Coop Goes to Europe Part 10 – Magic Bus

So Sunday morning October 21 Steve and I hoisted our packs and walked from the Rue Titon hostel we had been staying at to the main drag that headed out of Paris south towards Lyon, and stuck out our thumbs. I was a bit wistful to leave Giselle and her striking daughter Laurence behind, but was happy to have my new travel partner at my side, even though he was also male and not the subject of my romantic fantasies. Given that biological shortcoming, he seemed a good companion, a bit more gregarious than me, smart, funny and even-keeled, and all with a low ego. He did not seem to have the bouts of moodiness and withdrawal that had plagued my last travel partner Jack.

Standing on the side of a big Paris thoroughfare packed with cars zipping past and lots of pedestrians as well briskly walking by us on the wide sidewalk, I wasn’t sure anyone would pull over and give us a ride. But someone finally did. A young guy, one of our own cohort with his own long hair and bellbottom pants, driving one of the funkiest beat up little runty car I had had the occasion to see in either Europe or the States. Later when I asked him, he told me with a dose of hippie pride that it was a Citroen “Deux Chevaux”. I knew enough French to figure out that that meant “two horses”, and I was ready to believe that the little engine, sounding more like a lawnmower under the front hood, might only be two horsepower (it was actually just nine). It was the cutest little ugly duckling of a car, his with a canvass rollback sunroof, which was closed on that crisp October day. Steve sat in the front passenger seat next to our host while I sat in the semblance of a backseat squeezed next to our two backpacks taking up most of the space along with our driver’s duffle bag and cardboard boxes of random stuff.

Our host immediately connected with us and we with him, like we were all part of some ubiquitous underground insurgency that had agents everywhere, ready to come to the aid of identified co-conspirators. His English was spotty and our French spottier, but we had a sort of a conversation about where we were from and where we were going. After a satisfactory initial exchange, he reached into the ashtray and pulled out what looked like half a joint and lit it with the car’s functioning cigarette lighter. It smelled more like tobacco than the burning weed smell I was used to. As he continued to keep his eyes on the road and negotiate his way through traffic he took a puff, held it in for what seemed like an eternity, then exhaled a big puff of smoke with a little cough at the end.

Still eyes on the road, he passed the thing to Steve without a second thought, figuring based on our hair, clothing and general situation that this was standard operating procedure for us fellow hippies as well. Steve hesitated for just a moment and shot a glance back at me. Then he expertly took it from our host using the technique all us dope smokers had learned where the passer holds the joint loosely between thumb and forefinger and the receiver puts his thumb against the passer’s and gently pushes it away and replaces it on the joint, followed by the same with the other finger. He jauntily took a puff himself and tried to hold it in, only to have it explode out of him in a fit of coughing and smoke. Our driver chuckled and said, “Tabac et haschisch… tres bien”. Steve laughing and still coughing, coughed out a “Tres bien” as well and handed the thing back to me with a shit eating grin on his face and eyes widened for effect as if to say to me, “I dare you!”

Not to be thought a rookie toker by my older peers, I executed my half of the choreographed finger roll pass of the joint, put it to my lips, crouched behind the driver’s seat to protect it from the breeze in my face from our driver’s open window and inhaled. I had had tobacco and hash once before and recalled how powerful a high it had been, that added tobacco buzz something I was not used to at all having never smoked regular cigarettes. The resiny smoke burned my throat, but having mobilized all my faculties not to cough, I held it in and then slowly released, with just a little putt putt of a cough at the end, passing it back to our host as I exhaled. Steve shot a look at me again which I knew was saying something like “Show off!” After several go rounds it was just a roach which our driver gingerly sucked at, burning his lips with a grimace, as he let loose of the remnant of paper and it was sucked out his open window.

As we continued to attempt our makeshift conversation, it was a good fifteen or twenty minutes before the buzz crept up on and mugged the rational left side of my brain, liberating the anarchic and creative right side from its overseer. Our driver, obviously more used to negotiating the buzz than us because he continued to drive reasonably well, continued with his grammatically cobbled together questions, but half the time we were answering with a giggle, as his incomprehensible French and pidgin English now seemed wildly humerous.

