Eagles in the Spotlight

James S. '10

If you had to summarize life lessons you learned outside of formal education, what would you list as your Experience, Education or Skills? Alumnus James S. ’10 shares what he would list from lessons he learned while hitchhiking across Europe and North America.

I'm thinking about writing an alternative CV. It would include all the most important, completely inconsequential things that I can’t put on my normal CV. Things like "2010 – present: climbed the beautiful beech tree behind the Albert Memorial several hundred times", or "2002: first reduced to a grinning imbecile by a pretty girl." Under contact details could be a list of bookstores and cafes I'm likely to be found in, along with an exhaustive list of awful nicknames. "Juggling", "drawing snails", and "whistling" could go in the skills section.

And under Education I could put hitchhiking. Something like this: "2012 – present: three or four giant hitchhiking adventures interspersed with short trips across Europe. Met hundreds of people, slept in unusual places, hopped a freight train. Discovered a new kind of shivering when caught by Canadian winter."

These three terse, agrammatical sentences would do nicely, barely alluding to the value of hitchhiking and doing it no real justice at all. More telling, probably, is their inclusion under “education”, which might at least raise some eyebrows. I sincerely believe in hitchhiking as education, and, given the money and time I’ve thrown at it, I think it’s time I justified this belief.


Classmates on the open road

I once drove with a man who was insane. He told me he was insane because he believed in God. “And in France,” he explained sadly, “if you believe in God they say you are insane.” But actually it was because he was totally nuts. Late that night we pulled into a rest area and he had his mind fixed on making me a cup of tea. To do this, he was trying to heat a can of water over a candle on the floor of his car. He was propping up the can with pieces of cardboard, and the cardboard kept catching fire. He would curse and scramble to put the fire out before it spread, but once he did he would just build another cardboard contraption and this too would catch fire. Finally he gave up and drove us away in frustration, flooring the accelerator, swerving maniacally, and spilling a cup of juice in his lap.

Another time, while lost in California, I met a homeless alcoholic with face tattoos and travelled with him for a day. We made almost no progress at all, thanks to the amount of time we spent skateboarding and meeting people. At dusk it began to rain, so we spent the night under a tiny tin roof with two other tramps. One of them cooked a steak and passed around a jar of moonshine. Then the other pulled out a laptop, and there, full and happy, with the rain crashing down all around us, we watched an episode of Breaking Bad and fell asleep.

A man picked me up in New Mexico during a sixteen hour drive to Phoenix. He hadn’t slept in two days because he’d been partying constantly, and now he was on his way home for a 2:30am appointment with an amorous sort of therapist and a selection of medicines. His life sounded like a blur of parties and drugs, and the drugs he was talking about were notoriously dangerous. He told me he didn't understand how people became addicted to them, because it was a simple matter of keeping it under control. I took his word for it, but it wasn't long before we were stopped in a gas station and he was taking something to help him stay awake. He spent the next several hours lecturing me energetically about pop music.

I’ve written these things to try to demonstrate how extraordinarily weird hitchhiking is. Partly it is weird because the aim is to trap oneself in a car with a total stranger, where the threat of awkward silence demands some amount of small talk, often for hours on end. And partly it is weird because of the unfathomable variety of people. My memories of traveling are a barrage of faces: A private detective, a punk band, three beautiful Slovenian women, a man obsessed with potatoes, a mime who collected bicycles... so many, many people. I met rednecks who taught me to fire guns, fed horses with an ex-jockey, hiked around waterfalls with a couple of retired UN workers.


The most valuable lesson of all is never completely learned

What did I learn from all this? God knows. Each of these people is worth pages of elaboration, and the only obvious lesson from it all is “Look! This person exists!” Their lives are lives I will never live, and as teachers, their lessons are simply the teachers themselves.

This is hitchhiking: all the people, along with many hours standing around getting sunburnt, and a few cold nights spent in suspicious ditches. Everything taken together equates to a course titled either “How to become a pretentious beatnik” or “How to see the world when you know you can never see it all.” This means I’ll only graduate if I’ve become a pretentious beatnik or I’ve stopped seeing the world – two fates surely worse than death. I intend to remain enrolled for years to come, and if I do ever write that CV, I hope I can never list something so sad as a complete education.


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