Chapter 7 Closer to the Sun
Like children vying for attention from a distant and preoccupied parent, the pangs from hunger squabbled with the cold shivering, and all the time I just wanted them to be quiet so I could get some rest and ready myself for a fourth and hopefully final day of marching and searching.
I was down to my last few damp francs. If I was very careful I might be able to squeeze another couple of days of milk and bread. I’d already fallen in love with the taste and the smell of the warm crispy baguettes when they were freshly baked early in the morning, and I could afford at least one more for the road. Even though I knew that by lunchtime the bread would be reduced by the rising damp to unappetizing prison fare. As soggy as my map.
The map would have to survive though, because it could be my savior, it would have to be. Even though I’d studied it a hundred times in the last three days I still hoped it would send me a sign. If that failed, for another day, maybe it would at least show me the easiest path west. It should only take me a couple of days to get home, if that’s the direction I settled on, and that would be an adventure of its own. And it would also double the length of the entire episode and so take the edge of the pain of failure and the disgraced homecoming.
And yet, as though sensing my desperation, the great SignMaker once again seemed to sense my angst and to come to my aid. I had been increasingly thinking westward, drawn back home, even if only out of desperation, and trying to figure how far I’d have to walk to get to the city limits and the sad march back to the island. But the answer was right there in front of me all along. And not to the west but to the south. Where I had planned to go all along,
Almost directly south of where I was sitting, and not more than a few miles at best, was the most majestically named road I had ever come across. At least on a map. The Autoroute Du Soleil. The Road to the Sun. Or motorway. Or something like that. Only the French could dare to give any road such a beautiful and optimistic name.
The Road to the Sun lay just to the south of the Peripherique, a massive ring road that encircled the city center of Paris like the Pale separated old Dublin from the savages beyond. And like a chart to a treasure this road was trying to answer at least one of my questions – how would I save myself from Paris?
My thoughts wandered back to Portugal again, and the promises of warmth and sun and beaches were even more appealing now than ever. Maybe Joao’s family would welcome me and feed me and help me, and I shouldn’t be so concerned about not having any money to do that myself. I would be like an emissary traveling a great distance and in great peril to bring them firsthand news of the welfare of their eldest son and heir to the family cork business. That effort had to be worth something.
I just didn’t know how to get there, or how long it would take, or what I would eat along the way. I had given up worrying about the damp and the cold, it was just the way of it now, and instead focused only on satisfying the hunger. How ever long the journey I wouldn’t have much to eat along the way and I’d resigned myself to the idea that if I had to steal it, I could be at peace with it.
It wasn’t much of a plan, not much at all. And yet it was a plan brilliant in its simplicity. I was heading south, that’s all. And then west of course, if I wanted to find Portugal. South was still there and pretty much easy to find, even for me. So I could hardly miss it. And because I wasn’t expecting anything to greet me on my arrival, I couldn’t be wrong or disappointed. A great plan indeed.
It was much better than the option of turning for home and the humiliation. Even if it was still only March and the tourists wouldn’t have started arriving in Spain or Portugal yet, if I got there early I would be first in line for a job in any bar where I could work for the summer and then decide where my next adventure would take me.
My spirits had found their faith again. And their feet. Thoughts of home and humiliation faded for now, along with the rain, the cold, and the hunger. The adventure was on again, and my spirits were with me.
According to the map, or at least what was left of it, the Road to the Sun began just a few steps beyond the end of Boulevard Raspail, a wide and bolt-straight thoroughfare that sliced right through the heart of Paris and ended at an enormous intersection of at least half a dozen different roads.
That shouldn’t be hard to find. Boulevard Raspail started from Boulevard Saint-Germain, which began on the other side of the Seine and just across the bridge from where I stood right at that very moment reading my map. This was a day full of signs, and barely early morning yet.
I reached the grand intersection by mid-morning, stopping only to buy my daily bread and to ease the discomfort of my overloaded rucksack. The day started cloudy and dark but a little warmer and best of all dry, until I was nearly half way along the Boulevard and then the rain came again. And kept coming. And I kept going.
The map ran out just beyond the intersection, giving no clues about how to get around or over the giant snake Peripherique. But a handful of wrong turns and dead ends later I managed to get inside the tunnel that led under the snake and then gratefully out into the open on the other side, next to a white roofed Cathedral, and the very beginning of the great road south.
When you’re young, broke, and alone on the road, your best travel companions are foolishness and a thumb. I dumped my waterlogged rucksack on the pavement on the on-ramp to the motorway, where it was illegal to be or walk and certainly hitch, perched against it like it was a bar stool, and sitting in the pouring rain I stuck out my thumb, smiled, and waited.
