Winter hibernation modus has set in, so in an attempt to transform lead into gold, I’m doing something productive and going through my enormous Click Clack Gorilla drafts folder. This week I unearthed some hitch hiking stories from the thumb-sponsored tour Katey Sleeveless and I went on together two years ago (shit does time fly!).
Sleeveless wrote this song to commemorate it all, and a very long time ago, I wrote the words you’ll find below the video to commemorate it some more. Talley-ho Kassel, away!
hitch hiker’s day dream
There is a point on every hitch hiking trip when everyone starts to look like someone I saw at the last gas station, like someone I asked for a ride five minutes ago. The business suit in the black Audi station wagon. The green sweater with glasses. The middle-aged blonde in khakis and an SUV. The two clean-cut guys in polo shirts.
“Did you get that guy already?”
“Ummmm?” I squint in his business-suited direction. “No?”
“I’ll go ask him.”
At this point in the trip, the chaos of it all, the improbability that this is ever going to work, and then the surreal euphoria when it does work, again, go straight to my head like a bathtub full of bubbly champagne.
We were on our way to Kassel—at the rest stop called “Kassel”—when the hitch hiking mojo just stopped flowing. No one actually going into the city was stopping here, they were probably all holding out for the city, home, tomorrow to fill up the tank. Cars came in sporadically, and it had started to snow in fat, wet, movie-set flakes. Show-time was approaching (we were on our way to a concert Sleeveless was booked to play that night). Just when we started to think, hey maybe we should call C (the show organizer), he called himself.
“C! We’re really close. At the rest stop called “Kassel.” But no one is going into the city.”
“I’ll come pick you guys up. Give me fifteen minutes.”
Oh sweet chariot of heaven! Oh sweet wanderer’s angel! A person with a car is coming to PICK US UP AND DRIVE US DIRECTLY TO THE PLACE WHERE WE ARE TRYING TO GO. The novelty of this had never been clear to me until this point. Up until this point I had always taken for granted the idea that traveling involved things like a plan, punctuality, and direct rides from point A (home) to point B (destination). The pure sweet shining beauty of something as simple as getting taking directly somewhere, well, you’ll have to come with us next time so you can feel it for yourself.
hitch hiker’s delirium
We had started the trip outside of a gas station in Wiesbaden. A guy on his way to Frankfurt picked us up and dropped us off at “a really good spot he knew,” which, despite the general inconsistency of hitch hiking experiences, always translates to “the worst spot you will ever spend several hours (or days) trying to get out of.” Usually I insist on being dropped at a rest stop I’ve picked out on the map. But this time I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. First rule of hitch hiking: the driver who has picked you up does not have a fucking clue what a “good hitch hiking spot” is and his or her advice on such should be ignored at all costs. Damn it. Some rules are better left unbent.
We were ready to give up and get on a bus we’d seen stopping down the block when a car stopped at the light, rolled down the window, and offered to take us, even though he wasn’t actually going in our direction, even though he had just been planning on driving around the corner. We got in the car and granted him immediate guardian angeldom.
“Was just going to meet up with a friend and do some work. No problem to take you to the next rest stop though. I’m not in any rush.”
“Work? On a Friday night? What do you guys do?”
“We build things.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
He dropped us at Wetterau on the A5, over a half an hour out of his way. May he be immortalized in hitch hiking yarns for the rest of eternity.
A polish trucker on his way to Hanau took us to the “Kassel” rest stop, and that is where we were when C called and when the delirium found us. We’d gone from stuck to saved twice in one hour. A car was on the way, and we weren’t going to be late for the show. Not needing to beg anymore rides, we stood beneath the gas station awning and decided to make up a game.
“Let’s see how many games we can make up with our sleeping bags.” I don’t remember whose idea it was, but it became a staple of our waiting-at-a-gas-station entertainment routine.
“Sleeping bag hot dog!” Sleeveless pretended to eat her sleeping bag, which was stuffed in a sausage-shaped, hot-dog-colored bag.
“Sleeping bag catch!” She threw the bag at me, and we tossed it back and forth giggling for a few minutes. “Sleeping bag rodeo!” She unwrapped the bag and swung it lasso-style around her head. Drivers on their way into the convenience store were going out of their way to stay as far away from us as possible.
“Sleeping bag opera!” I struck a dramatic pose, my sleeping bag held up to the heavens like a torch. “Oh sleeeeeeeeping bag!” I sung in falsetto. Sleeveless froze and looked at me like I was contagious. “Oooooh sure, look at me like I’m the crazy one when you were just pretending to eat yours and then swinging it around like a lasso!” I whacked her over the head with my bundle, and we were possessed by the kind of laughter that leaves you crying and breathless.
The show went well, and we got a ride almost-home from a friend of C. Our guardian angel had shown his face, we’d teetered on the brink of delirium, and we’d made it there and back again, again.
“But aren’t you scared?” It’s what they all want to know when they pick me up hitchhiking alone, and a conversation I would have in every car I got into that day.
“No.” I shrugged as I ran one finger down the seam of my sleeping bag. “Actually, I get the feeling that the people I ask for rides are more scared of me than I am of them. Especially women. I think women get hit especially hard with the ‘never pick up hitchhikers’ conditioning. Even more so than men. I don’t ask women driving alone for rides at all anymore.” (Sorry to the few guardian angel ladies who have approached me themselves and saved my ass on several occasions. To the rest of you, the ladies, and the gents while we’re at it, who were driving directly to my destination with an empty car and told me “No, sorry, I can’t, for security reasons,” a hearty fuck you to you all.)
