On 1 June 2017, I left the small Cornish town of Falmouth to hitchhike alone around the world.
“I was dirty, smelly, had empty stomach and two inflated insect bites on my face. I looked miserable. A man approached me as I was sitting against a wall in the street and tried giving me some change, thinking I was a homeless man.”
I had made it to France after a grueling and uncertain nine-and-a-half-hour wait at Dover, but I was now in mainland Eurasia. My first stop would be in the Netherlands with my old roommate Dylan (who I hitchhiked to Luxembourg with). From here it should be easy, I thought.
The two men who were kind enough to take me for free across the sea left me at a service station just South of Calais. By this point, the sun was going down and I was knackered, so I decided to find somewhere to sleep for the night.
Walking out of the clean, shiny and well-stocked European-standard gas station I walked off down a once busy but now derelict single-lane road that followed the autoroute. I couldn’t immediately see anywhere suitable for sleeping; it was either thorny or too exposed. I found a few places, but they had empty sleeping bags in them, the ghostly result of the refugee crisis. After about 20 minutes I found an area of tall grass that was good enough.
As I lay there in my sleeping bag writing my diary I heard something in the distance. I turned my headlight off and looked up slowly to see three silhouetted figures walking about 400 meters away from me. I sunk back into the grass like a snake and waited. My anxiety increased as I thought I could hear footsteps getting louder and louder. What was I going to do now? Run away? The sound that I thought was footsteps turned out to be the sound of my vein on my temple rubbing against the inside of my nylon hood and as I got increasingly worried, that sound only got louder until I thought they were right next to me. I looked up and there was no one there.
What a knob.
I woke the next day with determination and excitement, which I carried with me back to the gas station. It took a couple of hours to find a lift because the bulk of the traffic was either tourists going to the UK or locals going to Calais. But before I knew it though I was in Belguim. Catching lifts along this road proved to be much easier than in the UK.
It got to 20:00, but, blessed with those long summer days, I could continue for another few hours. After a short while, a car with a Dutch number plate stopped and took me to the third country of the day.
In Western Europe it is illegal to hitchhike on the motorways themselves, so you have to hop between service stations.
It was all going smoothly until we missed the last gas station where we were supposed to part ways. He had to go to the East of the country and I to the West. This happens sometimes, you get engrossed in conversation or it doesn’t come in to view until it’s too late. It was all going well until this point. I didn’t know it, but I was about to endure yet another big struggle.
He left me outside a small Dutch village and with a thin flow of traffic, my chances of getting picked up here were slim. I had seen a service station on the way in so decided to walk to it.
After an hour, it came into view. I had to break the law to get to it, walking a hundred feet on the motorway. The cashier saw me walking through this tall grass from the darkness to get there and was very confused. I purchased some coffee and filled up my water and disappeared back into the night without an explanation.
I was about to set up camp on the motorway when a police car pulled in next to me. I knew what they were going to say, so I played the stupid foreigner card pretending not to know it was illegal.
After being told to move on by the Dutch police I slept just off the motorway behind the gas station. I achieved 2 hours of interrupted sleep before sunrise at 5:30. I decided not to return to the same station at risk of getting into more trouble.
To add to my discomfort, I felt two insect bites beginning to swell up on my face. I followed the motorway using the back road which led me to Amersfoort. My phone had run out, so I couldn’t contact Dylan when I arrived. I had no food left and only had about a liter and a half of water. I arrived at the town center just as the church bells chimed for 7am but here nothing opens until 9am. I decided to carry on towards Alkmaar, 120km away.
I found a Shell garage where I got some pastry and filled up my water. I was dirty, smelly, had empty stomach and two inflated insect bites on my face. I looked miserable. A man approached me as I was sitting against a wall in the street and tried giving me some change, thinking I was a homeless man.
I ran out of water a few hours later and it was 26 degrees. My melting point, being half Irish, is 25. I walked on without reward hoping to find another petrol station. Failing, I sat under a tree and began to feel dizzy.
I tried hitchhiking using the traffic from Amersfoort, but it wasn’t working at all. People were just ignoring me, which is always an indication you will be there all day.
My only option was to walk on. I prayed to be gifted with a service station as I turned the corner. My prayer was answered.
Shortly after, I got picked me up and taken straight to Dylan’s front door. It’s amazing how your luck can change so quickly and unexpectedly.
Being so close to the UK, I thought The Netherlands would be more similar. There are more bikes than people; each family of 4 has on average 6 bikes. There are dedicated cycle lanes, there are even some lanes where the “cars are guests.” The people here are thin and healthy and generally happier. I had no idea that there was a separate pedestrian lane, so I annoyed a few Dutch people on my first day.
In the first evening, I got on a bike and clumsily worked out the alternate braking system of turning the peddles backwards. I didn’t fall off, but Dylan found it pretty hilarious. It’s clear now why I’m not undertaking a cycling expedition.