Adventures of my youth

Approaching her 40th birthday, a writer reflects on the careless, carefree adventures of her youth -- and wonders if she can recapture that footloose spirit again.

Published June 15, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

It's been 20 years since the nippy spring day when I stumbled for over an hour along the shoulder of a dusty Spanish mountain road. It was somewhere between Bilbao and Pamplona. My 40-pound red backpack dug into my hips. The cheap sneakers swinging off the side of my pack, the ones I'd purchased in an outdoor market in Paris, had worn blisters on my heels. Wearing only heavy gray backpacker's socks, I navigated around broken bottles and other roadside debris. When I look back on this desolate scene, I am most baffled to recall that at that precise moment in time, I felt entirely elated.

"I never want to stop doing this," I wrote in my diary, a smelly, worn and tattered lined notebook. "This is it." What I meant by "this" and "it" was traveling raw, hitching through foreign parts with little or no money, greeting whatever mishap occurred -- and there were plenty -- as an adventure. I had grown up in a small, sleepy town, but in college I discovered the diaries of Anaos Nin and the works of Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac. So, damn it, I knew there was adventure out there, somewhere, and I was determined to find it. For nearly two years, I hitched around Europe, living on nearly nothing -- sometimes, literally, cheese heels and day-old bread -- sleeping on rocky roadsides, taking jobs and risks that now seem completely nutty.

This particular day my adventure had been a tad trying. I'd snagged a perfect ride -- over four hours -- with a genial Spanish gentleman who conversed with me in halting French and was traveling all the way to Bilbao. He'd shown me pictures of his wife and four children. A rosary swung from the rearview mirror of his European compact. I figured I'd land in Bilbao before sundown, in time to scout a cheap hostel or even a secluded beach or park where I could crash. (Though earlier that spring I had fallen asleep on a deserted beach on an island off the coast of what was then Yugoslavia and had woken to find myself staring up at a semicircle of men, several of whom sported machine guns: I had camped on an army reserve.)

In Bilbao, I planned to find -- somehow -- a high school friend who was there -- somewhere -- on a Mormon mission. I had his small school picture in my pack, along with $50 -- an absolute fortune during that period of my life -- a map of the city and a Spanish-English dictionary. I felt pretty dang lucky.

The kindly driver had even paid for my lunch at a roadside cafe -- wine and olives and fresh bread and pbti -- and then suggested that we take the "pretty road," the scenic route. I enthusiastically agreed.

It certainly was a pretty road, rural and winding, though also pretty deserted. We passed a few farms, but not even a cafe or a petrol station. So when he pulled over to the shoulder and stopped the car, I assumed my driver had to relieve himself. I stared out the side window, past rolling hills and grazing cows, in order to afford him some privacy. I heard a zipper unzip. I waited for the car door to open. It did not.

"Tu fais un petit massage?" he cut in. You make a little massage?

I turned and could hardly believe what I saw. My kind driver had gone mad! His pants were unzipped and, if I had had any questions about what kind of massage he desired, I had only to look lap-level to find the answer. I kept my eyes up and swore, in English.

I sat frozen, unsure of what to do. What had happened to the middle-aged family man who had asked about my studies and with whom I'd debated the morality of bullfighting? Could I talk sense to this guy?

Smiling, he repeated his question.
"Tu fais un petit massage?"

Some relationship I didn't want to know about was happening between his hand and another body part. I swung open the car door and yanked my backpack from the back seat. The last thing I heard was odd, cackling laughter as the door slammed. My luck disappeared into the distance.

In my socks, I walked that road for over an hour before climbing into a semi with two truckers. Early in my travels, I had made a pact with myself not to take rides in vehicles bearing more than one man, though I had broken this rule once before, traveling through Germany, when I had climbed into the back of a windowless van and been horrified to discover an entire bike racing team. The odds were not in my favor. But having just competed, the lads were extremely tired. I slept all the way to Switzerland in a heap of bikes and bodies, and only one guy, and I thought he was cute, seemed to cozy up closer than was called for.

Still, I thought this situation, post-bailout, dire enough to break the rule again. Odds were I'd be fine; I figured I'd already had my bad ride for the day. I figured only half wrong. Sure, the truckers took me all the way to Bilbao, but both managed to cop a feel as I climbed down from the cab.

In Bilbao, I never found my friend, though I made a new one, a British girl, and we ended up spending a good part of that summer waiting tables in the south of France in a beachside cafe. So we had to go topless, sometimes, on hot days. Still, the money was good. ("Who cares?" I wrote in my diary. "Really, everyone goes topless.") We lived in tents perched next to a vineyard, a short bike ride from the cafe. Water was siphoned from a nearby well, and we each claimed a separate row of vines for our personal toilet. Halfway through the summer I ended up at the doctor's with an itchy infection he referred to, frighteningly, as "champignons" -- mushrooms. "More washing," he admonished, but by this time there were almost 20 of us camped in the vineyard and water was scarce.

Still, though I may have been itchy, I was happy. There were seven or eight nationalities represented in our commune; half of us didn't even speak a common language. We ate and drank together and explored the French countryside on rickety motorcycles. I felt flush during this time. I actually had dough in my pocket. Most days I ate at the restaurant, though one of our gang worked at a grocery store and brought to our encampment all sorts of out-of-date food (including some canned fish that, I remember, set everyone bolting into the vineyards for a good week).

Though I don't think I even owned an air mattress until halfway through the summer, when fall arrived and I decided to return to college, I had saved enough money to take the train to London from Marseilles. But I didn't. My British friend talked me into hitching through Holland and we even boarded the Channel ferry in someone's car, saving the cost of the crossing. The name and phone number of the Dutch family that carted us across is scratched into the margin of the diary: "Cool family," I wrote, "and they gave us beer!!!" Life seemed pretty damned simple.

Looking back, the scene on the shoulder of the Spanish highway strikes me as some version of hell. I am approaching my 40th birthday and, like everybody else poised at this trite juncture, I'm dancing with a midlife crisis. At the same time I'm trying not to feel old, I'm trying to recapture the freewheeling spirit of yore.

Fat chance. It's not only that I can't believe I did all these things and emerged basically unscathed (meaning, really, not raped), it's just that, well, I have to admit my desire for roughing it has noticeably waned. The last time I hitched a ride was when I ran out of gas on the freeway and took a ride with a highway patrolman. I considered that an adventure. As for the thrill of bedding down on some secluded hillside -- recently I threw a tantrum because I had to wait half an hour for my reserved hotel room to be readied. And I'm grumpy if I can't book direct flights.

My old diary admonishes me: "Don't ever not do this!" But how can I get that "this," those rough-edged travel experiences and chance meetings and weird encounters that I knew then, and still know, set in deep, and that I remember 20 years later as if they had happened last week? And can I get it without the blisters and weird infections and without getting into cars with strange men and teams of bike racers?

I doubt it.

By Louise Rafkin

Louise Rafkin writes on lifestyle and relationships for the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.

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