It's 4:30am, and I can't get back to sleep. I'm excited and anxious, and knowing the day will be so much harder without good rest does nothing to settle my mind or adrenaline-flushed body.
I eat leftover noodles and poke listlessly at the computer, checking the weather forecast for the twentieth time. Same as every time over the last two days - it can't make its mind up.
I very seriously consider not doing this very silly thing.
Finally I catch another hour before my alarm goes off at 7:00am.
When I wake up I'm bleary and headachey. On automatic pilot I get breakfast, wash, brush teeth, do the last few dishes, wipe down the worktops. Whatever happens today, it will be nice to come back to a clean, tidy flat.
I make a gap in the curtains. The sun is already up, it's overcast but the clouds aren't heavy.
Whenever I think about what I'm thinking of doing, it seems like a story I told someone, not connected to me and now.
I decide that I might as well walk out to the starting point I picked. I don't have to *do* anything, I can just walk out there and think about it and if I want, come back.
I think about the three days of leave I have booked, from today to Friday, and how nice it would be just to make a cup of coffee, and sit down, and play lots of Fallout 4, instead of doing this very silly thing.
I carefully load up my backpack, put three whiteboard markers in the back pocket. Check my packing list, coat pockets. Make a wrap from the leftovers of breakfast, wrap it tightly in foil. Lace on my boots.
I sit down in the chair, just for a minute. It is very comfortable. I stand up again.
On the way down to the spot I picked on the map last night, I stop at the supermarket on Old Ford End Road and scrounge a cardboard box. As I walk I carefully tear off the flaps, fold it flat, survey the surface area, plan the words.
It is drizzling slightly. The calculating part of me thinks that this is good, not enough to get really wet but enough to inspire a bit of sympathy.
I stop under a bridge, take out my whiteboard markers and make my sign, carefully marking out and filling in the letters for maximum visibility at a distance. Bikes swish past my shoulder - the pavement here is narrow. A police car passes and I waver for a minute but feel it will be more suspicious to stop, so I keep writing, until the sign is done:
It's the result of careful thought last night. Two weeks ago I booked a bed for two nights in Lulworth Cove Youth Hostel, Dorset. A symbol of my commitment. Something to aim for, and something to make it harder to back out. But no-one up here will know where Lulworth Cove is, and Dorset seems too vague for someone to imagine a route in the vital two or three seconds a potential ride has to decide if they will pick me up.
There are two major routes from Bedford to Dorset - cross-country via Oxford, or south, orbiting London counterclockwise on the dreaded M25 ring road and back out on the M3. The latter will have more traffic, but cities are, in my experience, bad for hitching.
In places like Houston, Texas I walked miles through concrete wilderness between overpasses to find an escape point, and elsewhere I've had to resort to buses to get clear of a city's gravitational pull and find accessible traffic going in the right direction.
As before when I have two equally balanced choices, I opt to let the road decide. Wherever my first ride is going (if such a thing shows up), I'll take it.
I find my spot, where the A6 emerges from the outskirts of town, flanked by car dealerships, and forks with the A421 to join the motorway for the journey south. I walk up, walk back. Dismiss the traffic lights - a captive audience but they'll be frustrated and impatient, and the only place to stand is a precarious traffic island. Walk back to where the traffic is approaching the lights, moving steadily out of town. Not in front of the car dealership - commercial establishments tend to get shirty about hitchers standing outside.
I'm struck for the first time by the realisation of something I've never had to deal with before when hitching - that I am quite likely to run into someone I know. Bedford is a small town and I've lived here all my life; the chances are pretty high of meeting a friend, family acquaintance, someone from my parents' church, business client...I have clients just along this road.
Hitch-hiking is a weird feeling, on that level. On the one hand there is something wonderfully empowering about being able to walk out and with nothing but a piece of cardboard (or not even that), travel to Somewhere Else. You just put your foot on the Road...and go.