I think of Carrot saying she’s not afraid of strangers. Strangers are just people. People that you know, and that I haven’t met yet. I think of parents telling children to never talk to strangers. When exactly does someone stop being a stranger and start being “someone you know”?
There are people I see every day who I know less than I know some of the people I’ve ridden with. Trapped in a car together with nothing but bad radio and hours of highway in front of you, you talk, and most people don’t bother pretending when they know they’ll never see you again.
If I can tell you where someone is from, what they do, where they stand in politics, what they ate for dinner last night, their favorite drugs to take when they were younger, and what their children’s favorite animals are, are they still complete strangers? The people I see every day but don’t know so well are just as likely to be secret violent rapist psychos as the driver who has picked up a hitch hiker. They’re also just as likely to be really interesting, caring people who wouldn’t harm a fly, let along some stranger they’ve picked up at a gas station.
There is one question they never ask: “What’s your name?” Perhaps it’s an unspoken taboo. Perhaps its just more interesting to hear about what someone does with their time than to memorize which few syllables they answer to when you know you’re only going to know each other for a few hours anyway. Exactly two drivers have asked me what my name is, and it made me nervous—like in those fantasy novels where giving out your name means giving someone complete power over you.
That day had started with a trucker in blue overalls and a long blond pony tail hauling house-sized cement blocks. Followed by a quiet man on his way to the consulate in Bonn to pick up a visa for his boss so he could work in Iran the following week. And then the two punks who’d driven three hours just to pick up a couch.
“So where are you headed?” I’d given a vague direction when I’d approached them about a ride. If you ask drivers a question that they can say yes to, you’ve already got one foot in their car.
“Well, it’s kind of embarrassing, because it’s probably the most cliche hitchhiking destination of all time, but what the hell. Final destination: Amsterdam.”
We all chuckled, and they, assuming I was another pothead on a pilgrimage to the promised land, told me about the marijuana museum there. That in the first room there was an enormous bong that a museum employee would pack for you to smoke before you viewed the exhibits. A lot of people are drawn to Holland because of its lax drug laws, thus making it the cliche tourist destination that it is.
This gorilla, however, is drawn to Holland by the thought of seeing dear old friends and eating at squatted restaurants (the pirate bar! delicious! go there right now!). The drug laws are little more than an interesting footnote, and a pain in the ass when it comes to hitchhiking back across the border—drivers seem to assume a ragged vagabond like yourself must be carrying something that will be illegal in Germany and dish out plentiful helpings of the cold shoulder.
The trip took eight rides and eight hours, and at four o’clock I was standing outside of a metro station on the outskirts of A-dam, eyeballing the nyc-style electronic gates guarding the station entrance from those without tickets. The clear plastic doors were almost two meters high—no one but the most olympiadic of “schwarzfahrer”* could make it over the top. So I fed a machine 2,60 euros and it spat out a ticket, bringing my total travel costs, including the coffee I’d drank around lunchtime, from Mainz to Amsterdam to 4,60 euros. Europe on a shoestring, a thumb, and one cup of coffee.
*Literally “black rider.” Though I would prefer that this meant I had a nazgul to ride around on, the term refers to people who ride public transportation without a ticket.
Heidenfahrt. The name of the rest stop where our brave heroes’ journey begins. “Heathen’s Journey,” it would be called in English.* An appropriate place to hitch a ride if you’re a bunch of godless sinners hoping to fly north on the A61.
I like to think that Heidenfahrt is on my side, a kind place that gently delivers me onto the autobahn time after time. That I’ve been hassled by police (Oh daemons of Satan, return to the firey pits from whence you came!) several times there is only further proof of the name’s sincerity…
He was a truck driver in red overalls transporting cars, and sure he would take us and drop us off just outside of Köln, that is if we didn’t mind waiting for him to finish his 45 minute break. We threw away our cardboard sign and got comfortable on the curb, happy to have found a bullseye on the very first move.
Inside the truck I curled up on the mattress behind the front seats, and Rabbit took the passenger seat. Our driver couldn’t speak much German, so after a short-lived attempt at conversation (Where are you from? Ludwigshafen. Where are you going? Ludwigshafen. Where did you start today? Russia. What? It turned out he had started in Ludwigshafen, was from Russia, and was going to Dusseldorf) he turned up the music, and we rode north in silence.
I like to think of the torture that is three hours trapped in a small compartment listening to hit radio as a good time to catch up on the pop culture I religiously avoid the rest of the year. And I can now tell you with confidence that radio pop today is a banal as ever, populated with whiny-sounding but well-intentioned men singing about heart break, bluesy R&B women over using the trill, and a sprinkling of songs that are almost decent, if you like that sort of thing. There is an entire generation of teenagers that will remember this music with nostalgic reverie, I think, and then we get dropped off at a rest stop just outside of the city, and swept into the heart of it by a man with a snake skin in his back seat and a four-year-old son to pick up from Kindergarten.
*Unless the name is a reference to “Heide” (heath, wooded area) and not “Heiden” (heathen). I prefer to assume the latter. It’s much more exciting that way, literary even.
“Excuse me, but do you happen to be going to Köln?”
“No, Mülheim. Why, you guys have a group ticket?”
“Yeah. But Mülheim shouldn’t be a problem, same direction.” I had just walked into the Koblenz train station, sheet wrinkles still printed on my face, disgruntled at my excess of luggage and lack of coffee.
“Well, I’d love to ride on your ticket, but I don’t have any money, I can’t pay you anything.”
“Isn’t there an ATM around here?”
