Grand Route Saint John
“No one ever hitchhikes across the Causeway.” The 24-mile Causeway Bridge stretches across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans north, to the towns of St. Tammany Parish (Mandeville, Covington).
There is no mass transit across the bridge. As a worldwide hitchhiker (13 countries so far), I am accustomed to people saying that “no one hitchhikes here” or “you won’t get any rides here.” For the most part, they don’t mean to be discouraging. They are just trying to pass along useful information. So far, it has always been false.
My sister dropped me off at the last gas station before the bridge and open water. I didn’t know what to expect but stuck out my sign – “Cov.” for Covington, with a yellow sun and a few sketchy suggestions of happy grass and flowers – and waited. It was a good spot where drivers could see me up close while pumping gas, but I wasn’t in their face obtrusively either. Five minutes and a working-class guy in his thirties said to throw my bag in the back of the truck and hop in. He grew up in New Orleans but now lives in an old Covington house that has been in his family for generations. He offered to take me all the way to Covington, to any location, but I hopped out in Mandeville to visit my aunt from Honduras and speak Spanish for a while.
Although I’ve been in the area for a month, with lots of people on both sides of the lake, the flip (southbound) side of my sign – “New Orleans” with the same bright if infantile design – hasn’t been in use. Once, on my way to New Orleans, I was dropped at a Café du Monde, but a southbound friend picked me up before I could start hitchhiking.
One more time I had to hitch the bridge northbound. My sister dropped me at the gas station again. I stuck out my sign, and a guy who was already there when I arrived said to hop in the truck – another construction guy, this one from Georgia, going home after work to his wife and kids in the country. He could never live in the city, he said, and he seemed quite successful, with a nice new truck and all the amenities. Whatever people say, a hitchhiker here can always count on working-class guys in their 30s and 40s in pickup trucks. In Europe, the demographics are wider, as there is far less fear of street crime, and people of all walks of life pick you up. In the US, the demographic range of people who pick up hitchhikers is narrower, but the sanity level is wider. All the really crazy people that have picked me up in my 60,000 miles of hitchhiking were home-grown Americans. Like me 😊
Thirty-minute walk through the center of Kilkenny to find a good spot.
Picked up a map of Ireland along the way. Finally, a good spot: cars going slow, space to pull over, across the street from a busy gas station. After an hour wait, which seemed a little long for such a spot, a thirtyish guy (Jer) picked me up, told me about his hurling team and the history of the landscapes as we made it to the coast and turned south. He took me past Waterford, past Dungarvan and Youghal.
Because both the hostel manager last night in Kilkenny and Jer today warned me of “yellow alert” weather for tonight and the weekend, I thought it best not to stop in those towns but to try to make it to Cork.
Jer dropped me in the cute little town of Killeagh, but no place to stand. I walked out toward Cork, but it became clear that a good place to stand was not near. And I didn’t want to get too far from town with the clouds forming. I walked back to the Killeagh grocery, found out about a bus to Cork, bought a discounted sandwich, shared it with a stray dog, and decided to stick out my “CORK” sign while I waited for the bus. The bus stop was the only place in the village to pull over; hence it had an endless stream of temporary parkers; thus, effectively, no place to pull over. I stuck out my sign anyway at a pedestrian cross with a traffic light. In less than five minutes, a work van stopped in the lane of traffic to gesture me in.
This is one of the weird things about hitchhiking. Right when you have a disastrous spot where no one can pull over without endangering multiple lives nearby, you get a ride. Like the time the Italian driver stopped his tour bus full of West Africans to pick me up in Brussels. Or the times in California where people stopped quickest on the worst ramps.
The driver would take me all the way into Cork, but I only understood about 10% of what he said. His dialect was much heavier than the Kilkenny dialect. He told me the name of his dialect, but he said it in dialect, so I have no idea what it is or how to transcribe it. I managed to pick up that he was going to do some masonry work in Cork, that only one of his many brothers and sisters had left their village, breaking his mom’s heart by moving to Canada. Oh, and also he thought the cost of cocaine was too high. It almost wasn’t worth having a drug habit any more. Like so many of my drivers, he went way out of his way to make sure he dropped me where I could walk to the city center and find a coffee shop with wifi.
It was a cold morning walking through Dresden Neustadt for the bus to the edge of town. The driver was also cold and wary. Maybe it was my 25-year-old coat, or my 40-year-old backpack, or maybe the hitchhiking sign I was carrying: WROCLAW. From where he dropped me, I walked a quarter mile toward the highway and staked my spot. An hour. Then a stylish woman stopped but she was turning toward Berlin. A half hour later, a college guy pulled over, but he was going to Saxony. I turned them both down, always a hard choice when you’re on the side of the road, but I didn’t want a 5-mile ride to the next fork when I had a good spot.
Waiting. Enough waiting for my bus driver to make his loop twice. I always wave to bus drivers, but the second time he waved back like he meant it. I could tell he was pulling for me at this point. Such are the weird bonds of hitchhiking. People along the way, bus drivers or shop attendants, who reject hitchhikers in the abstract come to see their human side. And for the hitchhiker, the complete surrender to the generosity of strangers is enlightening on some visceral level. A paradox of surrender and liberation. Or maybe surrender and connection. Your fate depends on strangers, not on family or tribe, but on human connection in general. In a way, this is true for all of us all the time, but on the shoulder that truth becomes concrete and immediate. Someone must pick you up. And it could be anybody.
In this case, “anybody” is a Polish hippie who had recently moved to a simple country shack, with a teenager in the passenger seat. They had just met at an animation conference, the kid a hobbyist and the hippie still enough on the grid to make a living writing musical accompaniments for animators.
So we cruised, we three, through a lovely cold day in Poland. In two days, I would hitchhike through Czech Republic, hitting small mountains and snow and chilly spots beside the road, riding with Henryk, the jolly businessman who supervised 150 people, and with the Prague cop who warned me of every possible crime that might be committed against me in Prague. But for now I was happy to escape the cold, to meet my couchsurfing hosts before dark, and to play with their 3-year-old, who was just the right age to teach me a few words in Polish.
Online ride share going from Aachen to Plauen. Google-mapped “Plauen.” A suburb of Dresden. Perfect. I would start the first day of my “victory lap” around central Europe, before leaving the continent, the easy way – ride share instead of trying to hitchhike through the middle of Cologne and on east. We were well into the central hills and forests of Germany before I realized my driver was going to another Plauen, much further south. She dropped me at Jena, where I googled hitchwiki to see that “hitching out of Jena is difficult but not impossible.” So when a teenager said he’d take me from my gas station in Jena just a short way, I grabbed at it. Another station-only stop, with no way to get on the road. An hour. Then a Russian in a van signaled me. (What is it with Russians in vans? This is the third time I’ve been picked up by a Russian in a van, or in one case a van full of Russians, while hitchhiking in Germany.) He would go back to Moscow in a couple of years to sell his own design of vans customized to be miniature mobile homes. We swapped contact info. You never know. They always need English teachers in Moscow. And customized vans for vagabonds doesn’t sound half bad for the US market. Getting dark. Alex offered to drop me on the highway or the train station in Chemnitz. A ride straight to the station and a local train into Dresden was too tempting.