Thursday, February 18, 2010

no rest for the wicked !

About three hours sleep is all I got, the first and hopefully last time I'll have to overnight at an airport. But the liftoff energy propelled my anticipation for the journey ahead and a couple glasses of white made the 3 hour flight bliss by.

The mission : hitchhike 2000kms in 2 and a half days to re-unite with my girlfriend on Valentines day.

Now outside the airport on this sunny verge of grass, with eager thumb I recall the hitchhiking technique and mentally prepare for the incessant waiting, the noise and road dirt, consistent rejection. Choosing exactly the right spot though is a game I enjoy – top of a rise is better than the bottom, make sure they've got a good place to pull over, look 'em in the eyes, wear bright clothing, smile.
This spot isn't great but a 10kg shoulder bag and 20kg case keep me from roaming too far.

The first ride soon arrives and I'm charging along a Miamiesque boulevard in a beat-up ute. Simon had just dropped off a mate at the airport and was heading back home either to go surfing or get on the piss. He's a 19yo exterior plasterer, the kind who'll join the front lines of an army. We follow the georgeous coastline and soon I'm dropped at a non-descript shopping centre alonside a gorgeous beach. He gives me his phone number just in case I have trouble getting out of town. I mail my 20kg case to a forward destination and hit the water - it's 8.45am, 29 degrees and the reason why they call it surfer's paradise is easy to see.

After drying off and a short wait I'm picked up by Sam, another grunt with beat-up suburban wheels. Bless the young and the broke, the eager to learn and those who understand the value of a good turn.
He tells me the women around here can be a bit fake, breast insecurities and ways of corrrecting them. There's a surplus of women and if you can't find one 'up-for-it' there's something wrong.
He goes out of his way to drop me at a freeway access which has it's good and bad points. Lots of traffic is good but they are charging like rhino to get up the hill and freeway speed. A car slows, I eagerly head after it, it speeds off ! Aah that old trick – I have to laugh as no doubt the driver and his companion will be. Just as I laughed when I once did that to a hitchhiker. Well karma comes around in this game and I've got mine fair !

45 minutes of superheated asphalt later I'm collected by a middle aged man in a beat-up van. He went around the world a couple years ago and digs the travellers' spirit. Hitchhikers offer a fresh perspective and a listening ear, getting from A to B for free is only part of the equation.
Carl's mission is to wait till his 15yo is grown up, save $200k, move to a Thailand beach and live off the interest which should be about $150 a week. He'll voluntarily teach kids to speak English, which seems a good idea to counter the immediate seedy associations. He is a good man and does well to drop me at a truckstop, the first of many I'm to experience.

This one is a feast of primary colours, junkfood and detached humanoids, just like the many others I'm to experience. Truck drivers have their own area for resting up which includes showers, TV and industry newspapers featuring poetry :

To the 'interstater' from the paper,
for the owner-driver man
a line or two, from me to you
because I fucking can
So stand and fight, for once unite
together we can win
or with cock in hand and head in sand
truck on, the PIG will win.

Now I have an idea of the culture, the idea is that I chat up the truck drivers while they're refuelling in the hope of getting a ride North. The couple of brutes that I see scoffing their breakfast don't exactly look approachable, in any case running around the servo asking for rides doesn't seem like fair sport. I make for the nearby freeway onramp, cheapo jandals saving soles from scalding tar.

Five minutes later I'm stoked to be riding with Mike, a bubbly Maori driving a truck load of building supplies, he's keen to chat. His first house, a do-up in regional New Zealand doubled in value and the family cashed in. It's a big decision to up and leave home and country with 8 kids to take care of but wages and life are better for them here in Oz. One of the many fund-raising schemes that he and his partner have created is custom-embroidered cotton diapers. He says internet sales are picking up and he may not have to drive in future. We pass by the city centre of Brisbane. He gives me his number so if I'm in the area to look him up and I'm at a freeway interchange with thumb out again and not more than two minutes later i'm picked up by 'Moose'.

His beat-up ute shakes at 100 but forward we charge, not talking much. I reckon he's a Kiwi too and his tattoos from ankle to head tell stories but I'm not venturing too close to try and read them. Thanks Moose for the ride, I reckon you've got plenty on your mind. Hopefully I gave you some perspective and didn't annoy you too much.

So far so good, the rides are interesting and unique, this is the hitchhiking I came looking for. I do realise now though that it's afternoon and these 50km rides aren't making a large dent in the 2000km journey. I'm reckoning though the rides will get longer further away from the city.

At the tail-end of a truck stop neither car nor truck is stopping for this thumb. 20 minutes wait seems like an insult so when Stuart, a telecoms contractor picks me up I'm relieved. His family of seven has recently moved up to the coast, out of the Sydney 'rat race'. They're happy, his face shows the life in sharply etched lines. He drops me at a bad place on the freeway at the bottom of a hill where the traffic blats by at 110.
I'll stay at any given spot for 30 minutes before moving on, check watch. Standing in the shade of a lamppost, songs of Bruce Springsteen and Gene Pitney play over my mind, thoughts diffuse. Wonder why no-one's stopping, someone yells some blurred syllable at me from a passing car. I trudge a kilometre back up the road to where there's an on-ramp.

