Off the Highway

“Read this,” my friend said to me. It was the winter of ’87, and he was around a decade older than the seventeen-year-old, fresh-faced me.  Kerouac’s On the Road was the book he’d pulled from his bookshelf. “After that, you’ll be ready for this,” he said after finally locating a well thumbed copy of Hunter Thompson’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.

The cover of his Penguin Classic edition of On the Road hijacked my imagination. Sold by the power of an image, I said I’d pick up that bright orange other book another time, and we headed out for a beer. I read the book from start to finish in about a quarter of the time it took Jack to type it.

In late spring, I accompanied a friend to France in pursuit of a foreign exchange student he’d met the previous summer with the princely sum of five pounds in my pocket. Kerouac came with me.

The mademoiselle’s Parisian father was unimpressed with the white kid in holey 501’s and the Vietnamese kid in cowboy boots who kept on ringing his doorbell, and wooden shutters were soon latched and bolted. I got the feeling that the Vietnamese beat bum was the one he despised the most.

We staked her out for three days without success from a café in the square across from her house, glimpsing her only once in the back of a Range Rover. While my friend smoked and brooded in a corner, Casady kept my spirits up, and I began to recast this boredom as something holy.

The proprietor was only a few years older than us and, over time, I befriended him. We’d taken to shooting the odd game of pool before I’d return to savour a few more pages about Mississippi Gene and Montana Slim. I probably gave this French guy an interesting road name although I can’t remember it now.

One afternoon, two angry blokes showed up at the café, and our Gallic host translated that we had to get the hell out of there, now. Resurfacing from a pond of silent scowls, my mate suggested we zip down to Bordeaux to visit another mademoiselle who was listed in his Filofax, jumping the night train as his money was now running low. My fiver had been burned before we’d even got on the ferry.

We jumped the train, got caught, and now we were both broke. Without money in his pocket, my mate’s confidence left him, and he flipped between moods that were all just different flavours of hopelessness. I knew what we’d do next. In fact, I’d been looking forward to it.

I’d hitched a few times before that spring but just twenty miles up a B road. This, however, was looking epic. It took five hours before we got a ride. Eventually a woman in a Renault Espace stopped. She was a professor and spoke English. She said she’d lectured in London last month and had been thinking of England when she’d turned the corner. She’d never picked up hitchers before, she said.

She took us to her home in Poitier and put up us for the night, instructing her two sons, who had long hair and played flamenco guitar, to take us out on the town. Fed and watered, the next day she drove us to Paris and gave us the equivalent of fifty pounds in francs, enough to take the train and ferry back to England.

Back then, for a while at least, it seemed that Kerouac was right: the road is holy.

Next week, Andrew Oberg takes a look at digital pests.





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  1. Andrew
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Great story, I can imagine it perfectly. You two were quite lucky in the way things worked out!

  2. Paul
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    That summer, I went to my first rave. Suddenly, the ‘bright orange book’ made a lot more sense.

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