On the other hand, you are, in the purest essence of the thing...begging. It's the strangest mixture, a simultaneous feeling of confidence and shame.
I put my backpack down on the curb in front of my feet. "Always show 'em you've got good stuff, they're more likely to believe you're for real", as that long-ago fellow hitcher told me on my very first day by the road outside Sudbury, Ontario.
I hold my sign. Soften my face, half smile. Try to project "Not a serial killer". Meet the first driver's eyes. It begins.
An hour later, I'm getting a little demoralised. It's still well within the standard deviation for anywhere I hitched in North America, but I still have no evidence it will work here at all, apart from a brief skim of internet forums where smiling German vegans cuddle in front of service stations, holding their own carefully lettered signs. The whole idea seems more and more unreal and imaginary.
A Smart car signals and pulls over a little further down. I trot up as a man in a suit and tie flaps his hand anxiously at the window, and says in what sounds like a strong French accent "Sorry, I am stopping here, I am meeting someone." We are both equally embarrassed. I go back to my spot.
A DHL van flashes its lights at me, and I recognise the driver – he delivers to the print room I worked in until a couple of months ago. Again I feel very conscious of being seen by people I know. How do I look, to them? Do I look like a homeless person, someone who's hit rock bottom? Will they wonder what's happened to me, assume some catastrophe or secret shame?
I think again about the comfortable surroundings of my flat, the very comfortable chair, my game of Fallout 4, maybe a stroll into town for coffee before lunch, do a bit of shopping for shirts.
I think about the conversation I'll have with people if I quit now: "It's really about just going out there and doing it, you know, facing your fears. I feel like I learned a lot."
I meet the next driver's eyes. I think I see him sneer as he looks away. I try not to let it feel personal.
Back in the day, I made rules for myself. Standing by the side of a road waiting for a ride you have a lot of time to ponder things like personal rule systems. I don't think I ever wrote them down or numbered them but let's say Rule 4 was: Don't let it get personal. You're asking for a favour. If bitterness gets in, it'll eat all the morale that's keeping you standing out here.
A lady in her sixties trundles by with a shopping bag, "Are you having any luck?" I shake my head.
Rule, let's say, 3 was: Always have tunes. Morale is everything. I get my phone out. Drizzle spots the glass and disrupts the touchscreen, but I poke it randomly until music arrives in my headphones. Something from the Matrix score, grand and dark. It seems out of place but still oddly invigorating. I shuffle from foot to foot.
I wonder what perfect British hitching music would be. Something jangly with guitars? In the US it's the Eagles, no competition. There's a point where you're standing by the side of a dusty road with a thousand miles of desert on all sides and a thousand miles of blue sky overhead, and little lizards are scuttling past your boots as you crush out a cigarette, and Peaceful Easy Feeling comes on in the headphones, and everything just...fits, like you've stepped into a movie or an album cover. Which is kind of what the USA is like, at least some of the time.
For the first time in as long as I can recall, I feel like a smoke. Cigarettes are good when you're hitching, they give you something to do, mark the time.
An elderly man in a mobility scooter rolls by and says cheerfully "You can borrow this if you like!" making me grin.
The lady with the shopping bag comes back the other way. "Still no luck?"
I track the next car, meet the driver's eyes, try to make a connection. I have been focussing on oncoming vehicles for so long that when I look at the pavement it seems to be shrinking and receding, as though the tar is molten and draining away.
Behind me I hear a spitting sound. I turn to see an elderly black man in a grey dashiki eyeing me suspiciously from his front porch. I give him a big grin and say "Good morning!"
Rule 5: Always be extra friendly when you're hitching on someone's doorstep. Reduces the chance they will hassle you or call the police - and sometimes you make new friends. I think of Debbie in Houston, the hurricane evacuee who saw me standing outside her apartment complex and drove me on down the road a good distance, finally getting me clear of the city on a tough day.
He responds with a wide easy grin, "Good morning!" and goes back inside. I turn and track the next car.
