I spotted the road to Cockermouth, found a good place to stick out my thumb, and held up a hastily scrawled sign. It was a short way from a set of traffic lights, so I could be seen before the cars and trucks gained too much speed and whizzed by. I got out Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which I’d bought earlier in the trip. Because the best bit of advice I’ve had about hitching was from a friend’s mother in Canada years ago. ‘Read a book,’ she said, ‘so you look like a student rather than a crazy man on the run’. Which, funnily enough, was just how my wife described me at the time.
This was it. I was on the road. My original intention was to pay homage to my great literary hero, Jack Kerouac. He died aged 47, and I was 46. I’d hitched and travelled before, but I was someway behind him in road miles and writing ability. I knew I wouldn’t catch up and overtake him on either front. But this was my story not his. Why try and fail at being someone else? Why not just enjoy the trip for what it was? I realised that the detour to Workington was just my way of trying to imbue this foolhardy jaunt with some meaning. The truth was, I just wanted to get away from it all for a couple of weeks. Shorn of responsibility, to live in the moment: to be single, stupid and selfish.
I wonder what people thought of me, standing there, pretending to read Chaucer? Was I a bohemian intellectual, striking out on my own pilgrim’s progress? Could I be an aging student perhaps, buying books by saving on bus fare? Or was I just a lonesome restless man, heading anywhere for the sake of it? Happier moving than staying still: no roots, no love, and no joy. Of course people drove by, some pretending I wasn’t there and looking stony-faced at some unseen object a mile or so up the road. Others smiled, but then drove on all the same. I couldn’t blame them; it wasn’t the best time to hitch in that area after the recent shootings. And it would’ve made sense to be clean-shaven too. But despite that, within 10 or 15 minutes, I got my ride. A lovely couple pulled over in a nice spacious clean car, and they were not only going in my direction, but knew the hostel too.
Ruth and Allan were retired, and had moved up to the area from the Home Counties a few years ago. The journey was short, and as I said goodbye, Allan handed me a small pamphlet on the local area ‘from a Christian perspective’. I accepted with good grace, maybe still feeling wholesome after my experience in Canterbury. Then I made my way to the hostel, down a stony cutting through fields with steep banks on either side, the sound of birdsong chirping in my ears. I’d like to think they were singing to me. Just like the angelic choir in Canterbury Cathedral. I didn’t cry this time, but felt content and anchored; like tall grass with deep roots, happy to sway with the wind.
The hostel was an old stone mill house right by the river, bathing in the soft evening light. I couldn’t have hoped for better. Now all I needed was a spare bed. Ray, the grey-haired pony-tailed manager, let me know that all was fine. The only other guests were two cyclists in their early 20s, and a biblical-looking bearded man in his early 70s.
I went out for a walk down to the gurgling creek by the hostel and stumbled onto an idyllic scene. A summer evening; light glinting and dancing on the water, and cows from a field on the other side of the river sipping water. It was cocktail hour for cattle, brushing off bothersome flies flirting with their bottoms and tormenting their nostrils. I stayed down there for a while. There was something odd and intriguing about this: cows drinking from the river through the bankside trees, not from their designated trough; my very own three-dimensional Far Side scene. It was surreal. I smiled. The cows ignored me, and the flies did too, and that was ok with me.
Cape Wrath, 14/25