Hitchhiker

Girls from Canada were contradictory creatures in 1969.

We rode in many trucks in Spain. I liked this because the noise of the engine and the business of shifting through multiple gears precluded chit-chat with the driver, and I felt safer sitting up in the cab of a big truck. It was the end of 1969; the truck drivers had caught wind of the sexual revolution and were hopeful that a young, blonde, braless woman travelling with a thin bearded fellow might want to spread the gospel of free love to them.

When Paul climbed up beside me, with his long curly hair and black leather vest, some drivers would point at him, say “Bohb Dee-lan” and laugh. There were fewer cultural equivalents for me; I was too big to be Twiggy, Joni Mitchell wasn’t famous yet, and most of these guys, I guessed, didn’t read Sylvia Plath.

In Granada I got sick. We were staying in a tiny family-run pensión, a spare room in someone’s home that we had found listed in our “Frommer’s Europe on Five Dollars a Day”. (We often managed nicely, if boringly, on less.) When the señora heard I was sick in bed, she brought me her sopa del pollo and inspected my pallor.

“Embarazada?” she asked, smiling. No, I wasn’t pregnant. I was taking birth control pills, the first generation of them;I had enough anti-baby hormones coursing through me to power a poultry farm. The señora felt my brow for fever. A mother’s knowing hand; it made me homesick. It made me realize how formal and stoical I had been, for months on the road, speak-ing inanities in broken French and Spanish, scrambling up into trucks, and always smiling, smiling at strange men to thank them for giving us a ride. There was very little that was “free” about this. It was more like working an endless reception line at a wedding; one’s face grew tired.

But our job as middle-class, twenty-one-year-old graduates was to leavehome and travel, to “do Europe” or to buy a ticket on a painted schoolbus to India. Careers were for dullards; bumming around the world, from Carnaby Street to Ibiza to the beaches of Goa, was part of how you “found yourself.” I went about this in the same dutiful way I had attacked my third-year essay on “The Concept of Bawdiness in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale.”

As I convalesced in Granada, we walked through town, but slowly, aimlessly, like a local couple on a Sunday stroll. The sight of oranges growing in the shiny, dark-green trees of the central plaza seemed like a sly trick, or a special effect. Fruit on trees; what a good idea! We toured the Alhambra, where the Arab mosaics looked like a highly magnified close-up of some molecular code. In my weakened state, everything dazzled me. Normally, we moved too fast for art to work on us as it should.

The next day, too hastily as usual, we pushed on. I regretted leaving the kind señora and her excellent soups. My pack felt heavier on my shoulders, and I wasn’t used to the midday intensity of the Spanish sun. We trudged through town, hump-backed troglodytes of little interest to the locals who sat on café patios, their faces lifted to the sun, reading folded-back newspapers, eating pastry for breakfast. That looked like the free life to me.

On the outskirts of Granada we stood at the base of a steep mountain and held out our thumbs. Right away, a pick-up truck passed us, then braked and swerved over onto the shoulder. We ran towards it, our packs flopping. The driver said he was on his way to pick up some goats, or maybe pigs—my Spanish animal names were skimpy. The back of the truck had a bed of hay. He patted the seat beside him. I could sit up in the cab with him, and Paul could ride in the back with our stuff.

I was wearing a white Indian shirt, semi-transparent and easy to rinse out and dry overnight. No bra, but I was small breasted, and I usually wore a vest too, a homemade patchwork thing I had made out of old scraps of my high school clothes. Wherever I went, I had a turquoise triangle of peau de soie from my first prom dress on my back. My hair was long, blonde, and parted in the middle, a Quakerish, almost military look that for some reason was deemed more “natural” at the time. I wore glasses, aviator-style with a smoky tint. Very Dennis Hopper (or early Gloria Steinem). Silver bangles, plus a glow-in-the-dark, pink plastic rosary around my neck. I wore the cross ironically, not that this made any difference to the people who picked us up.

I had clumsily embroidered a butterfly on my denim bag. But that was the extent of my hippie craft; no beads, no macramé. It was more about listening to Van Morrison sing “Madame George” fourteen times in a row for me. I did have the folk singer hair, and I played acoustic guitar, too. I had the fingerpicking down for “Pretty Boy Floyd”, and “The Good Ship Vanity.” But I didn’t take my guitar with us on the road. My boyfriend was the designated poet.

Paul clambered into the back and I got up beside the driver. The grade was steep and he concentrated on shifting gears as we got underway. I turned around to check on Paul; his hair was whipping around in the wind as he stood with his arms braced on the wooden rails of the pen. He smiled at me through the window of the cab. Our first ride of the day, and we might make it to Seville by lunch.

I sat in the clutter and grease of the front seat, the driver’s leather valise at my feet, with a line of oranges on the dashboard. A few fat drops of rain hit the windshield, then stopped.