Two hours have gone by. I'm getting low. My feet hurt. My eyes and throat are starting to burn with petrol fumes. I wonder glumly if this is damaging me in some way.
A black woman in her thirties, with a strong Bedford accent, shouts from the other side of the street "Where you trying to get to?"
I heft my sign "Southampton!"
"Don't you have the money to get there?"
"WELL WHY ARE YOU GOIN' THERE THEN?"
"Well, Dorset actually..."
"YOU GET WORSE!" she doubles over laughing and continues into town, waving a limp hand at my hopelessness.
Two and a half hours have passed. I'm feeling all the sleep I didn't have last night. This whole exercise seems completely delusional now, and quite embarrassing. I begin to plan my exit. I'll give it until half twelve. No-one can say I didn't try.
"I feel like I learned a lot," I'll say, "Gave it a good try. Just the wrong place and time." Maybe I should wait until one, to make it fully convincing that I tried.
I think about the comfortable chair, and a nice sandwich for lunch, maybe watch some Last Week Tonight, then play lots of Fallout 4.
I'll give it till half twelve.
Rule 6: When you begin to despair, RELOCATE.
It's after twelve. A spry older man comes by in a flat cap. "You're in the wrong place, that's what I think!" I look at him doubtfully, then up and down the road.
"I've lived round 'ere for years. They're all trying to beat that light. They won't stop. You want to find a nice lay-by for them to pull into, as well. People are lazy. I used to hitch all over when I was younger."
I look at the driveway I'm standing next to. "I thought..."
He shrugs. "That's what I think anyway" and potters towards town on slightly bandy legs.
I think for a minute, then pick up my bag and follow him on gently throbbing feet, sign under my arm. It can't hurt. I'll give it ten minutes then pack it in. At least I'm moving closer to town.
He glances back, sees me following and beckons me on, then without looking back again flaps his arm at a wide lay-by in front of a vehicle panelling business. Just on the town side of it is a shady tree, so I park myself and wearily raise my sign again.
This spot seems more immediate somehow, the vehicles closer to the curb, the drivers more in my face. The lights are almost out of sight.
With stinging eyes I track the next car, and the next.
And then a tall truck pulls in behind me.
This can't be it. He must be stopping for panelling related activities.
I grab my bag and sign and trot tentatively up to the passenger door. The driver leans over and says something through the open window a foot above my head. I can't hear him over the traffic. He says it again. I still can't hear. I grab the door handle, open it and lean in and up.
“I can get you to Watford!”
I freeze, absolutely on the cusp between two choices.
If I get in, I'm committed. No comfy chair. No Fallout 4. And half the day is already gone. Can I even make it in the remaining time? Not a hope if every ride takes this long.
What if this is the only ride I get today? I could be stranded on the Watford slip-road…
But this...this is the thing I came here for.
I put my foot on the step, and hoist myself into the cab.
Greg has a shaved head, bony build and an air of great focus which hides a laid-back attitude and calmly philosophical bent. His philosophical nature was tested lately; last week a driver with a load of metal pipes tried to ram him off the road in a spontaneous fit of rage, then ran up alongside him at the next lights and tried to smash the window in with his fists. They'll be seeing each other again in court in a week or two; fortunately the vehicle was ringed with cameras which caught it all.
“He was a big bloke as well, he hit that window hard enough it came right out of the housing there. I remember thinking, if he comes right in through that window I'm a goner.”
We talk about the nature of evil and fear, why people mistrust strangers, and the example he tries to set his young son. In the back of my head the numbers won't stop whirling though – it's after noon already and I have the better part of 160 miles to go. Check-in at the youth hostel ends at 10:30pm, and it will be dark well before that, greatly reducing my chances of anyone picking me up.
Jesus Christ, I think as my flat recedes rapidly behind me...I really have committed myself to this thing.
