The Failed Hitchhike

The Failed Hitchhike

A Chapter by Mike

Chapter 12


Occurred - October 2011, Munich (Germany) to Rotterdam (Holland). 

Traveling for extended periods of time with no real guidance or plans can play havoc on your psyche. I have come to this realisation several times during my life, and with each fleeting moment that leaves me destitute I am slowly learning a very valuable lesson. Every moment that involves struggle - from camping in the Tasmanian forest, to lying wide awake and perceptive on the gutter of a petrol station in Barcelona - should theoretically culminate into a lifestyle change. But the sad truth is that it hasn't. Each experience feeds my hunger to become more uncomfortable, and places me closer to the line that separates rational thought and complete insanity. 

In October I came to another startling realisation. I discovered that truly life changing experiences can often manifest themselves in the fear of the unknown, and the acceptance of failure. As curious humans there is only a certain height that we can fall from before our instinctual desires and needs drive us to change direction. In my case this was a lesson that I had to learn on my own, without a sense of knowing what was lying around the corner. For an event to spark some form of change, it had to be completely unexpected. 

On the eve of Oktoberfest in Munich I decided that I would go and visit one of my best friends in The Netherlands. He was living and studying there with his Dutch girlfriend, and I’d visited them a few months prior. I chose to travel by bus on my first visit, partially because I had to return to England and partially because I hadn't discovered the beauty of hitch-hiking at that point in time. 

On my second visit I never really gave it much thought. With the 1,600 kilometres Dean and I had just completed, and with how homeless and moneyless we had really been at the time, I thought it would be a breeze. The unwavering requirement for me to hitch-hike seemed like something that I had no choice in, seeing as though I always liked to build on my experiences. At that moment in time I felt like I’d just undertaken some Mao-grade pilgrimage, having just strutted through vineyards and walked on major highways in the Pyrenees, thumbin' it all the way over Europe. Dean and I thought we had broken all social boundaries and were convinced that we would never go back to regular travel methods. 

In the end I did make a compromise. I booked a ride-share from Munich to Dusseldorf, which is more than half the journey I was going to take with my thumb. I was stoked, knowing that I could easily hitch the other 230km's to Rotterdam. I was also quite pleased that I had made the compromise and felt a lot safer knowing that I was being somewhat sensible. 

I called my friend on the day that I was leaving, and told him of my plans. 

'So you're just gonna hope somebody is going that way?' my friend Wilko said bluntly when I told him that I was planning on hitching part of the way. 

'Yeah man, hitchin' is an easy gig - I'll see ya tonight'. 

I hung up the phone and was feeling confident. I told myself that Wilko's reaction probably just came down to the fact that he had never hitched before, and therefore didn't know how easy it actually was. In hindsight my judgement was just clouded by the large head I had resting on my shoulders. But at that moment I had no doubt in my mind that I would be meeting him at Rotterdam Central Station at around midnight of the same day. 

I left Munich at around 1pm, and when the time came I hopped my ride to Dusseldorf. My strong expectations led me to believe that I would be riding in a combi with two long-haired German hippies. In reality I was given a freshly waxed Lexis, and two middle-aged German business associates with no personality. In hindsight I think they were a couple, heading to Dusseldorf for a bit of docking in a vacant apartment. But they were nice enough, even if they never really spoke to me or responded when I dropped comments like 'I'm still so amazed that you guys can go as fast as you want - my Dad only drove on the autobahn at 140 when we last came.' In some strange logic I felt that the payment I had given them for the lift also required some fruity humour on my part. In reality it didn't, and after around four hours of silent driving they dropped me at a huge petrol station just outside of Dusseldorf. 

As the sun began its descent I paid for a meal at the restaurant that was connected to the petrol station. At around 8pm I cleared out and began to thumb it hard, singing and dancing by myself as the sun gradually became non-existent. I was probably more chipper than I had ever been. I positioned myself on the exit, just as we had done only two months prior, and still had no hesitation that I would receive a ride. But as the sun set, the bite of mountain air and a blanket of darkness slowly chipped away at my confidence. I was slightly tempted to pitch my tent and sleep until morning, until of course I realised that I had no tent and no blankets to make it a reality. 

