“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.