We talk about the mindset of risk and what leads us to trade off safety for experience, and how the need for money and safety so often push against taking chances. I mention that I was surprised he'd pulled over, as I knew commercial drivers usually can't pick up hitchers because it violates the terms of their insurance.
“Oh yeah. Forgot about that.”
He pauses for a moment.
“I'll just try not to crash.”
As we approach London, Greg begins strategising. “I can take you on to Watford with me, but really you'd be better at South Mimms for the M25 counter-clockwise”. I take his word for it as a veteran London driver, although I'm still worrying about where I go from here. But getting rolling always lifts the spirits, and when he drops me at the entrance to the private vehicle parking at South Mimms with best wishes, I stroll through the car park feeling optimistic.
Ever since I was a kid, service stations have seemed a little bit magical. Despite generally being grim concrete blocks in the middle of motorway hell, visiting one meant we were on a proper journey - going to Yorkshire to visit family, Scotland to catch the ferry to Belfast for more relatives, to Wales for a seaside holiday. They represented everything distant and exotic, gateways to real-life adventure. If you were at a service station you were on your way Somewhere, and that was what mattered.
I still remember vividly a night we came back from visiting pen-friends in Alsace, rolling off the ferry already after midnight and looking for somewhere to stop, the whole family sleepily drifting, still dressed in holiday shorts and t-shirts despite the night cold, into a service station empty of its daytime crowds and transformed into somewhere magical, a cavernous, echoing space of shadows with only the odd softly lit area for the bathrooms, the arcade machines, a single cafe counter. An unreal world inhabited only by a drowsy mop operator, a couple of grumpy cafe workers, and those magicians of the dark roads: The truckers.
I wanted to be a trucker more than anything. Always on the move, anchored to nowhere, roaming the world, living somehow in these liminal spaces or even (most exciting of all) in their cab itself, an almost unimaginable mixture of cosiness and excitement, always on the way Somewhere. How could life possibly be any better?
Inside, this station is the furthest thing from my shadow memory: Hard-edged, big and bright, a modern high-ceilinged crescent ringed with food counters and lined with twenty-foot screens, light streaming in through glass walls. It is swarming with people, mostly families looking harassed and clutching to-go cups and plastic-bagged ephemera.
Feeling out of place I instinctively flip my sign inside out, then stop myself – can't miss a chance to advertise – and carry it under my arm, defiantly right side up. I use the facilities and eat my wrap of breakfast leftovers on a comfortably squishy seat in the no-man's-land between food emporia.
When the time comes to move on, I pick the side of the car park where the cars circle slowly round toward the exit, with a good space to pull in just behind me, and set up again on a grassy verge.
The cars that pass are mostly families interspersed with suited businesstypes, neither of them very promising for a ride. I wonder again if I've stranded myself miles from home.
But in about an hour Charlie pulls over, and offers to get me almost a quarter of the way round the M25. I gladly accept.
Charlie is young, bearded, good-natured and works in recycling, shipping bags around London. He's had an early start and is now heading back to base for the end of his shift. He can take me to the Denham turnoff where the M40 crosses the circular M25 coming in from the northwest. I can then walk back to the sliproad and get back on the M25, carry on round to where the M3 branches off to the southwest of England.
As we come off the M25 and follow the long curve of the slip-road round to the next corner, Charlie suddenly says through gritted teeth “Uh-oh, go go go go!” I fumble for my gear and prepare to roll out of the cab but he stops me with an arm and nods ahead where a big recycling truck is rounding the corner ahead of us. "That's one of our trucks!"
"Want me to duck?"
"We'll be fine as long as he goes..." the truck pulls away and disappears round the corner and Charlie relaxes.
He drops me round the curve and I trek back along the hard shoulder, stepping between shredded hunks of truck tyre as big as my head. I wait for a break in traffic to squeeze past the advertising trailer at the corner and circle round to the sliproad, feeling very much alone in an alien landscape.