Thankfully, though, my inner anxiety was heard. 

'Oi!' a voice from behind me yelled. 'You going to Rotterdam?' 

The voice belonged to a random German bloke in a bright red windbreaker. I paused, looked at him and thought 'isn't it a little early for that heavy gear?' My actual words were more considerate, and once I started up a conversation with him and his wife they agreed to take me in the general direction of the exit that led into Holland. 

The couple ended up dropping me at a petrol station only 40 kilometres down the road. It looked identical to the other one, and I was puzzled as I wasn't sure if I had even moved at all. But there was no time for negative thoughts - at least not after they sped off down the autobahn and into the night. 

I walked around aimlessly for quite some time, starting conversations with customers who clearly didn't want to converse. But in my desperate state I was able to squeeze at least a few valuable words out of somebody who clearly had the answers to the questions I was asking. A man informed me that I had passed the exit to Holland 5 kilometres back, and would need to cross the road if I was hoping for a lift. I wouldn't have been too pissed with this fact if I was talking to a kind individual. This man was one of those heartless humans who tells you something (which severely affects your current reality) and then goes on to talk in their own language at you and laugh about your dilemma. 'What the f**k do you want me to do about it?' I thought. 'I can't speak German. I can say 'Ja' and 'Servus' when somebody in Bavaria asks me for a lighter. But that's all I've got - that's my only trick. Telling humorous jokes that I don't understand doesn't help the fact that I'm destitute.' Needless to say a guy next to him spoke to me on a serious level. 

'Trust me mate,' the other man said. 'It's the best option you got crossing that road, otherwise you'll see the morning, the next night and the next morning.' He laid it on me flat, so I sucked up my tears and busted out over the bridge, in complete darkness. 

I climbed the 50 stairs to the top of the bypass, and began to walk along it. I was balancing myself on the gutter, looking out over the autobahn as dozens of cars drove in both directions. The line of the gutter became a metaphor for my madness as I lost my balance several times and stumbled. I reached the other side of the highway and looked out for the stairs that would take me down to the small road-stop. Eventually I resorted to using my phone light to walk down these steps which were covered in two metres of shrubbery from their lack of use. It was in complete contrast with the roadhouse on the other side of the road which appeared as lively as a city. Immediately I realised that maybe one or two people had walked the path, which further heightened my sense of idiocy. I hiked through shoulder height grass on the side of the autobahn for 20 minutes, and eventually reached the barren parking stop. It was full with trucks that had stopped for the night, with numerous truckers sitting in their rigs contently, possibly having a beat. I sat down on a cold park bench and calculated my options. 

'Okay, number 1', I thought. 'You're fucked.' 'Number 2 - you're an idiot sometimes.' For once I had truly suffered the consequences of my actions. I had passed the point of no return, and knew that if every truck had stopped for the night I definitely had little chance of finding a lift. 

I lifted my arse off the cold, metallic park bench and began walking over to a larger picnic table that I could use as a temporary bed until the sun began to rise. Unfortunately for me, as I walked closer I noticed that my bed was occupied. But nobody was sleeping. I understood that I had nothing to lose by approaching whoever was there, so I walked over to the picnic table and took a seat. The two men who I happened to meet were actually using the equipment for its intended purpose - that was, to have a meal. Despite the fact that it was 1am and we were on the side of the German autobahn, the situation didn't actually appear all too ludicrous. Somehow, the intensity of situations that would appear odd in any regular scenario are subdued when you are traveling and feeling hopeless. But I needed the company, and came to the conclusion that if anybody was going to entertain me at that point it would probably be two Russians and a bottle of vodka. 

