Category: James Stevenson

The Quest: Part 2: The End of the Quest

The Quest: Part 2: The End of the Quest
By James Stevenson

-1.

Right. Time to get back to this story, since I’m heading for the road again next week. I can write while travelling, but I tried to write “The Quest: Part 1: The Quest” all throughout the events of “The Quest: Part 3: The As Yet Unnamed Part of the Quest”, and later as well, and I didn’t write anything good. I remember multiple writing attempts in a cinema in Toronto, multiple attempts in cafes in Colorado, and an attempt in San Francisco that impressed the barman so much he took the dumplings off my bill. But none of it went anywhere. And I was not even trying to write about Montreal yet, which is the difficult part.

You see, I was going to Montreal to do the most absurd thing I had ever done in my life. I was going there for a woman. This, I gather, is a common story. Talk to Americans about Canada and they’ll either mention the women or the weed. Now, I’m no woman, but as we shall see I am an incredible dope.

I met her over a year ago, as I was working morning shifts in a café. The only thing to brighten my day was a visit from Violet, the exchange student from Montreal (that’s not her real name). She’d come in almost every day and sit down in the back corner with a pile of books. Nobody else was there that early, apart from a couple cooks downstairs, so I’d bring her some coffee and we’d chat for a while. She was working on her PhD, and she was smart and interesting. She would smile and laugh and listen, sweeping her long, lush black hair together over one shoulder and looking at me from under dark eyelashes. Her field was French literature; she was writing her thesis about love. “It’s the best pick-up line,” she told me once. “Everybody wants to be my muse.” She was right. So did I.

One day, after a month or so of this, already past the point I should have asked her out, she was telling me about how her room was haunted. “Wow, really?” I said.

“Yeah, I wake up every day,” here she paused to look me straight in the eyes, “alone,” she laughed a little, “and I have this feeling that someone is watching me.”

Damn! She’s flirting with me! Yes, well done James, you’re quite right.

I made some stupid joke about this massive stuffed whale I have that I share my bed with, and after some further oblivious conversation asked, “Do you have facebook?” She confessed that she didn’t. “Well,” I said, “we should stay in touch when you’re gone. I’ll give you my address, send me a letter.” Yeah, go me! Amazing work there.

We swapped addresses and I went home that day a happy little clam, with only a slight nagging suspicion that I’d completely ballsed that up. It was ok, though, she’d be back on Friday. Well, she wasn’t there on Friday, nor the next day, nor the whole next week. Every day I’d shoot occasional glances into the back corner, finding it empty and feeling a little glummer every time. No luck. She was going back to Canada soon, so after a couple weeks I figured she’d left.

But she came back just once, two days before leaving. This time, she came in when I was just finishing work, so we ate lunch together and took a walk through Hyde Park. It was good. Neither of us would admit any romantic interest, but it was in the air, somewhat. I said I’d come visit, and I asked her if I could just turn up. “Sure,” she said, and smiled. “You can sleep on my couch.”

That day I already knew what I was going to do. My goal was clear. I had the rest of the summer to get in shape, learn French, and get to Montreal.

Almost immediately I wrote a letter to Violet explaining, basically, how she was an incomparable goddess and I an incompetent geek who’d probably miss his chance at true love because he was examining the pattern in the cobblestones. I sealed it up inside my well-worn copy of Catch-22, sent it off, and booked my ticket to Halifax within a week.

0.

Two months later, after the rather unnerving trip through New Brunswick, I arrived in Quebec. I’d neither learned French nor managed to care what shape I was in, but more importantly, I’d had no reply from Violet. I wasn’t broken up about it; time passes and feelings fade. So… what was I doing there? Who knows! I was having a good trip already, and what was there to lose? At least I could get my book back.

After a night in Quebec, I caught a ride to Montreal. My driver was Estelle, girl in her thirties, a real fiery woman. We hit it off pretty well. She’d hitchhiked across Canada a couple times, fending off a few sleazy guys along the way. She was badass, she wasn’t afraid of anything. She was a little chubby, with cute freckles, and she was so full of life that it made her beautiful.

She’d just beaten breast cancer and was recovering from chemotherapy. All through her treatment she’d kept up her job as a massage therapist, and she hadn’t let the cancer take anything from her life at all. “If I wanted to dance, I’d dance,” she said. “If I wanted a guy I’d get one. I fucked fifteen guys last winter! I was dying, so if I wanted to get fucked I do it.” Oddly, she’d managed to maintain her life and her energy all through her treatment, but now that it was over she was quitting her job and starting over.

After a couple hours we rolled into the suburb where Violet lived, and I started to get nervous. My blood was pumping and I couldn’t concentrate on what Estelle was saying. She looked at me. “Ah, you’re in love,” she smiled. “You got the butterflies.” Then she went on to rant about how the butterflies don’t really mean anything, but I wasn’t paying much attention.

Estelle dropped me outside Violet’s apartment building and told me I could crash with her at her sister’s if it didn’t work out. She drove away, and there I was. Oh boy, I thought. Here we go. I rang the doorbell, held my breath, and tried to stop imagining some huge guy opening it and asking me what I was doing there. Thankfully, no such thing happened. In fact there was no response at all. Phew.

I taped my business card to the door and farted around the town all day. I was just killing time and hoping my phone would ring. I read a couple chapters of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, drank some coffee, eyed up a few bushes to sleep in, and eventually realised I’d left all my money in the Quebec. Perfect day.

1.

By 8:30 it was dark and I was tired. My stupid duffel bag was heavy as hell and my feet were killing me. I decided to go to Violet’s house just to check if my card was there, then go crash out by the lake.

As I got up the house again I could see two women ahead me, walking up to the front door. There was no mistaking, one of them was Violet. My heart started trying to jump out of my chest. What could I do? Should I approach? Would it be super creepy if I was right there? I slowly walked over towards them. They noticed the card and lent in to read it. I kept my distance, resisting the urge to lean on a tree and declare seductively, “Bonjour.”

There was some animated talk between the two women, then Violet turned around and saw me there, trying to look as sheepish as possible, and she pretty much started freaking out. She clapped her hands to her face and, at a loss for a reaction, kept repeating “Oh my God!” A more discerning man than I, having written a heartfelt letter and sent it to an eligible lady, might have taken a total lack of contact as sign not to turn up out of the blue, but this hadn’t occurred to me, and there I was.

But it wasn’t so bad. She was not unhappy to see me, so I dropped my bag inside and we went for a walk. We wound through a maze of suburban houses, through the grounds of schools she’d attended and whatnot. We had a nice chat, but there was something important that was still unsaid, and I didn’t know what it was. We kept exchanging these warm little looks, almost flirtatiously, but it was too bizarre. I didn’t know what on earth I was doing there.

I remember we were walking down a dark street, lined with big trees, and there was lull in the conversation. Content, I said nothing.

“You know,” she said, “That last week in London I met someone else.”

I laughed, and all the tension left me. Now it was out in the open. It was pretty much what I expected.

“So, who’s the guy?” I said.

“Actually it’s a girl.”

Oh boy did I laugh! I laughed and laughed and laughed, laughed back to her house, into her car, to Montreal centre, laughed up the stairs into a hostel, laughed into bed, laughed myself to sleep, and woke up the next day so blue I could have made a killer jazz album if I’d had a saxophone on me.

2.

I was really bummed out. I hadn’t realised getting to Violet was so important to me. All I wanted to do now was go home and lie in bed with Whaley, but I was very far from home and it didn’t make any sense to just give up. I’d always said to myself that if it didn’t work out in Montreal, I wanted to try to make it to California. So why not? I hadn’t wooed any women or retrieved any Catch-22’s, so I had better do something successful with this trip.

