You are fast asleep in your tent, and suddenly bright lights disrupt the tranquil darkness, abruptly waking you. In a drowsy, childlike state, you hear the crackling roar of a truck starting up, like a kind of mechanical thunder. Before you can escape the clutches of your sleeping bag, the truck is heading straight for you. Adrenaline rises, driving your alertness up. That’s when you realise the driver is actually leaving the truck stop where you camped, not savagely running you over for the fun of it.
Repeat this scenario several times, and you have an accurate description of my night. Fortunately I could consult my therapist in the morning: McDonald’s. Shamelessly, I walked straight to their toilets and practically took a bath in the sink. It’s remarkable what a difference hot water, dry shampoo and face wash can make. If you don’t like any traditional religions, why not try worshipping the God of cleanliness? There’s proof of his existence, for a start.
I emerged a new man, ready to capitalise on the fact I had slept at a large petrol station. About an hour passed before I had any luck despite the high volume of trucks zooming straight past me. Oddly, truck drivers were an extremely reliable mode of transport when I hitchhiked with a female companion, and now they were cold and evasive. I don’t like to be cynical but I think it’s clear what constitutes the change in their behaviour.
Throughout the course of the trip, I wrote a one line description of every single person who picked me up. For the man who rescued me this time, I jotted down “A thoughtful, giving kind of fellow.” And rightly so: he offered to buy me lunch, forced me to take a bottle of water and asked if I needed a piece of cardboard for a sign, gesticulating towards a large supermarket where he would “get me one.”
His kindness was matched only by his eccentricity. He wore a colourful hand-knitted jumper made by his wife, track suit bottoms and an old, dusty cow-boy hat. Well-worn Nike trainers completed the look, of course. It was the kind of style rocked by an individual stripped of all their vanity and self-consciousness; somebody who is fearlessly authentic in who the are by default of their very being. It was a state I edged closer to with every passing day, and it was liberating.
I politely thanked him for his generosity, accepting only the bottle of water. I thought it would be best to reach Lyon sometime in the next decade. Three hours (broken in two by a thrilling trip to buy my own piece of cardboard!) of hard graft failed to yield any results, so I decided to look for a better spot. As if right on cue, a hitchhiker about the same age as me materialised and I followed him to a nearby petrol station. Not only were we travelling in a similar direction; it also turned out he had just returned from a grape-picking programme, warning me that it was extremely tiring work.
The noticeable distinction between us: he was French and I was not. The moment we arrived at the petrol station, he casually snagged a lift from a truck driver, exuding a level of charm I could not: “Bonjour, do you speak English?” just wasn’t going to cut it. I might have been able to tag along anyway – like a part of some unwanted “Buy one get one free” deal -, but Lyon was too far out of his way.
It was the kind of situation that transformed from frustrating to ideal very quickly. Standing by the exit to the motorway, I glimpsed a matte black Audi (any further details are beyond my indifference to all vehicles) heading towards me and thought, “Well, I’ll still try, but I can write this one off.” There is a fairly comprehensive correlation between how expensive a car is and how likely the driver is to stop. If it’s an old piece of shit, you’ve got a good shot. If it’s a bank-breaker, you should prepare yourself for rejection.
However, this turned out to be a grand exception to the ‘rule’. There was some hesitance in his voice when he pulled over, but I believe it’s actually far more admirable when someone stops who isn’t fully comfortable with the prospect of having a stranger in their car. They are pushing themselves to be more compassionate and open-minded, willing themselves to grow, and that is always a beautiful thing to be wrapped up in.
Then my luck doubled. “I can take you directly to Villefranche train station, it’s no hassle”, he exclaimed. Considering his uncertainty just minutes ago this was a dramatic leap, and while I partly attributed it to my open gratitude it honestly derived from his innate will to help.
A caring man, but rather shy compared to what I had become accustomed to. A high percentage of people who pick up hitchhikers are slightly screw lose, free of all inhibitions or just damn right confident. He was none of the these, and neither was I exactly, so the conversation was a little stilted at first. Questions like, “What do you do?” were met with brief, awkward answers; long periods of silence elapsed, filled only by the sound of our anxious breathing or the ambience of the open road.
But it was a long journey, and the spell of meaningless small talk shattered eventually. I asked him about his family, leading us to the topic of his wife’s pregnancy. Boldly he revealed his most intimate of fears, stating: “It’s not the baby we’re worried about, it’s the process of giving birth.” He was terrified to lose his wife or child during labour, and I reacted with pure sympathy. The vulnerability inherent in this conversation caused us to share personal stories for the rest of the journey, with authenticity and joy. After all, what could be more exposing than the thoughts he had already expressed?
Arriving at Villefranche train station was immensely satisfying. After eating some greasy concoction (a burger baguette with fries inside, I think) I started to hunt for a place to sleep, absorbing the understated beauty of the town at the same time. I tried three hotels that were all miserably expensive before resorting to a public park, where I was quickly ushered towards the exit by a guard (the only time camping failed me).
It was fine, I would just sleep at the train station. Except when I got back there, the doors were locked and the shutters were down. Now I had to find a campsite, since I wasn’t quite exhausted enough to collapse on the street (that’s a story for another time). For once Google maps was a success, leading me about two kilometres out of the town towards a small campsite. It was late and I was determined to sleep for free, so I climbed over the fence and slyly pitched my tent in between two tall oak trees. The protection from potential rainfall comforted me deeply.
I fell asleep filled with a dizzying excitement to start work the following day: to connect with the diverse group of other employees, get my hands dirty, earn some money and have an actual bed to sleep in for eight whole nights. Oh, how pathetically naive I was.