Though not headed to Lyon, or very far south at all, thankfully given our now somewhat intoxicated condition, our driver at least got us out of town, and even drove a little out of his way to let us out at what he thought was a good spot to catch a ride further south on the highway. We stumbled out of his funky little jalopy with an excessive chorus of “Merci”s and “Bon voyage”s, grabbed our backpacks, and did our best to reorient ourselves to the real world on the highway. A second ride with a much more taciturn older French man, not part of our underground insurgency, was much quieter, with Steve in the front passenger seat doing his best, though now stoned, to respond sufficiently and semi-coherently to our new driver’s few standard questions in his minimal English, to not appear rude.

He let us off at his turnoff from the highway and showed us on my map where we were, about 200 kilometers south of Paris, a third of the way to Lyon. It was definitely way past lunchtime, or at least ought to be, and the salami, cheese and crackers we had squirreled away in our packs we consumed greedily. We were still sitting under a tree by the side of the road chowing down, not with our thumbs out yet soliciting a ride, when a beat up old Volkswagen van pulled over. The driver, probably between Steve and I in age, his long straight blonde hair in a long rubber banded ponytail disappearing somewhere down behind his back, grinned and waved at us. “You dudes going south?”

In our generation’s culture, the old, often colorfully repainted VW “Micro Bus” was already the iconic hippie iron chariot, along with its bigger cousins that were actual repurposed buses, as celebrated in that culture including The Who’s rockabilly hit about the acquisition of a “Magic Bus”.

Every day I get in the queue
To get on the bus that takes me to you
I’m so nervous, I just sit and smile
You house is only another mile

Thank you, driver, for getting me here
You’ll be an inspector, have no fear
I don’t want to cause no fuss
But can I buy your Magic Bus?

I don’t care how much I pay
I want to drive my bus to my baby each day

I had already learned from other backpacking members of my subculture cohort about this alternative approach to hitching or train travel to see the Continent. You come over to Europe in September and according to my sources there are hundreds of vans for sale in London or Amsterdam or other major cities. You could get one for about $500, with insurance costing you another $200 for a year, plus gas at about $15 a day. Between four people that would be an initial investment of $125 each and then $4 a day, which covered all your transport and a place to sleep when needed.

We both nodded vigorously to his query, neither of us quite able to awake the speech centers of our brain so quickly. Steve finally managed to fashion the words, “Spain… Barcelona!”

“Dude”, the driver said with emphasis, “If you help with the gas we’ll take you there!”. The “we” referred to his travel partner in the passenger seat, tipping her finger at us and grinning, with her shock of frizzy red hair bursting from above her Canadian flag headband. They were headed south of Barcelona, hoping to get over to Morocco on some sort of a ferry. A quick negotiation between Steve and the driver Randall, where the latter realized and got a kick out of the fact that we were really high, and we had us a deal and a ride. As we got in the bus with our packs his comrade Zo noted our goofy antics and asked us what kind of shit we’d been smoking and whether we had any more, which we of course did not. Where there normally would have been a backseat there was instead a big space filled with an old mattress covered by several blankets. We piled our packs next to theirs in the very back.

“Dude” was the word I too was using at the time as well for a male person, as one might otherwise say “guy” or “man”. It had been part of the hippie nomenclature of the 1960s now with a dose of early 1970’s post-hippie glam as called out by David Bowie, one of the early Baby Boomers, eight years older than me, in his song, “All the Young Dudes”, popularized by Mott the Hoople, challenging the established order’s negative take on my cohort and even challenging the 60s musical icons which, according to Bowie, we were evolving beyond…

Television man is crazy
Saying we’re juvenile delinquent wrecks
Oh, man, why do I need TV when I got T-Rex
Oh, brother, you’ve guessed, I’m a dude, dad

And my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones
We never got it off on that revolution stuff
What a drag
Too many snags

All the young dudes (Hey, dudes!)
Carry the news (Where are you?)
Boogaloo dudes (Stand up, come on!)
Carry the news

I was a sucker for a good anthem, and resonated with the theatrical, androgynous and filky Bowie, who was slamming and glamming himself into the ranks of my Greek chorus. Something to think about that maybe the revolution was a naive hope at this point, with too too much standing in the way of its realization, which if I had been ready to entertain the thought, was a drag indeed! T-Rex of course referring to Bowie’s musical comrade Mark Bolan’s seminal British glam-rock band. And whether I was ready or not to embrace Bowie’s post-hippie worldview, we were indeed the dancing and prancing young males, with our hair and heels, along with our female comrades, bringing in the new order, whatever the hell it was going to be.

