Thumbing can be very Spiritual

By: Bernd Wechner
© December 1, 2000

Thumbing can be very Spiritual

Thumbing can be very Spiritual

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: December 1, 2000

Have you ever considered how spiritual an experience it can be to hitch-hike? To thrust yourself, with open arms onto the roadside, and embracing whatever, whoever fate throws your way. It's an amazing way to see a country, truly unparalleled. It opens up so many possibilities, simply because it is unplanned and unstructured.

I had the pleasure of working with some Ananda Marga monks on their food stall at the millenium ConFest on the Murray River. Our meeting is a story worth telling, and worth thinking about. It is rich with themes.

To begin with though, I should recount the tale of another thought provoking encounter. I described it in a story I published on-line some years ago now. It is a wonderful tale itself, and certainly helps to put the ConFest encounter into context. It takes place in the winter of 1997 when I was hitch-hiking back from Canberra to Wollongong after a round trip of the south east of Australia.

    An Auspicious Ride

    I had just got out at Bungendore, and on account of the wonderful weather and a desire to leave the village behind me, I started walking towards the coast. I hadn't walked far, was still in the village, which wasn't a kilometre long, when a car passed me by and pulled up some 100 metres ahead of me.

    Now this might be a ride, and it might not, and I'd seen too many naive hitchers rush up to the parked car thrilled to bits about the ride they'd won, only to find some driver looking at them like they'd came from another planet, because the driver'd only pulled over to read a map or some such thing and hadn't even noticed this freaky hitcher. That I daresay, is one of hitching's most embarrassing moments, and if Candid Camera ever found enough hitchers to poke fun at, that's just what they'd do, drive past them and pull up a little ahead with the indicator on, and wait for them rush up gushing with energy and joy only to turn them away and catch the shift of mood on film as they realised their error.

    And true enough the car ahead of me indicates and pulls out well before I get much closer. Though, hold on, it was doing a U-ie. I guess they'd gone the wrong way, just realised, pulled over and were now doubling back. It drove past me again, and behind me threw another U-turn though, to pull up just behind me! The young lady at the wheel gets out and waves me over! It is, it's a ride! Now that's personal attention for you.

    She's going to Mogo down on the coast, so she can get me down to the coast road anyway. I'd get out at the junction to the Princes Highway, where she'd head south to Mogo and I'd head north. She didn't usually pick up hitchers, but then I look O.K. it seems, at least from behind. She'd grown up with hitching culture mind you, on the south coast of New South Wales, where if you don't have a car, you hitch. So the family had always taken hitchers along and she'd hitched around a bit herself.

    We got to talking. She was studying in Canberra and went back home to Mogo every weekend. I used to live with a guy from down that way, Broulee in fact. He was studying at Wollongong Uni, where I'd studied too. She'd studied at Wollongong for a while too before moving to Canberra. She moved because she couldn't afford the rent up in the 'Gong and had relo's down in Canberra where she stayed rent-free. Well it was around the same time that we were both last living in the 'Gong, and we weren't living far from one another, just behind the hospital there. "Hey", she says "that guy from Broulee you lived with wasn't living there with you was he?". "Sure was ... Andrew was the name".

    She laughed. Of all the things. She had an old childhood friend, Andrew, who was living there at the same time. The same Andrew! Small world! Small Australia!

    It was auspicious. I'd meant to drop in on Andrew on the way south a month ago. Had just got his address from a mutual friend in Sydney a few days before hitting the road. But it turns out he was away in Perth on a job, where he was spending every three weeks out of four lately. This time I'd not planned a visit at all, I was just running critically low on time, having taken so long to cross the western plains of New South Wales. But here I was, picked up by a close friend of his, who now tells me he's home for the weekend, and we'd just have to drop in.

    So she takes me round to Andrew's, and true enough he's home, and gets the surprise of his life, to see who Michelle had picked up by the side of the road, hitching out of Bungendore!

    We got to talking about the trip, and the machinations of life. I'd ridden into Bungendore from Queanbeyan with a guy in a red Merc. She'd been overtaken by a red Merc with two people in it coming out of Queenbeyan! She rememebred it well, she was just driving up the hill out of town, and this red Merc came racing past. But hey, if she was ahead of the Merc, she must have driven me by as I stood in Queenbeyan, why then did she pull over in Bundgendore with such intent? We'd passed her not 500 metres from where I was standing it seems. Turns out she'd just pulled out of a side road behind me as I was getting into this red Merc, and then we pulled out and raced past her, I was put off in Bungendore, and started walking out of town, by which time she'd caught up again in time to see me ...

