I was 19 and it was my first time hitchhiking and I really didn’t know what to do.
From the movies I’d seen it seemed pretty straightforward – you just stand beside the highway and stick your thumb out and people pick you up.
I bought some cigarettes and some cheap wine and began walking along the highway outside Barcelona. I hadn’t expected to feel embarrassed about what I was doing, but I did. I felt like some American eurotrip cliché.
Most cars whizzed by without even slowing down. Some people looked at me with what seemed like disdain. I thought about making a sign, but decided not to. Someone threw a drink at me. I felt ridiculous. After four hours I walked back to Barcelona.
That night at a hostel some drunk hanging out at the bar told me I should begin hitching much further outside the city, otherwise nobody would pick me up. The next morning I decided to give it a try. I took a train to the highway far beyond Barcelona and stuck my thumb out.
After about ten minutes a beat-up little delivery van pulled over. The driver was wearing mirrored sunglasses and had a ponytail. I hopped in without asking where he was going.
As I said, I was new. I didn’t know the rules.
The man didn’t speak any English but thought if he repeated things loudly in Spanish that I would understand him. The van smelled like blonde tobacco and hair oil. In the back a couple of stale bread loaves were sliding around. It was a bread delivery truck, apparently.
The man kept on talking to me, annoyed that I wasn’t responding, but after awhile he gave up and turned on the radio.
I had no idea where we were going. I had never felt so uncomfortable in my life.
About ten minutes later he pulled over and took out a pocket knife and a bar of hash and began shaving pieces off the hash. I’d never seen hash before and asked him what it was.
Chocolate, he told me.
He rolled a joint and lit it and we got back on the highway. We passed the joint back and forth. When it was finished he threw it out the window, turned the music back up and began driving extremely fast, honking and swerving around cars. At times he would yell things out the window, or at me. He was obviously crazy, but I didn’t care. I was high.
Thirty minutes later he pulled over, said some things in a tone that sounded like advice, then just sat there. When I didn’t do anything he unlocked the door and nodded towards it. I got out and he drove off.
I had no idea where I was. I ate some cheese and drank some wine on the side of the road and stuck my thumb out. After about 30 minutes a car pulled over, but when I grabbed my pack and hurried towards it it screeched off with middle fingers thrust out the window.
I walked for what seemed like hours, taking a swig of wine from time to time. The weather was beautiful. It was sunny, birds were everywhere; I was high. I walked until I came to a petrol station, went a little beyond it, and stuck my thumb out again.
Eight hours went by with no ride. Occasionally the station attendant came out and stared at me. He didn’t wave or saying anything, he just stared. When I waved he went back inside.
When the sun went down the temperature fell and I had to put on every layer of clothing I owned. I jumped up and down to keep warm. I clapped my hands and blew in them. I sang songs until my throat was dry. I did jumping jacks. Nothing worked. My hands felt like bars of ice. I convinced myself that I was developing a fever and that if I didn’t get out of there soon I would freeze to death.
I began waving frantically at cars. When that didn’t work I went to the station and began asking those who pulled up for gas to take me with them. Some pretended they didn’t speak English; others looked at my beard and mangy hair and said ‘Sorry, I can’t help you’, and drove away.
It was the coldest night of my life.
Around midnight the cars stopped coming. I had no food, no water, no money, nowhere to sleep. I sat down in the middle of the highway to smoke my last cigarette.
Just as I finished a pair of headlights appeared in the distance, then the truck they belonged to materialized and veered over towards the diesel pumps. I grabbed my pack and ran like a mad man.
The driver was African and seemed in a hurry. I slowed down and approached him cautiously.
‘Where are you going?’ I asked.
He jumped – he hadn’t seen me creep up on him.
“France?” I said.
He said something in French.
I pointed to the truck.
“Can I go with you?”
I made little hand movements to try to communicate this, but he shook his head no and walked into the station. When he came out I was standing on the side of his truck.
“Please,” I begged. “You must take me. I’m stranded here.”
He got into his truck and started the engine. I looked at him through the window, trying to make the saddest face possible. He seemed to be struggling with himself in there. I tapped on the glass and mouthed please. He reached over, unlocked the door and made room for me in the seat.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
He didn’t understand English. He offered me some donuts and some coffee and together we drove off into the darkness towards France.