The driver was small and joli-laid, with a lacquered ledge of swept-back dark hair. He had an incisor tooth that went a bit sideways, inflecting his smile. Nice deep-set eyes. A cross of tiny seashells hung from the rearview mirror, and Virgin Mary decals covered the dash on his side. We laboured to the top of the mountain and then barrelled down the other side, navigating an alarmingly narrow stone bridge as we drove into a more rural landscape.

It was hot. I took off my vest, then wished I hadn’t: nipple alert. The driver looked over and gleamed his incisor. He offered me a cigarette, which I dearly wanted but declined. He said a few sentences in Spanish that I didn’t understand, something soothing. Then he jerked his head back towards Paul, and put one hand up behind his head, pinkie and index finger raised in the universal sign for cuckold. He gestured gracefully towards his groin, as if to a third person in the cab, and spoke in soft, flowing Spanish, like a doctor outlining some necessary course of treatment. The gist of it seemed to me that I would be missing an unforgettable experience if I overlooked this opportunity to cuckold my boyfriend. I appeared to be an adventurous person, accepting rides from estranjeros, and so it would really be in my interest to take him up on this offer. La revolucion, si?

Paul had crouched down in the hay, to keep the wind from lashing his hair into his eyes. I raised my left hand and turned the back of it towards my driver. Mi esposo, I said, demurely, displaying the dimestore ring I always wore on the road. He looked at me sadly with a glance over his shoulder, and gave an eloquent shrug: What sort of husband is this, to let you sit up here with me? Then he split open an orange, offering me half, and we drove on in citrus-pungent silence.

Here was a girl, the driver must have thought, who should be home helping her family instead of riding in a truck. With her roundish Canadian face, prim braless breasts, and a blue plastic wallet of traveller’s cheques in her hippie bag, while her long-haired “husband” rode in the back, knee-deep in hay like a burro.

In Italy, on the high-speed autostrada, the drivers were sometimes elegant men in expensive cars who bought us espressos and played opera cassettes. They drove too fast, with skill and control. But fast was good. After a few months of hitchhiking, the momentum of the road was hard to forsake; our stays in cities grew shorter, the time on the roads between longer. If a famous church in Florence was closed—as they regularly were—we would shrug and move on to Sienna. The staggered columns of daily expenses that we kept in our separate journals were lengthening. Frugality became more seductive than expansiveness.

What I liked most were the empty, accidental times, on the fringes of cities, when we stepped off the last stop of the city bus into a place where the buildings thinned out and the raw fields began. Where we could hear birdsong and crickets instead of motorscooters. I liked these hitchhiking moments, when you had no choice but to stand for hours along one stretch of road, open to the line between the car-world with its fuel smells, and the ditches with their tossed coffee cups and delicate wildflowers. Highways broadcast oblivion, beginning with the appalling amount of roadkill—a story of not having seen the animal, and then not even knowing you had hit one. Cars were like a thicker skull, making humans stupider. I loved the early mornings best, when the tarmac was cooler than the dirt of the shoulder, and then hourly grew hot, soft and tarry, until by mid-afternoon the pavement radiated heat. If you lay down on the tarmac then, it was warm as a body.

But girls from Canada were contradictory creatures in 1969. We expected strangers who earned a fraction of what our fathers made to give us free rides, maybe buy us lunch, yet if they took our transparent shirts as a sexual invitation and made an advance, we became indignant. Did they think they owned us and could do as they wished? Didn’t they see we were independent women who only wanted to be treated with respect? Even though we needed them to get us to the next town?

It was late in the afternoon when we came to a Y in the road and the driver—Luis—pulled over. There had been a lunch of grilled sardines at a café, with two carafes of red wine, followed by a nap on the shoulder of the road, in the shade of anold wooden watertower. At least, Luis slept; Paul passed the time writing in his notebook, and I read my book (“Love’s Body” by Norman O. Brown). It was only when we got back into the truck that Ilet myself fall asleep, leaning against the window.

Then I felt the truck hit gravel and come to a stop. Luis reached across, brushing against me just a touch, and opened my door. There was a side-trip he had to take, he said, and it was time for us to get out. He was smiling, but there was a hint of reproval in his tone. I was confused. Paul gave me a what-gives look as he handed down our packs.

You’ll get there well before dark, Luis explained, no problem. Muchos carros, he said, gesturing with his hand, even though we hadn’t seen one for some time. Then he pointed at my vest, and wagged his finger, meaning, leave it off.

He drove away, and Paul and I were alone by the road. Our shadows lay long and narrow on the pavement. We ate our oranges. The crickets and cicadas had fallen silent when the truck had pulled over, shedding its fumes. Now they started up in the fields again, a workmanlike chorus.

We held our arms out and began walking backwards in the direction of Seville.

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