The two men, whose names I never came to know, were in the delivery business and had stopped to enjoy some food, conversation and alcohol. On my arrival I was given a special shot glass out of a patterned holster, and a variety of meats that I was expected to fit into a small bread bun. I had always been apprehensive about vodka, but after my first shot I had no problems in accepting more and accepting the situation I had gotten myself into. In broken English I told them of my dilemma, but after 15 minutes of drinking consecutive shots I somehow became too drunk to care. For the next three hours, and with their 20-word combined vocabulary, we spoke of the future, Lenin and communism, vodka and travel. They were great dudes, and somehow respected my 'craziness'. To be honest I thought my first experience with two Russian men and a bottle of vodka in the late hours of the night would've been entirely different and definitely not as enjoyable. 

At 3am or so they decided to pack it on into their small, white mini van. They offered me a place on the mattress they had set up in the boot, but I denied. The last thing I wanted at that moment was to be accosted by a Russian father/son duo in a van late at night. It would have gone down as a strange crescendo to the night's frivolities. 

After they went to bed I tried sleeping on the park bench, but it failed. The brisk air caught every surface of my body that I could not conceal from the wind, and my two jackets definitely weren't supplying as much warmth as a blanket that one would take for granted in their double bed at home. 

4am rolled around, and suddenly I was left with only one option. I had noticed a few hours earlier that the road stop was equipped with an amenities block, and in my icy brain I knew that being in there would be infinitely warmer than being in the open air. My decision to walk over and check out the scene marks one of my most homeless, down-and-out moments to date. I scoped out the male toilets, with my bag lumped over my shoulder, and saw quickly that they only had one concealed toilet. I envisioned locking the door and setting up my temporary home, only to discover five minutes later that some trucker would knock on the door and wonder what the hell was going on. I couldn't stand in the way of a trucker’s urge. I then walked over to the female toilets, and saw two separate cubicles - one disabled and one normal. The disabled toilet looked like paradise, so in some pretzel logic I decided to lock the door. I knew that the odds of a woman, let alone a disabled woman, needing a toilet between the hours of 4 and 7 in the morning were slim. 

I pulled out a towel from my bag and lay it on the cold, dirty floor. I looked around aimlessly, and as if in a wave of intensity my mind became flooded by a sea of thoughts that had previously only lingered above me. It marked the first moment in my life where nobody in the world who knew me, knew of my location. There were only two separate parties who knew that I was somewhere between Munich and Rotterdam, with both of them expecting that at that moment I had safely arrived in Rotterdam. Foolishly, I had no phone, no map and no internet. I imagined a map of the world in my mind, with myself representing a small dot on the side of the highway in west Germany. I laughed, and somehow felt content. The intensity of the situation had again subdued my emotions. I had crossed the line of rationality when I chose to accept a ride-share only half the way to my chosen destination almost 12 hours earlier. Eventually I fell asleep, leaving all the emotions and reactions of my friends behind me, understanding that I had no hope of informing anybody about anything until I arrived in Rotterdam. 

I awoke suddenly, at a time that felt only moments after I fell asleep. I stood up, faintly hearing some mutterings in what appeared to be Polish or Russian. I realised that the male voices I heard were probably trying to understand why a cubicle had been locked for such a long period of time, and why, when they looked underneath, they could see somebody sleeping. In a frantic scamper I got scared, looked through the crack at their beaten up sneakers and decided to grab all my s**t and hit the road. In retrospect I should have probably questioned why these men were so interested in the female toilets at a road-stop, but I was really nobody to judge suspect behaviour at that point.

I stood at the main strip of the road-stop as the sun began to rise. It was cold and fresh, but I was determined to reach Rotterdam and tell Wilko of my story that was yet to be over. Within 10 minutes I was picked up by a Russian truck driver who drove the largest semi trailer truck I had ever seen. He pulled up beside me and opened his window, pulling out a clipboard full of destinations. I could barely read the writing as my head only reached halfway between the ground and his outstretched arm. I saw Antwerpen written as his next destination, so without a single clue as to what he was delivering I jumped in the truck and rode away with him.

As I got comfortable in what seemed like the king bed of seats, I saw a GPS system indicating the distance between us and Antwerpen - 200 kilometres. At the speed that we were traveling I started to make conversation to pass the time, until I realised he didn't speak a word of English. To gauge his level of competency, imagine that the game of charades I played with the two men the night before to communicate was not even possible. He understood not a single 'hello' and 'how are you', and definitely did not understand my rantings about my idiocy. Selfishly, I decided to fall asleep and escape the situation for the next three hours. Eventually we reached a petrol station just outside of Antwerpen and I waved my arms helplessly, indicating my need to get out. 

