Adventures in hitchhiking

 I’m taking a few days vacation from work next week and as I was thinking of how to fill my time (without opening my wallet), I couldn’t help but recall an adventure from my college days when I decided to hitch hike from Birmingham (UK) to Paris (France) without spending a dime.

As with all great adventures, the idea was hatched in the pub after a few libations and by the 4th pint of beer we’d arranged a spur of the moment ‘race’ to Paris. Loser buys dinner. Oh, and you weren’t allowed to pay for any form of transportation. You had to travel for free.

What can I say, we’d had a few drinks.

My co-racers were a motley crew of dudes I sailed with, and with no romantic interest in any of them, I picked the one who looked the least threatening. I figured he’d be easier to put on the side of the road and not look like a serial killer. He was short and blond after all and probably more recognizably feminine than me.

We raced home for our passports (and in my case a toothbrush), then headed for the nearest freeway.

Which is where the largesse of our task became apparent. Race to another country, across a 27 mile wide sea (this was pre-tunnel), across a not insubstantial area of France and into the center of one of the most expensive cities in Europe. By the next morning. Without spending any money.

The rain poured down and as it drew close to 2am, so we just decided to just start walking.

Let me explain to you non Brits. Birmingham is kind of the Cleveland/Detroit of America. Industrial. Lots of heavy machinery and big highways. Its a place people drive through but don’t exactly pull over in a rain storm at 2am on a Thursday night to consider some drowned rat students.
And with 173 miles from the coast.. it was going to be a long walk. During this walk I learned that, lets call him Roger, was kind of a pussy. He tried to fake enthusiasm but it was clear that within a few miles, the only reason he was out there was peer pressure. Here was a guy who clearly had never spent his vacation being yelled at ‘DONT TOUCH THE POLE’ from inside the tent or tryed to light a camp stove in 55mph winds. Clearly a hotel type of guy and boy did he moan.
I heard all about his exotic vacations to Cuba and Mexico, to India and Peru.. non of which seemed to involve standing on the side of a free way with a slightly drunk English chick in the pouring rain.

When I couldn’t take it any more I told him to hide in the bushes, took off my rain jacket and gamely smiled into the darkness hoping that someone would at least consider me rapable enough to slow down.

A trailer pulled over within minutes… at which point Roger jumped out of the bushes and we ambushed the poor lady. Luckily she was heading to the coast and seemed to take us for newly weds (cos that’s how honeymoons go apparently in that part of England), so we played along. talking about our love for each other and how we were off on this romantic trip to gay Parree.  She was enamored and drove us over 100 miles before treating us to a 4am cup of tea and a blown kiss out of the window. Wow… people were weird. Nice but weird.

The ‘newly wed’ thing seemed to have worked for us so we decided to play along.. posing in a romantic cinch in the parking lot of the gas station, attracting a few wolf whistles and a trucker bored enough to want to take us the remaining 70 odd miles. We arrived in Dover just as the sun rose and thrilled with our luck, figured we’d sit at the terminal until the ferry to France started running .. and try to figure how to get on the boat without paying.

As as we sat on the see front, watching the changing sky and testing our lies on each other, a lady walking a dog stopped by and joined us on the bench. Sure it was 5am but apparently some people really are lonely. 15 minutes later we were sitting in her living room- Margie- having a nice cup of a tea and a cookie while she asked all about our adventure. Her husband worked nights so she kept his hours, staying awake through the night and sleeping with him during the day. Noticing Roger’s nodding head, she offered him their bed and pulled out blankets for me on the sofa. We were out within minutes.

,Margie woke us both up with a cup of tea at 9am just in time to catch the 9.30 ferry, slipping 20 pounds in Rogers pocket to cover our ferry ride and heading off to pick up her shift-working husband.  In return she wanted a postcard of the Eiffel tower (‘cos I’ve nivver been’) and the chance to tell her husband about her adventure.

Brits… weird.. but so so nice.

We decided to forgo the lies (he was Catholic and my mothers voice acts as a surrogate god in my head), and since the money wasn’t ours.. we figured it was kind of ‘free’ so we boarded the boat and sat down to figure out how to make the remaining 180 miles to Paris before tea time. Not that challenging except for our lack of language skills, a map or cash.  Our collective French involved ‘do you speak English?’ and ‘I am twelve’ (I stopped listening in French class a long time ago).. not really helpful in the hitchhiking community (pedophiles not withstanding).

So as the ferry docked we figured we’d just walk and see… good things seemed to have happened.. hey, it would work out.

Lets just say I walked 16 miles before anyone picked us up.. and it involved Roger stripping down to his tighty whiteys.

I guess the French are more discerning than the Brits.

This time we played ‘lesbian and gay friends’.. which made for hysterical (in our head), references, much hamming it up and in the case of Roger, some serious questions about how much acting ability he actually had vs. exploring his pysche.

Luckily for me, ‘lesbians’ of the short haired variety don’t interest the average French truck driver, but Roger got us all the way to Nante… 380 miles… in pretty much the wrong direction.

We disembarked, Roger looking decidedly shaken (and not a little aroused) at which point he pulled out his credit card and offered to spring for train tickets. Definitely not part of the race, but at this point, I didn’t care who won .. I just wanted to sit down and brush my teeth.

At 9pm we arrived in Paris at the appointed restaurant. Last place. 
Our friends were full of good cheer, snails and gallons of wine, celebrating their wins and the joy of being anywhere except Birmingham. But non had spent the evening in a strangers bed, or watched their friend discover he was gay or been handed 20 pounds in exchange for a postcard.

Which we sent to Margie from Dover. With many many kisses, thanks and promises not to forget her kindness.  Which, 20 years later, I never have.

So as I consider my options for an adventure without money, I don’t think I’ll be hitchhiking. I’m no longer that naive and you don’t get lucky twice. But I will keep my eyes open for strangers bearing cups of tea at 5am… However unbelievable.

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