First, back to Quebec to pick up my money. I made it in four rides, moving bit by bit along the motorway. I remember one big happy guy who was a nurse and told me all about this six-wheeled car he’d bought for hunting. There was also a moustachioed man with a French accent and a beret who collected rare bicycles and “worked in theatre”. Eventually I coaxed out of him that he was a mime. He was perfect. All I could think of was that Gary Larson quote: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s around, and it hits a mime, does anyone care?” But I didn’t mention that.

After a night in Quebec, I headed straight back to Montreal to check it out. Since I’d had such an easy time on that road twice before, I slept late and took my time getting going. Well, I sure learnt my lesson. I caught a few rides, each time further into the middle of nowhere, and ended up only halfway to Montreal by 7pm. It was getting dark already, and raining. My only chance was to stand on the shoulder of the busy motorway, put on my reflector vest, and hope.

At first it was not so bad, but the minutes kept passing and the sun sunk lower below the horizon. Visibility was terrible, the cars were zooming by just a couple meters away, and the rain kept coming harder. My whole body was soaked and I was freezing cold. It was the worst situation I had ever been in in my life.

Around 9pm a little car slammed on the brakes and swerved over onto the shoulder. I grabbed my bag and sprinted over. This moment might be my favourite thing about hitchhiking. When I’ve been waiting somewhere, getting sunburnt or frostbitten, falling into despair, that moment I grab my bag and sprint to a car, I feel as light as air. Suddenly my bag weighs nothing, my feet are not sore, and I can run forever.

My driver was another nurse, and a really wonderful guy. He has four kids and lives on farm, but he doesn’t get to go home from work much. He drives around between hospitals, doing one sixteen-hour shift here, another 12-hour shift there. It’s exhausting. Our conversation was sort of philosophical, about the usual ponderage: life, satisfaction, happiness. My driver was a smart guy, and he spends all his time either driving alone or caring for the sick. I guess those are good ingredients to make a thoughtful man.

After a couple hours we pulled into Montreal. I’d had the worst day of hitchhiking I’d ever had, and he’d been driving all day. We stopped at a red light.

“So strange to see the lines standing still,” he said, pointing at the road.

“So strange to see them moving!” I said.

He laughed. “So we see the relativity of life.”

We went to his cousin’s house, had a beer, and he became the only driver ever to add me on facebook. Of course, we’ve never talked. C’est la vie.

I spent a few days in Montreal, but I was still restless and lonely. I kept looking for Violet every time I turned a corner, so I decided I had to get out of there. I wanted to head straight south, cross into America, and stay with some old friends in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It had been many years since I left America, and I’d been growing curious to visit. Is it really full of ignorant fat people rolling around fast-food joints in Hummers, waving flags, shooting guns and complaining about Mexicans? Probably not, but I wanted to check to make sure.

23.

I got to the border fairly quickly. One young guy I had nothing in common with gave me a lift, then an old guy took me the rest of the way. All I remember is he said he was banned from America for having drugs in a club more than thirty years ago.

My ride into The States was fantastic. My driver was a rich guy in his sixties, obsessed with horses. He’d known since he was sixteen that he wanted to work with horses, and he spent the rest of life working any relevant job he could. He’s done everything from mucking out stables to jockeying. Now all he does is buy, sell, and raise horses.

We drove down south through beautiful golden hills, my driver either telling me what an idiot his son was or telling me about his horses. When we got to the end of the ride, we headed out to the farm to see them. We brought a bag of carrots, went into their paddock, and spent twenty minutes feeding them out of our hands. There were four of them: one beautiful mare and three of her young. They were all gorgeous tans and browns, very gentle, but with tremendous power under their skin. I could see why he was so obsessed with them.

My driver offered to let me stay in his camper. “You could go out there, fool around for a night, then I’ll put you back on your way tomorrow,” he said. “Fool around” seemed like a suspicious way to phrase it, so I declined. Anyway it was only mid afternoon and I wanted to keep going.

He dropped me at an on-ramp and I drew a sign for Pennsylvania. Almost immediately I got a lift. My driver, Paul, was driving a massive luxurious pickup truck. I threw my bag into the back seat and climbed in. This was the last ride I’d catch for a while, and it really stuck with me.

“If you wanna sleep, relax, whatever, go for it. I used to hitchhike, I know what it’s like.” This is always nice to hear. I don’t have to feel awkward in the absence of any inane conversation. Still, I started asking him about himself, and over the next five hours built up a picture of the most broken man I have ever met – perhaps the only one.

Paul was retired, living with his wife somewhere in New York State. He’d left her a note that morning that said “Gone for a drive. Back in a couple days.” He didn’t know how long he was going for, all he knew was he was going to drive straight for Colorado, cross the border, and buy weed the first chance he could get. He was so deeply fed up with life, and fed up with the law, now that Colorado had legalised marijuana, that’s where he was going. He’d have gone earlier, but he had issues with drunk driving and hadn’t been able to make the trip until then. He still had that box in the car that randomly beeps and forces you to take a breath test. He told me he used to be up to two bottles of tequila a day.

Paul had made his career driving freight trains for thirty years. I thought that sounded pretty cool, but I was wrong. It’s an awful job. You drive a few hundred miles to get to the train, then spend a day doing almost nothing at all, just watching for signals and watching your speed. It’s incredibly boring. In the old days, he said, the crew would all get drunk while they drove, but it’s impossible now. They’d all get caught through random drug tests. The more he talked about the trains, the more I got this impression that 50% of freight trains end up derailing. He’d had so many accidents they didn’t phase him at all. His stories about train wrecks always ended up with him complaining about the paperwork he had to fill out and the shit he had to put up with from the police.

But the worst part about the job is the people you hit. Whether they’re suicides or idiots, people die under your train. He told me about a drunk who’d fallen asleep with his head on the track. When they ran him over, the engineer looked at Paul and said, “He was wearing all black, it’s night, we could say we didn’t see him.” They knew the guy was a goner, and they didn’t want to stop the train, deal with the police, fill out paperwork, waste time. What difference would it make? They could just keep going. They did stop the train though, and called an ambulance. The top of the guy’s head was gone, and he was in a coma. He lived a day longer before dying.

Before Paul had driven trains he’d been in the navy. If I remember correctly, Paul was stuck in Hawaii waiting for orders in 1974. The Americans were intending to send more troops to Vietnam. At that time, Nixon resigned, and whatever plans involved Paul were scrapped. He never went to war, but while he was waiting in Hawaii, his nineteen year old wife was on the mainland dying of cancer. As soon as he could leave Hawaii he went back to her, and she died within a week.

I asked him if she was strung out of morphine, and he replied, “I was doing more morphine than her.”

When I met him, forty years had passed since then, and what struck me about him – and what I liked about him at first – was how little he seemed to care about anything. A lot of people throw around the phrase “I don’t give a fuck”, as if it’s something cool not to care. Paul said it a lot, but each time I could see he really meant it. He didn’t care whether he lived or died, whether I was there, whether I killed him (“You wanna shoot me, go ahead. I got nothing to lose”). All he wanted to do was to go and buy some weed.

“I gotta ask you,” I said, “You give the least fucks out of anybody I’ve ever met.”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t give a fuck about anything!”

“You know, I spent my whole life trying to forget everything. Now I’m reaching the end of my life, and I’m trying to remember, and all I can remember is the things I tried to forget.”

“Like what?”

“Like my wife dying or people I’ve run over.”

It was dark when we reach Carlisle. Paul dropped me outside a hotel, and that was that. It was another awkward hitchhiking goodbye. What do you say to a guy like that? It was sad to leave him alone again, but I’m not sure it made any difference to him at all.