“I don’t have an ATM card, and there’s no money in the bank anyway. See, I don’t have any money at all.”
“Well.” He turned his away. I looked at him, waiting for a more definite answer. He gazed pointedly off into the distance. “I guess that’s a no then?” He still wouldn’t look at me. Must have offended his fine capitalist sensibilites. I rolled my eyes, shook my head, and walked to the ticket machine to find out what train I needed to take. I typed in “Mühlheim” and got three different “Mühlheim (Main)”s, but no “Mühlheim (Rohr)”s. Crap. Had Mühlheim disapparated? Had I forgotten how to spell? (Yep.) Lame Miser Dude had said that the Köln train was the same direction, and so had my road atlas, so I went to the track, found some kind yuppie women with an extra spot on their group ticket and hoped that Lame Miser Dude would walk by so that I could give him a pointed, spiteful look that said “Look, there are lots of really nice people in this world and YOU ARE NOT ONE OF THEM.”
(Marauder’s Guide Note: See, there are these tickets in Germany called “Schöne Wochenende Tickets” that cost 35 euros for up to five people to anywhere (and back) on Saturdays and Sundays. So if you’re broke, you can walk through the train and ask people if they have a group ticket, and if they do, if you can ride along on their ticket. Train hopping of sorts, but less exciting, less dangerous, and 99% certain to get you excatly where you’re going exactly when you’re going there.)
The signs at each station said our train was heading to Dinslaken, Holland. “I could just keep on riding, and I’d end up in Holland,” I thought, grinning. Tempting. In Holland there were friends and beautiful squats and beaches and vegan pirates. But in Mülheim there was zinefest, and new friends, and vegan food, and maybe, just maybe, there would be a few pirates there too.
I got off in Düsselsdorf and, after 15 frustrating minutes, tricked the ticket computer into telling me how to get to Mülheim (by learning how to spell it correctly, oops). It was only 20 minutes away now, the computer said. There’s a big soccer match today, the crowds on the platform said. Sure you can ride with us, a balding, white-capped man and his two sons said. We crammed ourselves between the hoardes of soccer fans and empty beer cans and chugged off. (Marauder’s Guide Note: If you don’t like loud drunken holligans, I would recommend avoiding all trains and train stations near stadiums on game days. Then again, lots of people=lots of people with group tickets, even if most of them are drunk morons.)
“What is that wooden box for?” White-Capped Man couldn’t stop staring at it. “It’s just so strange to see someone carrying an old wooden box here on the train. I’m really curious.”
How to explain zines, zinefest, and the old wooden distro box I’d found in the trash to a person who’s probably never heard the words zine distro? Translate it into language he has heard, I thought. “Well, see, I’m a journalist, and I am going to a meeting of journalists. We all like to publish things independently, and I use the box to display my publications.” He nodded, genuine interest in his eyes as he spoke.
“So it’s like a filing system?”
“Yeah, sort of. A lot of people have been giving me strange looks today because of that stupid box. And then I went and leaned on it and the one end broke off. It’s kind of annoying to lug it around, but I think it’s kind of charming, so there it is.”
In Mülheim I took my box and my bags, thanked White-Capped Man, nodded at his kind-of-embarrassed-about-this-strange-beggar-person-riding-with-us, and fell out of the train and onto the platform. Hello, Mülheim. Hello, Nikki! Welcome to the Mülheim Hauptbahnhof, the attached American-style shopping mall, and the most expensive copy shop you’ve ever had the honor of copying your zines in because Local Copy Man won’t let you copy anything with “so much black” and because you are a chronic, incurable procrastinator.
I think what happened in the copy shop can best be described through the letter now serving as page one of my latest zine, Gefunden.
“Dear Readers. Once upon a time there was a page here. But on a last-minute copy-liberation mission I was forced to leave it behind as Pfand while I “went to the ATM to get some cash.” Rest in peace pages 1 and 42. If you would like to know what they said, you can probably find them (and a charming wooden box) in the Mülheim copy shop dumpster tonight. xxo ClickClackGorilla.”
The visit to Dresden was long walks around the Neustadt. It was Katey getting over a cold and sharing a mattress in Anton’s old room. It was comfortable and cozy, and there was a party in the party cellar.
“This used to be an old meat cellar,” they had told me when I had first come to look at the place. The ceilings are low, curved, cement, and there is a row of meat hooks hanging on the far wall. I’d written my former housemates when I found out Katey was coming, to ask them if they wanted to put on a show in their basement. They did. We came. Katey got sick, but she played anyway, in between hot toddies, the best saver of lives since the Irish coffee. There was even a disco ball. Ain’t that something.
Afterwards, we slept off our hangovers and colds, played speed rummy, and left on a Sunday morning.
We took the tram to Elbe Park, the McDonalds known as the usual mitfahrgelegenheit meeting point going west. Katey took the sign, and I asked everyone gassing up. It wasn’t twenty minutes before a young dude with bad taste in rap picked us up and took us to a rest stop on the highway.
This time a red-eyed Turkish man took us along. He made me nervous; he’d been awake for over 24 hours and wanted someone in the car to talk to, to keep him awake.
“How old are you, how old are you?” he asked, in fragmented German. He was an (unconjugated) verbs and nouns kind of guy. Here I’m translating what he meant, not exactly what he said.
“26,” I told him reluctantly.
“Ugh. Four more years! Four more years and then you’re useless. You better get married, think about the future. Who do you think is going to bring you soup when you’re old?” I shrugged, he went on. “I’ve been married three times. Seven kids, three women. Women trouble, women problems, women make problems.
