The NORTH Sign

by Kevin Holowack

By seven a.m., I’m standing outside a McDonald’s on the outskirts of Manchester, at the top of the road that joins the M6 motorway. It was a two-hour walk from where I was staying, and I’m rain-damp by the time I arrive, so I use an elm tree for shelter and bounce on my toes to warm up.

I assured my friend in Glasgow that I’d be there by evening. It’s about a four-hour drive, so I guessed a six to eight-hour hitch. As always, I stayed up the night before looking at road maps, eyeballing distances, and making cardboard signs. I made three, the words bolded in cheap sharpie: “M6,” “GLASGOW,” and simply “NORTH.”

The M6 sign is to get out of Manchester and onto the motorway. That’s where you find the lorry drivers and long-distancers looking for company. The GLASGOW sign bets on a bit of blind luck, the off-chance I’ll encounter someone who is both willing to take a hitchhiker and happens to be going the full distance.

The NORTH sign, on the other hand, is a bet on fate. It’s a common trick for hitchhikers to use indistinct locations on their signs. It helps to steadily narrow the distance between you and your destination, wind up in some out-of-the-way places, and increase the chance of a finding ride to the endpoint. The disadvantage is that, if you don’t find that ride, you will be stranded.
Alone, naïve, twenty-years-old, I’m ready to be stranded. I can’t put a word to that odd feeling is—Drunk on possibilities? In love with the road? Craving adventure like fresh spearmint or mountain air? Whatever it is, I know it well.

A man approaches me from the parking lot and in a deep, sleepy voice offers to take me to the M6. In the car, he tells me that I “look like a guy with a fire,” which, it turns out, is a way of asking for a lighter. The man is far too stoned to be driving, but it’s just a short hop before he’s letting me out at the intersection of a by-road and a dead country lane that in fact leads to Wales, not Scotland. He even lets me out in the shadow of a big blue sign saying “Wales.”

Why? I wonder.

Just because, I tell myself optimistically as I trudge half a kilometer to a gas station and ask the manager for help. He agrees to bring me to the M6 as soon as he’s finished his bookkeeping. Nothing else to do, I buy a coffee and pace around until the manager shuttles me to a big truck stop on the motorway.

I’d been told again and again that the U.K., like Canada, the United States, and other English-speaking countries, is unfriendly to hitchhikers. That it’s a dying art. That it’s out-dated and dangerous. Even if this is true, my mantra—that if you stand in one place long enough, someone will eventually stop—has never failed me.

So two hours piss away in the light rain, but I’m not discouraged. I give up with the “GLASGOW” sign and decide to give fate a shot with the “NORTH” sign. I accept that I may not make it to Glasgow and quickly text my friend to apologize. The day could only turn up.

Ten minutes later, I’m chatting through the cracked window of a Mercedes to a man in his fifties with blonde, neatly-parted hair and a collared shirt. He’s a mumbler, a little shy, and it’s hard to look at him directly because the thick rims of his glasses dangle over his eyes.

“Come on then,” he says.

I toss my rucksack in the backseat of the Mercedes and hop in the front. We join the M6 as he adjusts his rear view mirror, straightens his glasses, crunches a paper cup, and clears his throat. The car makes the road feel like butter, which is a jarring change of pace from the whirring traffic and slapping wind that I’d been enduring for most of the day. The calmness is offset only by man’s constant fidgeting.

“So you’re going…north?”

I tell him I’m aiming for Glasgow, but I’m happy to end up anywhere.

“Well, I live nearby.”

We talk about the weather, food, and other polite things for at least an hour in oh so many fits and starts. He tells me he works in oil and I tell him I study literature. Eventually, I ask if he’d ever picked up a hitchhiker before.

“No,” he says and clears his throat again. “No. My son’s away. He’s off in New Zealand. Or Australia. I don’t know. Last I heard, he bought a van, drove off into the jungle, or…something. He doesn’t keep in touch.” After a long pause he mumbles, “You remind me of my son.”

I’ve been in many strange vehicles by this point, but I’ve never felt nervous until now. Not because it felt dangerous, not because there was anything especially thrilling about sitting in a Mercedes, but because of the thick silence, my sense that the man was expecting something of me, a reassurance.

In England, I found the drivers willing to pick me up to be extraverted, light-hearted, and simply looking for a laugh or a good story. But the air in Mercedes is heavy. I want to get rid of the silence, so I blabber about my travels through the Balkans and elsewhere. The feeling of lostness. The thrill of irresponsibility. Sleeping by the lakes, in the forests, on the floors of strangers. I even tell him about my NORTH sign being a symbol of fate, which even as it leaves my mouth sounds silly and melodramatic.
He just listens. Once or twice he forces a laugh, but I can tell I’m making him worried.