10.

Well, a week has passed since I started writing this, and in two and a half hours I’ll be on a coach headed for Belgium. My bag is overloaded with two skateboards, a kite, juggling balls, carving tools, a harmonica and a GameCube to give to Jason. It’s time to hit the road again.

 

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The Quest: Part 1: The Quest

By James Stevenson

“By God, when I get home… I’m gunna take that frozen fruit, put it in the bottom, cover it in cake mix, then pour on a can of soda, then bake it.” I was having an excellent introduction to Canada, eavesdropping on a table of old ladies in a restaurant. An old man hobbled over to their table for a quick flirt, opening with “How are you fine looking ladies enjoying your meal?” and telling them how good the food was there.

I was in Peggy’s Cove, a world famous town I’d never heard of, home to 38 people, a lighthouse, and a beautiful coastline of exposed rock. It looks like a moonscape, except for the sea and the groups of tourists that get bussed out from Halifax every day to say “how quaint” for an hour. A local complained to me that one hour is not really enough to see the town, and I quite agree. An hour and a half would be perfect.

I’d only been in Nova Scotia for a few days and I was ready to stay forever. I was staying in Halifax, and after London I felt like I’d finally ascended from Purgatory to Heaven. Gone were the gray streets and gray people, replaced by green trees and blue waters. People seemed happy and unhurried here. I remember staring out of a café window, half asleep at 8am. A pretty girl jogged up to the crosswalk next to the window and looked at me. Instead of glancing away, she held my gaze and smiled. I was amazed! What was this place? Why hadn’t I been here years ago?

Peggy’s Cove was just a day trip for the sake of checking out Nova Scotia. The people who drove me were really down to earth and easy-going. I got given all kinds of advice about wild animals, people would talk about moose and coyotes and bears. One guy’s parting words as he drove away were “Buy bear repellent!”

I got two consecutive lifts from a couple middle-aged hippies who were spacing out happily and driving around with some young kid in the back seat. They loved Peggy’s Cove and were really happy I was going there. When I left one of them said “Thank you for bringing the medicine to Nova Scotia,” and wished me a meaningful, loving trip.

After a week in Halifax the real trip begun. I was heading north to Quebec, six hundred miles away. I’d travel along Nova Scotia and into New Brunswick, and for a little while I’d be in civilisation. Once I reached the TransCanada Highway there would be a long stretch of wilderness before reaching Quebec, hundreds of miles of forest. Towns were rare; there was only the woods, the animals, and the creeps who go out there to disappear. Or at least, so I was told.

Right in the beginning I had really good lift. I’d been dropped off after a ten minute ride and I was walking along the shoulder when this car swerved over and screeched to a stop ahead of me. It was a little two-door thing, low to the ground and looking kinda beat up. I ran over.

“Oh man I love picking up hitchhikers!” my driver exclaimed. He was a skinny guy with a mad grin and tattoos down his arms. I jumped in and he floored it. “I got a bit of a wet foot! I hope that’s ok!” he said.

He slouched back and smiled slyly while he talked. He had this kind of confidence that the world was his oyster. What he did for a living escapes me, but I do remember him telling me what a profit you can make transporting Canadian weed into America. He said they don’t let him through the border any more.

“Why not?” I asked, wondering if he’d been caught.

“Because I got a criminal record as long as my arm!”

He told me about a Russian girl he met on chatroulette.com that he’s kept in touch with for years. He almost went to Russia to meet her, but something about it didn’t work out. Maybe it was his massive criminal record, or maybe it was her stern, Putin-loving, west-hating father (Now that I think about it, how old is she?). He was still hoping she’d come to Canada one day. “I don’t know how I’d make that work with a wife and kids, but I’ll find a way!”

“You’re really lucky I picked you up,” he said. “I’m gunna take you to a big truck stop, you’ll get a ride in no time.”
The place he took me was completely dead, and I waited for three hours, getting slowly colder and adding layers of clothing until I was wearing everything I had. There was hardly any traffic, though one guy pulled over and handed me a bag of chips and a can of soda. “I’m not going that way, but here, have some pop and chips!”

I got fed up and went to warm up in the Schnitzel Haus, a weird roadside German restaurant that smelled like eggs. It was like being in a chalet, with chequered table cloths and a waitress in a dirndl She had a lovely Nova Scotia accent that was really out of place.

After twenty minutes enjoying this bizarre atmosphere I hit the road again, and it wasn’t long before I started getting lifts. I remember having a lift with a guy in a pickup truck who cracked open a couple beers for us as we drove. I just went with it. There was also a retired school teacher who wanted to write a book about teaching. People these days don’t know how to get respect from their students, he said.

I ended up somewhere in the south of New Brunswick, still four hundred miles from Quebec. I was surrounded by open green fields and rolling hills, crisscrossed with lines of little trees that led to the edge of dark woodland. The sky was huge here. The clouds which had kept the earth so cold all day started to drift away to the west and the sun, dipping towards the horizon now, threw great beams of light over their edge. I sat on my duffel bag, finally warming up in the sunlight. Whenever a car appeared I’d stick out my thumb, but for the moment I was perfectly content where I was.

I got one more lift that day, a long lift with a trucker who was on his way home to Woodstock, New Brunswick. He was another skinny tattooed guy, with a bandana wrapped around his forehead. He laughed a lot as he talked, and he would bounce around nervously in his seat when he did. He was in his sixties, but he was lean and wiry. He trained in mixed martial arts and kept a chrome baseball bat next to his seat, just in case.

The light of his life was his daughter, who could do all kinds of neat things like fix cars and hunt and whatnot. He called her the son he never had.

He told me all kind of stories about the women in his life. He had a “lot lizard” (that’s a euphemism for truckstop hooker) in New Jersey who was quite fond of him and would drop whatever she was doing and see him if he was in town. He assured me she was clean several times, and in one story about a three-way he assured me the other girl was clean too. I don’t know why I’m mentioning this; he just said it a lot. He also had a girl in Texas, who’d hitched a lift with him once. She given him weed and slept with him during the trip and would also drop whatever she was doing to see him if he turned up in Texas. And then there was his wife, who knew all about these women and didn’t mind.

I asked if he knew other truckers, what he did in truck stops. “Oh you know, I’ll pull in and go see what’s going on. See who’s telling the tallest stories.”

When we finally got to Woodstock I was let out in a truck stop. It was dark, but trucks were still moving, so I stood by the exit and held out a thumb whenever anyone passed. I didn’t get anywhere that night, but one Nova Scotian trucker did pull over and hand me five dollars. I spent the night on the sofa in the truckers lounge. I was nervous I’d get kicked out and tried to look awake whenever anyone walked by.

I gave this up and went back outside around 7am, and this is the day that things got weird.

I went back to the spot I’d been standing at the night before, and a guy in a pickup truck pulled over. He was 78 years old, nuts, and he talked like he was missing all his teeth. He was out that day to pick up potatoes from the fields and sell them. As he explained, the harvesters miss potatoes and leave them behind, and he would drive onto the fields after the farmers had left and fill up a couple of boxes.

We were driving past endless potato fields and he would stare around wildly, looking for farmers. “You cocksuckers!” He’d shout. “Where are you cocksuckers? All them potadas are gunna burn!” He must have spent a solid half hour gumming about potatoes, he knew everything there was to know about them. When we did finally pass a field being harvested he shouted triumphantly “There you are you cocksuckers! I’ll be back!”

As I slowly learned, Potato Man had had a hard life. “You got a girlfriend?” He asked me. I said no. He showed me a picture of a woman. “This is the lady I was taking care of,” he said. She had died earlier that year, and his son some time before that.