    The machinery of life is amazing at times and we let the clockwork tick by tempting the fates, throwing ourselves into the maelstrom of the unknown, in my case courting the road for all she's worth. When I think of how Michelle found me, how she picked me up, who Michelle was, where she took me, that I'd never known or heard of her beforehand and the many thousands of cars buzzing around Canberra, I have to confess a certain awe.

    A most auspicious lift ...

That was 1997. Christmas 1999 was another story. It follows:

    The Fates Return

    A Christmas Pervert
    I was home for Christmas, and decided to pass the turn of the year, century, millennium, whatever, at an alternate festival on the Murray river. I'd had plans to visit a favourite old haunt (Woodford) with my girl, but that fell through earlier in the year and now I was alone, ruminant. The ConFest seemed as likely a place as any, away from the big cities, where I might find people of like mind.

    I set out on Christmas day. Our family never did celebrate then, adhering to the continental tradition, celebrating the eve before. It struck me as an opportune moment to test the Christmas spirit a little There wasn't much traffic out, and I had fond memories of a prior Christmas hitch.

    My brother and his new girl dropped me at the base of a mountain pass heading inland (the Maquarie Pass). It was raining lightly, and they didn't want to leave me there, so far out of town with no certainty of a ride. But it didn't faze me any. What bothered me a little more were the flies that wouldn't stop landing on my face, and the couple parked right here on this desolate little spot as if it were lovers lane. I felt an urge to say "Happy Christmas" or something, but they evaded eye contact like plague. They drove off without casting a glance maybe 20 minutes of smooching later. Can't help but wonder what they thought of this hitcher in the rain ...

    Some while later I needed to take a leak. Left my pack standing there and went over to the bushes. Sure enough some guy pulls over then and there. He waits till I'm done. Strange guy, strange ride. He was headed to Canberra, and I might have liked to pass through Canberra, but this grandfather couldn't stop talking about getting his end in, head jobs and such. He was convinced I was headed for an orgy for some reason (I think 'alternate lifestyles festival' were my words).

    This dirty old man thought I was Christian for some reason, asked me directly and expressed surprise at my denial of such. It's to the credit of Christians I dare say, that dirty old men like this, think that respect of women is inherently Christian, though it be a somewhat misanthropic prejudice - as if men, without God, must be lechers.

    When I lost him I felt proud of myself. I was keen to get out of this car ASAP and there's a certain art to getting a driver to suggest the best point of exit himself and insist even on it. We simply discussed my route, traffic and such, he knew the road well and we agreed, tactically that Marulan services weren't far down the road, but definitely my best chance of getting an onward ride to Albury. It's often hard to convince a driver that a short ride to a good spot is better than a long ride to a bad spot. It can be even harder to convince them that the long ride is to a bad spot and the short ride is better.

    A Mystical Mechanic
    At the Marulan services I had some lunch before waiting at the exit for a ride. Didn't wait long before a car pulled over slowly, almost hesitantly. It was Chung-Ki a Korean fellow travelling Australia on his way to Melbourne to see some friends. Nice guy. Speech was slow, as his English was poor, but we had some music, and good vibes.

    We stopped for petrol at Gundagai (albeit not at the dog on the tucker box). There we saw a group of orange robed fellows having a time of starting their car. Chung-Ki made it his mission to start their car. Alas there was no current, starter not turning over, not even a click of the solenoid. We checked fuses, relays, battery, you name it everything was good. Frankly we were getting stuck.

    Then this bearded fellow appears out of the blue, materialising something like a super hero with the words "Do you have a spanner?" Meeting quizzical glances from me, Chung-Ki and these orange guys he repeats "Have you got a spanner? Give me a spanner and I'll start your car." A spanner materialises from the trunk of the car, with an orange monk attached. He takes the spanner, requests a turn of the key, taps the solenoid, and vrroom, the car starts! Walking off into the blue horizon he mutters something about being the local NRMA mechanic and this happens all the time, just give it a tap once in a while if it gets stuck ... with which he disappears whence he came. Wow. What a guy!

    Orange People
    I got to talking with these orange guys. I thought they were Rashneeshi's, what we used to call Orange People. But they were Ananda Marga monks, and pointed out, oddly enough, that Rashneeshi's don't wear orange, in spite of their name ... (why did we call them Orange People then? Hmmm... ).

