Thursday, January 13, 2011


The girl with long fair hair, a pulled down black hat with a narrow brim, a backpack with a yellow toy mascot hanging from it, and a broad and engaging smile, who I pulled over for just by the junction of the National Road outside Lamballe, turned out to be a man, of perhaps any age between thirty-five and fifty.

'So you still picked him up?' asks everyone I've told about it, incredulously.  Well I wasn't going to drive away again having stopped, that would have been discourteous and contemptuous, unless I had had a very strong sense that there was something amiss about him.  Rather like giving up too many of one's civil liberties in the War against Terror, there are some measures against risk which are more destructive to the soul than taking the risk.  The aura of engaged friendliness of the figure by the side of the road, the look of scruffy, anarchic, open, clownishness which put me in mind of some of my younger relatives, if not of my younger self, which triggered the impulse to stop for her/him, still stood, whatever the gender.  People like that are not threatening.

He quickly twigged to come round to the other side of the car to the passenger seat, and offered greetings and preliminary exchanges in English.  English people often picked him up, he said.  Yes he hitched a lot now.  Six years ago, he lost his marriage, lost everything he had, and it was like when he was young, he had nothing.  But he had begun to live again as he had as a young man, and he had found time again.  You don't understand what you have when you are young and you have nothing.  But surely, I said, there is a difference between having nothing when you never had anything, and having nothing when you have lost everything?  

The exchange proceded along these lines in a mixture of English and French, with occasional bits of Spanish thrown in.  He had just been to Spain for ten days, he said, to learn the language.  He worked with Roma and Romanian people, they often know Spanish better than French.  He wanted to know and understand them, to help them in society, he said.  We talked of the fear between settled people and the intinerant, which I suggested was to some extent visceral and inevitable, but which he maintained was taught and learned, a strategy of divide-and-rule on the part of the rulers.  I had come from studying a text with Maxime, an extract from Orwell's Down and Out in London and Paris, the portrait of Paddy the tramp, abject, gentle. scrupulously honest, and beaten. We had, Maxime and I, talked briefly about Alexander Supertramp, the pseudonym of Christopher McCandless, and WH Davies, of those who choose vagrancy and those who have vagrancy thrust upon them, but of how the former may still genuinely suffer the hardships and consequences of their choice: Orwell dead at fifty of tuberculosis, McCandless starved, poisoned and alone in the wilderness.  I suppose these thoughts were still in my head somewhere below the threshold.

My passenger smelled pungent, but not offensive, a smell of travelling, the leathery smell of a body unwashed but well-aired, of clothes that had stood up to all weathers.  He carried an old-fashioned hook-topped polished walking stick.  The old, he said, should keep the spirit of youth, youth is only wasted when young people are alone and kept apart from the old. We are being governed and controlled more and more by fear, we relinquish too much for a false sense of security, we grow lonely and depressed and ill as a result.  He was nostalgic for a holistic and communitarian vision of mediaeval times.

As he became more impassioned, he slipped entirely into French, and I became rather lost in his analyses of the class system and such like, what with driving and all.  Also, and this is always a problem for me in having any kind of intelligent conversation in French, I am easily waylaid by my own reactions and responses; taking the time and energy to consider inwardly what I think about what is being said means I often miss the next bit and lose the thread.  But I gave hime the best hearing I could manage.  I left this dreamer and wandering philosopher, modern-day Lavengro and supertramp at the foot of the mediaeval ramparts at Moncontour, where he strode off, his yellow gonk mascot swinging behind him, having bid each other many good days, good weekends, good roads and good courage.

I have never been so convinced that the world needs to change, and never more persuaded that it probably can't and almost certainly won't.  I hang tenuously but tenaciously to the quietist haven I have constructed for myself, or been fortunate enough to find myself in, at this stage of my life; I am more concerned with preserving its boundaries than with breaking down barriers, these days.  Universal brother- or sisterhood is not something I hold a lot of faith in now, if I ever really did.  Those who are marginal and alien elicit my fear and incomrehension quite as much as my compassion or admiration. And I am no longer sure that there is an external  'them' who is keeping us in the bondage in which we find ourselves, and of whom we only have to deprive of power to free ourselves and all will be well.