“I used to pick up bottles along this road.” In Canada many homeless people collect bottles and collect the deposits on them. “I used to jerk people off for fifty bucks. I’ve slept in boxes, abandoned cars, you name it, I’ve slept in it.”
We were off the highway so that he could scope out potato fields, and anyway he had some burning hatred for the TransCanada Highway that I didn’t understand. We passed a cornfield and he pointed into some trees at the edge. “That’s where I used to pull up my truck. I’d pull in there, go take some corn, and go sell it.”

More and more he would talk about jerking people off, and slowly the stories started to be about hitchhikers. He’d picked up eleven hitchhikers that summer, he told me. He said he’d been telling another hitchhiker about his sexual encounters, and that hitchhiker had told him to stop and jumped right out. “But I ain’t never attacked anyone!” he told me.

He also warned me several times not to go to Kitchener, Ontario because it was “full of queers up there”.

The closer we got to the end of the ride the more desperate and up front he became about what he wanted from me, though he never came out and said it. “I ain’t never attacked anyone,” he said, As we were pulling to a stop, “but if someone gets it out I’ll play with it!”

Now I was spooked. Maybe I should have jumped out too, but I wasn’t scared, just disgusted. I bought a doughnut from Tim Horton’s to feel better, but that didn’t really help. It was Tim Horton’s so I don’t really know what I’d expected.
In the next car I was wary. “What does this guy want from me?” I wondered. But he was just another nice guy. Thank God.
I caught a third ride, slowly making my way north, slowly feeling better. My driver was a salesman from Maine. He would visit Canadian companies and sell advertising slots on American TV.

We were getting along fine, talking about whatever, and then he asked me if I had a girlfriend. I said no, and he said something I didn’t quite hear. And then, after a pause, “You wanna make a little money?”

I knew what was going on, but thinking there was a chance all he meant was “Do you want to get a job while you’re travelling”, I answered “Maybe.”

“I’ll pay you to let me jerk ya off while we drive.” His voice kind of oozed and purred, oily. Every time I think back he sounds more like Heath Ledger as The Joker.

This time I said no. He nodded.

“Thought I’d ask.”

More afraid of an awkward silence than of him, I picked up the conversation again. “So you’re married, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s that like?”

“Marriage? It’s alright.” There was a pause. “But I’ve been bi my whole life.” He still sounded like The Joker.

After that ride I was feeling terrible. I’d hitchhiked thousands of miles in Europe and never had anything like this at all! I was starting to think back to all the rides I gotten in my life. What were they after?

The Joker had told me he’d pick me up again if I was still there after he was done in the town, so I was really hoping I’d get picked up before I saw him again. Thankfully a couple French speaking guys let me into the back of their minivan and completely ignored me. I leaned against the window, nervous and exhausted. My eyelids were starting to droop. “What the hell,” I thought, “these guys are probably fine,” and I fell asleep.

They woke me up when they were turning off and I hopped out. I started walking and started to feel good again. The sky was clear and the sun was warm. For the first time in 24 hours I took off a layer of clothing. I wearing a rainbow patchwork jumper and a swagged out Turkish sunhat, and I thought to myself I must look like some kind of weird ginger hippie chinaman. I giggled a little, and a great euphoria welled up in me. I laughed and grinned and breathed in the fresh air. This was real hitchhiking! Out here in the middle of absolute nowhere, surrounded by a sea of trees, walking on highways and being picked up by repressed homosexuals. I was miles from home, miles from anywhere and I felt so alive!

At the top of a hill I could see for miles. All around me was green forest, dotted with blue lakes. It was just me, the land, the sky, and wind at my back, blowing north. Ahead of me I could see a big sign prohibiting anyone from walking further. That meant civilisation! I was getting close!

I got one last ride that day, with some kind of cultural minister from Quebec City. As we drove he told me all kinds of interesting things about Canada and about Quebec, and around us towns and houses started to appear again. The mighty Saint Laurence River appeared ahead of us and led us to the city. We crossed over a great bridge to the island and took the scenic route into the old town, my driver pointing out different buildings and interesting things.

He drove me right to the steps of Hostelling International. I booked a room for the night, went in, collapsed on the bed, and slept.

That night I took a long walk in the rain. I had a lot to think about. The last two days had been more interesting than whole months of boredom at home. Not only that, but the next day I knew I would be heading for Montreal, and I was excited. Montreal was my goal. I know I haven’t yet told you why I was in Canada in the first place, but you’ll just have to hold on. Things were about to get completely absurd, and I won’t say anything at all until part 2. Stay tuned!

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Notes from the Road: Switzerland

By: James Stevenson

Back in March I was filling in my “Reason to go Switzerland” list, as one does, and it was looking pretty good:

1) I have dear friends there I haven’t seen in a while.

2) It’s not London.

3) It’s my birthday soon, and after I waste lots of money on birthday presents for myself it would be a good idea to miss some work and blow more money on a short trip.

4) I need to hitchhike so I can blog about it and my friends can tell me what a great writer I am.

These were all good reasons but the real reason was number 5:

5) My friend Andrew wants to give me his record collection and he lives there.

I collect records so that I can look cool. I’ve got a bookshelf filled up with records and second hand books so that when people come visit me they’re impressed with my intelligence and material wealth. “A man that devoted to archaic media must be a manly man indeed,” they think. I bought some expensive looking music equipment to complete the effect, and I even bought lights for the room to make it clear that I do actually read.

Sometimes, though, I notice people don’t even glance at my amazing possessions, and that really annoys me. The solution is obviously that I need more records, so when Andrew very generously offered me his collection I gleefully accepted.

My first thought was to hitchhike to England with them, after all, the cheapest way to move stuff between countries is definitely to get other people to pay for gas. I’d never hitchhiked with that much baggage before, though. Would anybody give me a lift? I wasn’t sure until I heard about this:

As the story goes, Tony Hawks, the author, accepted a drunken bet to hitchhike around Ireland with a refrigerator. He started in Dublin and made it all the way around the coast, up through Northern Ireland and back down anti-clockwise. If he could do that then I could do my trip with a couple bags of records. Easy.

So it was settled. I got up early and headed to the spot, an intersection in Sidcup. As far as I know, Sidcup is a pretty nowhere place in south London, but it’s quite dear to me.

I first discovered Sidcup back in 2012, when I was hitchhiking for the first time. It was after a long day of bad luck. I’d been stuck in a gas station in Belgium that morning, trying to get a lift for 5 hours and getting a horrendous sunburn instead. When I ended up on the ferry to England that night I was exhausted and red like a lobster. It was late and dark and I didn’t really have any idea what I was going to do when I got to Dover.

On the ship I met a group of English guys and they offered me a lift. They were five or six rough looking London guys, dressed in leather or whatnot, and they had names like Jacko, Panache, Rizzo and Moses. This one guy Joey was constantly joking around and laughing and the whole scene made me nervous. I honestly thought they were gunna rob me. “What the hell,” I thought, “at least it’ll make a good story”.

As it turned out, they were 1.5 bands (The Vex and The Supernovas) travelling back to England after playing some gigs together in Europe. We piled into their van, and the guys were all holding amps or guitars on their laps just to make room for me on the last seat. They were all super nice, but I was still scared. Once we got on our way they started blasting Chas & Dave, some ridiculous old English comedy music. They were all singing along at the top of their lungs and laughing as we sped down the motorway. I started to laugh too, long and loud and deep, and all my fear just went out of me completely. These were excellent people.

We ended up pulling into Sidcup some time after midnight to drop Jacko off. They asked me if I’d ever heard of Sidcup and laughed when I said I didn’t. I got the impression that nobody has ever heard of Sidcup. A couple days later I was on my way out of London again, and the spot for getting a ride to Dover turned out to be in Sidcup. I was overjoyed.

