Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Two Halves: Hitching Excerpts

Joe Bennett’s book A Land of Two Halves is about hitchhiking around New Zealand, and it is such a good read that one day I may even get around to reviewing it. In the mean time, here are some of Bennett’s remarks about hitchhiking, extracted from the book.

There’s a book to be written about the psychology of hitch-hiking, and this may turn out to be it, but for now let me observe only that the business is a matter of demeanour and that a large part of that demeanor is expressed in the thumb. It is possible to proffer a thumb demandingly, imploringly, jauntily, shyly, limply, apologetically or listlessly. My thumb is limp and embarrassed. (8-9)

The driver of the first car gestures that he’s turning off to the right. He probably isn’t, but that acknowledgement that I am here, that I exist and am doing what I am doing, brings a gust of what I want from this trip, a sense of being solitary, free, and somehow small. It’s a feeling I remember from my youth. I like it. (9)

And it [the feeling of being solitary etc.] comes with an abundance of random detail and the time to absorb it. (9)

Now that it’s over, the lift from Rick gives me a tingle of retrospective pleasure. I’ve no desire to meet Rick again, but I liked him and enjoyed his honesty and felt sorry for him. He also provided the sort of thing that makes hitching what it is. It let me step briefly into the mess of his life. And it did us both good. I must have been the first person he’d spoken to since the bitterness of his row that morning. Before he picked me up he must have been stewing, grinding his teeth, clenching the wheel. My presence let him unburden himself of some of that. And I relished the details vicariously. They reminded me that the world is wide and full of differences. And then I was able to step back out of that life, unwounded, uninvolved, almost untouched. (are page numbers really necessary?)

The propaganda against hitching has grown in recent times and you see fewer and fewer people doing it. But it’s not as dangerous as the propagandists make out. Never once have I been physically threatened by a driver. I’ve met nutters but they’ve been harmless nutters. And on the two occasions when I have been propositioned, both the propositioners, though big men and spectacularly ugly ones, were oblique in their propositioning, and they accepted the rebuff without demur.

Indeed my experiences of hitching have affirmed human nature far more often than they have damned it. For one thing, every lift begins with an act of generosity. And once inside the vehicle I have met infinitely more vulnerability and honesty than I have met aggression, perhaps because the fleeting nature of a lift invites intimacy. Both parties are staring ahead through the windscreen, so that words can be spoken as if to air. The best lifts are like confessionals on wheels, like psychiatric couches barrelling through the landscape. Hundreds of drivers have told me things that they have never told their partners, their parents or their children. I like all that. Indeed hitching is the only form of travel that makes the actual shifting of one’s flesh from one place to another something of interest, rather than a chore to be endured for the reward of arrival. Furthermore, the intimacy is temporary and carries none of the consequences of intimacy, which suits me just fine. Never once, anywhere, have I met any of my drivers a second time. So when Rick drives out of the main street of Geraldine he is driving out of my life for good. (no, I don't think they are)

Twenty-five years ago I got a lift from Dieppe to Rouen with a middle-aged English couple in a big Rover. The husband asked me if I was married. I said no.
‘Take my advice, son,’ he said, ‘and stay that way.’
I could think of nothing to say. I didn’t have to. The man had tapped a pent seam of his own venom and discharged it in a stream of invective against married life about traps and womanhood and money and handcuffs that took us half way to Rouen. His wife sat with a map on her lap and said nothing at all. (what a relief)

…And then, just as I was about to put my thumb out, I chose not to. The car slowed a little. It would have stopped. But I looked away and let it pass. Why? Why was simple. It was the sky and the land and the bubbling sense of little me as a speck upon it, tiny, trivial but utterly free. That’s all. Big sky, little man, the essential human comedy. As if for a moment I was suspended above myself, looking down and seeing this vain and self-preoccupied figure all alone on this big white land. That’s all. Call it perspective, if you like, call it Zen, call it a pound of parsnips and eat it with butter for all I care. It felt exhilarating.

Three backpackers are struggling along the main street against the wind. Each is toting both a backpack and a front-pack. A sniper would despair of wounding them fatally. One even carries a third bag in her hand, from which protrudes the corner of a kitchen sink. Time was when you could just push backpackers over and watch them writhe like flipped beetles. Today you have to trip them at the top of an incline so that they roll unstoppably down it in their casing of possessions. Or else you can do as I do now, and give an ironic middle-aged tut before passing by on the other side of the road.

The mist is thinning. Buildings have ghosted out of it and become solid. Over the course of an hour I watch the ironed sheet of a lake appear, shifting by imperceptible gradations from grey to black, from clack to steel, from steel to pine green. Folded mountains emerge as hints of themselves, then gather bulk. Above the sharply defined tree-line, some low vegetation, then what looks to be tussock, then bare rock and slides of scree and pockets of snow and then snow, all of it sharp in the sun. It is good to watch it happen. And there is no other form of travelling in which one would watch it happen. Hitching enforces immobility.

‘That the lion’s share of happiness is found by couples,’ wrote [the poet Philip] Larkin, sheer inaccuracy as far as I’m concerned’ – and as far as I’m concerned, too, at least when travelling. I have tried travelling in company and it has rarely worked. I once went down to France with a University friend. By the time we reached the Spanish border I thought I hated him. I didn’t. What I hated was having to compromise, to discuss, to reach decisions together, to agree on the next move. But more significantly I hated showing my timidity on the road, exposing so much of my weakness.