I said nothing, boiling. I had a similar conversation with a taxi driver once upon in Dubai, who had told me that he married his wife when she was 16, and that at 30, I wouldn’t be worth anything to anyone anymore. He also told me that he wanted to take me shopping and insisted that I take him number. I’ll never quite understand why in the year 2009 there is still so much blatant sexism. But that’s another story.
I managed to keep my mouth shut until the next rest stop, where I asked him to drop us off. He could have taken us to another rest stop, he said, but gave in when I insisted that this one was perfect. He understood, wasn’t that kind of creepy. We got out of the car and he drove away.
In Darmstadt, I thought, we could find someone with a five-person group ticket, hitch onto that, and be home in a half hour.
But, as we now know, Darmdstadt is not just a one time Wrong Spot. It’s one of those spots you should avoid at all costs if you ever want to get anywhere hitching or scamming group tickets. It’s a town with four or five wagonplätze and apparently, some really bad karma.
Katey stood on the platform while I wandered the regional train heading for Mainz. Everyone seemed to be a student, and students travel free in Germany, aren’t allowed to take guests. In the second decker of one car I asked an older woman, hoping she had a monthly ticket, which allows you to take one person with you on weekends and weekdays after 7 pm. I didn’t notice that the men sitting behind her were the train personel, and when I asked, a round, unhappy looking fellow bellowed at me, not even looking up, “You know it’s forbidden to ask people for group tickets in the train.”
“I’m sorry,” I told him politely, “I had no idea.”
“Everyone knows that,” he spat back, still not looking me in the eye.
“Well, I didn’t know that. I’m not from Germany, I’m sorry. I’ve never heard that before.”
“Hmm, well, bad luck, bad luck, bad luck.”
The old woman tried to come to my defense (“Now I didn’t know that either,” she said, “And I’ve been asked by people on the train before.”), but he just ignored us both, still looking at the peice of paper in his lap, avoiding our eyes. Everyone I know hitches on group tickets, but he was the conductor and could throw us out if he wanted. I walked past him and out of the train.
“So, the conductor is being an asshole and I don’t think we can take this train,” I told Katey when I found her on the platform. “We’re going to have to take a really round-about way, on the S-trains through Frankfurt, but they don’t control them very often, so it should be fine, it should be just fine.” (This is the part, in movies, where you turn to the person next to you and, eyes cynically wide, tell your friend “Well, they’re about to get fucked, eh?”)
“Without languages, you might as well stay home,” our first ride out of Prague told me as we pulled onto the highway. He was an older man, with white hair and a respectable car–if you find things like cars respectable–and the same man whose first question had been “But you’re not too dirty?”
“Back then the borders were closed,” he continued. “But I always said to myself, ‘one day, the day will come,’ and now it has.” He spoke Czech and German, as well as a few words of English that he seemed reluctant to use.
We’d spent an hour and a half at a gas station just outside the city, just beside the highway leading to Dresden. Katey was getting sick, so we took turns, her, hiding behind a sign to drink a beer, me, kneeling on the sidewalk eating a peanut butter-smeared baguette . (People in Germany actually recommend that you drink in a beer when sick to get better. Of course, it’s supposed to be warm and at night, but who’s counting?)
People were friendly–only a few pretended not to have seen us or
scowled at us from behind their windshields–and the rest waved and smiled and tried to have elaborate sign language conversations with us, all to say they’d like to take us, but just weren’t going our way. During communism, Izz told us, it was practically illegal not to pick up hitch hikers. (I guess there was one thing communism was good for after all. Ba dum bum, BA!) But if it had ever been easy to hitch out of Prague, it wasn’t anymore. Or we had fallen into another hitch hiking black hole and were in the dreaded Wrong Spot.
We took a break in an abandoned lot to split the last beer and then set up at a large intersection about a block away from the gas station. Four lanes, all pointing toward Dresden, and a big concrete shoulder where people would have room to pull over. In ten minutes we were in the station wagon heading onto the highway.
He hadn’t been going far and left us just outside the city at a gas station surrounded by flat empty fields. We set up on the exit road with our sign. Another forty-five minutes passed. Then a trucker, who only spoke a few words of German, said he could take us along another 40 kilometers. He was kind, and despite the language barrier, tried to talk and joke and point out the sights. We spoke in single words and gestures. When an enormous flock of birds flew past I said “Vogel” over and over again, flapping my arms when he didn’t understand. Soon after we saw a helicopter. “Vogel!” he said, pointing and chuckling at his joke. Then he pointed to the right. “Flughafen,” he said, nodding in the same direction for emphasis.
At the next rest stop we had another exit ramp to stand by. The light was starting to dim, and the temperature to drop. “If we have to sleep here, let’s stay over there,” Katey joked, pointing at what looked like a castle tower on the other side of the highway. Princesses of the highway, I thought, tucked away safe in our little stone tower, offering shelter to the hitch hikers who chanced through our rest stop.
Then a black station wagon with German plates drove up, and whisked us off to Dresden.
We took the tram to Neustadt, and the closer we got, the more I started to twitch. “I can’t wait to see my old housemates” twitches and “hey look remember when that thing happened right over there” twitches. “I hope I don’t run into my ex-lover” twitches and “oh god they finally finished building the supermarket on the spot where the squatted park used to be” twitches. Like arriving somewhere brand new and coming home, all at once.