And so once again I found myself waiting there this March, holding my sign for Dover and watching cars blow past me in the morning air. I nibbled some stroopwafels and waited, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my back. A mass of cyclists drove past me and cheered. Later someone drove by and threw a rock at me. After a couple hours, around 11 o’clock, someone pulled over and offered to take me to train station and buy me a ticket to Dover. I turned him down, assuring him I’d get a lift.

By then the traffic was starting to thin a little and I really wasn’t sure I would get a lift, but just as he pulled away a lady pulled over and offered me a ride. She gave me a cup of tea and we sped happily away. My driver was in her early 60s, on her way to a new home outside the city. She’d lived in London her whole life, including a year or more homeless. She’d lived in a building full of squatters, whole families raising children and whatnot. It sounded very communal and friendly; she said the kids were all kind of raised together by the whole group.

She let me out at a service station very close to Dover, and I started asking everyone if they were driving to Dover. One man got out of his car and started walking towards the shop, moving in a bit of hurry. I figured I had nothing to lose and asked him if he was heading to Dover. He said he was.

“Any chance you could give me a lift?” I asked.

He laughed to himself, as if he’d wished he said something different but hadn’t thought fast enough.

“All right. Wait here and I’ll be out in a moment.” He hurried away into the shop, with a funny little smile on his face.

This turned out to be one of the most interesting rides I’ve had. My driver was a doctor on a way to a meeting in Dover. He was in charge of a region of hospitals in the south of England, and he struck me as a very smart man. He often had that little smile, as if the world amused him in many little ways.

We were somewhere in the meat of our conversation when we got to talking about suicide.

“You know, doctors have the highest suicide rate in the country,” he said.

“Oh really? I guess it’s pretty stressful, right?” I asked.

“Well it is, but it’s not really that. I think when a doctor decides to kill himself he knows how to do it. You almost never get a doctor that tried to kill themselves and failed.”

“Do you know what you would do?” I asked after a pause.

“I know exactly how I’d do it,” he replied. “I’d inject myself with morphine and insulin.”

“How does that work?” I asked.

“First morphine to take away all the pain,” he told me. “Then I’d inject myself with insulin and my blood sugar would start to drop. I would drift off and my heart would stop. It would be very peaceful and easy.”

We didn’t speak for a short minute.

I told him about how the Celts used to throw themselves off cliffs when they got old and decided they’d become burdens on their families. (Come to think of it, I have no idea if this is true.) They also used to go into battle almost completely naked, wearing nothing but a golden torc. I said I had this crazy idea to get up on a building, get naked, put on a torc, and jump off when I was old and thought it was time. He was afraid of heights and didn’t like the idea.

We agreed that there’s never really a point in your life when you think it’s time to die. The desire to live is buried so deep in us that it is very hard to reject. That said, there is a beautiful French phrase: “L’appel du vide”, or “the call of the void”. It’s the temptation some people feel in high places, on top of a building or a cliff, the temptation to just take that plunge. I’ve had that feeling before. It’s terrifying.

In Dover I made my way to the ferry terminal and tried to get a lift with someone. I never have much success here, as most people already have their tickets booked and just drive straight to the ship. I didn’t waste too much time and bought a ticket pretty quickly.

On the ship I asked every person I could find, and all but one kind man turned me down. He was driving south to Paris, and could take me about one hundred kilometres before we’d have to part ways.

We got on the road and settled in for a long ride. Brian, my driver, lived on a houseboat in Paris and was a pilot for EasyJet. He must have been sixty or more. Years ago, he’d studied aeronautical engineering, and he was telling me all kinds of things about the degree he did. He loved to tell me stories about the things he’d studied, since I knew a little about the mathematics he’d done. He told me about proving little mathematical things during his degree, and I got the feeling he rarely talked to anyone that he could tell these stories to. Now that I think about it, he strikes me as a little lonely.

He told me he was hitchhiking once and had been picked up by a one-eyed man in a Jaguar. One-Eye was on his way to a date, and he was pretty nervous, so he brought Brian along with him. They went to a pub and had a few drinks, and when the girl arrived she turned out to be stunningly beautiful. One-Eye was still a little nervous, and they invited Brian along with them. Brian could tell it was going to work out and left them to it.

He told me later that he wanted to get a motorbike when he retired, and ride around like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2.

“When I leave the plane after a flight I always say to the crew ‘I’ll be back!’, but they never get it.”

Brian ended up going out of his way and taking me another 80km to a gas station near St. Quentin. He let me out and we said a warm goodbye. After a good ride the goodbye is always a little strange. You’ve been friends for a few hours and now you both know you’ll never see each other again. You both feel like saying “Hey well I’ll see you again soon, right?” but you don’t, and there’s kind of a hole in your words where this sentence is supposed to go.

Brian drove away and I went into the shop. I idly watched the TV, where Daniel Radcliffe was doing a dubbed sex scene in French. It was pretty late; not many cars were coming through and the truckers were all bunking down for the night.

Eventually the place closed up and the staff kicked me out of the café. There was still one little hallway open in the back of the building, so I found a corner where I could hide and curled up to read a book and get some sleep. I wasn’t sure I was allowed to sleep there, so I didn’t get my sleeping bag out or anything. I lay down under my sweater and shivered nervously all night, wondering if the door next to me would open up and some janitor would step through, see me, and kick me out into the cold. It wasn’t until around 4am that I realised how dumb I was being. I got out my sleeping bag and got comfy, but before long a group of truckers started hanging around the coffee machines, chatting loudly. I couldn’t get any sleep, so as soon as the café opened I went back inside and got a cup of coffee.

The early morning traffic was coming in and I asking around for a lift. I wanted to head south to Reims, then cut east towards Alsace. Last summer I’d been on this route. I’d actually been picked up by the police because I was standing on the edge of the motorway trying to thumb a lift. They’d taken me to a big service station and there’d been loads of drivers heading to Switzerland, so I wanted to head that way again.

Around 7am I met a young Dutch couple on their way to Geneva. Their car was jammed full of baggage, and they told me they didn’t have any space. They were pretty friendly, though, so I was disappointed. I went back inside the café. Later I saw the man, Jeffrey, again and struck up a conversation. We were just chatting about travelling and whatnot when his wife, Rosmili, came by and joined us.

“We were talking before about maybe moving some of our stuff over and getting a seat for you,” Jeffrey told me.

“But we need to know that you’re not going to murder us,” Rosmili said.

I laughed and promised not to kill them. I guess they were satisfied, so we went to their car and looked at our maps. Geneva was not where I wanted to go at all, but I liked them so much I decided to go with them. They didn’t seem to mind. We piled in and sped away!

“I just want to apologise, in advance,” I said, “but I didn’t really get any sleep last night. If I fall asleep please don’t think I’m rude.”

In the end we rode together for five hours or more, and we talked the entire time. They were absolutely excellent people, interesting and friendly and smart. We bullshitted about all the things I love to bullshit about: films and books and music, travelling, people, and of course the standard intellectual conversation things like religion and death and happiness and whatnot. They’d been married twelve years, but they seemed to me still very much in love, and very happy. They told me they’d decided not to have kids. They were perfectly happy enjoying the world together as the two of them. They were very refreshing; I wish there were more people like them.

When we reached Geneva the goodbye felt very wrong. That hole where one of us should have said “Hey, we should keep in touch” was gaping and obvious, but we both resisted. We hugged and they pulled away. “Be safe!” Rosmili shouted.

