My girlfriend regularly hitchhikes…in Africa. What is more mind-boggling for me than this, however, is that it is probably safer for her to hitchhike in Africa than it would be in the US. I must add that Courtney is living in Lesotho (which I now know is not pronounced at all like it sounds, but rather ‘luh-SOO-too’), a relatively safe part of Africa where hitching is a common and accepted form of travel. Still, I sometimes think about this and shudder. I do this because I was raised to believe that if you hitchhike or pick up a hitchhiker, even just once, you WILL be killed. The in-between parts vary from the entirely unsavoury to the outright horrifying, but the end result is death. Terrible and inescapable death. So, no, I’ve never hitched before.
What’s funny about this is that I had never felt that my life was any less rich for not having done so. I didn’t feel like I was missing out or being a chump for paying bus or train fare, and to be quite frank I saw little romance in the thing at all. Granted, there must have been the rare moment (probably when reading a book or watching a movie about traveling with only your thumb as a means of transportation), when I wondered what it would be like, but since the answer was invariably, ‘it will be like dying’, I never really got much further than that.
It was not until I was in Croatia last September, Courtney’s freewheeling stories of African adventure fresh in my mind, that I first began to feel a little bit jealous. I was adventurous, wasn’t I? I had done my fair share of wild stuff, right? There must have been all kinds of things! At the time that I was engaging in this childish monologue nothing cool sprang to mind, but in retrospect it was probably because I was severely dehydrated from my latest attempt to do something that was, if not wild, at least very stupid.
I was spending a few days on the absolutely gorgeous island of Hvar, a jewel of the Adriatic (which is like saying that it’s a cherry on top of the most scrumptious sundae you can imagine…or, you know, some other dessert metaphor). It’s about an hour by catamaran from the Croatian mainland and the kind of place that you think doesn’t really exist until you get there and you’re arms are sore from the constant need to pinch yourself. Seriously, it’s beautiful. So beautiful in fact that it convinces you that you can do anything you set your mind to. This can be a wonderful thing, as long as at least the most primitive parts of your brain are working in order to keep you in check. Apparently those parts were so overwhelmed and hyper-stimulated that they blew a fuse and left me flying blind, which is why I decided that I should walk across the island.
Now I must admit that this is a long, skinny island, and my aim was to traverse it from one long side to the other (more or less…it’s not exactly a rectangle, so if you look it up online don’t be surprised. And you SHOULD look it up online, and then go there. Tomorrow.). That said, it was in no way a straight line and ended up being quite a feat. The ultimate goal was to make my way from one port town to the other, Stari Grad, or The Old City, being the destination in mind. It sounded lovely, and I’m told that it is. I never made it there myself. After walking for 7 and a half hours and I-don’t-know-how-many kilometers or miles or stadiums or however you choose to measure things, I was confronted with a highway that would have taken me the final three kilometers into Stari Grad if I had wanted to play a live-action version of Frogger. I didn’t. I walked about a mile to a bus station and let a motorized vehicle bus me back, my head hung in the shame that only the pedantic and incredibly stubborn can know.
Between the beginning and the end lies the middle, of course, and the middle was a harrowing adventure indeed, which is to say that I walked a lot and was thirsty. And my feet hurt. I can’t stress the feet hurting thing enough. But the beginning, as beginnings often are, was full of hope, arrogance and naïveté. It was near this auspicious beginning that a car passed me and set into motion my thoughts on hitchhiking (admit it, you were wondering if I’d ever get back to this). The car slowed and the friendly-looking driver asked if I wanted a lift somewhere. Now I had already come to realize that Europeans tend to hitchhike a lot more frequently than we do, too. This seems to be especially true for Central and Eastern Europeans-I can’t speak for the French. With that in mind, I was less nervous about the prospect of accepting the offer and more excited about my walk. I am an avid walker, just love it as a pastime and a mode of transport, and when I decide to walk somewhere it’s difficult to dissuade me. Makes me feel like I’m being untrue to myself. So I waved the fella on by and kept going. The thought struck me just as he pulled away that this had been my chance to take a ride from a stranger, and I had just missed it. Now as I had not flagged him down myself, I really don’t think I could have counted it as hitchhiking, but it still would have been a new experience. Right then and there was when I started asking myself why my life was so bereft of crazy adventures and dug in my heels to make the walk count.
After that it wouldn’t have mattered how many people offered me lifts (no one else did). I was bound and determined to prove something that, had I paid even the slightest attention to my own memories or even my current geographical location, I already knew. My life was and is full of adventure. But that day, that moment, I was out to prove something, and I can tell you that that is often the start of doing something extraordinarily ridiculous. Armed with shoes and a bottle of water, I figured that I was ready for anything.
And even the water itself was a new addition to my adventuring gear. Before I had begun my walk, when my head was still clear, I had thought back to another walk a couple of years before. I had been traveling in Slovenia and decided to walk from Bovec, the town I was visiting, to find the source of a river. I walked 10 kilometers to the base of a mountain and started hiking, thinking that the water at the river’s source would be my reward. Hours later I was swaying dangerously on the path and contemplating how much water was in a handful of the slightly moist dirt under my feet. I was just about ready to find out when I finally met other hikers who gave me water and told me I’d need climbing gear to get to the top. They kindly gave me a ride back to town.
With this knowledge, I knew that it was folly to attempt an island crossing without water, but in case you thought that I had learned my lesson, I should point out that I only brought a half-liter bottle with me. I started my walk at midday, and the sun was strong and ready to exact its full judgment for my hubris. Thus, my bottle was empty long before I had reached the first village on the road to Stari Grad, but in another shocking display of my ignorance I had assumed that I would be able to buy some more water in the village. The Croatians already had reason enough to laugh because I was speaking to them in my flawed Slovene, but when I asked where I could buy water they shook their heads and stifled their grins. Silly boy, there aren’t any stores. But in a display of characteristic generosity, an old woman gave me a 1½ liter bottle of cold (!) water. I accepted it as graciously as I was able while speaking to her in a language that was neither hers nor mine.
With this water and the sparing consumption of it, I finally made my way to the highway that eventually thwarted my forward progress, but the in-between was one of the loveliest walks I had had in a long while, despite the intermittent delirium and aching muscles. The winding road gave way hills that rolled on and on, evaporating into coastline and the azure sea beyond. Gnarled and wizened trees dotted the landscape, their slender trunks twisted by salty gusts of wind into strange shapes and blown until their branches had begrudgingly relented and grown with the current as if stretching with all of their might toward some unseen goal. And village after village, secreted away in leeward pockets, revealed themselves slowly as the walk progressed. More than once, in fact even more than twice, I remarked to myself that I was no longer in Croatia at all. I had stumbled into the mythical world of Hyrule, if Nintendo games can be considered myth-makers. And in the end, although I never reached my destination, and although I charmed/annoyed villagers with my delirious singing, it was one of the best times I had on that trip.
I am left now wondering what the moral of this story is. It’s not that hitchhiking is the answer, and it’s not even that being stubborn is ultimately a bad thing. After all, I feel that my life was enriched that day, and I even learned something about water that I can apply to future adventures. I suppose that, if there is a moral, it’s that I should be less concerned with what I haven’t done and may never do and more appreciative of the things that I have done and am doing. Yeah…that sounds about right…