As we walked up Kamenzer Straße, I saw a man looking out of a window in one of the fancy new flats in the ho-hum building they’d thrown up on the lot that used to be a squatted community park. The police had evicted it once and bulldozed everything, but the people came back, rebuilt. During the six months that I lived on Kamenzer, they evicted the park a second time, but that time they immediately started building and set up 24-hour security. It didn’t stop residents from heckling, vandalizing, and boycotting, and eventually the Konsum supermarket slated to rent the commerical property on the first floor backed out of the deal, due to bad publicity.
Instead the neighborhood got a Netto, an underground parking lot, and expensive apartments. As rumor had it, the local government was offering 10,000 euro subsidies for every parking spot created in Neustadt. Hellooo gentrification.
We’d banged on pots and ran through the streets, but they built it anyway. And enough people didn’t know or didn’t care to, now that it was finished, actually keep them afloat. To add insult to injury, all of their vegetable dumpsters were locked away somewhere out of sight and the store itself was filled with those dubious tinted glass balls that can only mean one thing: cameras.
They had every right to be worried, to overstock on security guards and cameras. The Kamenzer bunch had put up a long fight for the ground–protests and informative campaigns, and a bus trip to the house of some executive duder behind it all. But in the end community interests had lost and big business had won, ho-hum, I’ve seen this one before, isn’t there anything else on?
On the day the Netto opened, my old housemates told me, there were over a dozen security guards on hand, and no one under 40 was allowed inside. The Sheune punks had moved to Kamenzer for the day, but when they wanted to buy more beer, were given the cold shoulder. I don’t know what happened next, but as the bottle-throwing Scheune punks are the reason no bottled alcohol is sold in Neustadt after 10 pm, I can’t imagine that it was pretty.
Slowly, people forget, their amnesia and laziness driving them inside to do their weekly shopping, their car-dependence driving them to rent one of the parking spots, and we all fall down.
The Elbe-Bridge issue had been another battle lost. Dresden is–was–on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list because of its grassy, natural river banks–no walls, and long, bridge-less stretches–until the local government decided that, in the interest of traffic, a multi-lane bridge should be built at Waldschloßchen. Protesters had demanded a tunnel–an expensive compromise that would give drivers their road and UNESCO their unscathed river, but the bridge was ultimately approved in an absurd vote that, instead of asking directly, “Do you want this bridge, yes or no?” asked “Do you wish there were less traffic jams?” (I can’t find the exact wording, but I can assure you, it was worded into the kind of statement that almost no one could disagree with.)–and squatted a 400-year old tree slated to be cut down as part of construction. The were taken down by the German police unit that specializes in removing squatters from trees, and bridge construction has already begun.
The Dresden Neustadt, if you’ve never been there, is like some sort of crust-punk, hippy-child, alternative-parent’s dream. The walls are convered in graffiti and the sidewalks in dogshit. There are dread-locked parents and goths and punks and students and hippies and crusties and artists and activists and writers and dreamers and scammers. The rent is cheap, and so is the beer; on the weekends the streets fill with people, celebrating, and you’re never far from someone who wants to see this system burn as badly as you do.
Like every beautifully, perfectly run-down side of town since the beginning of time, the Neustadt is slowly falling to gentrification. A supermarket here, a rent-raise there, and soon the area will just be filled with more monotone yuppies, all hoping to have bought in on that romantic, bohemian whatever that they thought they saw here that time they came to look at cheap apartments. But by then it will be gone, because the higher rent will have forced all the ex-workers and the dreamers and the hippies out. It’s just not that easy to pull a scam anymore. There are just too many cameras.
Three hours of sleep, a few rolls, a few cups of coffee, and a cardboard sign, written in thick sharpie marker: “Prague.”
We’d gotten instructions from hitch base to a spot that, a whole bunch of virtual people said, would get us out of Munich in under twenty minutes. We just had to take the U2 to Nordfriedhof, climb through some alleged bushes–”They weren’t really bushes” and “It was more like a green strip between lanes” and “I didn’t see any fucking bushes,” read the comments on the Munich thread–and our luck would find us in seconds. But the directions didn’t say anything about which of the five Nordfriedhof station exits to use (any one is fine, just walk to the enormous, busy intersection with all the yellow signs with city names on them), and we, just as confused about the alleged bushes as the rest of ‘em, decided to just try standing at one of the busy intersection corners.
Leopard stood behind us, off to the side, apparently still worried that something about him was scaring people away–though it may have been a simple gender bias. People tell me, over and over again, that it’s much easier to hitch rides as a girl because people are less concerned that you’re going to try to kick their asses and steal their car/money/virginity. Katey and I stood with our long cardboard sign smiling and jumping up and down and making up little songs about the people driving by, cursing the ones who gave us mean looks, giving each other high fives when a driver would give us that “I would take you but I’m not going your way” smile and shrug.
Now me, I like to invent superstitions. Greek mythology and conventional religion have never done much for me, but superstitions, I can drink to. The way I see it, superstitions are a way of helping people mentally deal with things out of their control. They are a way to teach others how to stay happy and healthy. They are mythology, before it gets epic, and religion before it gets dangerous. Most superstitions have a basis in some sort of fact. In one part of China, one of my English students once told me, people say that you shouldn’t put your door on a certain side of your house lest evil spirits smite you and your family. The origin of this little legend, she told me, is that the wind in that area usually comes from that direction, and that putting your door on that side makes for a cold, drafty house. Superstitions turn into myth and religion and legend once we forget what the stories are for, when we no longer need them. Before that they are just stories, invented to help us keep safe, and I’ve always loved making up stories.