I was finally in Switzerland, and I was starving. I bought a gigantic Easter bunny and a loaf of zopf, which is this amazing Swiss bread made with some inordinate amount of butter. I made my way lazily toward the train station, eating happily. My weariness started to set in, and I began to feel terrible. I kept eating.

I thought about hitchhiking to Zurich, but when I reached the train station I got jumped by a bunch of ticket machines. They beat me up and emptied my wallet. They threw a ticket to Zurich at me and said if they ever saw me around there again there’d be trouble. I got on a train, stuffed my mouth with butter bread and chocolate, wondered why I felt even worse than before, and fell asleep.

Four days later I was back on the road with fifteen kilos of vinyl that I could barely carry. I managed to get home to London in one day: 19 hours and five lifts door to door. Not much of this trip stands out in my memory, except this rich Swiss hippie telling me about his expensive music equipment and how he preferred LSD and DMT parties to cocaine parties. I remember one of my drivers telling me to go to Laos and rent a motorbike. I also remember taking the train home from Dover with this random dude I met on the ferry. We didn’t have much to talk about except this other little kid who walked passed and said “You’re a couple of cunts, aren’t ya,” then disappeared down the train.

Now it’s midnight two months later and I’m in a café watching old guys play chess. I’m trying to work out what my closing thoughts are. There’s something hypocritical about a guy with a top mathematics degree sticking his thumb out and asking for help, getting total strangers to carry his Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd albums six hundred miles across Europe. There’s also something strange about meeting amazing people and deciding never to see them again. There’s something wonderful about that funny little smile my second driver wore. I don’t know what it all means, I’m just going to keep hitchhiking until I work it out.

Goat Tribal

The Future of Tribal – Goat Tribal

Since the dawn of cube, people have been asking the same question: “How do I get tribal working in my cube?” There have been countless forum threads, text messages, telegrams, letters and phone calls about this, and even some face-to-face conversations. Elf tribal packages were added to cubes, goblin decks were discussed, wizards were considered and tossed aside, soldiers turned out to be rubbish, and inevitably most of the people involved scrapped it all.

I tried tribal too, years ago after I first built my cube. I tried in vain to replace my blue AND my white two drops with 19 copies of Voidmage Prodigy to make a mono-blue wizard aggro-control archetype. This was total garbage, as I’m sure a few of you spotted. So was everything else. With a heavy heart I threw aside the Gempalm Sorcerers, the Goblin Kings, the Ambush Commanders, the Bloodthirsty Ogres and the Brushwaggs. I filled up the spots in the cube up with “good cards”, but I couldn’t fill the void in my heart.

Years passed. The tribal ideas became fewer and further between, and more ridiculous each time. The internet threw around ideas about Gravecrawlers and Carrion Feeders, Champions of the Parish and Fencing Aces, Starlit Sanctums, Vampire Nocturnuses, Hordes of Notions but still nothing was good enough. What was the point of going Gifts Ungiven into Haakon and Gravecrawler when your opponent was casting Channel into Colossus of Sardia?

But finally I had a good idea: Goat tribal! I’ve been testing this baby 25 hours a day, and I’m ready to unveil this monstrosity.

The Core

The key cards that make this work are Trading Post, Springjack Shepherd and Springjack Pasture.

Trading PostSpringjack PastureSpringjack Shepherd

These are the main goat producers.

Trading Post is a fantastic card, a lot of fun to play with and against. It’s one of many cards that ties the Goat theme into a possible artifact theme. That said, the goat deck is really where Trading Post shines. Starting at 20 life, there’s potential to make up to 20 goats (that’s a lot). I added two copies of Voltaic Key to my cube to push that boundary higher, and to tie into the artifact theme.

Springjack Shepherd has had a lot of attention recently, with the printing of Master of Waves. Master of Waves doesn’t quite match up to the power of Springjack Shepherd, for a couple reasons. Master of Waves fails the Lava Dart test, and when it does you lose all the tokens. Shepherd has a crucial 2 toughness, and you get to keep your tokens when it dies. This opens up potential for recursion as well.

Springjack Pasture is absolutely the most important card in this deck. Like Trading Post, it allows you to make one whole goat every turn, but this time it doesn’t cost you any life. Instead, Springjack Pasture potentially gains you life. If you have it in play with Trading Post, you can make 2 goats for the price of 1 life. 2 goats = 2 life with Springjack Pasture, so infinite life! There’s been a couple times I landed Springjack Pasture and showed the Trading Post in my hand. This usually is enough to get the concession. (There’s also great fun to be had nicknaming this card “Goatscape” – it’s a pun on “Scapegoat”)

The final two cards to make up the core of the deck are Mountain Goat and Zodiac Goat.

Mountain GoatZodiac Goat

These are your 1-drops, both a solid first pick. Because you are usually an aggro deck, you need to be doing things on turn one. The speed of these two leads to blazing openings and leaves you open to closing the game with your slower cards. The evasion is important. Roughly 1/5 of your opponents will be playing mountains, so don’t underestimate these guys. From a design perspective, having two functionally identical cards allows you to bring redundancy to this archetype.

These cards are the first step to supporting goat tribal, but it still needs fleshing out. I had a chat with ChannelFireball’s own Jason Waddell and we came up with more support.

The Support

Adaptive AutomatonEldrazi MonumentCoat of ArmsCavern of Souls

Adaptive Automaton is fantastic. Usually I have between 7 and 11 goats in play by turn three, so I can land the Automaton and swing in for the last few points of damage.

Eldrazi Monument is really incredible here. If Automaton is just about wrapping things up on turn 3, Monument is certainly going to close things out on turn 5 (or earlier with Springjack Pasture). In fact, with Springjack Pasture you can sacrifice the goat you sacrifice to Eldrazi Monument to gain 1 life. It’s a neat synergy, and it’s a good use of Springjack Pasture.

The best of the support cards is certainly Coat of Arms. Again, turn 5 is plenty for the goat engines to have assembled a formidable force, and huge amounts of damage can be dealt. I did once attack for more than INTMAX on turn 7 with this deck, which in my opinion is one of the benefits of the new “real life” version of magic, rather than the old, inflexible “MITGO”. Eat it, Travis Woo.

Finally, double or triple up on Cavern of Souls (1 is already an auto-include in cube). A Cavern set to “Goat” does good work in keeping your goats streaming in through Stifle and Brown Ouphe, and it makes sure you land your Automaton. If you’re playing any of the crucial artifacts, you can set Cavern of Souls to “Artifact” and make sure your game-enders resolve.

Incidental Goodness

There’s a few cards already in your cube that become better with the addition of the goat tribal deck.

GoatnapperEngineered PlagueCloudgoat Ranger

To quote Jason Waddell, “Goatnapper is like… a three-mana Zealous Conscripts.”

Engineered Plague becomes less of a spot-removal spell and starts scattering whole flocks (of goats). Beware that this card may not be enough to save you in the face of stampeding herd of goats, though. Sometimes it comes down too late, and the Coat of Arms is already in place.

Cloudgoat Ranger is of course an auto-include in this deck, and I sometimes even pick it over the goat 1-drops.

Conclusion

Now, I know what you’re all thinking. “Why didn’t I think of that?” Well, I have to admit, I didn’t think of it for a long time, and I’m pretty good at magic. Once I saw it, it was obvious. All the pieces were right there, hiding in my collection. (I’m happy I never managed to trade these cards away, seeing as how they’ve come in useful. If you don’t have some of these, I would say snap them up while you can. Proxies are fine for cube, but some cards are investments.)