Almost instantly I regretted the decision. I was toying with the idea in the truck to purchase a train ticket from Antwerpen to Rotterdam, but I knew that I still wanted to tell my friends that I had managed to travel the distance for nothing. The station that I was standing in was massive. It was about five times the size of anything I had ever witnessed, with exits flowing in every direction. I had no idea where to stand, so I decided that the shop itself was probably a safe option. 

I switched between both major exits, holding out a sign that blatantly said 'Rotterdam, Holland!', hoping that somebody would feel sorry for me and pick me up. Secretly, I had no idea what to write because I only had a half loaded map on my phone that couldn't load perfectly in remote areas with no internet connection. Somehow, in a midst of irrationality I thought that somehow I would just 'get' there, especially if I became more emotional with my written plea. Perhaps I should have written 'Rotterdam to see my buddy' on there, with a smiley face for sympathy. But this moment was no moment for jokes. 

Suddenly it started to rain, and Belgium was looking more dreary by the second. I was beginning to lose my bearings and feel unsure as to what country I was even in. I held out my flimsy sign in the wind and prayed for a miracle. Nobody except Polish truck drivers and rich business men gave me a look - both probably for different reasons. The businessmen were most likely ecstatic that they weren't me because they had sold out and bought a sports car. The polish guys probably just wanted to ‘talk to me’. Times were truly dire, and I knew secretly that nobody would actually be traveling to Rotterdam because it just didn't make any sense in relation to where I was. 

At about 11.30am I made a conscious decision to just cut the s**t and get the hell out. I threw away my sign and started asking people if they were heading to Antwerpen city. I was tired of all the waiting and homelessness, and understood that I had to break my heightened sense of pride if I was ever going to reach my destination. 

After five minutes or so I met a chiller called Dominik. I spotted him immediately as he parked his battered mini van in a loading zone and strutted into the petrol station to purchase cigarettes. I raced up to him and desperately asked him for a lift. 

'Dude I will drop you anywhere you like,' he said. 

At that moment he was my God, my saviour. I told him of my night and he listened, at least partially. He dropped me at Antwerpen Central Station and I strutted heroically to the platform. Again, a sea of thoughts flooded my mind. After purchasing my ticket, I calculated that it had cost me 45 euro to reach Rotterdam from Munich. This was probably more than it would have been to purchase two ride shares, and it involved me spending a night in a disabled toilet. If somebody had explained to me previously that my decision to hitch-hike would involve enduring one of the worst nights I had ever experienced, and parting with the money, I definitely would’ve changed my decision. I understood at that moment that sometimes modern communication and transportation methods are designed to help their citizens rather than screw them over. 

As I stepped off the train at Rotterdam Central Station I placed all the notes I had scribbled down on the train into my pocket. I used the money I actually possessed but was unable to use, to call Wilko and inform him that I had arrived. He expected my call about 12 hours earlier, but as if predicting my tardiness rode down graciously from his apartment and picked me up. As I waited for him I reflected on my night, pulling out my camera and looking at the photos I had taken with my two Russian friends. In amongst the chaos and desperation, I actually looked happy. I just hope that there was nothin' wrong with that vodka. 

© 2018 Mike

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Brillig! I took the train from Paris to Antwerp to Amsterdam... A bit more uneventful and no rain.

Posted 10 Years Ago

great tale brother. it is my dream to hitch to the coast, go on the road and into the wild. this life sounds awesome and I would take "wide awake and perceptive on the gutter of a petrol station in Barcelona" over sleepless in my parents basement any day.

Posted 10 Years Ago


10 Years Ago

Cheers! Yeah I guess we are all going to be comtemplative about life, so why not do it in "style"! H.. read more

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2 Reviews
Added on September 1, 2012
Last Updated on October 31, 2018
Tags: Germany, Belgium, Holland, Hitchhiking.



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