So I talk about the dumpster gods like they’re personal friends of mine, and I imagine that, somewhere, there must be hitch hiking gods with enormous thumbs and piles of old cardboard signs watching out for all the nomads and the tramps. I don’t know much about them yet–this trip only being my third trip thumbing–but I imagine they are the sorts who are appeased by things like getting up really early, not turning down rides (except the kind of rides that give you that warning feeling in your stomach), little pictures on your signs, and little dances on the side of the road.
For all Katey and I’s songs and smiles and dances, we couldn’t get a ride. Not in fifteen minutes, not in thirty, and not in an hour. Then I noticed the tall building down a little walking path behind us and remembered that there’d also been something about “in front of the big apartment building” in the internet instructions.
Down the path, in front of the tall glass building were the infamous bushes. Which we pushed through right onto The Official Best Spot Ever for Hitch Hiking Out of Munich Eastwards. In twenty minutes a man had stopped, and he wasn’t just going to take us to the next gas station on the highway, he was going to take us all the way to Prague. Not only that, he was the hungover hitch hiker’s dream: the car going all the way to your destination, with the driver who has no interest in talking to you at all. Sometimes you’re just not standing in quite the right spot.
The original plan had been to take the train to Weiskirchen–a small town just outside of Frankfurt–find the gas station there, and hitch hike to Munich.
So we packed our things (guitar, change of socks, road atlas, notebook, large-tipped sharpie), giggled ourselves to sleep, and left the next morning to the tune of crisp winter air and three black crows who mirrored our flight in the sky above us.
Katey and I had been planning the trip for weeks, for months–planning that she would come to Europe to visit me, that we’d go on tour with her accoustic music, that we’d hitch hike everywhere, dumpster dive everywhere, and play in as many countries as we could fit into two months at the very last minute. We’ve know each other since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and forts in the backyard, since play kitchens and sleepovers and preschool and Bridgeton Elementary. Leopard I’ve known for about a year, since wagons and Mainz and getting fired, and the night before we left, he came in to the Kinowagon where Katey was staying. “I think I’m going to come with you,” he told her. And then we were three.
Before the sun was even up, we were in Leopard’s wagon fueling up with tiny cups of espresso. “You know, it is the weekend,” he said when I sat down on the curved green couch he salvaged from the university dumpster across the street. “We could just hitch on someone’s group ticket on the train. That’s how we got home from Nürnberg last weekend.”
“Ah right, shit, it’s Saturday, I forgot. Yeah, let’s do that. That’ll be even easier than hitch hiking. Sweet.”
In a few minutes we were on a train to Aschaffenburg with three white-haired Germans with a weekend ticket. They got off in Darmstadt, and we paced up the train platform and down the train aisles, asking everyone if they had a group ticket and if we could come along. No one did. The conductor eyed us from the platform. She knew what we were doing, knew we had been hitching on the other folks’ ticket, and that if we got back on, we wouldn’t have one now. Fuck it, we said, we’ll hitch hike from here.
Outside of the train station we followed big yellow highway signs, and the map, to a path between highway and forest. Just before leaving town a 20-something on a bike with a messenger cappie pedaled up out of nowhere, told us that yeah, if we took this path to Griesheim and then went left, we should be able to walk through fields next to the highway until we came to the first gas station on the 67–”Pfungstadt”–and then he pedaled back the way he’d come, as if he’d been sent just to answer our questions, a spirit of the road, appearing only to dazed hitch hikers paralyzed by the lack of detail on their maps.
The path was next to the highway, but the air was clear. People were out walking their dogs, and once in a while, a tram buzzed past on the tracks to our left. At the underpass we cut up a small stone stairway and into the woods, certain that in thirty, forty minutes, we’d be in Pfungstadt, and on our way to Munich.
Two and a half hours later we walked back out of the woods and back into the Darmstadt train station. We’d ended up sitting up in a hunter’s stand, looking off into the distance through the little fold-out telescope Leopard keeps in a pouch on his belt.
“I don’t think we’re going to find the gas station.”
“So either we go back to the train station and try to find someone with a group ticket again, or we take a train to Frankfurt and hitch out from the gas station at Weiskirchen like we originally, originally planned.”
Back to square one, the Darmstadt train station. From there to Frankfurt Ostendstrasse. Ostendstrasse to Offenbach Ost. Offenbach Ost to Weiskirchen. Another hour and three more trains–six hours to get to a spot an hour and a half away from home. In the train I’d started to feel trapped, like we were stuck in some sort of hitch hiker’s Bermuda Triangle, like we’d never make it past Frankfurt, like we’d end the long day back in our own beds, unsure if any of it had even really happened. I swore to myself that I’d never fall for the easy lure of the train again–group ticket hopping or not–and always stick to the plan: Backpack, gas station, thumb, road. No trains, no money, no directions from travel-demon bike messengers, no telescopes necessary.
“Let’s just pretend like we didn’t want to leave early this morning. Let’s just pretend like we spontaneously decided to go hiking first, and that this was the plan all along.” We walked through Weiskirchen and after following several people’s misguided directions and a muddy field, we finally found the gas station. “Well, I think we’ve gotten all of our bad luck for the trip out of the way now. The rest will be easy, right?”
The first woman I approached was standing beside her car smoking. She was going our way, almost the whole way, and she thought she could drop us off at the rest stop before her exit. “So, how much are you willing to pay?” she wanted to know.
“Pay?” My eyes must have been like saucers. “We can’t pay you anything. That’s why we’re hitch hiking. We don’t have any money.” I guess she hadn’t heard much about hitch hiking before. Most drivers who do pick me up talk like hitch hikers are a dying breed. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. What with this recession I keep hearing about and all.
“Gasoline costs money you know,” she started in, indignantly.
