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The road becomes my bride

August 6, 2007

“…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars….

It’s 50 years since Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road was published. This article in The Guardian looks at the enduring legacy of the book, and whether it still has any relevance to today’s young people:

“When I was a teenager, though, On the Road was the bible for any aspiring bohemian, a book that was passed on from one generation to the next almost as a talismanic text. I was given a battered copy by an older friend and, even before I read it, knew that it carried within its pages some deep, abiding truth about youth, freedom and self-determination. On the Road instilled in me a belief that, in order to find oneself, one had to throw caution to the wind and travel long distances with no real goal and very little money.”

I first read On the Road when I was in high school, in 1992. It’s one of the books that changed me, that gave me a faith in the road, both literally and metaphorically.

At the time I was living in Somerset East, a small town in the Eastern Karoo – South Africa’s outback. The book inspired me to pack my army surplus sleeping bag and hit the road with my thumb in the air, often without any money.

Initially I took fairly short trips – to the Grahamstown arts festival, to Port Elizabeth and East London, Jeffrey’s Bay and Port Alfred.

But in time the journeys grew longer, and more ambitious: I hitched 800km to see No Friends of Harry play at the Playground in Cape Town – they were supported by Live Jimmy Presley and The Outsiders for that gig.

I slept on Strand beach the first night, and found places to crash the next few nights with people I met at the ‘Grounds and at the Attic in Voortrekker Road.

A girlfriend and I onced hitched to J Bay to buy a backpack full of weed from the Rastas who lived on the beach – I had taken an order at the school hostel. Hitching back, our first lift was on the back of a farm truck. We opened a kaartjie and shared a smoke with the labourers, then lay back on grain sacks and watched the sun setting over the fields. I was filled with the sense of everything being right with the world – a sense I struggle to hold onto in more settled times.

I hitched through the Transkei to Durban, into the Free State and on to Jo’burg. I made it as far north as Louis Trichardt.

This was a formative time for me, and for our country. The ANC had been unbanned and we were preparing for the first democratic elections. It gave me an opportunity to get to know my country, and my people, in all their ragged glory.

The people who picked me up were all working class, mostly truck drivers, or people driving for a living – returning rental cars, servicing equipment on farms, and so on.

In all my years of hitching, I never once got a ride from a middle class person – all those BMWs and Golfs just shot past me, while the beat up old skorogoros would invariably find room for one more traveller. I got lifts from black, white and every other race, both men and women, and no one ever hassled me.

I slept on beaches, at the side of the road, in trucks and in people’s homes. They fed me, too: vetkoek and chakalaka, peanut butter sandwiches and soya mince curry, washed down with giant mugs of sweet tea and coffee, or quarts of Black Label.

It was this that cemented my class solidarity, more than anything else. Working class people realise life is tough, we all struggle, and we all need a bit of help from time to time. Picking up some one when you’re going in the same direction helps you both.

For people with more money, there’s the atomisation brought on by having enough: we’re all supposed pay our own way, and we won’t go out of our way to help anyone else, or expect anyone to do us any favours.

A lot of what I saw shocked me, such as the habit many South Africans have of making a long trip more pleasant by driving with a six pack of beers on their laps. I once got a ride from an off duty cop who drank 14 50ml minatures of gin in a drive from Louis Trichardt to Pretoria, travelling at an average speed of 160km an hour.

I smoked weed in bottle necks with truck drivers while they negotiated mountain passes: “You look like a roeker, my bra. Why don’t you make us a stop?” Maybe that’s why there’s so many truck accidents.

Despite all the warnings, nothing bad ever happened to me, apart from being hungry and cold. I lived to tell the tale. This is how I got to know South Africa, and to deprogramme myself from the limitations of my small town, religious upbringing.

Later, hitchhiking became a ritual for me, a ceremonial relinquishing of control, something I would do consciously – allow the road to strip me bare so I could see clearly. After a bad break up, or when I needed a bit of clarity, I’d throw myself at the mercy of the road.

But what’s become of those dreams of freedom? With age has come a desire for a little comfort and security, and a realisation that I am not bullet proof. And something has been lost in the process. But I hope that I carry the wisdom of the road with me.

All of life is a journey, and our attempts to control it are an illusion. When we reach a crossroads, we can choose a path – I recommend the one less travelled by – but we don’t have a map, and don’t know what’s coming around the bend.

Sometimes you get a lift instantly. Other times, it looks like you’ll be at the side of the road for eternity. Use this time to look at the scenary, think, and perfect your technique of throwing stones at tin cans.

Some rides are fast, smooth and comfortable, and get you to your destination in style – eerste klas. Other rides are slow and uncomfortable – but better than no ride at all.

Instead of living in a state of perpetual anxiety over the fear that something terrible is going to happen, like most of the population of the developed world, it would service us well to release our illusions of control and enjoy the ride.

The destination becomes the reason for travelling, but the journey is everything – the conversations, the encounters, and the stars over the Karoo.

Once a truck driver I was riding with left the highway at 3am and rode for some distance along a sand road into the Karoo bush, somewhere near Colesberg. I didn’t know what he was up to. He stopped the truck in a clearing, made a fire, put some tea in a billy and got a telescope out of his luggage.

There was no moon, and it was a chill winter’s night. The Karoo stars throbbed overhead, giving a sense of vertigo with their intensity, the feeling that you could fall off the edge of the Earth and into the endless sky pulsing with light.

We had a smoke while he set up the telescope to see the rings of Saturn. “Now look at that”, he said.

He might have had only a primary school education, but he knew beauty when he saw it.

Life is the same. Everything passes. The ride you’re on now – or the roadside you’re standing by, watching the traffic shoot past – is where you are.

Just be there.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. storm permalink
    December 27, 2008 7:02 pm

    i share your sentiments as far as hitching lifts go. you will NEVER get a lift from a bmw or mbenz driver, unless he has just nicked it, or he is paid to deliver it somewhere. and i get endless kak from the missus when she hears i gave somebody a lift. but i have been there, and i know the feeling of seeing a car/bakkie/truck with a solitary driver disappear into the horizon in a cloud of dust – and you know there is not going to be another vehicle going from vosburg to carnavon till tomorrow!
    for the record, i am no kid, born in ’47. run my own company, live a respectable and responsible life. but sometimes i too get the calling to drop all pretences and get back to my real roots. and i do it, because my sanity depends on it/

    you have lived bru, and i salute you!

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