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.