When I was 17, I read “Into the Wild” BY JON KRAKAUER . the book had me from the very first paragraph. I couldn’t put it down. as soon as I finished, i remember wanting to begin my own journey. I told my mom and began plotting my hitchhiking odyssey across the U.S. However, my mom wryly intervened, suggesting, rhetorically, “Why don’t we go to Dairy Queen?” How could I refuse. she knew how much i loved DQ. On the way, she coaxed me off the ledge, convincing me to delay my expedition.
A few years pass and at the tender age of 21 I had the opportunity to pursue a series of exploratory road trips, I hitchhiked in nine European countries and worked on a marijuana plantation in Switzerland, my base of operations for four months, where I learned Italian and from which I embarked in a van stocked with food, drugs, backpacks, hammocks, tapestries, and a squad of dreadlocked European hippies to Greece for a two-week psychedelic trance festival on an island.
I was led by intuition and a determination to spend as little as possible during what became a 9-month odyssey. A lot of time, I tried to stay on a 10-Euro-a-day budget. I remember often carrying only loaves of bread and Nutella, with the occasional accompaniment of cheese, tomatoes, and sausage. I accepted anything anybody wanted to offer me and roamed around like I owned the place, soaking up art, and ignoring people’s judgments and warnings, flouting laws, sleeping wherever I wanted, and taking up with whoever opened their door.
I chose Switzerland as a hitching off point because I heard getting a ride would be easier there, which is true. In Switzerland, there is a wider array of people kindly disposed to hitchhikers than most neighboring countries, but it depends on one’s appearance and how that strikes the people who happen to drive by.
Upon entering Switzerland from Italy, I got off the train at Bellinzona. Weed was legal, I discovered, but too expensive for my budget. I took a bus to the on ramp of the Autobahn, and there I posted up. Generally, I recommend, in your left hand, holding up a sign with a destination written and putting your right thumb in the wind.
You have to make eye contact with the drivers. You want to appear friendly, but not smiling, well-groomed, but not well-heeled. Once they pass, I look for the next car, although you also must keep an eye out for the occasional late-stopper. When someone stops, make haste to get to the car. I waited for about an hour before a guy stopped.
“How far are you going?” I asked.
“I can take you to Biasca,” he responded.
Biasca is only about 15 minutes’ drive, but I was happy to get along down the road. Short rides can be more fun than waiting for a long haul, as long as you don’t get thrown off course. The driver was a short, wiry Swiss man with shiny black parted hair who spoke with a German accent. We made small talk. At the end, he took a little bud of marijuana out of his button-down shirt pocket and put it in my T-shirt pocket.
“That’s a little gift for you,” he said. I was overjoyed.
Biasca is a little rustic village overshadowed by sheer cliffs and multiple waterfalls. I took in this scene as soon as I stepped out of the car, and I knew I was destined to be here at that moment. Every other moment up until that point combined in perfect order so that I would arrive here. At the same time, I felt disconnected from everyone, as an English-speaker and as a wayfarer carrying his possessions on his back. Here and elsewhere on this voyage, I felt like Italo Calvino when he wrote, “The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.” I retired to cook, camp, and smoke a joint up in the hills above the solitary Cathedral, omnipresent in Swiss villages.
In the morning, after lazing about by the waterfalls, I walked out on the lonely highway once more. A car drove by without stopping. About two minutes later, another compact car drove by and slammed on the brakes. I made eye contact with the driver just as he did with me. When I looked into his car, I noticed several things in quick succession. One, dreads. Two, incense burning in the ashtray. Three, pictures of Hindu saints on the rear view. Three signs pointed to one conclusion: this was a safe ride. I asked him where he was going. “You go to the Gottard,” he said, motioning ahead, “I go over the Alps,” To the next province, called a cantone, over the Alps, basically. He was obviously looking for company. Perfect.
This was to be a ride like no other. We didn’t identify ourselves by name as is often the case with people I ride with, but I later learned his name was Giuseppe. My gracious host suddenly swerved left. Apparently taking an unplanned detour just so he could smoke a joint. He offered, I obliged. The view of the mountains was splendid.