So as Randall continued to drive, and Steve and I sat cross legged on the mattress, Zo gleefully interrogated us and expounded on the two of them as well from her shotgun perch. It was such a rare privilege these days to have a conversation where everyone spoke lots of English, and such a charming interrogator! So Zo extracted from our still buzzed brains where we were from, where we had been on our European odysseys so far and what was ahead. She was particularly interested in my relationship with Angie and how we came to part company, and also taken by the fact that Steve and I had only first met each other a few days ago given that we seemed so comfortable with each other. Randall would chime in with an occasional “dude” to acknowledge something positive or “bogue” when we shared something less so, like when I told the story of my breathalyzer encounter with the Swiss police in Chur. “Bogue, dude!”

She and Randall had grown up together in Saskatoon Saskatchewan and had known each other since elementary school. Like my childhood friend Molly and I, they had lived across the street from each other and had been best buddies. Intrigued and looking for any signs, I could not tell based on what she said or her body language whether they were a couple or just good friends now. Though both very nordic in appearance, he was tall and thin with his straight blonde hair kind of highlighting the narrowness of his nose and face. Her morphology was at the opposite extreme, short and stocky, kind of like my friend Angie, with a broad freckled face, bright harlequin green eyes and that shock of curly red hair that looked like it had never been subdued by comb or brush. They had been travelling mostly north of where I’d been – in northern Germany, Denmark and Scandinavia, now like snowbirds heading south to escape the cold.

When we had finally gotten through Lyon, after paying for a couple fairly expensive toll roads along the way, Zo and Randall conferred and decided that we should get off the Autoroute system and take the back roads instead through the Pyrenees and into Spain. My road map was actually better than theirs and I became the navigator. After stopping for provisions at a grocery store, and all chipping in as agreed to buy “essence” (gasoline), Zo took her turn at the wheel and I to guide her path consulting my map. Randall who had been driving all day moved to the mattress in back and quickly fell asleep. Zo had me come up front with her and Steve stretched out on the other half of the mattress with his rolled sleeping bag propping up his head.

We spent the next several hours driving through the rolling hills and little isolated valleys of the Midi-Pyrénées region of southern France. With darkness the picturesque farmland and countryside became just a dark winding road punctuated by the occasional small town. Zo drove through two tanks of gas but finally pulled over in one of those small towns just before midnight. She asked Steve and I if we were willing to do a shift driving. Steve said he would but he had never driven a car with a standard transmission before. From my experiences that past summer driving the Briarwood Hilton’s VW van with its clutch and stick, I was happy to volunteer.

Though pretty tired, Zo insisted on taking the passenger seat, probably to make sure I knew what I was doing in the driving department. With a fresh tank of “essence” I took the wheel and drove into the night, working our way up and down winding mountain switchbacks as we got deeper into the Pyrenees mountains that divided France from Spain, doing not significantly worse with the clutch than Zo had, given that my stretch had steeper grades than hers. I drove through dark little towns with old stone buildings that came right up to the road, like England but decidedly French. We traversed narrow roads meeting a car in the other direction maybe every half hour. It seemed to take forever to get anywhere, like we had stumbled into some magical fairyland with very different laws of time and space. Zo dozed off, only rousing ever so often jostled by a sharper turn, inquiring if I was still okay to drive. In the middle of the night as we drove through these old French villages I felt a tremendous sense of agency, responsible for piloting the vehicle carrying my three sleeping comrades.