The Autoroute du Soleil is one of the busiest and most popular motorways in France because it gives rain-weary Parisians a direct shot to the warm and sunny south, for their annual August pilgrimages to the Riviera. Now I was a pilgrim too, but I wasn’t interested in the Riviera, or in any more of France. Paris was probably very beautiful in the Spring, and in other seasons too. But in Winter she seemed angry and indifferent and not the least bit romantic or welcoming.
My plan was to hitch a ride, maybe with a trucker, through Bourgogne and Dijon, and on southwards towards Lyon and Avignon and Montpellier. Then all that would stand between me and sunny Spain would be the Pyrenees. A simple enough plan, as long as somebody pitied this wretch and pulled over.
I waited, and it rained, and the cars raced by. I had never seen so many cars on the same road at the same time, all traveling so fast. I could see by the looks on the faces of the drivers that I frightened them. Or at least surprised them as they exited the tunnel to find a soggy child standing there begging.
As they raced around the sharp bend that led out of the tunnel and back into the daylight, I was probably the last thing they expected to see. A lone, half-drowned child perched on the narrow concrete kerb that edged right up to the raceway.
I couldn’t blame drivers for not wanting to stop and invite me to join their travels. The longer I waited, the less appealing I became. The friendly smile was gone, and I was so rain soaked I had probably begun to blend in with the wet concrete around me.
Occasionally I moved, picking up my pack and walking a bit, trying to stay warm and distance myself from the tunnel exit so that drivers would be less surprised and have more time to see me and stop. It took just less than an hour and eventually a faded yellow VW Golf pulled over to the side of the road about a hundred feet past me and honked. As I poured myself into the warm dry car, the young driver said his name was Lukas and he was on his way to meet some family and friends in a small town a little north of Barcelona and would be happy to take me that far.
He asked me if I had any money and I told him no, in case he planned to rob me of it. When he asked me how I was feeding myself I told him I was stealing food. Which was more of a plan than the truth. He liked that answer and it seemed to create an instant but uneasy bond, because then he told me the Volkswagen was in fact not his but borrowed, from another student at the University of Ghent a little further north, and who probably had no idea his beloved VW was now hundreds of miles south from where he last parked it.
But that was none of my business. For the first time in days I was warm and dry and had a comfortable place to rest, hurtling towards the sun at ninety miles an hour in a stolen car of the people.
We stopped a couple of times for petrol and to stretch but rarely spoke to each other. It felt awkward for a while, but I had little to say and always too uncomfortable to initiate anything. I slept most of the way through the Pyrenees and when we crossed the border into Spain, Lukas told me his friends lived about thirty miles to the west of Barcelona. He offered to drop me on the outskirts of Barcelona to make it easier for me to pick up a ride further south. Or he could drop me west of the city. Entirely up to me.
I opted for the west. I told him that I had changed my mind and wanted to head for Portugal instead. A free spirit of the road, I wanted to let on. But it was a lie. I just didn’t want to leave the car and the company, and I was really hoping that Lukas would invite me to stay for a while with his friends, maybe I’d get fed and a bed and then maybe even a job. Spain would be just as acceptable as Portugal.
But that wasn’t his plan. By now we were driving on small and pretty farming roads that wound and dipped through endless rolling orange groves, and heading inland towards Zaragoza. After just a few miles Lukas stopped at the turn to the village where his friends were waiting for him and his stolen car, and the thanks and goodbyes were as short as the pickup. Then he was gone, and I was all alone again.
Fuck das auto stealing little Walloon, I thought, abandoning such a young vulnerable Irish boy all alone by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and with nothing to protect him against God knows what but his wits and knives.
I wasn’t despondent or alone for long though. Less than twenty minutes after Lukas had abandoned me, a new ride, new hope sputtered and strained in my direction. A rusting World War Two era Citroen van sputtered to a stop just a few yards beyond me, and wearing dust and dirt encrusted clothes from the same era an old man walked back towards me with a smile and a wave and a handful of oranges. Such friendly people, I thought. Much nicer than Parisians.
The old man was instantly friendly, smiling almost toothlessly as he tried to engage in a friendly conversation without the language it needed And although I had no idea what he was saying, I thought it best to smile politely and nod agreeably until I was sure he was going to give me a ride and move me at least a little further and closer to wherever I was bound for now.
But he appeared to be in no hurry to get back to his car and move me anywhere other than a nearby orange grove. He motioned to a shack about a hundred yards away in the middle of one of the groves. Si, I smiled and nodded. Si. That must be his shed, I thought, and a very nice one too, I’m sure. I continued nodding and smiling as it was our only common language so far but I felt the signs were positive.
He could tell I couldn’t really understand what he was talking about and I could tell that his frustration was mounting. He dug his hand deep into the pocket of his dust-crusted trousers and returned with a pack of cigarettes. If he offered me one I would have gladly shared my very first smoke with him, if that’s what it would take to get my next ride. But he didn’t offer me a cigarette. Instead he tore off the top of the cigarette packet, put the fags back in his pocket, and on the dull side of the cardboard he drew me a cannon.
I stared intently at his sketch of a bulging cannon with large wheels, and blinking repeatedly against the sun and the dust to make sure I was seeing what he expected me to. But no matter how much I stared and blinked I couldn’t make head nor tail of the drawing. Other than the fact it was a crudely-drawn cannon.
No comprende, I faltered. I could see my next ride taking off without me. And all the fault of a tale of a cannon that I couldn’t decipher. Was this childishness just madness?
He held the drawing up closer to my face and smiled, still toothless, trying one more time, then pointed to the shack, back to the cannon, then to me and back to him, and then smiled again, this time in greater earnest.
What was this crazy old road troll trying to warn me about? Was he missing a cannon and needed my help finding it? Did he have a large secret cannon hidden in his dilapidated shack amidst the oranges that he was so excited to show me? It seemed like it might be a great place to hide a cannon, since I had been standing within yards of the shack for quite a while and never even suspected that it was harboring such a mighty engine of war.
And how long more could I keep humoring him until I’d be forced to politely let him know that while I’m sure it was simply the most impressive cannon in all of northern Spain, I had a hike to hitch and an adventure to follow.
And just then the clouds parted, an answer when it was needed most, as the smelly old fruit picker reached down and tapped my crotch with his index finger and then raised and inserted the very same finger into his moist dilapidated mouth. I suddenly realized those were not wheels and that was not a cannon.
Ironically, all the time I was trying to figure out where his cannon was hidden, the old man had no idea where I was hiding my own cannon. That’s probably because when you’re hitching a ride in a hot and lonely wilderness, it’s best not to display such a big knife so prominently.
This might be a good time to introduce you to my knives. I’d had an obsession with knives from the earliest age, and although I didn’t have names for all of them I did consider them my friends and even children, and I always had some blade or other somewhere close by clung to my body like a witch’s familiar.
On this trip, in order to reduce the overall weight of my baggage, I carried just three. The best looking of the bunch by far was a fixed-blade stiletto, with a narrow six-inch double sided blade and an onyx and silver handle. I usually kept it in a leather sheath in the small of my back.
The second knife was a side-opening flick knife, also black onyx and silver. It would probably have looked very menacing immediately prior to combat, that moment of pants-pissing pause when the button clicks and the long narrow shining blade flicks open like a demon unleashed. But when it ever came to a fight, I would turn to David Bowie, my heavy artillery. Bowie was the ugly thug of the gang, a blade nine inches long and two inches at its widest, with a carved deer antler grip and solid silver carved Pommel.
I always kept it on my right side in an elaborately engraved leather sheath, where it hung western six-shooter style down the side of my leg. The blade ended a few inches above my knee and strapped to my thigh with a leather thong, and I had a habit of resting my right hand very openly on it as though waiting for some invisible enemy to draw first. Except when thumbing a ride. Then I made every effort to make the cannon completely invisible.
In spite of its ferocious appearance, Bowie had all the poison of a toothless rattlesnake. Not unlike my new companion. I rarely got around to sharpening it and the blade was so dull and heavy it would serve better as a club.
I bring this up now because this was the first time on the road that I really needed Dave Bowie. Or any of my secret traveling companions. The realization that Dave was by my side dawned across on my face at about the same time the old man realized that I realized what he was requesting from me.
I stumbled back a couple of steps, nearly tripping over my rucksack. My hand fell shaking to my right hip, my trembling fingers releasing the clasp that held Bowie back in his cage and grabbed him firmly by the handle, as I was for the first time confronted with the real possibility of having to club an old man on a back road.
The rattler realized he had gone too far and that perhaps I didn’t need a ride as badly as he had hoped. He raised his oily palms just slightly, with an apologetic shrug, and backed away smiling and murmuring an apology as he retreated to his Citroen and his journey.
I could only stand there, angry and shaken as a wave of Catholic guilt overcame me. There must have been something in the way I looked, or dressed, or held my thumb that gave this old man the idea that I would be worth importuning. Is this all I could expect from the road to Portugal?
Would there be a point where I would be forced to consider just this kind of pact with toothless road devils in order to make forward progress to the sun? For a moment I thought about running up the hill to find Lukas and explain the awful thing that had just happened to me and maybe it would be a good idea to take shelter with his friends in case the old fiend came back with some of his elderly friends.