A guy who runs a butchery surrounded by a strawberry plot takes me to another truck-stop. After-school and cross-town traffic buzzes but no-one's stopping, people avoiding eye-contact. You imagine they are veering ever so slightly to avoid you. To be real you have to think about the 'audience' here, 'normal', conventional folk doing their day to day. They don't want any surprises, their fences grow larger, the locks heavier, attitudes turn to fear and derision. Who's the bloody fool can't afford to catch a train. Crazy hobo bludger.
I'm a young guy with an open mind. Where are the solo mum's with too much time on their hands? My skin tight, red pin-striped pants are screaming sexuality, no one's biting. Where are the touted 'cougars' looking for some lusty fun ? Come and get it ladies, now's your chance. We won't be trading DNA but i'll give you some chatter you might appreciate.
I'm bored, Bruce Springsteen grates. I write notes of the travel so far and realise this probably makes me look like an inspector. I AM the inspector and watch their paranoia or plain bemusement with reversed glee. I realise I probably look strange and put the pen and pad away. Where are the Cougars ?!

A 22yo insulation contractor scrapes me from my frustration and we race down the next 50k or so until he deposits me on the freeway and lucky enough to not have to wait too long before another telecoms contractor follows suit. He complains he's making half of what he used to five years ago, wants to get out. His passion is live audio mixing and regrets not having stayed with that career but notes his mate mixes for Leo Sayer and just makes only enough to get by, certainly not to have a family. His brother is something of a genius, currently he's walking the length of the Wall of China . . .

Sun-blasted with a 20-odd minute wait brings Mickey - an old man running a, yep a beat-up ute. He's a hippy with a big beard and glasses. Spent a lucrative career in electricity supply, had a stroke and bailed out leaving him with one half side of his body partially numb.

Before leaving on this odyssey, my sister was wondering what the hell I was doing hitchhiking. She of middle aged solo mum variety figured me mad for wanting to travel this way. And the danger. It's dangerous out there mate, she said. You're crazy. I laughed. Mickey lifted the rubber surrounding of the gear stick and started fumbling around looking for something. He could be reaching for a gun I thought. He might kill me, he might be a psycho who does this for fun. Or, he could... I offer to help his fruitless fumbling. I find the joint he mentions and soon we are pleasantly stoned. As is customary it is half-rolled with tobacco which is a pain since i've just given up smoking. And always I smoke a lot after a joint, so the light-headedness of the reefer is juxtaposed with intense cravings.
Mickey tells me he's Indian. Living a quiet life in the country now. He drops me at a junction, we have a warm handshake and he's gone.

'Welcome to Maryborogh - Get to know the old girl'
I'm not sure I want to do that, this one horse town doesn't really look like the place I want to stay. Hang on, maybe this is where I'll meet the mighty cougar !

Lo, a woman stops, says she doesn't normally pick up strangers but wants to help me to the other side of town where it will be easier. A mid-thirties woman, says tomorrow she has house moving to look forward to. In the meantime the kids are being looked after and her beautiful new house has nothing in it except her bed. Now I may be a little slow off the mark when it comes to innuendo and suggestion but I'm not the one to embarrass myself by being presumptuous.
We went well past her turnoff and she dropped me at a huge truck pull-over lane.

The thing that did not expect was that it got dark – a full two hours before expected, leaving me feeling I was losing this race. 350k's travelled in one day is not enough when you need 2000 in two days. The cars and trucks didn't stop at all. One sarcastically waves, another thumbs up at me in a snide gesture. The public have their mean side.

After 45 minutes I resign the spot and head forward, walking for quite a while. The two dollar jandals crap out and I'm glad one and a half of the ten kilos in my shoulder bag is a pair of shoes.
In the dark the upcoming truckstop looks mysterious, alien. The sodium vapour lights are magnets to swarms of moths which make no sound, adding to the mystery. I try again for a lift before deciding to stay the night there. A nearby field looks encouraging and I sprawl in the long grass but soon am moved on by mosquito's. I think back to the the bed in the new house all alone and kick myself for not being more forward.
Next location is a bench which I sprawl out and quickly fall asleep. One hour later the mosquitoes have caught up with me and I figure I won't be getting any more sleep that night.
The freeway runs alongside the truckstop which is a good spot because it gets all traffic leaving the truckstop as well as road traffic. It's 10pm and 20 minutes later a truck comes to rest at the freeway entrance and just stands there. I think this is a good sign but I'm apprehensive about actuallly crossing the road toward it for fear it will drive off in laughter. He flashes his lights. I run over and he says jump in !