About 3am, getting low on gas, I pulled over at a gas station in a little town, but though still with a light on appeared to be closed. Zo, roused from her latest snooze, suggested that we better just park the van and all get some sleep until the station opened up again in the morning. Taking her lead we joined Steve and Randall on the mattress, she and I actually squeezing ourselves between the two of them, who were sleeping on either edge. Zo did not think twice about how close together all our bodies were, me squeezed between her and Steve, and her between me and Randall. As I lay next to her and felt the calm energetic field of her body I realized what an impressive person she was, so positive and capable. I thought about Angie and what our relationship might have become if we had continued our journey together rather than parting company early on in England as we had.

I awoke next to Zo the next morning. Her riot of red hair was was just tickling the tip of my nose and had the slight scent of sweat, but not an unpleasant one. She lay on her side facing away from me, her jean clad rear end pressed against my hip, a fact that captured my attention, along with the elastic band of her underwear showing. It felt good to be so close to her, and I tried not to stir so she would not move in response, and deny me her physical contact.

I had slept next to female peers twice before. Next to my first girlfriend Judy, in our separate sleeping bags, the night we met, but ironically not after that when we were a couple of sorts. Six months or so after that I had slept in a big bed with three of my theater comrades – Natasha, Max and Maggie – all of us in t-shirts and underwear and cuddling with each other more intimately. Again there was irony, because I had a crush on Natasha, but she was at the other end of the bed next to Max while I cuddled next to Maggie. Still it was a very fond memory.

So here in the present, somewhere in the Pyrenees of Southern France was the third time, again with someone I had just met, but in this case, ironically once again, would probably never see again once she and her comrade dropped Steve and I off in Barcelona. But still, it felt good. Though I was shy and even timid at times, particularly with people I did not know, once I got to know someone and felt like we appreciated each other, I was generally comfortable with intimacy, and even craved it. I could imagine having a real girlfriend someday soon and sleeping next to her every night, even having sex.

When I finally did move she did as well, rolling over on her back and opening her eyes, getting her bearings before wishing me a friendly good morning. Her now awake, and with the intimacy of our proximity, I felt suddenly shy and not sure what to say in this circumstance. I figured it would have been way too forward to comment on how nice it had been to sleep next to her, and even rude and inappropriate to comment on how cute her butt had looked with her underwear showing and pressed against my hip. But those were my real feelings that I had to keep to myself and hopefully not divulge nonverbally as well. So to escape some sort of inadvertent revelation of my thrall I sat up.

Remaining in her prone position, hands now behind her head, she asked casually, “So where are our mates?” with no sense of urgency or concern, more just seeking some information that might be entertaining when divulged. It was that British use of the word where Americans might say “buddies” or “friends”. I got to my feet and peered out the windows, but Randall and Steve were nowhere to be seen. The gas station was open but had no customers, other than us actually, since we had technically been waiting since three in the morning to gas up.

Which we finally did and were soon joined by our “mates” who had walked down the road to a grocery store to buy food, including a long thin loaf of freshly baked bread that Giselle had taught me was referred to as a “baguette”. As we devoured the still warm bread, along with slivers of hard cheese and peppery salami, Randall thanked me for taking a turn driving last night and said he was good to get behind the wheel this morning. He also said that we would be crossing the border to Spain later this morning and the customs people might want to search us and our stuff. So if we were carrying any weed or hash, or worse, we better smoke it before then, and Zo laughed and said that she and Randall would be happy to help us with that disposal effort. Alas we had none, and we told them the story of how our first ride yesterday had gotten us high before the two of them had pulled over and found us still very buzzed from the stuff. And alas they had none as well that we could help them dispose of!

Drug lore – including expertise about types and dosage, logistics about selling, purchasing, consuming, hiding the stuff, plus colorful stories about a range of activities while high – was a sort of lingua franca of my generation as we tried our best to emulate a version of the true hippie culture of that legendary cohort that were from the so called “Silent Generation” between us and our parents. The likes of John Sinclair, Janis Joplin, Abbie Hoffman, “Mama” Cass Elliot, Jimi Hendrix, Diana Oughton, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, John Lennon, Paul Simon, Grace Slick, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young, to name just a few of those public figures of hippie fame, were all born within six years of each other before the end of World War II, just before the beginnings of our Baby Boomer generation. They all were iconic avatars of the hippie ethos of “peace, love and joy” and its methods of “sex, drugs and rocknroll”. Oh yeah… and “revolution”. Two of my own personal mentors, my aunt Pat and the head of our unique youth theater company Robert, were also members of that same cohort, shared a lot of the perspectives around personal freedoms and expression, though neither were anywhere close to being hippies.

