At about the hour mark of hitch-hiking, if you haven’t found a ride, the following conversation takes place in your head:
“Dude, this doesn’t look good. Maybe it’s time to go back to the city center and find a bus. Or a train. Help. I’m boooored.”
“Just shut up.”
The insolent little voice—probably the same one that told you not to ask the pretty girl out to the school dance, or the one that tells you it’s not a good idea to ask the boss for a raise—might have a point here. It’s no fun standing by the side of the road as car after car passes by.
It’s even less fun when you have a deadline to meet.
In my case, this meant reaching the airport in a suburb of Dusseldorf called Weeze, 600 km away, within 24 hours. Although I’ve had the pleasure of hitching all over most of Western Europe and Morocco, this would be the longest distance I’d ever attempt in one shot.
And so I found myself in a forested suburb of Berlin with spritely Kerstin—younger looking than 35 and going to Rotterdam—waving at cars passing us by. An hour in and a motorcycle gang had rumbled past. So had a peloton of weekend cyclists, countless family vans crammed with outdoor gear and drowsy looking children, and enough snazzy Mercedes sedans with empty back seats to make me want to occupy Wall Street.
Since Kerstin was actually German it was decided she would cross the street to the gas station and beg people for rides, while I held down the fort and continued flashing a big sign that said GOING TO DUSSELDORF.
More time passed—maybe thirty minutes—and a group of three hitchers trying to get to Switzerland emerged from the forest path from the local S-Bahn station with hope in their eyes.
I wished them luck (and didn’t tell them I’d been stuck for 90 minutes here) and saw Kerstin walking back from the gas station with a small smile on her face. There was good news and bad news. The good news was we were getting out of this trap; the bad news was the elderly couple volunteering to take us wasn’t going that far. It was better than staying in place, though.
The wife had bleached-blonde hair and drove mostly in silence, while her balding husband made small talk with Kerstin; I interjected once or twice with “Keine Deutsch,” my go-to phrase in German.
About 20 km down the road they pulled into a highway gas station and let us off. Much to our dismay, we ran into a hitch-hiking couple stranded for three hours. They were going to Hamburg, which quieted our fears a bit, since that was in the exact opposite direction of most of the traffic flow.
I began walking up and down the lines of cars waiting to fill up, asking drivers where they were headed and if they had room for two passengers. Karma was on my side, because the fourth person I asked was going all the way to Liege, and he had room for two.
Our Lancelot was a Polish guy named Macjek (I probably misspelled it) and he wore a headset while driving. Macjek was returning from a vacation in Poland, although he traveled a lot for business as well. Presumably the headset was for fielding business calls, but his wife seemed to be the primary caller. I counted at least four phonecalls.
Macjek was really interested in history, so we ran the gamut from the American Revolutionary War—apparently there were some Polish heroes who fought in Georgia, among other places—to the Cold War.
Later in the afternoon, we dropped Kerstin off near a diversion for a highway running due east, since we headed south towards Dusseldorf.
Macjek stopped by a highway rest stop with a Burger King and we bade each other farewell; it was 6:30 PM at this point and dark clouds were setting in. Dusseldorf was a mere 30 km away.
I had only been waiting about 10 minutes when a baby-faced kid driving a station wagon pulled over and let me in. Dominic told me that for the past two years he had picked up hitch-hikers because his sister had come back from a year-long trip of Australia with horror stories of being stranded for days in the same spot, waiting for a ride that never came.
He left me at a suburban train station and I took it to the main station in Dusseldorf. I had some freelance projects to catch up on so I sat down and wrote for a few hours before taking a train to Weeze.
I arrived in Weeze at 11:13 and spent about five minutes wandering around aimlessly in an abandoned parking lot, looking for the shuttle transfer to the airport which was supposed to arrive at 11:20. I made it there at 11:21 and waited until 11:35, when I decided I had just missed the shuttle. It was the last one of the evening; the next one wouldn’t leave til 5:50. My flight left at 6:50—cutting it much too close, not to mention there was nowhere to stay.
There was a small casino across the street from the shuttle stop, and I asked how far away the airport was. 8 km, said a Middle Eastern man.
“For 10 Euros I will take you,” he offered.
It was 11:40 when I started walking to the airport.
The street snaked through a small industrial section before reaching the main road, where cars hurtled by between stretches of tree-laden stands that crowded the route. Their headlamps were torn jagged by the mass of trees as they came around the bend, and quickly faded to small pricks of light once they passed.
This wasn’t the first time I found myself out on a road in the middle of the night, and given how disastrous my previous attempt was, this was a cakewalk. There was a separate path for cyclists and pedestrians, and despite it being pitch black, I didn’t have to worry about being hit by a car. Accosted by a knife-wielding stranger emerging from the woods? Only in my imagination.
I made it to the airport just after 1 AM; it was crowded with people on the bottom floor, but there was an empty restaurant upstairs that I camped out in.Sleep came in fits and starts, but I managed to pull a few hours despite the harsh crackle of laughter from the group of Moroccans downstairs and the omnipresent glare of fluorescents.
The flight from Dusseldorf to London was short and sweet; I managed to sleep another 45 minutes until Stansted, plus another hour on the shuttle ride from the airport into the city.
At that point I had 5 hours to kill until my bus ride to Dublin, and luckily for me, I had family in town. I met up with my cousins Pam, Dan, and Gabe, who were staying in Chelsea—trading the suburbs of Westchester, New York for the posh London cityscape for couple weeks’ vacation.
After taking a much-needed shower (at Pam’s suggestion) I toured the Royal Albert Hall with my cousins. The highlight of the tour, which was led by a Cockney man named Sam (or Allen—my mind is fuzzy, although this was less than a day ago) was standing on the gallery overlooking the entire hall. A dash of intrigue was added when our guide discovered that two people had secretly left the group, presumably to explore the building as they pleased.
The nearby Victoria and Albert Museum provided us with a marvelous 16th century rug from Azerbaijan and a delightfully subversive exhibit on protest art and weapons such as bicycle-cum-boom-boxes and anti-riot police shields designed to look like book covers.
A late lunch at the venerable British chain of Pret-a-Manger transpired, followed by my exit to nearby Victoria Coach station.
Cue five hours of mostly uneventful bus riding, and I was in Manchester, where I had last been a month before while passing through from Glasgow to Ghent. By midnight I was in Holyhead, Wales, with two hours to kill before the ferry to Dublin departed.
When I boarded the ship, I found a quiet corner to lay out my camping bed, put on earplugs, and slept soundly throughout the entire 4 hours voyage. My entrance in Dublin was greeted by brisk, cutting winds, heavy clouds to the west, and the grateful certainty that for the next few days I would be staying in place. It’s time to leave the McDonalds here on O’Connell Street and take the train to Dalkey.