“I’m sorry but we can’t pay. We don’t have any money. That’s why we’re hitch hiking.” She looked away, offended and wouldn’t look any of us in the eye. She turned back to her car.
“So I guess that’s a no then?”
She shook her head and shut the door.
Parked next to her was a man leaning against his trunk smoking. His eyes were smiling before I opened my mouth. “Do you happen to be going in the direction of Wurzburg?”
“I don’t usually do this,” he said, still smiling, “but yeah, I’ll take you.” He was older, with a salted black beard and short grey-black hair. In the car he ignored the others and told me about building facades, how he was doing a building for the Frankfurt airport expansion, how he’d been all over the world, how his car had made it to 900,000 km, and how Bavaria was the best place anywhere.
“You know, Bavaria is the richest state in Germany,” he said, eyes sparkling proudly, looking at me pointedly across the stick shift.
“Hmmm.” Hitch hiking, you refine a subtle set of “hmmms,” each with a slightly different meaning, each meant to keep the driver happy and talking until you arrive. This one said “Oh well isn’t that interesting,” without forcing me to go through the embarassment of actually pretending that I thought that was just great.
“You see, the area used to be all farming, nothing but farming. But the government, they thought about the future, and they started putting in industry. Now we have BMW and Siemens. Bavaria is the state of thinkers and inventers.”
“But wasn’t Goethe born in Hessen?” I laughed. He didn’t. Oops.
“Yes,” he said slowly, “but I’m talking about technology here. Thinkers and inventers! Richest state in the country.”
He was on his way home from work and dropped us off at the Wurzburg rest stop, an hour and a half closer to our goal.
In Wurzburg things slowed down. Some people didn’t have room, some waved us away before we’d even said a word, some only wanted to take one of us. “I think people are afraid of me,” Leopard speculated. After an hour, a blond man with horizontal chops that cut across his face said, yeah, he was going to Munich, and yeah he would take us, all three of us.
He was a lawyer, a bankruptcy lawyer. “So this recession must mean the big bucks for you huh?” I asked, trying to make it sound like a joke, hoping for insider information about the end of the financial world, and emboldened by adrenaline at having found a ride, at knowing the hard part of getting to Munich was over.
“In every situation there’s someone who wins and someone who loses,” he said, chuckling with me. He was a Frankfurter, one who looked like he wore a lot of suits and drank 8-euro cocktails on the weekends. A lawyer and a bullshitter, but friendly, the kind of friendly that has me exhausted after about an hour, which is about when my bullshitting hyperjets and the adrenaline from having found a ride right into the center of Munich in two moves start to wear off. But he drove fast, and soon we were at Kafe Kult, where we collapsed onto a big couch and into plates of vegan chili and chocolate cake.
I’ve been to Munich exactly three times. The first time, I was 17, at the beginning of a one-month exchange in Krefeld. It was my first time abroad, and everything was new and different and interesting, even rich old Munich. The second time, I was 22, meeting an old friend for a day and a drink. That’s when I noticed that there was no graffiti anywhere and that the city was startlingly clean, too clean, too put together, “we have too much money and no room for your shenanagens” oozing from every concrete pore. The third time, this time, it was a quick stopover on the way to Prague, and a chance to see Gunmob and Planks perform somewhere besides our house.
Kafe Kult, which is on the outskirts of town and just inside a park, is, as far as I can tell, the only building in all of Munich with any graffiti (even though it looks like it might be that planned, painted-in-full-daylight sort of graffiti). The concert room is just big enough for a crowd, just small enough to still be intimate when only a handful of people show up. The beer was expensive (2,30 at the cheapest), but the organizers were friendly and sweet, letting us in for free and offering us a place to sleep if we needed it. If you live in Munich you should go to their shows and give them lots of money. Munich needs as many alternative venues as it can get. Otherwise the rich people will have won, and we might as well try to keep ‘em on their toes now, eh?
Leg one of the trip: check. Vegan cake, punk rock, and a schnapps taste-test at my former flatmate’s apartment: check. Now we just had to get to Prague on three hours of sleep and a hangover in time for Katey’s show at the Blind Eye on Sunday night.
Hitch hiking is fueled by coincidence. Thousands of random details from a few unrelated lives and one person, trying to get from one city to another, who connects them, ride for ride, into one trip. The old man on his way to get his shattered windshield fixed, only at that rest stop because of a wrong turn; the soldier on his way from visiting his elderly mother to the hospital where his son has just had a baby boy; and the graying Dutch couple on their way home from a week at a health spa in Bavaria. The mother and daughter on their way to Ikea, the businessman on his way to a meeting, the scout leader on his way home from an outing, and two artists late for their own exhibition.
If the tree hadn’t fallen on that windshield or that baby had been born a few days later, if that meeting had been postponed or those artists had been on time, none of that ride would have worked out just the way it did. Maybe you would have gotten there faster, maybe slower. Maybe you would have been stranded in Hunnsbrück, or maybe you would have decided to change your plans and go with that truck driver all the way to Paris. Maybe you would have met the love of your life and eloped; maybe you would have broken your arm jumping out of a moving car. Every trip is a new bouquet of chaotic details, every coincidence another chapter in the adventure. The first chapter in my coincidence was a funeral, though really, it goes back much further than that.
Meet Helena. Helena and I have know each other since way back in the day, when we did radio and went to college and lived together in a house with a horror-film basement and a this-isn’t-funny-anymore crazy landlady (who lived in a shack attached to the back of the house with her collection of rusty junk sculptures). It’s because of Helena (and the internet) that I, years later, visited Bart in Holland, and it was Bart who introduced me to Shireen in the Hague. Helena had met Bart in the States, but I had been out of town when they came through together. Shireen and Helena had never met but had heard all about each other. And, to complicate matters further, they all knew this dude from Canada who I’d also heard all about but never met. Fucking Canada.