It's after two o'clock, the day is ticking away rapidly, and I am still a long complicated way from Dorset. This spot doesn't seem promising either - there's a plant entrance with a wide area to pull off to the left, but traffic is moving fast and accelerating to motorway speed, not a good setup. The sun is properly out now and I fish out my wide brimmed hat and pull it on; then immediately have to grab it and my gear as a car signals and swerves in past me. I've been here roughly a minute.
Dave is retired, a cheerful grandfatherly figure in short sleeved shirt and Aviator shades who finishes almost every sentence with a thoughtful trailing "yes...yes...yes...mmm...". He's come from a hospital where he volunteers once a week talking to transplant patients.
I ask does he have counselling training? No, he's a former transplantee himself. He's heading home to his wife after a particularly fulfilling session with somebody he's been visiting for the better part of a year, before and after surgery. It's good, he says, when you can build a real relationship with someone, help them understand what they're going through. The man he was visiting has just taken his first proper walk across the room. That's a pretty big leap, Dave reckons.
We skip the M3 which is heavily congested, and run out of London on the almost parallel M4. Dave finally drops me outside Basingstoke with directions up the road out of town to the next sliproad.
Despite Dave's kind best wishes, the spot turns out to be hitcher hell. The walk to the sliproad, across a large roundabout, is along the barrier of roads clearly not designed for human passage. In numerous places I have to wait for gaps in traffic to dash out on the road surface itself past a particularly large overhanging bush or tree, and the rest of the verge is strewn with large thistles and brambles; I use my sign as a thistle shield and stomp the brambles, very glad of my solid boots despite the heat.
When I finally reach the slip-road it's not promising either; there's a bit of rubbish-strewn runoff on the lefthand side with just enough room to pull over, but again most traffic is accelerating to high speed before they even see me. Nonetheless, I take heart from my good luck at the last unpromising onramp and raise my sign, and sure enough a modern compact swings in beside me after just a few minutes. I jog up to the door and a middle-aged man with a thin dark beard leans across, pushing back a mop of curly hair over a crisply pressed striped shirt.
When he speaks it's with a strong Aussie accent. “Where you going, Southampton?”
“You know you're on the wrong side, right?”
“Sorry mate, I'm a veteran hitch-hiker myself, couldn't leave you hanging there not knowing.”
The walk round to the opposite sliproad is even more perilous, with a hair raising circuit of a completely overgrown roundabout, and the opposite sliproad is worse, with only a narrow strip of almost-hard-shoulder half a car wide, and traffic going twice the speed.
I say a prayer to whatever gods of the Road have blessed me thus far, and hold out my sign, cringing as trucks whistle past and already considering what it'll be like to reverse that horrible walk and continue back into Basingstoke. Or worse still, is there no way back into town? Will I be sleeping out here among the brambles by the motorway? This place feels utterly cut off from anywhere friendly to humans.
The gods, though, are clearly listening, because I'm only there 20 minutes when two slightly sweaty twenty-something guys in a hatchback scoop me off the slip-road in a chorus of horns from the cars behind.
They're not great conversationalists, barely speaking to me and communicating largely in grunts and a rapidfire West Country "you know that time when oh yeah and then oh moy gaad" between themselves but I am hugely grateful for them nevertheless. They take me due West, off the M3 and toward the waiting arms of Salisbury Plain, 300 square miles of English countryside, home of army maneuvers and Stonehenge.
When they drop me at a petrol station before making their turnoff I pause and take stock, use the facilities and buy a carton of iced coffee and some snack pork pies. From the friendly assistant manager I establish that I'm decently on track for Dorset and not actually that far, but it's going to be a winding way down to Lulworth.
I stand outside and chat with two bikers while I reorganise my gear. They've just come back from Italy yesterday and aim to reach Devon tonight; they're covering some serious miles, particularly considering they're on relatively narrow, sporty bikes. The skinny redheaded man who seems to be leading the expedition pats the mass of gear tightly strapped to the back of the seat, “I'd give you a ride but it's a bit hairy on the back of one of these, even without the luggage!”
