Traveling on fumes
In the early autumn of 1965, I was in a junior year abroad program in Montpellier, France, that is to say, the third year of a typical American college four-year undergraduate education. I had been been living at the cité universitaire, but the French regular school year was beginning and my program, coordinated by the Experiment in International Living, was about to place me with a French family in Castelnau-le-Lez.
I never clicked with my host family. I hope that they haven’t judged all Americans by my behavior. I’m sure that they were happy to get rid of me by late December. They were kind to take me in and care for me for almost three months.
There was a week or two between the two very different living arrangements, and the students in my program, eager to explore Europe, all went off traveling here and there. My initial goal was to visit a friend in Finland and my method of travel was hitchhiking. I had done a fair amount of hitchhiking in the U.S. and Canada with no bad experiences, so it did not seem unreasonable. I also had an interest in visiting college friends in Freiburg, Germany, who were participating in a similar program in Germany.
The day I left Montpellier, I hitched up the Rhône valley, and took a train to Freiburg.
I did not speak German, and was greeted with a huffy “Speak German!”at the Goethe Institute, while I tried to explain that I was simply looking for friends, and knew little German. After I found them, I spent a pleasant afternoon visiting the cathedral and walking about. It was autumn and the weather was gorgeous.
That evening I ate with the German family hosting my friends. Their little blond daughter Kiki conveniently found a photo of Hitler decorating her father, who had been a fighter pilot, and after the war became a newspaper publisher. I suppose that you have to be good and lucky to survive the war as a fighter pilot. I remember the poignant scene in The Ginger Tree when the protagonist has shipped out of Japan as WW II begins, and, at a port somewhere, maybe Singapore, she finally meets her son, the son taken away from her because he was illegitimate and her lover was a nobleman. She utters the hope that they might meet again after the war, and he replies simply, with soft regret, that he is a fighter pilot. Nevertheless, I have always wondered about that photo, and why pride would overrule good taste in showing it to foreigners.
My friends and their host were all going to Austria, so the next morning I had to decide what I would do. I decided that Finland was simply too far, so I grabbed a train to Basel, then went on to spend a couple of days in the Berner Oberland.
I stayed in Interlochen in a nearly empty hostel with two British kids from Rhodesia, who made efforts to explain to me how no one knew the real story of what was happening in their country. Their story was that of the colonists who supported PM Ian Smith’s government’s unilateral declaration of independence from Britain. Smith was a fighter pilot, too.
It was 1965, the centenary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn.
From there I hitched to Zermatt, over the Grimsel Pass. It was late in the fall and I was probably lucky to get over.
I spent a day in Zermatt, admiring the Matterhorn. It was October. The larches had turned color, and the forests were beautiful.
After Zermatt, I followed the Rhône down the Valais through Martigny, crossed into France and stayed in Chamonix, where I took the cable car to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi.
I strongly recommend that ride, which I got to do again a few years later, but in October, under early morning, clear skies, I was lucky not to get frostbite at the 12,605 ft summit. The view would have been worth it.
Continuing south and west in France, I passed Grenoble and got as far as Romans. At that point, it was dark and I had about $1.50. Luckily my last ride left me at a kind of youth hostel, where I ate and slept for the equivalent of $1.20. The next morning, I bought a loaf of bread at the local bakery, and got back on the road. I still had more than a hundred miles to go to get back to Montpellier. I was a little worried, but confident I could do it that day.
The start was rough. The morning was clear and very cold. It was October after all. It took a couple of hours to get from Romans to Valence, only a few kilometers distant from each other. At Valence, I reckoned that I could look for rides on the old Route Nationale 7, which handled most of the north-south traffic in France, and once there, my luck immediately improved. The first car that picked me up had two Frenchmen going to Montpellier. The driver had never been there before. His sister had given him directions that referenced “l’œuf”, the egg, and he couldn’t find it on the map he had. Well, the egg referred to the big, marble egg-shaped square in Montpellier, which even I knew since it was the site of the municipal theater, a big department store, and a number of cafés, one of which I had frequented for coffee and games of pinball (“flipper”). I was elated to be able to help him.
As we drew closer, I mentioned that we weren’t far from Pont du Gard, a remnant of the ancient Roman aqueduct that brought water to Nîmes. This is a national treasure and the French guys were interested enough to detour so we could visit it. I was in heaven. I hadn’t seen it, and it was far enough out of Nîmes, which is very close to Montpellier, to be difficult to visit without a car or a tour group.
In the sixties, one could still drive across the bridge that was added to the aqueduct in modern times, and, in fact, we did drive across it.
I have been back to Pont du Gard a couple of times since then. In 2000, I took my wife there at the end of a very long day. We started in Carcassonne, visited Maguelone and Palavas, had a great lunch of mussels in Aiguës Mortes, where we walked along the entire length of the city wall, and finally visited the Roman amphitheater in Nîmes.
Nîmes and Arles both have arenas, which are still in use, and the region is full of Roman ruins. David Macaulay used Nîmes as his inspiration for his kids book, City, which illustrates in pictures how a Roman city might have been built.
The arenas are still in use. I saw a bullfight in Nîmes, but that was years ago.
It was nearly sunset when we got to Pont du Gard. I thought Liz would have been exhausted by then, but she found the site so interesting that we didn’t leave until after sunset. Pont du Gard is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There was a downside. It was the day after Easter. I might have been smart enough to know what the “oeuf” was when I was twenty, but years later I still didn’t know that the Monday after Easter is a holiday in France. We had no reservations and drove for miles, late into the night, before we could find a hotel that had accommodations, and it turned out to be one of the worst I have ever stayed in anywhere in the world!
I should have learned a lesson about hitchhiking without money, but it was only a couple of years later that I found myself hitching back from Mexico where some friends had taken me to Ensenada.
On an access ramp to the freeway in San Diego, a California State trouper stopped and gave me a ticket. It was Christmas Day, and I surely felt like saying “Thank you for the present, and Merry Christmas to you, too, Officer,” but I only had a nickel in my pocket, and could have landed in jail charged with vagrancy. A bit later, a car entering the freeway did pick me up, and I got back to Hemet, over a hundred miles away, safe and sound, the nickel still in my pocket.
Hitchhiking was a mode of travel that I relied upon for a while when I was young and poor. A childhood friend and I crossed Canada and went down the Pacific coast in the summer of 1964. In 1971, I crossed the Algerian Sahara, though that wasn’t strictly speaking hitchhiking, and traveled around West Africa.
At that time hitchhiking wasn’t easy in West Africa, but it made for some memorable experiences. Heading to Lomé in Togo, we got picked up by an American. When I asked him why he did, he said he worked for Cadillac. I asked him increduolusly, if many people in Togo could afford Cadillacs, and he laughed and replied that he sold armored troop carriers made by the General Motors Cadillac division, not the cars.
More on those trips later. My last serious hitchhiking trip involved traveling with an archaeology group to southern Utah, then hitchhiking north to Salt Lake City, then west to Reno and north along the eastern edge of the Sierras to Susanville, then across California to Eureka on the coast. That was in 1972, and I haven’t hitchhiked since. The eastern edge of the Sierras was remote and beautiful, and reminded me of the Middle Atlas mountains near Azrou.
Maybe those trips are worth a blog post.