      "Where are you going?" I'm asked
      "I'm going to Tocumwal on the Murray, Chung-Ki is going to Melbourne, I'm just a hitch-hiker."
      "Hey, we're going to Tocumwal!"
      "What, to the ConFest?"
      "Yes indeed, we run a stall there every year"
      "Why don't you come with us?"

    Hmmm. I look, very obviously, at their little sedan, and count them ... 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ... plus luggage.

      "Thanks. I'd love to. But I think your heart's a little bigger than your car, no?"
      "Yes, I see what you mean."
      "That's all right, don't worry, I'll get a ride from Albury, it is Christmas after all! I'll see you there."
      "O.K. See you there, come visit the stall, help us roll some spring rolls, samosas and things!"
      "Great. Will do."

    I was pleased. A ride directly from here would of necessity have been a slight disappointment. I was out for a little adventure, not transport. Was in no rush after all. And that's what happened, and I beat them there ...

    The Fates Return
    Chung-Ki dropped me at the exit for the Murray Valley Highway, just behind Albury. I was touched. We both expressed our gratitude for the encounter. I invited him to ConFest if he has time. But we knew, as hitchers and drivers so often do, that it was unlikely we'd cross paths again.

    It was a beautiful afternoon, and the sun was now low in the sky. The Murray Valley Highway was quiet. Very quiet. It was Christmas day I guess, and this was not a major road going anywhere really. Still, there was a car every few minutes or so. The day was beautiful, warm, with the threat of a warm night rain colouring the heavens. I walked ... in fact one of the joys of hitching with little baggage is that a country walk like this can be a joy, and it was.

    I walked about an hour, always thinking, if I find a nice spot, I might pitch tent for the night. The sun was in fact approaching its set and the clouds were threatening to break some time. But, a car pulled over - it was the 15th I'd counted in that hour.

    A young guy with dreadlocks, towing a boat in his 4WD truck, David had to rearrange a lot of gear to get me in the cabin. I was grateful. He was headed to Echuca, which was further than I had to go. He was from Meblourne, on his way up to Batemans Bay for Christmas and New Years - basically where I'd just come from. He'd changed course though, because his gearbox started leaking oil, the NRMA couldn't fix it there on Christmas day and suggested very strongly he lay by for two days till he can get a mechanic to look at it. If the gear box runs dry, it will get costly. In any case, Batemans Bay was off the agenda. So he was heading off his route, inland, to Echuca, where his girlfriend had an aunt and he could hole down for a few days.

    Turns out he wasn't headed directly to Batemans per se, but to Broulee (just down the road from the Bay)

      "No, Broulee ... you wouldn't know a guy by the name of Andrew Penkethman?"
      "Was that Penkethman?"
      "Sure, my girlfriend used to babysit for him"

    Wow, the fates had struck again. Two and half years ago, a friend of Andrew's had picked me up and taken me to see him. In fact David's girlfriend was probably baby sitting for Andrew around about then!

    Anyhow, David thought I was one lucky dude. He even went a good deal out of his way, some 20km (40km round trip) to drop me directly at the ConFest, which took some finding on our part, not having started yet, not being well marked even and being much further out of town than we were told!

    Who's Lucky?
    David kept thinking of his gearbox and whether he'd make it to Echuca. Kept joking that I was a lucky dude (on account of this story, and some others we shared), that hopefully some would rub off, and it would probably run out as soon as he dropped me off.

    As it happens two other cars had arrived with us. It was a pitch black moonless night. Couldn't see my own hand waved in front of me. As David pulled out, I went with Ilan, one of the guy's who'd just rocked up, and jumped a fence, walking down the road. My life, to be honest was in Ilan's hands here. He knew the place, had come and gone, and I couldn't even see my own feet. We walked slowly in what he felt was the right direction, aided ever so slightly by the car lights further and further behind us.

    At some stage a voice shouts out of the blue, "We're closed. Go away."

    My luck had run out! I hope David's didn't. The Ananda Margas arrived the next day some time. They broke down on the way, again ...

I really don't want to say much more about it. Except perhaps, that I found many things to think about as a result of these experiences. They strike me as replete with themes. Perhaps the greatest of them: What is chance?

I have been hitch-hiking for a decade now, and have a collection of thought provoking tales. But you don't have to hitch-hike to experience them. The key, I think, is to open your arms to chance, to fate from time to time. Simply let things happen, abandon the seductive addiction we have to that illusion called control - if only once in a while. For if you let things happen, rather than make them happen, many things will find expression, that would otherwise not ... be free.

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