I head to the exit corner of the service station, and sit in the shade to sip cold milky coffee. It's around 5:00pm. I still have time, but it's getting tighter.
Half an hour later an open topped sports car pulls over and a well-dressed man with a neat ponytail looks up at me with sleepy eyes just visible behind dark glasses. “I can take you as far as Stonehenge, but it's only a few miles down”, he says in a cut-glass accent. I think for a moment but politely decline, reckoning that the exit at Stonehenge isn't likely to offer as much opportunity as the exit to the petrol station, and he rolls on.
A minute later I go cold.
What did I just do?
Hitch-hiking, by its very nature, breeds superstition. The long empty thinking times, the tension, the uncertainty of the essentially random outcome; it naturally all leads to a tendency to see patterns as you try to optimise and beat the odds, whether it's a run of luck when you use a more detailed sign, or just your thumb, or stand a bit to the left, or...invoke the spirit of the Road with fervent prayer.
On a purely rational level, you never turn down a ride that's getting you closer (unless it's getting you somewhere really disastrously placed). The morale boost alone is worth it. That could be rule 3 or higher. And one of my personal superstitions is that when the Road offers you an adventure, you SAY YES. Even if it's out of your way, even if you think it may imperil your destination. After all, I'm here for the journey, right?
It's a principle that has never led me wrong – it's how I ended up appearing in the rodeo in Manitoba, seeing a killer whale from a tiny fishing boat on the coast of British Columbia, visiting the Grand Canyon and almost getting flooded to death halfway up Mount Rainier.
And now I've not only turned down an obvious adventure (I've never been to Stonehenge, and I could have gone to Stonehenge! There might have been druids!) but maybe blown my mojo with the Road entirely. I looked a gift car in the mouth. What if that's my luck done for the day, and I now never get to my destination? I'm even less happy when I check my map and find that Stonehenge would have been a nice chunk of the way long the road.
Fortunately my fears are groundless, or the Road is forgiving, because it's only another fifteen minutes before Ryan pulls up in his van, sweeping snowdrifts of paperwork and empty plastic bottles off the passenger seat.
Ryan is as stereotypically Somerset as they come – mellow, kindly and a big fan of cider, which is for the best as he's working 80 hour weeks shipping kegs and installing taps all over London for a local cider company who are seeing a huge burst of success.
He is hopelessly apologetic about the state of the cab, which is a genuinely amazing mass of food and drink containers, piles of papers, random bits of cider merchandising and general detritus, “Most days I just get home at 10 and collapse, pretty much.”
It bothers me not at all, because Ryan is a pleasure to chat with and the golden fields of Somerset are sweeping past on either side, under an almost-turquoise sky adrift with soft white clouds.
Ryan is full of optimism as he plots the best spot for me, poking at his GPS as he barrels along the main road. "We'll drop you where the A36 meets the A350 and you can walk down a couple of miles to this petrol station in Longbridge Deverill...they've got the classic car and motorbike event there, a bunch of me mates are going. You'll probably get a ride with someone going home that way, might even get to Lulworth in a classic car!" He grins cheerfully over at me.
Once he drops me off it's a good walk along further brambly and mildly perilous verges, but the pace is slower, it's transitioning into a beautiful country summer evening of golden sunlight and cool breezes, and the cars and bikes cruising past include some gorgeous classic motors.
Halfway to the petrol station I turn my head to the left and see a beautiful golden stag standing in a gap in the trees, maybe no more than 10 yards away from me, frozen in the evening sunlight. He turns his head, poises on his hooftips for a moment, then dashes away.
The petrol station turns out to be at the epicentre of a village-wide traffic jam, the tail end of which I encounter five minutes before I even see the first buildings. Antique vehicles are on every verge, pavement, across the petrol station forecourt and slowly maneuvering over the road, guided by stewards into the main grounds of the show. Regular traffic is trickling through in the brief gaps between gleaming fire engines and chopped Harleys.