Once we enter Scotland, he finds his cellphone and dials a number. It’s not on speaker, but I can make out most of the conversation, in part because the woman on the other line doesn’t say anything.

“Hi, hon. We’ll be having some company for dinner.”

“Oh?”

“I picked up a hitchhiker. A young Canadian lad.”

“Oh.”

“He’s a real world traveler. And he studies lit-ruh-tchuh.”

“Ah.”
“We’ll be there around six.”

He turns to me with an affirmative nod. The afternoon rolls by to the thumping of the squeakless windshield wiper, and right on time we pull into the nameless town, enter the small but distinct money district and find his house.

The woman’s short-cropped hair, blonde as his, is bobby-pinned away from her brow so that she can see the mushrooms she’s frying. “Hello, hello,” she stammers when she sees me. “Please—” she turns down the heat and leads me to the living room where I sit alone amidst bookshelves, potted plants, lamp shades, many family photos and a bear-skin rug. The whole scene is reflected in the screen of the 40’’ LED T.V.

I scan the family photos: the couple and their son crowded around a Christmas tree, sitting around a table with relatives, or celebrating their son’s high school graduation. The boy in the photos is tall, clean-cut, and more-or-less my age. Meanwhile, I’m sharply aware that my socks are damp from walking in the rain, I smell like sweat, my hair is long and tangled, and there’s dirt on the cuffs of my jeans.

Eventually, the man appears in the doorway wearing slacks and a brown sweater, hands in pockets.
“Turn on the blue lamp if you want to read.”

Half an hour later, I’m led to my spot in the dining room where a table for ten is set for three. A fork and spoon for the pasta, a knife for the butter and bread, and a glass for the red wine—or beer, if I’d prefer, and they can get a frosted mug from the kitchen. I listen to the clicking utensils and nervously twirl the pasta. The woman is the first to speak.

“My husband says you study literature. Do you like Sherlock Holmes?”

I’ve never read Arthur Conan Doyle, but that doesn’t matter. What matters, I notice, is that she doesn’t give a hoot about where I’ve been or where I’m going—she wants to have a polite conversation about books. So I ask questions, and she answers. We discuss the series, the film adaptations, the legacy, and then the pasta is finished, the glasses drained. I look at a clock on the wall, expecting our bubble of a surrogate family to pop any minute, when she offers dessert.

“And how about Shakespeare?” she asks.

It is nine o’clock by the time we’re done eating. The man is silent the whole time, waiting patiently for the cheesecake to disappear before mentioning that there’s a train station nearby.

We leave, and the woman stands in the front window to watch us drive away. Her right elbow is resting on her left palm, a half-smile on her face, and she waves.

In the train station parking-lot, the man tells me to wait in the car because the ticket office is closed but he knows the manager, who’s probably in the back doing paperwork. I know it’s a lie, but I wait. And when he comes back, he’s holding a ticket—which, it turns out, costs more than the bus all the way from Manchester to Glasgow.

“Sorry I didn’t get you to your friend,” he says. “The train comes in ten minutes—the ride should take another twenty.” He gives me a short, stiff hug and insists on helping me heave my rucksack onto my back. My NORTH sign is tucked under a strap and wiggles it to make sure it doesn’t fall out. Then he clears his throat and walks away.

The train is empty aside for a young man sitting a few rows back. He has headphones in. I don’t know why, but I feel an urge to sit with him and tell him everything that just happened. I look at him, but he immediately turns away. So instead I rest my head on the window and watch the lights of distant houses slip through the darkness…

Five years later, I’m in Edmonton inside a warm café, surrounded by strangers gazing at their books and computers, checking Facebook, examining spreadsheets, reading about Trump.

Outside is a busy road.
They say the sense of smell is deeply linked to memories, but I’ve always felt that way about the sense of hearing. The noise of traffic crunching pavement often gets me. The whoosh of a car doing 100 kilometers an hour is musical. To this day, I still often think about giving in to fate, about going NORTH.

But that no longer rings with the unrestrained freedom that it did. Now that dream comes with some sacrifices like friends, jobs, hobbies, routines, even writing in warm cafés. Maybe this is all just part of aging and, although there’s some regret attached to that, the whole experience left me with a profound faith in the hospitality of strangers.

And maybe that’s why, when I find myself reminiscing about those days, I often tell the story about the couple that brought me into their house and wonder what made them do it. I think about an anxiety in their home that at the time felt like awkwardness but, over time, I came to realize was something more like sadness. Fragility.

So I start looking up towns around Glasgow to figure out where I was that day and daydream about sending them a letter. Surely they remember me. But I can’t find the town. I suppose it doesn’t matter though because we never exchanged names.

Visual courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Related posts: