By Colin Field.
The first time I hitchhiked, my thumb felt like it was the size of a grapefruit. I had no idea what I was doing. But I knew I wanted to learn; Kerouac had inspired me. Bob Dylan’s lyrics, the rules of the road can’t be lodged/it’s only people’s games you got to dodge, stuck in my head as I nervously wondered how this worked. A woodpecker tapped loudly just below the mountainous skyline at a crossroads in Jasper. A crossroads I’ve ended up at numerous times since.
I’d read Kerouac’s On the Road in high school, and now, after graduating, I was finally here, doing something I had dreamt of ever since: hitchhiking. Kerouac’s fast and mad criss-crossing of the continent, his jazz-like ramblings, had inspired me. I was out to live life as fully as I possibly could. Kerouac’s character Dean Moriarty summed up my attitude so simply:
“Whee. Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”
This unquestioned need to go was upon me.
My first ride was with a large tattooed man, a small tear tatt from his left eye, and an old, rusted red pick up truck. After brief introductions he asked if I knew how to roll a joint. He told me to reach into the glove compartment and roll up one each. I did as I was told. As the giant blue sky sped by, obstructed by those monstrous Rockies, he talked of his ex-girlfriend who had stabbed him to within an inch of his life. He talked of people who he had to avoid; any altercations would land him in the pen again. But he really was a pleasant guy. He liked me. Because I was hitching.
For years I followed in Kerouac’s footsteps across continents and oceans, longing for the simple days of hoboes and freight trains that he wrote about so passionately. Of Charlie Parker blowing a late night horn in some bar in San Francisco, while a jug of cheap port was passed around and swigged from freely. His delinquent crowd of writers, poets and junkies was a world I wanted to know. The mysterious world of The Subterraneans.
The nights he described were filled with intensity that was hard to find, but I managed to find the magic here and there: a lovely drunken night in the warm streets of Seville, a Spanish beauty on my arm, dancing barefoot below palm trees to live reggae in Ghana, hashpipes in Morocco, opiate bliss in London. I too had experienced my perfect nights. Those magical sparkling evenings. And before long I found myself once again at those silent crossroads in Jasper. Flipping a coin to see which way to go. Off to Calgary by chance.
It was a drizzly grey morning. The rain soaked me slowly, my thumb cold and lonely in the rain. The definition of miserable. It’s times like these one is forced to question everything that one has become. Was this living life to its fullest? Where is the romance in standing on the side of a familiar road in the rain? From the direction I was headed, I could see a cyclist plodding along towards me. Approaching slowly.
Calgary – for no other reason than to go. I knew a woman there I could probably stay with. A lovely woman. With a job and a house. The big time as far as I was concerned. With that thought in mind I saw the cyclist getting closer. I looked at her for the simple fact that there was nothing else to look at. She returned my gaze and through the drizzle that separated us said, “Jesus loves you.”
And I’m by no means a good Christian, but the fact that in a time of self-doubt, someone had brought reassurance was encouraging. She brought me beauty. I felt rejuvenated; I was on the right path.
It was then that a pick-up approached and I stuck out my thumb confidently. When I saw the brake lights, I grabbed my pack that contained all my worldly possessions and ran happily towards the dry warmth of the cab.