I sidle round the back of the petrol station and surreptitiously swap my now-defunct sign for a fresh cardboard box, then back out the other side and continue past the gridlock and a couple of hundred yards down the road, reckoning I'd be better not to be tied up in that lot. I find a spot where the freed traffic is just starting to pick up - it's not the best, but it looks like the road is pretty bare from here on south and traffic will be too fast to stop at all.
After a minute or two, thinking about it and surveying the map on my phone, I tuck my new sign away too. The route from here to Lulworth Cove is impossibly winding and via numerous towns, there's no point trying to second-guess driver destinations. "Anything going south" is my new watchword. It's back to the old thumb.
It is now 6:45pm; I've got just under four hours to reach Lulworth Cove before the YHA closes for the night.
I'm not there long; a skinny, black-bearded Scot called (conveniently) Scott picks me up in about twenty minutes. He can get me just down to Shaftesbury, about a third of my remaining journey. He leaves me by a roundabout on what he calls "The wind-y way" to Blandford Forum, which is the next major nexus if I'm going to get to Lulworth.
I circle the roundabout to the Blandford exit and set up on a wide shady verge. It's now well after seven, and the light is looking decidedly sunsetty. And there I wait. Traffic is very sparse, and what there is barrels on past, with a string of the least promising occupants - parents with kids, lone women, smart suits. I survey the route from here to Lulworth and it seems impossibly twisty and complicated; I can't see how I can possibly get the rides necessary to make it to the youth hostel by closing time.
Time starts to stretch out again, and I begin estimating my time to break-even point, to sunset (about 9pm according to Google), to the time when I should maybe walk back into Shaftesbury and see if there's anywhere to stay for the night. If there is anywhere. I eye the green, cool and deep forest on the other side of the verge. It's behind a single strand of barbed wire but doesn't look like a terrible place to kip for the night.
This is the hardest part, this frustrating, powerless time when you need to be moving and you aren't, and there's literally nothing you can do about it except wait. To fall at this hurdle after getting so close would be hugely disappointing. I'm weaving a little now on leg muscles that are about done for the day, and pacing with the frustration.
Finally, after 8:00pm and with the sun almost dipping below the trees, a ride arrives - Graham, in a lovely secondhand Mercedes sports car of which I utterly fail to notice the actual model in my relief at getting picked up. He likes to buy secondhand Mercs, he tells me - they're cheap as chips and never give up. I admire the carbon fibre on the dashboard as the powerful little car barrels through country lanes, but still can't stop the numbers spinning in my head. Graham is going to Weymouth, and will drop me in Dorchester where our routes properly diverge. I'll still be 26 miles from my destination.
Graham's been working all day at an industrial laundry, shipping dirty and clean goods between two sites in a constant shuttle. He's very proud of his practiced ability to judge gaps in the traffic and pick his timing "Now, he'll go left now, and by the time that one comes past this lot'll be out of the way and we'll go across. I do this all day you know."
He is dubious about my chances after he drops me off: "You'll have some way to go from there though, it's not a straight road from Dorchester. You need to get to Wool really. It's not going to be easy..." he keeps telling me with slightly grumpy concern.
And finally "...well, I reckon I can go a bit out of my way and take you a bit of a way down towards Wool. I should be going home now, you know. But I reckon I can go a bit that way."
And a few minutes later: "...alright, I can take you to Wool. Doesn't make much difference to me. Now look, this is going to seem like I'm going a bit fast but I know what I'm doing, I do this all day you know." He puts his foot down and the hedges flicker past, and I begin to grin. I'm very glad Graham really does seem to know what he's doing as he weaves through traffic and corners tightly between tall hedges.
It is just coming up to 9:00pm as we turn the corner onto the main drag in Wool, and pass the train station. Graham drops me outside. "Now you can walk down that way past the pub, or you can get a taxi from here. Up to you. I'm not stopping, I've got to go home now. Best of luck."