I’d like to make one important point about overlapping strategies. Many of these cards work well in other strategies, which from a design perspective is good. You want to watch out for cards in your cube that only work in one archetype. It’s poisonous for your draft experience and leads to uninteresting decision trees. (I feel there might be another article worth writing on this subject – if you like this one I may transcribe my thoughts on poisonous drafting)

Jason’s Critique

James, these are some fantastic ideas, and I think the potential is there to revolutionize cube design. However, as great as your thought baby is, I don’t think you’ve given it the proper gestational period. Let’s bring this thing to full term.

Amoeboid Changeling

Two words: Scuttle Mutt. While the kids are changing colors, Amoeboid Changeling trumps that scarecrow in every way imaginable. What’s that? Your Eldrazi is now a Ninja Goat Nicolas Cage? Goatnapper just swiped himself an Emrakul. Best of all, it works with and against the Goat archetype. I’m not sure what this poison nonsense you mention is, but imagine this: Your opponent is setting up their critical turn for a big Springjack Pasture fueled Fireball. On upkeep, that Goat becomes typeless. Fireball no longer deals lethal. It’s like a Rishadan Port with no mana cost for its activation!

Mirror Entity

When you’re running a Springjack Pasture combo ramp control deck, you don’t always have the Colossus of Akros in hand to dump your mana into. This archetype needs mana sinks, and it needs goats, and Mirror Entity gladly fills both holes roles.

Picture this: You attack with your army with Mirror Entity and Springjack Pasture in play. You’re not on mono-goat tempo, so you’ve got some non-goats in your composition. What’s that? Mirror Entity activates for 1. Your non-goats are now goats. Now they sacrifice to Springjack Pasture. You sacrifice goats to the pasture, then funnel that excess mana back into a huge Mirror Entity activation. How many guys do you sacrifice? Now that’s a numerical optimization problem we can all enjoy.

Best of all, we have overlap with other archetypes. Post combat, activate Mirror Entity once more for 0 with Blood Artist in play, flash in Ajani’s Pridemate via Aether Vial with the triggers on the stack, and go to Value City.

Konda's Banner

Unfortunately this guy can be tricky to get online, thanks to Wizards’ refusal to print a legendary goat. But it’s the anthem we need, and thanks to Mirror Entity and Amoeboid Changeling we can now get it going. For bonus points, use Scuttlemutt to turn that Legendary creature into a five-color general and pump your entire army.

The question is, which legendary creature do we want…

Doran, the Siege Tower

Tired of your 0/1’s being ineffective in the red zone? Doran makes those goats infinitely more powerful (the math checks out). Plus, it provides incidental hate against the Ball Lightnings and Falkenrath Aristocrats floating around.

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Notes from the Road: Antwerp

by: James Stevenson

After my trip to Bristol, I wanted to curl up in my bed and never leave it. I definitely didn’t want to get back on the road again. But nicolas cage damn it, I’d started some stupid “Notes from the Road” series thing, and there was no turning back. And anyway, I wasn’t fooling myself. I still had restless feet. Grabbing funemployment by the horns, I wanted to hitchhike again, but I didn’t know where. But lo, a wild invitation appeared!

jason invite

Wow! This guy from the internet was going to let me come hang out with him, and even better, we were going to play cube!

Two weeks passed, my cat woke me up at 6:30 in the morning, then my alarm went off at 7 and I jumped out of bed. I was excited, it felt like Christmas! I rammed a cup of coffee down my throat, shoved some juggling balls and douchey sunglasses into my backpack and strode boldly out the door, forgetting to bring my trades, my towel or clothes to sleep in. No matter! I knew I had my passport and wallet, everything else was just luxury.

I headed out on the train, watching the Shard and the Cheese Grater shrink in the distance. I didn’t have to mention the Cheesegrater, but I wanted to show off:

stevenson

I’d just like to point out the top of the Gherkin there on the left, and then I’ll say no more. These pictures are supposed to be under wraps.

I abandoned the train in Sidcup, a town on the outskirts of the city, and trudged over towards the motorway. There’s a good spot here to hitch to Dover.

Bristol had taught me an important lesson about being outside: it’s really cold. This time I was prepared, wearing a wife-beater, a tshirt, two jumpers, a hat, a scarf, knee socks, leather gloves, and the most dilapidated shoes I’ve ever owned. The holes in the heels are so big you could smuggle immigrants in across borders in them. So naturally I was nice and toasty except for my hands. What the hell.

I held up my sign and smiled at the drivers blowing by me. As usual I got a lot of funny looks, and at least one guy slowed down to take a picture of me with his iPhone. That’s a new one. It didn’t take too long before someone flashed their lights at me and picked me up. I jumped in his car and we sped away.

“I work in a bank,” he told me. “So I’m responsible for all the world’s problems.”

I laughed and agreed. He was a interest swap salesman for Societe General. I showed a lot of interest in his work and he seemed to be really surprised. I don’t think he saw anything interesting in it at all.

After driving for five minutes he let me out at a motorway intersection. I was probably better off waiting in Sidcup, but at least I could look at the gloom of the sky, feel the rain waft apathetically against my face, admire the gray death of the road, sigh and laugh and say “ah, England” affectionately.

It didn’t take long until I was picked up by a car mechanic. He’d grown up in Zimbabwe, in the typical walled white-people compound, away from the blacks. He did not like the blacks.

“When I was growing up,” he said, “you know, if I came home with a Black girl, I’d be disowned. That was how I was raised. I try to be a bit more lenient on my own kids, but you know, that’s still what I think. You know, when I was raised we had discipline. These days, you know, you get your belt out on your kid and social services are gunna take ‘em away.”

“Yeah it’s absurd,” I said, “I mean, as long as you’re not beating the shit out of yours kids, a little discipline is important.”

“There’s no hope for this country,” he lamented. “If they can’t fix the immigration nothing is going to improve. You know people just camp in Calais until they can get onto a ship. If they’re caught they just send them back, you know? And then they just do it again. If they make it to England they pay people off to get papers and get work.”

“And you know, the other thing is the social services. People are taking advantage of them. I saw something on TV about a woman living in a 7-bedroom house that she pays for with unemployment! She has six kids or something, and she won’t get a job! I tell ya, this country’s fucked.”

He let me out by a motorway entrance, where I held up my Dover sign once more.

IMG_0399

About twenty minutes passed and he reappeared again, in another car.

“I’ll just take you a bit further, to the services. That’ll be better for ya!”

I thanked him heartily. What a dude!

It was a good sized service station, with lots of people going in and out. Of course, half the people were going the other way, back towards London. I even met several people that were coming from Belgium. I took up a spot outside the shop and started asking people if they could give me a lift.

Pretty soon an Irish man walked past me and said something completely unintelligible. Assuming he was turning me down, I replied “Ah, don’t worry, I’ll find someone.”

He turned around.

“Where you headed?”

“Dover.”

“I’ll give you a lift to Dover, just give me a minute.”

A minute later he returned.

“I just went inside and I thought how terribly rude of me, to be drinking a coffee in front of you and not offer you one. Can I get you anything?”

I gladly accepted, and a few minutes later I was in his car, warming my hands on a latte. We shook hands and exchanged names, then off we zoomed towards the sea! He was a lovely chap, on his way to referee a rugby match in Dover. We shot the bull for an hour and it was very pleasant. I can’t for the life of me remember what we talked about or what his name was.

“(Insert correct name here), right?” I asked as we parted, making sure to remember his name.

“Aye, that’s right,” he said, and off he drove.

I pointed my feet towards the ferry landing and smiled at the sound of seagulls. I love reaching the sea, I love the sea air, I love the horizon. But it’s always the sound of seagulls that makes me happy. I grew up on the coast of New Jersey, so it takes me back a little.

