I walked the main streets of Brussels, coffee in hand, dodging beeping trucks and stumbling drunken youths. Men in Illuminated vests rush the streets which are littered with colorful paper streamers and plastic cups. It’s the day after Belgium’s National Day and I had, for the first time this summer woke up early in preparation for today’s hitch hike in the peak hour work traffic. My heart thumped like the disco music I’d heard just hours prior, aided by The red bull vodka still making its way through my system. Today I head for Switzerland to visit My friend Rosie. It’s the most epic and certainly the most dramatic and synchronizing day of hitch hiking ever experienced by me. From Brussels to Bruson is a 740km drive passing through four countries. Two obvious ones are through inland France or along the eastern border through Luxembourg. The further south the journey heads the more difficult it becomes. Once I can get across the Swiss border and in the direction of Bruson from France it is a maze of uncertainty. My specific destination means a lot of intersections. In honesty I didn’t know which route to take but instead left it up to the people picking me up to persuade me with their local knowledge. It was a cool sunny morning, with temperatures forecast to reach the mid 30s later in the day.
I arrived at the hitching location at 7am and watched the stressed and often angry drivers pass me rapidly on their way to their soul destroying jobs. The nearby bus stop constantly filled and emptied. The passengers were either starring at their phones, blasting noise through tiny earphones, or curiously watching me with an empty expression, to see if my outstretched thumb was indeed enough to get a free ride. I felt uneasy. Nobody was interested to interrupt their morning commute to pick me up, and the sight of the people at the bus stop was depressing. I pulled on my bag and kick started my slowing heartbeat with a second coffee and watched the peak hour traffic slow down.
Eventually, at around 9 a young man headed for University gave me a short ride. After that I met a wonderful lady who tells me she picks up hitch hikers everyday on her daily route to Luxembourg. Her son, she tells me, is in the upcoming Tour De France cycling race. The proud mother gave me a brochure with his name and face on the cover, I contacted him later that week to say thanks and goodluck. Another car stops soon after, a French mum with her young daughter in the front seat. My mumbling, monotone Aussie accent is difficult for them to understand so the French lady demands I choose some music to interrupt the silence. Chet Faker is my choice and they seem pretty happy with the relaxing tunes. pretty soon after I’m fare welling the helpful family and saying hello to a young lady who works as a security guard at a school for the rich and famous where the kids are screened daily for weapons or metallic objects. She explains The security to resemble a prison entrance. the reason for this, Im told, is to prevent kidnapping the children whose safe return would demand a high ransom fee. The kids who attend the school are rarely there for long. Their wealthy globe-trotting parents are usually always on the move, switching schools with the seasons.
We pass through Luxembourg and she drops me at a gas station bursting at the seams with tourists. The heat is unbearable outside, already reaching the predicted 35 degrees. I find a shaded area near the exit to stick out my thumb. A young German girl, Hanna, stops headed for Lyon. It’s a massive drive and would put me south far enough to head east for Switzerland, or, I could jump out halfway and try to zig zag across the border which would be a more direct route to Rosie’s. The zig zag would be quicker if I could find enough drivers. From Lyon it would take longer but would be made simpler in the fact that I’d need to travel on less roads.
Hanna is about my age and is going to Lyon for a solo weekend getaway. She works as a gourmet chef and had been in the kitchen her entire adult life. She’d worked at top class restaurants throughout Europe and made meals at the fanciest venues on the continent. She was clearly good at her craft but her love for cooking had clearly diminished over time. Her quality of work-life balance was lacking, it seemed that cooking was all she did and all she’d ever done. I hope I at least planted a seed in her mind about a different approach to life by describing to her the random events id been up to for the last four years.
On the way, we stopped at a gas station to refuel and I grabbed a bag of peanuts. I always wonder when I’m inside the store how funny and upsetting it would be if hanna drove off with my bag. Its never happened and didn’t again this time but I can’t help thinking about it. After the fuel stop, We drive along, gobbling on handfuls of peanuts while the car which is lacking an AC unit slowly turns into a steamy furnace, sending drips of sweat cascading from my nose. Hanna and I discuss where would be a good place to drop me off. We studied the map and found it to be an incredibly difficult route to Bruson whichever way we take. We decided that I would jump out at Nancy, or Dijon. Hanna typed in my friend Rosie’s address into her phone when we were trying to figure it out, I assume it inadvertently stayed that way because a couple of hours later we were drifting further and further away from Hanna’s desired location and closer to mine. Instead of seeing signs to Lyon they were replaced with ones for Lausanne. Once we figured out the mistake of the GPS error, I couldn’t help to be overjoyed by the outcome, we were heading directly towards Bruson. We made it all the way to the Swiss border. I jumped out and apologized for the unhelpful detour and continued hitching in the direction of Lausanne, Switzerland.