I am delighted as I reckon a commercial truck is going to be the only way to get up North in time for Valentine's day. I've done my time with the public, now I need the pro's ! Bruce is a nice guy, he launches straight into his story . . He was living and driving out of Perth when his ex-partner called from NZ and asked him if he wanted to give it another go with her and their daughter. He was keen, gave away all his furniture, got a decked-out pad in Brisbane and waited for them. Apparently they turned up and stayed for 10 days before leaving on Christmas Eve, he never saw them. Be very careful of women he said. The vagina. She's emotional, temperamental, dangerous. His tattoo-covered leg taps nervous energy, I'm not sure that he's the best person to take relationship advice from. Now it's just him and the truck and he's going all the way to buy his own truck and into business for himself. He's 34 now, there's not much else left to do. He jumps on the CB and finds fellow truckee Colin up ahead is driving through to Cairns.
'Young Darcy here needs to get to Cairns. His girlfriend is waiting to see him for Valentines Day.' They arrange a stop-off point to discuss the possibilities.

The CB network has a range of up to 40k's from the truck so every other CB-enabled vehicle within this range is able to be heard and communicated with. There's a constant chatter, exchange of road conditions and police presence. Random conversations, gossip, catchups and an evident comaraderie which follows these guys in the solitary of their cabs.

Soon we rendezvous with Colin and I'm transferred into his truck, my new home for the next 24 hours. Colin is 200kg of a man who's been driving 9 years and is well in charge of his game, he's big on talk and big on drink. A box of beer wasn't enough to floor him on Christmas Eve so he added another box of bourbon and cola on New Years Eve. He doesn't do drugs on the job though and reckons he can out-drive anyone whether they're straight or doped – as you might expect a lot of drivers rely on some form of stimulant to get them through the tiring conditions.
Last year his girlfriend lived with him in the truck for two months when they were doing the Nullaboor run. He drives hard and long, tonight he is aiming at just three hours sleep.
'No rest for the wicked' he says, 'that's nothing, like the time . . . '

The produce needs collecting at a given time and the shops need it by another certain time and guess who gets the squeeze ? Even though the drivers are heavily regulated and have complex paper logging requirements which include adequate rest periods, commercial concerns always rule – the books are cooked and the driver is squeezed. It doesn't faze Colin though, by the time we're stopping at 4am he's going strong and will be happy for a few hours sleep.
Part of the condition of riding with him is that I sort my own sleeping spot. Looking around this country truckstop there's not really anywhere to sleep. The grass is damp and the mosquitoes find you quickly if you stand still. I figure I'll walk around till there's light, take photographs and have an early breakfast. The café doesn't open before I involuntarily fall asleep for an hour. We reunite for a great heart-attack-inducing bacon eggs with extra gobs of butter.

After helping to jump-start a fellow truck Colin finds a blown tyre. Fortunately another truck has a spare wheel that fits and we spend 40 minutes and a lot of sweat changing it over. An hour up the road we get a new tyre and it's all sorted.
I'm really tired and keep drifting off as we forge on up the road. I always seem to regain consciousness to the sound of Colin's voice saying 'are you drifting off' which is kinda annoying if you know what I mean. In the Cook Islands It's against the law to wake sleeping persons and if ever in politics I will move for such a law here !
'It's a good job young Darcy' he says. 'Australia is full of opportunity'.
He has a long phone conversation with his girlfriend – petty jealouslies and insults, the common stuff of relationships. He tells me he's 34, his girlfriend is 18. He asks me my age. Thinking quickly I answer 31. He thought I was younger, I'm actually 38. I can't really burst his bubble now really can I? Then it would have to be me telling him my life stories and opinions, that's not my style, I'm the listener.

Continuing to drift off, eyes just not holding up any longer and I hear him telling his girlfriend that he's getting really tired but lucky he's got me to keep him awake. Me to keep him awake ! I realise my fate and just do my best to hang on, the end about 4 hours away.
We seem to stop more frequently, the road is in worse condition and then we stop for dinner. He sees an old friend who is also a driver. This is an opportunity for celebration and he advises me it might take some time before we leave. I troll around the truckstop, reading magazines and eating junk, passing time. He was tempted to stop for the night and go out drinking but luckily decides to stick to the plan and we head North on the final assault.
The windows are down, the blast of the tropical air and the blare of the engine keep us conscious. He asks me if I feel OK, you know travelling with this crazy man all alone. Yeah that's fine I say, I really don't feel insecure. I think he wants me to be a little fearful. Maybe his truck cab-lordship over these years has given him a slightly twisted view of himself – It happens to the best of us.

At a seaside town two teenage girls frollick about at a servo, Colin blasts his horn. They wave and I wave sheepishly in return.
Apparently in the next town a woman flashes her tits at him from an oncoming car but I miss it, my eyes aren't exactly 100% at the moment. Or Is he getting delusional or do women flash their tits at him on a regular basis ?
At midnight I finally fall out of the cab, thank him and he disappears into the industrial precinct.
Cabbing across town to my girlfriend I am greeted with a brandy and dry. I have my hitchhiking experience and relish sleeping in bed that night.