Yet it still does me good to know there are those like my momentary acquaintance at large in the world, walking the walk, and hitching the ride, filled with dreams and visions of past and future and finding ways to talk to people about them, however mistaken and hopeless my mature and cynical current self tells me they are. My stock of good courage did indeed feel just a little higher for meeting him.    


Kurt said...

What an evocative post! Thank you. I also followed the McCandless link and was surprised to learn that he graduated from the same high school I did. I enjoyed the Sean Penn film very much but hadn't known this.

Fire Bird said...

great story!

christopher said...

I like knowing you are serene enough to pick up an itinerant. May you ever be safe. I have a feeling that if your spiritual house is in order and conditions are ordinary, then you will tend to be invisible to predators. This is not perfect. But the odds are longer for person in good spiritual shape.

I have been robbed significantly twice in my life. However, both times the least possible damage to me occurred. I don't know if this works for everyone and I know when conditions are out of joint then no one is safe.

20th Century Woman said...

I am so filled with admiration for this lovely bit of writing and for the humanity it shows us all.

Zhoen said...

Coyote takes many forms, gives many blessings, plays many tricks, opens many doors.

Jean said...

A woman who has the openness and trust to pick up hitchhikers (and thank goodness some people still do) doesn't sound to me like someone who has withdrawn and cut herself off too much. Whatever it takes to survive with sufficient spirit, sufficient kindness for self and others, is what we all have to do, I think, in these apocalyptic times.

I loved this too, and share so many of your feelings.

Barrett Bonden said...

There's a film, Two for the Road, starring Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn. When the characters are young and penniless they're reduced to autostopper with Finney railing at drivers who fail to stop and swearing he will always give people lifts when he has a car. Switch to twenty years later and he roars past a hitch-hiking couple in his Mercedes. Nice to know you've avoided that middle-class trap.

As well as cycling round Britain to youth hostels in my youth I also did holidays devoted to thumbing. I usually got where I intended but I think people were less scared in those days. Certainly when I hitch-hiked in RAF uniform people were very generous. When I returned to Britain from the US for my mother's funeral I was driving my brother's car and almost dropping with sleepiness; I picked up an RAF hitcher simply to keep myself awake. Alas, in more recent years I have tended towards the later Albert Finney role and I think you can be proud of doing what you did. All very well singing "Oh ye millions I embrace you" but it's acts of kindness towards individuals that count. Chalk one up for humanity, Luce.

marly youmans said...


Doesn't this seem like a jarvenpa event? Lovely sketch of your wanderer!

The ancients told us this is a fallen world, and they weren't so dumb, those ancients.

Well, I shall just do my best to shine on in my little place, and to rejoice, despite all.

Kelly said...

This is an excellent reminder that everyone has something to contribute and should never be discounted because the may not appear to be someone that would have much to offer. Too many solutions are ignored because of the source. Thanks for share your adventure and what you yielded from it.

Plutarch said...

I'm glad you stopped Lucy. Not just because of the post which came of it. But because as someone who used to hitchhike, I feel a sort of vicarious gratitude for your kindness, and as someone who used to give lifts, I believe now as I believed then that sometimes it is better to be trusting than suspicous and afraid, despite attendant risk.

Lucy said...

Thanks everyone, for your thoughtful responses.

I too have been a hitchhiker, never alone, always looking quite respectable I think. I stopped after one too many frustrating and fruitless waits in the rain, at a time when it was becoming less accepted. It does dispose one to be more sympathetic, doubtless.