It should be easy to get a ride onto the ship here, since it doesn’t cost people any more money to have extra passengers. You need to hang around the ticket office and talk to people as they go in. There wasn’t much traffic at the office, but plenty of people were driving straight to the ship, having already reserved. I stood by that road and held up a thumb, walking to the ticket office now and then to ask people for rides.

Two Asian kids from the London School of Economics turned up wearing ridiculous onesies. They were holding one sign saying “PARIS” and another saying “4 CHARITY”. I put my douche glasses on and we stood smiling at drivers as they blew past us. I’m fairly certain nobody knew we would be free to take.

An hour or two passed before anyone pulled over. He was sending a text and ignored us completely. I don’t even think he noticed us. The Asian girl ran over to him and asked if he would take us. Completely apathetic either way, he sent the girl inside to confirm that it didn’t cost him any money. She ran back in a couple minutes and we all piled into the car.

My attention was immediately caught by some RnB music video playing on the navigation screen in the dashboard. Our driver must have done some crazy wizard hacker shit so he could play this stuff while he drove.

“Cool,” I said, pointing at the screen.

“Yeah.”

We rolled through three passport checks with R. Kelly preaching romance and champagne at us, and somehow managed to hear “Happy People” three times in a row. Our driver, Jan, was a good looking black dude heading home to Amsterdam. He wore a Gucci coat with the biggest fur hood I have ever seen, G-Star jeans and an assortment of fly looking accessories. On the ship he sat by himself, brooding over some game on his phone while I hung out with the Asians.

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Their names were Danny and Ying, they’d never hitch hiked before, and they didn’t have much idea about what they were going to do that night. They were doing jailbreak, meaning they had 36 hours to get as far from their university as possible without spending any money, so they couldn’t even pay for a place to stay. We asked Jan if he would take us all to Antwerp, and he didn’t mind at all.

The bathrooms on the ship had some really good life advice:

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We got back in the car with Jan and started into the music videos again. I had big questions on my mind. Where the hell is Sean Paul from? Is he white? Does that count as singing? How does the channel tunnel work? How DO magnets work? If a libertarian falls in a forest and nobody hears, does CML rant about it?

Jan took us all the way to Antwerp and went on his way, leaving an aura of romance and money is his wake. He’d hardly a word the entire time. I texted Jason where I was and the LSE kids went off to find a hostel. As it turned out they hid in the basement and made it to Brussels the next day.

I waited in the dark for my host. It was around 9pm now, the sun was long gone and a dreary mist was drifting from the sky. Here I was, about to meet this man from the internet, this gracious stranger who was not really a stranger at all. What would he be like? Which of us was the greater nerd? Would we just talk about magic for two days? Would he like me? Would he like the tokens I made him? Nicolas Cage I hope he likes the tokens I made him.

“James!” I heard from behind me. I turned, and there he stood in the gray, a majestic figure. His shining steed stood by, stayed under his touch. “You made it,” he said. “I’ve got you a city bike pass so we can rent bikes to get around.”

“Wow your voice is a lot deeper than I imagined,” I said.

“Ah, I guess you haven’t listened to the chatcast then.”

“Oh no, I haven’t!” I was genuinely shocked at myself. How could I not have listened to the chatcast? How rude of me!

“Let’s go to my house, we can talk more there. It’s best not to talk while cycling. Oh by the way, I, uh, don’t really obey the traffic laws. I hope that’s ok with you.”

“Awesome, me neither,” I grinned. I’m the one that ran a red light in front of a cop the other day. He had pulled me over and explained the function and usage of handlebars, while I pretended to be surprised and interested.

Jason and I zoomed off into the night towards two excellent days of fun. We played just the right amount of magic, ate lots of delicious food, met lots of cool people, and bullshitted about all kinds of stuff. We hit up lots of cool cafes in Antwerp, tried lots of beer and discussed the many women in Jason’s life. I even had the pleasure of seeing Jason’s wife as I emerged one morning, though she wouldn’t make eye contact with me and stormed out pretty quickly.

Jason has two amazing dogs, Brody and Lillaboo. On my last night we slept with them in the bed, and I had the most sublime moment. Lillaboo, a tiny, adorable puggle, was under the covers next to my feet, and I could feel her tongue lapping against my ankle for several minutes. I could just picture her stupid face staring intently into the dark as she licked my foot over and over. The moment was beautiful and absurd, and I had to strain not to burst out laughing and wake Jason.

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Jason’s alarm woke us up the next morning with the loudest, most upbeat, most annoying alarm song I’ve ever heard. His reactions were lightning fast, and shut that thing off as quick as he could. We ate a sad final meal and walked out towards the motorway. When we reached the place where our paths diverged we stopped.

“James,” he said, “it’s been real.”

It had been real. It’s a shame you live so far away, Jason, we should hang.

We shook hands and tried to hold back our tears. As I boarded the ship, though, I couldn’t contain my sadness and the tears began to flow. As I stood drifting away on the deck I watched as Jason waved his handkerchief, glowing in the glory of the sunrise. I turned and buried my face in the shoulder of the towering black man next to me at the railing. Would I ever see this man again? This gracious stranger from the internet?

“Come back some time,” he said.

“I hope I do. You’ve got a place to stay in London too, if you ever want.”

I turned and walked away down the street. It was a straight road to the motorway entrance, so naturally I got lost for a whole hour before I found it. When I got there I held up a sign for the E17 and I kid you not, it took less than two minutes before I got picked up.

The road home was easy. My first lift was with an architect heading to Gent. We had a good chat. How I manage to talk to strangers at 8 in the morning always surprises me. In my home all I can say at 8am is “wuuuurg coffee.” My driver said he picks up hitchhikers all the time, since he drives around a lot for his job. He took me to a gas station and let me out. I went inside and had one of the worst cups of coffee I’ve ever had. In the bathroom someone had written “bufallo bufallo kwek kwek kwek”.

I got another quick lift towards Dunkirk. My driver didn’t speak much English so it was a pretty quiet ride. I managed to find out that he was a train driver, and I explained somewhat that I was a worthless middle class mathematics graduate with no job. He let me out in a small gas station near the French border.

There was one other person in the station, a business man with German plates. I approached him and asked, in my best German, if he could give me a lift towards Dunkirk or Calais. As it turned out, he was driving to Glasgow, and agreed to take me through the Eurotunnel and drop me somewhere near London.

We hit the road and started talking awkwardly in English. He seemed to be having trouble switching over to English mode, which I found odd for a guy headed to a meeting in Glasgow. Then again the poor man was heading to Glasgow, famous for having an impenetrable accent (amongst other things, I assume).

It didn’t take long before we switched to German, and once we did this we started getting along brilliantly. He was adamant that I should practise my German, and I wholeheartedly agreed. I remember sitting in the terminal for the Eurotunnel while he asked me questions about London, just to get me speaking. We talked about all kinds of things; art, business, travel, and my favourite topic: food. My driver turned out to be a modular architecture salesman heading to a meeting. He was a good guy and we had a really nice ride.

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I really nerded out on the Eurotunnel. That thing is cool.

We reached the outskirts of London and found a train station. We shook hands warmly. “Maybe one day I’ll give you a lift in Belgium again,” he smiled.

I laughed and walked away, smiling to myself. It had been a really fun few days. As I sat on the train watching the buildings rise around me and the CCTV cameras emerge, I hoped I’d be able to write about it without sounding like a pretentious git. The Shard loomed out of the fog, then my beloved Cheese Grater too. I saw some woman fall over while holding a baby and some old guy stoop to help her up. I saw countless tourists looking at random shit, and people going every which way.

The train pulled in at some station from Monopoly and that’s the last remarkable thing from the trip. I didn’t really know what to do so I went home and went back on riptidelab. Sigh. Time to get a job.