I watch him tear away and walk to the corner with genuine optimism for the first time in two hours. The sun is setting, the sky half blue and half pink behind the tidy little church steeple across the road. It's only 5 miles from here to Lulworth Cove; surely I can't fail to make it now. I can almost see the hostel lights ahead of me, a late supper in the communal kitchen, collapsing into a creaky but welcoming hostel bed.
Nonetheless I can't relax yet, as landrovers and vans and a couple of cabs continue to barrel past me, until a four by four pulls over and a young woman with a loose dark ponytail, a scattering of freckles and a hi-vis jacket peers over at me. "Are you going to Camp Bestival?"
I haven't even heard of it. "Sorry, no, is it near Lulworth?"
"Sort of...it's up by the castle."
I shrug. I clearly haven't done my research on this place all that well. "Never mind" and step back from the window.
"No, it's fine, it's just as easy for me to drop you into Lulworth, hop in."
I don't get her name and I probably don't make much conversation. I'm on my last legs mentally and physically. But I am more grateful than I can express when she drops me at the crossroads in West Lulworth and points me down a side road. "That's you."
She sees me off with a smile, and I heft my bag and stagger happily if blurrily across the road in the twilight. It is twenty past nine, and I'm arriving with an hour to spare.
West Lulworth turns out to be a beautiful little village, mostly just two rows of thatched cottages running either side of a road that curves down to the Cove itself. On either side green hills rise beyond the cottages and old trees overhang the gardens. The air is cool and quiet.
It slowly sinks in that since I stepped up into that cab 12 hours ago, I am now 166 miles from my home town.
I turn down the back road, happily drifting on numb feet, pass sloping fields of horses and follow the winding of the road between comfortable cottages. And there ahead of me, at the foot of a green hill, are the lights of the hostel - a long, low wooden building. Through the windows as I come up to the door I see clean bunk beds, hear children running in and out of the rooms. The light is on behind the glass in the outer door, and I push inside.
Everything you've just read is factual - only the names of the commercial drivers have been changed, on the very small chance it ends up somewhere that could cause trouble to those very kind men.
I wrote most of it up the following day - some on Man O'War Beach, some in a cafe in Lulworth Cove and some back at the hostel later. What I'd thought was going to be a quick diary about the day kept growing in the telling, and pulling in all kinds of other memories and thoughts. I wrote longhand in a notebook, then typed on my tablet, and finally switched to voice notes when my fingers started cramping up - I wanted to get it all down before it evaporated. I'm sure there are distortions and deletions but on the whole, it's pretty much word for word.
Frustratingly there was one part that had somehow became lost in my memory before I could get it down - I've been over it dozens of times and tried to tease out every hint to jog my memory, but I honestly can't remember if the insane truck driver attacked Greg or Charlie. I can remember pretty much the exact words he used, just not which of them it was. Frustrating. It was too good a little story not to include, but it niggles at me that I'm not sure who told it to me, hence why I mention it here.
I'm posting this as a bit of an experiment. Ten years ago I got rid of most of my possessions, bought a one way ticket to Hamilton, Ontario and hitch-hiked all over Canada, the USA and Mexico for a year and a half. I kept a blog almost the entire time, initially mainly to keep my friends and family up to date on my progress. It never gathered a huge following but it had a solid and dedicated base of readers, and I got a fair bit of feedback from people who enjoyed reading it and sharing in my experiences.
The blog's been offline for a few years now after various site switches, but I've still got the backups and I've said for a long time that one day I'd get round to editing it together in some form, probably as a book, and a lot of people have encouraged me to do so.
So if you've enjoyed this story, and would like to read more like it (if not rather more exciting), please sign up in the box below. Your details will only be used to update you on what I'm posting/publishing, and if there's enough interest I reckon I'll finally get my act together and assemble the book.
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