Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hitchhiking to Stockholm

In August of 1986 I was hitchhiking from Munich to Stockholm with my friend Kate.  Without particular difficulty we'd traveled past Hamburg, but had stalled upon some forsaken northern German plain.  We were stranded at a bleak rest stop along the highway reading bleak graffiti -- testimony scrawled upon the concrete by other hitchhikers who bemoaned the hours and days it had taken them to extricate themselves.

The shadows began to lengthen and we walked away from the highway to seek a place to pitch my tent for the night.  We hadn't walked far when a man pulled his car alongside and asked us if we needed help.  When we told him that we were looking for a place to camp, he offered to let us use his land.  I have no recollection of climbing into his car, but soon enough the three of us were wending down a long country road as houses became more scattered and rare.  Finally, we reached the end, in a forest, where the public road became a thin track into a nature reserve.

The house was large and set above an expansive lawn.  Our host, a neatly dressed middle aged man, offered to bring us some tea, but apologized for not having us into the house. His wife was shy of visitors, he said with a touch of nervous embarrassment, but we were welcome to pitch our tent.  Which we did along the edge of the property.

When he'd gone into the house (there was no sign of a wife) we quickly put up the tent and spread out the sleeping bags.  But evenings are long in August in northern Germany and the isolated manse was a bit spooky.  Kate and I decided to hike to a small festival that we'd passed only a mile or so back down the road.  It was easy enough to find - following the sound of vigorous oompapa music and the sweet smell of gebratene mandeln.  It was good to be around people and bustle and elderly Germans with bright red faces galloping to brassy music.  I bought myself a paper bag of hot candied almonds.

When we finally returned back down to the end of the road we were in good spirits (the bleak rest   stop was long forgotten), but we were brought up short at our tent.  Our host, who was nowhere in sight, had set a little tray in front of it with candy and snacks and beverages all arrayed tidily upon it.

Now we had to decide.  We debated, only half-jokingly about whether this man was just preternaturally nice and given to caring for strangers and foreign vagabonds - or whether he was some necktie wearing psychopath who lured hapless young wanderers to his lair along the "nature reserve" and plied them with sweets and poisoned draughts.  Would we ever wake up if we crawled into our sleeping bags here along the forest edge?

It was getting late, and in the end Kate and I chose to believe that he was nice, and we went to sleep.  And I think we slept very well.  But the sun rises early in August in northern Germany, and the friendly, middle-aged man with the invisible wife brought us juice and breakfast in the morning, and he drove us to the highway once we had re-packed our backpacks, and he set us upon our way toward Denmark and Sweden.

I was recently thinking about this old memory of mine -- recalling why it is so important to maintain faith in human beings.  I know that much of the freedom and adventure that I've had in my life came precisely because I chose not to distrust strangers without good cause.  And that lack of mistrust has been so often rewarded.

In fact, it was only a few days later that Kate and I were on the receiving end of such trust.  Between Malmö and Stockholm, where the road runs right along the Baltic Sea, a man who'd given us a ride brought us to the hostel where we'd intended to stay.  I don't remember exactly why, whether it was full or closed, but we weren't able to find a bed.  He drove us somewhere else, where we failed again.  In the end, he and his wife were leaving town to go to a cabin inland among the lakes, so they left us their apartment for the night -- their lovely, airy apartment, full of beautiful things and with a balcony that overlooked the blue harbor.  Just put the keys back through the mail slot when you leave, they asked us - and give the plants a last drink of water.

So, when they'd gone, we walked to the store and bought a feast to cook in their kitchen.  We watched a Finnish movie with Swedish subtitles, and slept in the luxury of their couches.  We ate breakfast upon that balcony, and when we left we gave the plants a last drink and put the keys back through the mail slot.

And we hitchhiked to Stockholm to meet Kate's friend Kendra.