That said, I am cautious about picking up strangers, male or female, in the car, though frankly it's quite a rare thing to see a hitch-hiker now. The last person I picked up was last winter in a large village on my way to work, a young woman looking very worried in the dark on a freezing morning, wearing a fluorescent safety jacket, of the kind we are obliged to carry in the car. Her own car wouldn't start in the cold, and she was the school bus attendant, meeting the bus some way down the road, the children depending on her being there. I went out of my way to get her where she had to be. Tom and I together have been known to pick up women hitching, he wouldn't do that on his own.

I wouldn't necessarily do this again, though I'm glad I did. Pondering on it, and discussing it with Tom, who was a little uneasy about it, I wondered how much of what I said about it afterwards was rationalising, and how much was based on genuine healthy reading of the signs etc. I found this interesting website, Digihitch, which publishes advice, comments and experiences about hitching, including about the risks for both driver and hitcher. (I'm inclined to think that in fact the risks for the hitch-hiker are likely to be greater in many ways).

In the light of what they said, which is worth reading and bearing in mind, I realise that in fact my passenger did everything right, in terms of the vibe, his body language, his general conduct, way of speaking and manners, everything was really impeccable and respectful from start to finish, which was probably why I felt fine about him.

I'm not sure I actually did as well, though in fact I think I instinctively did a number of the things they advise, and did actually weigh up the pros and cons in the moments between stopping and letting him into the car. However, one thing they did impress on anyone about to pick up a hitcher was that just the act of stopping does not oblige you to give the lift.

I don't think he was a true itinerant, he clearly had a place to go and a base. But I found myself looking around at many of the members of settled rural society around me and thinking I wouldn't trust them half so much in all manner of situations, not least in not abusing people perceived as vulnerable, marginal or itinerant - there are some fairly feral, brutal looking people about. I can't help thinking that one is quite as much as risk walking in isolated and wooded spots alone, as I like to do.

But in the end we can't let fear be a higher power, which doesn't mean being foolhardy.

A Jarvenpa event? Hmm, that is a high order compliment. The people she helps are far more fragile, vulnerable, heartbreaking and occasionally doubtless potentially dangerous, she incurs far greater costs and presumably risks. This chap was robust and of good cheer. Mind you, she does always have her pitbull...!

Dale said...

:-) I thought of "Two for the Road" too.

I guess I come down, uneasily, about where you do. I feel the injustice and isolation, the fencedness of life, as bitterly as ever: what's changed is my sense of how very entrenched it is, both in me and in everyone: even, I imagine, in your hitchhiker, if we knew more about him.

For all that, imagining of a world in which no one well-fed could possibly step past a starving person -- any more than you could do that with your sister -- that's something I think we need to keep doing. Even if it seems useless, or even hypocritical: better to be hypocritical than to let that die.

YourFireAnt said...

What a wonderful post, Lucy. I so like your writing, and this is a small jewel of a story.

The external "them" that is supposedly emprisoning us...yes, I too think that there is none, that it is our own fear imprisoning us.

Thanks for this today.


Dick said...

An inspiring encounter and a moving story, Lucy.

'I have never been so convinced that the world needs to change, and never more persuaded that it probably can't and almost certainly won't'. It has changed since Davies and Orwell walked through it like your dromengro passenger and it will change some more, certainly in part due to such as he, walking and talking and leaving something in their wake.

Rouchswalwe said...

All of my experiences with hitchhiking took place in the late 80's in southern Japan. I was so grateful and amazed at the kindness of strangers. Lucy, your post has me pondering. Thank you! I'll pour an ale now and ponder some more.

Crafty Green Poet said...

what a lovely post. I've only ever hitchhiked in Malawi and I never had any problems there, here I wouldn't do it somehow.

I can relate to yoru comment about having conversations in a foreign language and getting so caught up in your own reactions that you lose the thread, that happens to me most times i have foreign language conversations

Avus said...

Thank you for a lovely post, Lucy. Like Barrett Bonden I used to hitch as a young man, in the army, in uniform and some interesting conversations arose (also one intimate invitation from an "exquisite" male which was not pursued!)
I will always stop for a serviceman in uniform although, unfortunately, it is deemed risky for them to wear it off duty these days.