The sun felt like it was burning a hole through my skin as the cars sped past me. My singlet was dripping wet which I changed for the second time that day and attempted disguising my body odor by spraying my armpits with a cheap deodorant that smelt like a high school locker-room. There was a crash on the motorway ahead and the traffic slowed to a virtual stop. It was here I could make eye contact and literally walk to open windows and ask for a ride. One poor man sat alone in his red Daihatsu and found it difficult to refuse letting me in once we’d first determined he was passing by within a whisker of Lausanne. The Frenchman also struggled to understand my accent but seemed to enjoy attempting to converse in English. He had a strong grasp of the language so I prompted him to expand on tales of a previous life living on the east coast of Australia. He then told me of the many workers who live in France and often use this road, as he did, to cross the border to Switzerland for a higher working wage. The swiss franc is a valuable currency and much more so than the euro, something I learned days later when my friend rosie shouted me a coffee at a restaurant that converted to 12 Australian dollars.
The slow traffic from the crash added considerable time to the journey but The feeling of making it into Switzerland was a cause for celebration. It was 7pm and I had just one hour more travel time to get to my destination. The ‘celebration’ was a mars bar at a local gas station and an entertaining chat with the female who worked there. I think a hitch hiker that had travelled all the way from Belgium at 9am was the highlight of her Tuesday evening. Any further celebrations would have to wait until I made it to Rosie’s house. The final hour or so drive isn’t a straight forward stretch of road, in fact, considering I don’t have a phone, and the road in and out of Lausanne are a confusing mess, I’m not even sure exactly how to get there. Out on the road, I wave my hands at a passing cyclist and ask to use his Wi-Fi hotspot. I make contact with Rosie waiting patiently in her chalet apartment at the base of the Swiss Alps. I thank the friendly cyclist and realize, thanks to his GPS locator, that I’m standing on the wrong side of the road.
Its dark now and becoming difficult and dangerous for drivers to stop. I position myself on an illegal piece of motorway as traffic comes around a sweeping bend, hoping that they’ll see me before the 70km/h speed limit increases to 110. Not many cars drive past and the ones that do are keen on putting the foot down and ignoring my existence. All hope appears lost until a Romanian man in the middle of an Uber shift pulls up. He’s headed in the right direction and drops me 20 minutes further along the motorway.
Its approaching 10pm and it’s been two hours since making contact with Rosie. Unbeknownst to her, I’m standing a little more than half hour drive away. The last contact we’d made was from a hastily typed Facebook message from the cyclist’s phone. She’s at least aware that I’m close, but the fading traffic is disappearing along with my hopes of making it by nightfall. I strongly consider throwing my hammock in the trees until morning.
Each car that approaches I’m almost literally throwing myself in front of them to get attention. I try holding up both hands or palms pressed together, in attempt to indicate that I need a little help, just a short ride, please. It’s as though my prayers are answered when a hippie looking man and his wife offer to give me a ride despite being no space inside the car at all and not headed in my desired direction. Their hatchback sedan is packed to the brim for a romantic holiday weekend but there’s enough room for one more bag and my tired body on top of that, the hairs on the back of my neck are touching the ceiling. I rest my head to the side and fight back the strange urge to fall asleep in this awkward position.
As is common during my travels, when hope seems lost, and there’s no way out, someone, or something, appears from nowhere to save the day. It’s a miracle each and every time but the more it happens the more I begin to trust this random force of coincidence. Once upon a time I would have panicked at the thought of darkness approaching with nowhere to sleep and an empty stomach. These days I’m able to stay calm and just wait patiently for fate to present its card. I was barely visible On that particular dark and empty road, but I’d been spotted by this friendly couple as they were passing in the opposite direction, they spun their vehicle around and were now at my mercy. They drove me half the required distance, and let me out within 15 minutes’ drive of Rosie’s house. We made eye contact as The couple wished me luck and I sensed those two had their fair share of travelling stories from back in the day.
As one car ride ends another begins. The hippie couple notice from the rear vision mirror that I’m picked up before they’ve even put their indicator on and let out a hoot and congratulatory cheer as they speed off into the distance. The man that’s decided to take me the final leg is a tradie with a familiar looking Aussie style ute. I call Rosie from his phone and announce that I’ve made it. We meet at a nearby train station and she’s shocked to find me so elated after a long day of travel all the way from Belgium on the back of some mighty helpful humans. It capped off the most successful day on the road in terms of distance covered and difficulty navigated in 35-degree heat. The next four days is spent with my good friend Rosie hiking the epic Swiss alps and eating kilos of rocklette in her epic apartment overlooking the mountains.
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