There was no time to ponder though. I had been accosted at the brow of a low hill and could see the road coming and going for miles and it was as empty as I was. It would be difficult enough to find a ride on this road, especially as few tourists would have any business being there. The day was getting hotter and I was hungry again. I was always hungry. But I’d given up hope that Lukas might come back for me or pass by me on the way into town with his friends. So there was no sense in waiting near the cannon shed any longer.
I swung my rucksack back onto my back, leaving the Bowie unlocked and cocked on my side, just in case, and started marching west again. Few vehicles passed, and the few that did were mostly more old farmers. Some waved but none stopped, and I supposed word was already out that in spite of appearances I wasn’t worth stopping for.
I walked for more than an hour, rarely stopping in spite of the hunger and thirst and tiredness. My march had become robotic and I was determined to get as far from the past and close to the next as I could. It was now nearly two in the afternoon and it was getting too hot for me to walk. In truth it probably wasn’t that hot at all, but with little experience of sunshine I wasn’t prepared to deal with anything that felt like this.
I found some shade under a bony old olive tree by the side of the road. There were more trees along the road now, more than before. There were fewer orange trees and groves, but it didn’t make a difference anyway because there was nothing worth eating in them. Away in the distance I could see some buildings, maybe a farm where I thought I could stop and ask for water. I hoped the cannon farmer didn’t live there.
No sooner than I sat down but I heard another car approach, from the east, the same path I had just marched. I couldn’t see it at first because it hadn’t reached the top of the last hill I’d just come over. I kept watching for what felt like an eternity, and sometimes the sound of the engine would fade as though I’d made a terrible mistake and it was going the other way instead.
But then the sound would grow louder and then finally it appeared over the brow of a hill just for a moment only to disappear back down into the hollow. The brief glimpse I caught told me it was too big to be a car but too small and fast moving to be a truck.
But more than that, it was brightly colored, white and orange and very clean and gleaming in the sun, even from that distance. It’s probably an ambulance, I thought. I’d seen a few of those along the way and it looked too much out of place to be anything else.
But a ride’s a ride and I was too tired to care and so I got myself as prepared as I could to ambush the vehicle as soon as it came within view of my thumb. With Bowie now pushed around to the small of my back, I put on my best Irish smile and waited for whatever it was to arrive.
It wasn’t an ambulance at all, but instead a Volkswagen Camper Van, orange on the bottom and white on top. Almost the same orange as my rucksack. And my karrimor home. Another sign? They had plenty of time to see me but they still looked shocked. Maybe because there were so few people on the road or because a teenage hitchhiker was a rare sight.
They slowed down before they reached me, as if checking me out or being extra cautious not to hit me as they passed me by and went on with their journey. They were a young couple, pretty, and blond. I could at least tell that they were not old farmers. As they got closer, they were joined by two more blonds, a pair of tiny heads popping over the back seat to gawk at this strange sight they’d obviously just heard their parents talk about.
The stares quickly turned into broad smiles and big thumbs as the van came to a sharp and dusty stop just a few feet past me. The man got out and came around to my side of the camper and we chatted briefly and he told me they could take me as far as Coimbra in Portugal if that helped. I had no idea where that was but of course it was a help. It was Portugal, my destination. And besides, not being hungry and alone in the middle of nowhere was a help.
The side door slid open. I squeezed in, wearily dragged my rucksack behind me and fell back exhausted and relieved into a pile of something. They were from Holland, they said, near Amsterdam. And they were on their way to Coimbra as the first leg of a summer drive around the continent.
While I entertained the two young children in the back of the camper with ridiculous faces and made-up games, the adults just ignored their new-found stray as they focused on navigating their way across Spain. We were headed west, through Zaragoza, and beyond. They debated about going south towards Madrid and then heading west again on the outskirts but couldn’t tell from the maps how easy that would be to achieve. I was of no help, my soggy map was long gone now and it spoke only of France.
So they decided to continue west, along the beautiful and winding back roads towards Valladolid. Nearly five hours later we reached a small campsite on the outskirts of the city where we spent the night. With no room inside the cramped camper, I spent the night sleeping under it with the ants and their companions. But the night was warm and my belly was full and tomorrow I would be in Portugal and closer to the Sun.
We packed up and moved on early the next morning, towards Salamanca, and it hardly took any time at all before we were all handing our passports to the border police just past Ciudad Rodrigo. They didn’t say why Coimbra was their last stop, although they mentioned that they might go from there to the coast at Porto or maybe to see the shrine at Fatima.
I suspected they were probably headed to Lisbon, at least eventually, and if there, then why not all the way to the Algarve and an even better destination. With me. A stray too precious to now be again abandoned. But the van was already full and struggling and they had plenty of other mouths to feed and everyone’s kindness has a limit.