It was Wednesday December 5th and I awoke in my upper bunk in the Christian Youth Hostel in Amsterdam, the smell of hashish and tobacco in the air as it usually was. I had not slept well, my mind buzzing late into the night with so many thoughts. Returning from our journeys yesterday, we had actually smoked one more round of Butch’s stuff and played cards, my favorite game Hearts, until about two in the morning when we all collectively were about to pass out and agreed to call it quits. No one wanted the day to end, the four of us having certainly done that day to the absolute max, for me my last full day on the Continent before returning to England and then flying home to the States.
When I finally climbed up onto my bunk and into my sleeping bag, I expected to quickly part the land of the conscious, but instead my fried and headachy mind continued to percolate. It was my last night on the Continent in these foreign lands where I did not speak the language but had had such an array of experiences. Probably my last youth hostel, where I had found such community with my backpacker peers, and had close encounters with any number of vibrant young women and some older ones as well. Indulging my ever unsatisfied libido, I imagined a scenario where I would get naked and have sex with each one of them, and that took me pretty much through most of the rest of the night, not really fully dozing off until the first light of the drizzly dawn through the windows.
It was now well into the morning, me kind of in a hypnagogic state, when I realized that Gwendolyn was standing by my bed in her t-shirt and underwear, not unlike her episode of the long libidinal fantasy I had had instead of sleep last night. It was the same t-shirt and underwear she had worn last night for our card game, all of us still high from smoking Butch’s hash, deciding, based on Butch’s suggestion, to have a sort of stoner slumber party in our “jammies and blankies”. Neither of which any of us had, so actually t-shirts, underwear and sleeping bags.
She pushed her huge mane of untamed hair back on each side of her head and in her Canadian accent said, “So you’re headed out of here this morning”, her “out” bordering on a deliciously exotic “oot”. Her eyes were kind of bloodshot and her pupils were dilated, and she said that she, Burton and Butch were smoking some hash and would I like to join for one last toke before I headed out. Still in my sleeping bag on my bunk, I told her that I better not, that I needed to have my shit together for my day of travel. She nodded and chuckled, recalling yesterday at the BOAC office.
“Quite a day yesterday”, she continued in her stoned drawl, “You and your mom have inspired me to buy oil paints when I get home!”
“And a palette knife?” I asked.
“Fuck yeah!” she acknowledged, and she laughed. It came from her belly and was nothing like the stereotypical guilty feminine titter. There was something about a stoned young woman with big wild hair laughing and swearing in a t-shirt and panties with no bra, that was pretty damn awesome, at least to my iibidinized eyes. It struck me that she always seemed more assertive around me and Butch than when she was interacting with her boyfriend. Like there was that older demure Gwendolyn that had been Burton’s girlfriend for years, but also this newer feistier version she was trying on with Butch and I, but not ready to unveil to or unleash on her boyfriend yet. His loss!
Oh god Gwendolyn, I spun off in thought, unleash your new and improved self on me! Make me surrender my virginity, and take it proudly knowing that so many other young women could not wrest it from my too tight grip. I imagined us naked, her on top of me, my mind’s jukebox adding Paul Revere and the Raiders “Just Like Me” to the scene…
It’s just like me to say to you
Love me do and I’ll be true
And what I’d like for you to say
Is you’ll come home to me each day
It’s just like me to feel so blue
And fall so much in love with you
Bringing myself back to the corporeal world there in front of my eyes in the moment, I realized that this was my sad parting with Gwendolyn, who I had known for less than three days, but had connected with her in the midst of our shared intoxication and other experiences. Sad indeed, but it was at least an opportunity for a hug. As I’ve mentioned before, I had never been much of a hugger in my life in the States. But here in Europe, in the intensity of the bonds that formed quickly with my fellow travelers, and then the too quick partings that followed, I had learned my lesson. Some might argue that a brief moment of physical intimacy was just a tease that is worse than none at all. But I was learning to savor those short few seconds, to replay forever in my mind, and hope that some day in the not too distant future, those moments with someone would no longer be so truncated.