So. Turn the page. Change the scenery. I live in Germany, Helena lives in the states. It’s a normal old Tuesday when Helena writes and says, “My Grandma died, I’m going to be in Holland Saturday,” and I write back to say “Well, I guess I’m going to get over my fear of hitch hiking alone.” For the first time ever, Helena, Bart, Shireen, Craig (the dude from Canada), and I were going to be in one room at the same time. As good a reason as any to risk kidnapping and(or) murder.
Hitch hiking seems to be one of those things that spawns more urban legend the less common it becomes. The beatniks and the 60s surrounded it with an aura of romance and adventure, while the media of the last twenty years has countered with their own aura of horror and paranoia. The woman who buys you lunch, the gas station employee who buys you coffee, and the kindly couple who save you from a wet, gloomy night and put you up in their mansion and feed you caviar: The romances that balance out the every-mother’s-nightmare stories about the naive girl who never arrived at her destination or the over-confident duder who arrived at his in ten pieces. I’m willing to believe that it’s all happened to someone, somewhere, but I’ve never been one to take propaganda for much more than stories meant to warn (and)or entertain.
Saturday morning I woke up real nervous. Stones-in-your stomach nervous. Step one: Buy pepper spray. But (oops!) it’s a national holiday and the pepper spray store isn’t open. Silly foreigner, 24-hour-shopping is for Americans. Step two: Take the train to a little village near Mainz and follow my instructions. “When you get off the train turn right. Follow the noise of the highway. Find a way across the highway. There’s the gas station.”
I followed the faint noise of traffic through a field, under an overpass, and past an orchard. The morning air was crisp and fresh, dew dotting the grass beside the footpath. I threw my backpack through a hole in the fence behind the gas station and climbed through after it. A stretch, a bewildered look from an employee standing nearby, and I started asking people if they were going my way, and if they could take me along.
The man with the broken windshield was the first to take me along. “You like to fly? I like to fly. Got a plane up in a little garage we’re going to pass. I’ll point it out to you. Used to hang glide all the time, before the divorce.” He let me out a half hour later at another rest stop and step by step I began inching my way toward the Hague, dodging creeps, eating bread and peanut butter out of my backpack and drinking one euro gas station coffee.
Some people gave me cigarettes and bought me coffee. Leo gave me red wine.
“I can’t take you far,” he’d said as he walked past, “but I can get you to another spot. I wish I could take you further, but my girlfriend’s making dinner, and she’ll kill me if I’m late.” I had been sitting in front of the gas station store for forty-five minutes. Too tired to bother asking every person who stopped to fill up, I’d planted myself with my sign and a snack and crossed my fingers.
“You know, I used to hitchhike a lot. The worst ride I ever got was this guy, dropped me off in the middle of nowhere and then drove off with my guitar,” he told me, pausing every few minutes to translate everything into Dutch for his five-year old son. He was charming, excited, and easily excitable. “I want to be in your book!” he screamed when I told him I was a writer. (Well, here you are Leo. Close enough, eh?) His son looked at me suspiciously, probably a little confused as to why his dad was giving a stranger a ride—those people his mother always tells him to stay away from.
“Well here we are. You’ll get picked up here within five minutes, I promise, it’s a great spot.” He had pulled over at an intersection next to the highway onramp, but in the dark there was no way anyone would be able to see my sign. Leo shoved a bottle of red wine packed in a fancy wooden box into my hands and drove off waving. I parked myself on the side of the road and started trying to wave down cars. One car stopped to yell at me, and the rest just whizzed by me and onto the highway. Thanks a lot, Leo. I think that’s about when it started to rain.
It’s also about when I heard yelling from the other side of the road. “Nikki! Nikki! Get back in the car! I found a better spot! Come on!” Leo. I ran across three lanes and hopped back in the backseat, relieved. Anywhere was better than here.
“So, Nikki, I noticed that you have boots on, and I thought well, fuck it, then there’s a better spot like 500 meters away, you’ll see, you’ll see.” Soon he was pulling over again. “See that field?” Field next to the highway. Check. “Just walk straight through that field, maybe 500 meters, and you’ll eventually come to the next gas station on the highway. I promise, just straight through that field and you’re there. Bye Nikki. Enjoy the wine.”
I got out of the car, waved, and headed into the grass. To my left, an irrigation ditch, to my right, highway. The further I walked, the longer the grass became, and I imagined I was on safari, trudging next to the amazon, glad that I only had imaginary crocodiles and snakes to worry about. That morning I’d been in Germany, at home, and now here I was in Somewhere, Holland, carrying a fancy bottle of wine, and walking through a field next to the highway in grass up to my waist. I laughed to myself. Sure beats the train.
The last people to pick me up were the artists from Utrecht, late for their own exhibit, going all the way to the Hague. Come in and see what we do!, they said when we arrived. We went inside a series of metal containers set up outside of a warehouse. “We were sponsored by Diesel to do this, and they wanted lifelike breasts that made noise when you touched them. So that’s what we made.” At the end of the last container were two counters fitted with large, soft breasts. “Go ahead, give one a squeeze.” I did. It squeaked. Modern art? Or something. Cough. Ehem. Whatever. Time to get the fuck out of here.
And when I got to Shireen’s about the artists and the exhibit, she was pretty sure she knew them. Talk about coincidence.