Particularly the sharing of marijuana served as my own cohort’s signature recreational intoxicant and social lubricant, rising to the level of being a social glue even, bonding us to each other, in opposition to our parents’ generation that controlled the world. To us, the perhaps wannabe hippies, the embodiment of peer solidarity was passing the joint or the pipe around the circle and getting stoned together. Whether we could walk the walk of true societal transformation that the real hippies aspired to, we could at least talk the talk, and as it were, smoke the smoke. Unfortunately, with Randall and Zo circumstances did not allow for that bonding ritual to cement our connections.

So at least having broken bread together, we started out again with Randall at the wheel and a new tank of gas, finally approaching the border about midday. And as he and Zo had feared, the Spanish customs officers, after talking with Randall and then asking for all our passports, made us exit our vehicle and proceeded with a thorough search of all our packs and the bus itself. They looked under the bus, removed the mattress and blankets from the back, and even removed several of the interior door panels. It took a couple hours, during which time all we could do was sit and watch helplessly while the two customs officers worked and discussed the situation in Spanish. It was nerve wracking for me, recalling my own previous experience with the Swiss police speaking German and giving me the breathalyzer test. Zo seemed unfazed the whole time, which helped me stay calmer myself.

Finally they finished, put the panels back on the inside of the van and let us have access to our packs, their unpacked contents, mattress, blankets, glove compartment contents, and the rest of our stuff. As we gathered, repacked, and restored things to our vehicle, while the customs agents stood about in view but now uninterested in us, I felt solidarity with my three comrades in the context of that hippie ethos. We had been profiled and singled out based on our age, our clothes, our hair, and our vehicle with the concern that our cohort would be likely to be trying to smuggle drugs into the country. But in a larger sense it felt like we were agents of disruption and change, kept at arm’s length by the established society, and only occasionally controlled to some degree when we did something that mandated official attention, like crossing a national border.

And it was not lost on me that Spain was still governed by an authoritarian regime led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who would remain in power for another two years. There had been student revolts in the last several years, infiltrated by plainclothes secret police, and then violently repressed by the conventional police. In May of the previous year, an American student had been arrested by those secret police in Barcelona, charged and imprisoned under martial law for the crime of wearing an old Spanish Army jacket.

I must confess I tend to wax hyperbolic at times, and at that moment as my three fellow travellers and I reboarded our hippie bus, even though our invasion of Spain was only to see the place and not to disrupt the established order, I couldn’t help but think of Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin and Paul Kantner song “Volunteers”

Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Hey, I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Oh, ain’t it amazing all the people I meet?
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
One generation got old
One generation got soul
This generation got no destination to hold
Pick up the cry

I shot a glance at Zo and she grinned and rolled her eyes… we were kindred spirits in that moment. Yeah we were privileged white kids let loose in foreign lands. Wannabe hippies, flower children, disruptors, change agents, revolutionaries, feeling at least for the moment perhaps more like the real thing given the search we had just been subjected to. But Franco and all the rest of our parents’ generation had gotten old. And that Silent Generation sandwiched between our parents and us had gotten that soul in their music at least. And weren’t me and my comrades, wandering about this grand old continent, and certainly me not knowing what the hell I was going to do next upon my return to the states, gypsies with no “destination to hold”?

So we finally got to Barcelona about 3pm. I got my first look at the Mediterranean. The old “Middle Sea” around which Western civilization began its difficult developmental path. The countryside along the way was spotted with ferns and jagged rock formations and old Moorish fortresses. The sun was shining, the temperature was in the 60s, and compared to the cold, gray and wet we had left to the north, and forgetting for the moment those in charge of this newly entered place, it felt like paradise.

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