In my own underwear and t-shirt, and first confirming that my penis was behaving itself down there and would not embarrass me with an erection, I swung my feet out of my sleeping bag and over the side of my bunk and raised myself to a sitting position, finally sliding my butt off the mattress and dropping to a standing position on the floor in front of her. I could almost not believe that this was about to happen. Our two semi naked bodies were about to embrace, if just for a few fleeting seconds, and with just two thin layers of cotton material between her breasts and my chest, and our genitals. She raised one arm to the height of my shoulder and the other at the level of my waist. I had learned this protocol from watching and participating in other hugs, and raised my own arms to mimic hers but on the opposite side.
She came forward and brought herself against me with none of the reticence one might have had in such a hug, perhaps because she was stoned, wrapping her arms around my back to anchor her body against mine. I quickly followed suit with my arms around her, pressing myself against her. She turned her head away from mine, and being about four inches shorter than I was, rested it against my right shoulder, as our big manes of hair, hers more triangular and mine a big circle, encountered each other, hers smelling of burnt hashish and faintly of lavender. Through our t-shirts I felt her nipples press against my chest followed by the entirety of her small breasts. Below, her vulva behind cotton panties gently touching against my bare thigh, my own parts in their briefs, encountering her hip bone. Her arms engulfed me and mine her. It seemed like much longer, because my mind was counting in milliseconds, but it was maybe four seconds, and it was the most intimately erotic four seconds I had ever experienced.
She pulled away but kept her arms on my shoulders for a moment and said, “Good travels mate!” Her eyes kind of telegraphed that she was wrestling with saying something else, but she did not. She took her hands off my shoulders, briefly touched my cheek with one, and turned and headed back across the room where Burton and Butch were sitting and passing the hash pipe.
When she sat down next to Burton, Butch got to his feet, he also in t-shirt and boxers, and came over to me. He looked into my eyes and flashed his stoner grin. With better diction than Gwendolyn had managed to summon he said, “Manster Coopenstein… Godspeed you son… Damn ‘The Man’!”
He asked me about my itinerary for the day and the rest of my time in England before I flew home. I rattled off the train ride to the Hook of Holland, ferry across the North Sea, and then the train from Harwich to Colchester, just another day for the seasoned traveler. A couple days in Colchester with family friends, then a couple in Oxford before heading back to Heathrow for my flight back to the States. He said he would stay in Amsterdam for a while longer and then work his way north, since he had family friends in Norway that he was going to visit for Christmas before heading back to New Zealand.
He continued, “It’s been a pleasure dude… now you go home and do something about ‘Tricky Dick’!” I nodded and made a fist with my raised hand in revolutionary solidarity. He mimicked my gesture in reply, then held out his arms for a hug. I somewhat tentatively approached him but he grabbed me and pulled me against his big body with a bearhug. Being two inches taller than me, it was my head that turned to fit in his shoulder, my big mass of curly hair tussling with his huge exploding pigtail on that side. His body was warm and quivered with energy, smelling of hashish and a slight tang of deodorant mixed with sweat from his armpit. His crotch brushed against mine and I could feel its big contents. Though it did not send my libido percolating like with Gwendolyn, it was deliciously intimate and all good!
Burton was behind him in the impromptu receiving line. As Butch let me loose and stepped back, Burton advanced, in his underwear and t-shirt like the others. He raised his hand to his chest and made the fist salute, saying, “Be well dude!” I responded in kind. He queried me on my itinerary and I gave him the same list I’d rattled off for Butch. He said he and Gwendolyn would be flying home from Hamburg in two weeks. In the meantime they were thinking of using their rail passes to take the long train ride up to Copenhagen and then across to Norway and then all the way up to the end of the line above the arctic circle at Narvik, to try to see the Northern Lights. I told him that I had thought about doing that, but my rail pass had already expired.
The three of them were headed out to the Rijksmuseum, bidding me a last farewell then heading back to their respective bunks to get dressed for their day. I was there alone by my bunk, feeling the void of finally separating from the hive mind we had created together with Butch’s amazing hash and all Amsterdam’s other intoxications and inducements. I suddenly felt like the lamest of lame ducks, with no time left to really go anywhere other than hit the grocery store for food for the day and then make my way to the train station. I quickly dressed, packed my backpack, donned my down jacket and then shouldered my big pack. With that fifty pounds weighing me down again, my entire home of sorts on my back, I then managed awkwardly to cover it and me with my poncho and headed out of the bunkroom and its persistent smell of hashish and down the stairs to exit the hostel.
