileges, and knew if I told one of my friends word would get back to my parents. So I buttoned my lip and said nothing. I avoided trips north for a couple of weeks, but that soon passed; simply put, there was nothing to do in Montpelier, and the action was in Burlington. I went to Montreal later that fall on my own, just to get over that hump; to go there and get back without trauma, just to do it. But I never picked up another hitch-hiker in my fucking life unless it was somebody I knew, and that’s that. I’ve passed the same advice on to my two kids, and never hitch-hike myself — save one time.

First published in The Times, April 23 2005