Our newest guest post comes all the way from South Africa from the pen of Milton Schorr. Hitch-hiking is in many ways about conquering that fear of the unknown and putting yourself in the hand of others. In ‘Vredenburg to the West Coast Road’ we explore getting the first lift and the conversations that pepper the most unique form of travelling.
I walked out of Vredenburg, a small village on the South African West Coast. I was walking on the hard shoulder on the gravel part. I watched the gravel under my feet, yellow, orange, black and brown, heard it crunching. I looked up to the open skies of the Boland. Pale blue with slight, high white clouds. I didn’t know exactly where I was going, only that I was going. I was excited and nervous. As I walked and looked at the colour in the world shone, taking on the sheen of travel.
I stuck my thumb out. I hadn’t done this for some time, a long time. Doubts surfaced. I wondered if I was too old, if it wasn’t appropriate anymore. I wondered what would happen, going out and away on the road, putting myself into the arms of fate and strangers. I’d been planning this for ages, talking about it, dreaming about it, but hadn’t done it because I was afraid. I had begun to think that it wouldn’t happen, that I wasn’t capable. Now, walking along the road, thumb out, I saw that all that time of doubting had been in vain, because this moment had always been approaching. Car sounds rose behind me, grew, then were gone.
I began to relax. I realised hitching isn’t hard. It’s the kind of thing you don’t forget how to do. Not just holding your hand out, but everything; the feeling of not knowing, of going, the mindset of travelling with strangers.
I didn’t want to turn around and look at what was coming up behind me, right then just listening was enough. Suddenly, a white Cressida pulled off in front of me, dust smoking up from under its rear wheels. Suddenly, I ran, bouncing left and right under my heavy, red backpack.
Pulling the back door open I remembered a lesson of hitching; always get the door open. Get in, take ownership, get involved so that they have to take you. Even though the ride has stopped doesn’t mean you’re in there. Be open, show yourself, get it going.
The back seat was cluttered with stuff. A suit, unhung and unfolded, a suitcase, a tog-bag, a surfing magazine lying on the seat, I saw everything in less than a second. My rucksack flew from my hand, onto the magazine and I stepped round, opening the front before closing the back, so that I was always already inside. I looked at my new lift’s face. White man, early sixties. My first in years.
He was soft spoken, a light Eastern Cape or Kwazulu accent. Kindly eyes and skin with a pink glow to it. On his chin and cheeks was a month old, pure white beard, on his wrist he had one of those copper bands, those white boy, white African boy copper bands.
He smiled wider, I was beaming, my doubts obliterated in the rush of this old, beautiful thing that I knew.
‘Where are you going?’ I ask.
‘I’m going to Namibia,’ I say, ‘I’m going on a mission up to the border.’ I had thought of that before, in random talks, but now it became so, that was where I was going.
‘Oh? I’ve just come from there,’ he says.
I wait. We start driving. I know it’s coming. We’re going to talk. Wheels turn as he begins to tell me everything:
‘I live in the Eastern Cape, close to the mouth of the Kei River, close to Port Alfred. You could say I’ve come the long way round.’ He smiles again. He looks like a Father Christmas in shorts, in summer, driving a rented Cressida and only a month into his beard.
‘I drove up the East Coast a few days ago, Richards Bay, from there to Bloemfontein, Kimberly, Upington and Namibia. I spent some time there. Why are you going?’
‘I just want to look at it,’ I say, ‘I think I just want to stand on the border and mark it, point at it, then come back.’
He nods. He likes that. His friendly eyes crinkle. Then he leaves that look and a shadow surfaces from underneath.
‘I’m on a walkabout,’ he says.‘I’m 65 and business is slow. I’m trying to decide whether to retire and chuck it all in, or keep going.’
I can see he’s tired, weary underneath. I tell him I want to write a book about hitching.
‘Do you know?’ I ask him, ‘..what I mean? What hitching is like?’
The kinds of conversations, I tell him, that you have with strangers, locked in a space with the country whizzing by and no way to fill the space but by talking.
‘Have you had them?’ I ask him, those conversations that explode over hours, provinces, memories of them settling on the road? He listens intently, his head stretching forward off of his neck, eyes down to the left, imagining.
‘I think it’s because it’s a finite time that you have,’ I say, measuring the time out between two hands, one of them close to his face in our little space, ‘we both know that the chances are high we’ll never see each other again. It’s a guilt-free, no strings attached conversation. On a long hitch ride, two could talk about anything, see anything.’
‘Yes,’ he says, touching his beard, the smile lines blooming, ‘I know. I do know.’
He prepares, inhales.
‘I used to drive a taxi, before my kids, before I was married even. I was a Psychology student in Durban. I drove people round the docks, mostly, and they thought they could tell me anything. I used to study them. I’d sit waiting for a fare parked somewhere, studying my books, and then a call would come in and I’d be off. I had many experiences.’
‘There were lots of prostitutes, they’d rent me for the night and so I’d drive them around from place to place, wait, listen, read, wait, talk. Sea captains, sailors, businessmen, housewives, at the docks. I tried to record everything in my mind.’
He shakes his head. It was a good time, he tells me the best of it. But he wasn’t taking me far. It was only nine kilometres to the crossing where right and south-east will take you to Cape Town, and left and west to Veldrift and the nearby sea and the climbing west coast up to the desert and diamond country, Pofadder and Springbok.
As the stop came closer the conversation dried, just like that. We knew it wouldn’t be possible to start another topic, so there was no point, and we became quiet and uncomfortable. As he slowed down his phone began to ring. It was a girl in his office back at home, questions about staff and such. I slipped out. Putting a hand over the phone he looked at me and smiled. I waved and walked away.
I sat down on the side of the road on top of my rucksack and wrote all of this down. I’m on the R47, what’s known as the west coast road, at the turn-off to Vredenburg, about 20 kilometres from Veldrift. I’ve had my first lift. I’ve done it. I’ve really gotten going.
written by: Milton Schorr
Milton is a writer based in Cape Town, South Africa, with a passion for hitchhiking that started as a teenager. Nowadays he likes to go on a hitching trip roughly once a year.
visit his blog at: talesofthehitch.blogspot.com
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