Greta was at her post at the front desk, slouched in her office chair with her bare feet up on the desk as she read a big unfolded newspaper. She was wearing what looked like an old high school marching band jacket over a tie-dyed sweatshirt and ratty old bell bottom jeans, covered with sewn on patches of various random fabric, but still a few holes and rips unmended, including one on her butt that revealed a peek at her black underwear. Her toenails were painted a shiny black. She sized me up through her round metal rimmed Janis Joplin glasses and noticed the big hump on my back under my poncho.
“You look like you are leaving us!” she said, and then putting on her best mock TV commercial English, “Thank you for choosing the Amsterdam Christian Youth Hostel!”
I nodded with a bit of a grimace.
“Ach… sad face!” she noted, followed by, “Remember… Tot heil des volks”, the words above the door of the place, “The salvation of the people” in English, spoken by her with a big toothy grin and a wink. That finally got a smile out of me.
Yes I wanted so much to go home, but there was a part of me that wanted to stay. To buzz up on Butch’s killer hashish once again with the rest of them, and continue to explore this friendly, rainy city with the rest of the “Amsterdamned”, within the intimate connection of our shared intoxicating altered state of consciousness. Continue to get to know the three of them, particularly the intriguing Gwendolyn as she continued to peel her own onion, even if as Burton’s girlfriend. Limited as it was, the gestalt or what the four of us had created together, our hive mind of four unique but connected souls in a unique moment in time and space, would never exist again forever. Sure other moments of connection were obviously ahead with other people, some that would hopefully turn out to be even more compelling. But a thing was, then it wasn’t, and we moved on, anticipating that next thing.
All this ran through my foggy mind, still recovering from yesterday’s hash fest, as I wrestled the hood of my poncho over my big hair and soldiered my way out the door of the Christian Youth Hostel and down to Willemsstraat. It was still chilling, but more of a light rain this morning than the ubiquitous drizzle, the city’s Goddess’s cold wet kiss all over my exposed face.
I headed down the street to the grocery store to provision for the day ahead, which I anticipated would be on trains and ships and the stations in between, all of which I knew from experience would likely feature very expensive food. I only had a few guilders left in cash, but they were willing to accept one of my three remaining $20 American Express traveler’s checks. In my intense fiscal frugalness, I struggled a moment with cashing it and being left with all those remaining guilders that I would have to exchange when I got to England, always feeling like I was getting ripped off in those exchange windows.
I plotted out my food needs for a whole day. A full loaf of unsliced rye bread. A full pound of inexpensive hard salami. A half pound of hard cheese, Jarlsberg in this case. Hard always kept better. Two tubs of yogurt. A bag of dried apricots. A package of cookies. A plastic bottle of Coke. I managed to cram it all in my backpack, which along with all the stuff I had brought with me from the States (minus the items I had lost along the way), included the Christmas gifts I had bought for my family, particularly that large glass decanter I had bought for my dad in Italy.
I had the decanter nestled in the middle of my pack to try to keep it from getting broken in transit, and each time I encountered it unpacking or repacking items around it, it struck me how, if nothing else, it was logistically not the best gift to have bought. After all my thought and careful budgeting to keep a pot of money aside for buying Christmas gifts for my family, I had purchased the thing on a whim and I probably could have made a better choice. Oh well!
Leaving the store, I retraced my route from the hostel and then back to the train station in reverse, a couple blocks up the street then right on Brouwersgracht, along its big canal, pretty painted boats below with cozy townhouses on either side, all glistening in the wet. Goodbye Amsterdamned. Goodbye city. Goodbye Goddess. Be well. Live long and prosper.
In ten minutes I was inside the big train station, echoing with the sounds of bustling bodies and a thousand mostly to me unintelligible conversations. Though unneeded now in a physical sense, it was still my cocoon, so I left my poncho on though with the hood off to fly the freak flag least it might signal other of my cohort that I was a fellow traveler. Also from a practical point of view, if I took it off, what would I do with it. Stow it wet in my backpack and make everything around it all wet, moldy and stinky. When your life was in the pack on your back, a key to survival, or at least the avoidance of severe discomfort, was keeping that pack and its contents dry.
I studied the big electromechanical board that posted all the arrivals and departures and found that my train to The Hook departed in about an hour. Finding an empty bench on the departure platform I laid claim to its entirety, sitting on one side of the bench and draping my wet poncho over the rest, figuring by the time my train arrived it would be dry and i could then fold and stow it in my pack. I scanned the platform for other backpacker types but saw none, and busied myself with eating and watching all the people.
I pulled out my plane ticket and wrote all my flight information on the Aereogramme I had been saving to mail to my mom, figuring she would get it before I arrived so she would know to be at the airport when my plane landed. It was an exciting act, another key task on the run up to my triumphant return. But when I slipped it in a postbox by my platform it struck me that it was a British Aerogramme and I was mailing it in the Netherlands. Had I stupidly jumped the gun to mail it here and not wait until this evening when I was back in England? Would it even be delivered? Would my mom not know when I was returning? A call back home would be really expensive on my limited remaining money.
I stewed for a few minutes but finally decided to let it go. I decided I would send my mom a postcard later today with my flight info as a backup. Worst case I would hitchhike home from Metro Airport back to Ann Arbor. You had to learn how to cope with those mistakes or losses, big or small. You should learn a lesson, but also not get down on yourself, doing so merely increased the loss. Sure it had been hard when you lose a $12 knife or leave 20 French Francs just sitting at the exchange. That was the toughest one to cope with, what a maneuver on my part. But I managed, and now I had no regrets. It occurred to me that when I got back home how easy it would be to hang onto things because the quantity I had to constantly deal with would be drastically reduced. When your entire life was carried somewhere on your person, that was a real administrative burden.
It was a two and a half hour train ride from Amsterdam through The Hague and by the big port city of Rotterdam to The Hook of Holland, “hook” or “hoek” in Dutch, actually meaning “corner” in English. Every bit off the Netherlands I traversed by train and saw out the window – cities, suburbs, woods, farms and port facilities – seemed well thought out and laid out, even pretty to look at. Other than that view the train ride was uneventful and I read a copy of the International Herald Tribune I had picked up at the Amsterdam train station.
I read that last week the U.S. Senate had overwhelmingly confirmed Gerald Ford as the country’s new Vice President and the House was expected to follow suit later this week, Ford to replace Spiro Agnew who had resigned under a legal cloud. Some commentators speculated that Ford could become the first unelected U.S. president if Nixon was actually impeached and convicted. I was now old enough to vote, though I had not had a chance yet to do so even in a local election, and was looking forward to casting my first ballot for president in 1976 for anyone but Nixon if he was still in office at that point. It felt good reading the U.S. political stories in the Tribune, even the deepening Watergate scandal, because it was beginning to get me back in the flow of things at home.
After seeing all the huge cranes and other port facilities of Rotterdam off in the distance, I was a little surprised that the train station at The Hook was small with just a single outdoor platform with what looked like a small beach town around it. The rain had mostly stopped and since it was just a short walk to the ferry terminal I braved it without pulling out my stowed and dry poncho, for fear I would have nowhere to dry it off again on the boat. The ferry itself was huge, by far the biggest vessel I’d ever been on, the first that was actually a “ship” rather than a “boat”. I queued up with a thousand other people and eventually got on. I had the option to check my pack as baggage, but that felt too weird not to have it right with me all the time.
The ship’s whistles screamed at different low discordant pitches, and I felt the vibrations of the big engines below, as the propellers churned up the water behind us. I stood on the stern rail for some time watching the Continental coast recede from view, and the ship moved out into the stormy roiling sea. Goodbye people speaking languages I mostly did not understand, though with a little more understanding now than nine weeks ago. Goodbye Continent! I wondered how many years, decades, if ever, I would ply its roads, rails and rivers again.
Goodbye my fellow backpackers, I would miss you most of all. The place was all yours now to explore without me. Keep the adventure alive and take care of each other. And keep our shared dream of a transformed world that we would together make happen someday; full of peace, love and joy (and the necessary sex, drugs and rock n roll to help us keep on keeping on). The yet unrealized dream of the “hippies” that came before us. The following the road they had paved, against the flow of hierarchy, violence and tragedy, perpetuated through time from centuries past. The road my own cohort hoped to traverse more easily based on their work, into a better future.
Getting farther out from shore, we were now firmly in the grasp of the Goddess of the sea. With each big swell we traversed I felt the ship rising upward underneath me for 30 seconds or more like some monstrous elevator before peaking and then heading back down for another 30 seconds. It was scary how profoundly awesome and powerful the sea was compared with the much tamer terra firma I had traversed for the last ten weeks and pretty much all of my life.