“Are you the Hitchgathering?” I ask. A group of naked hippies stare at me. A couple of them come forward to hug and greet me, but the atmosphere seems oddly tense.
Later I discover that I had arrived just after one of the women had been making bindies on the faces of the others with her period blood. “You came right after our fertility ceremony,” Sheelan laughs when she tells me about it. “That’s why we looked so freaked out to see you just at that moment.”
This is a pre-gathering, not the main gathering. There are only around ten of us, but the group is intimate—as can be seen by the fertility ceremony. I find a couple of old friends and make new friends, sharing conversation, my rum, other people’s wine and the scant amount of food we have collectively left in this remote place. My stomach shrinks to the size of a pee, and by the time I scale the gorge again two days later, I have entirely lost my appetite.
I am leaving with Wiebke and Daniel, a young couple from Germany who are relatively new to hitchhiking and full of enthusiasm. I feel like a bit of a grouchy grandma in comparison.
The three of us wait by the roadside for what feels like one and a half eternities. This region of France seems to be dominated by Dutch tourists. Dutch tourists, we quickly come to realise, do not like to pick up hitchhikers. Wiebke is very cute with a heart painted on her sign and a big friendly smile, but still the drivers have stoney faces when they gaze out of their windows at us. I amuse myself by taking pictures of butterflies.
Tired of waiting in the same place, we begin stumbling up the mountain. We have to go up a couple of kilometres in the blazing heat before the descent begins. We pass plenty of people with picnic baskets and the parked cars of tourists. After half an hour or so of walking, a very nice man comes to greet us from a layby. “Coffee?” he asks, holding out a flask. I have to restrain myself from throwing my arms around him. “Angel!” I tell him, “You are an angel.” He looks a little embarrassed. I sip two consecutive cups of coffee and feel the cafeine charging through me. My spirits lift immediately.
Now I stride along the road. Soon a woman stops for us. She takes us all the way down to the bottom of the mountain and puts us at a petrol station at the edge of a town: civilisation. We find a supermarket and I get a little over-excited, buying fruit, wine and three different types of French cheese, with no way of keeping things cold.
We continue, getting more rides all together and arriving at the site of the main Hitchgathering at Saint-Laurent-du-Pape sometime in the afternoon.
This is the most organised Hitchgathering I’ve ever seen. There is a marquee, a program of workshops on the wall, a firepit, compost toilets, a large water container and an ELECTRIC FREEZER. The freezer is actually plugged in, with an extension lead trailing off across the field to who only knows where.
I have been writing my book about female hitchhikers for over a year already, conducting interviews via skype and writing emails to over 150 women*, most of whom I’ve never met. Suddenly I am surrounded by women who hitch. I have a brand new dictaphone for interviews, bought a few days earlier in preparation. I meet the wonderful Yaya, who I had interviewed over a year earlier. I meet Iris, whose blog I had recently discovered and was waiting to interview. I meet people I had never heard of before, like Bea, who doesn’t have an internet presence, but who has been hitchhiking solo all over the world for many years. And I meet old friends who have grown up and become strong, independent women, like Lisa.
The river is deep in the middle and perfect for swimming; there are small shops within walking distance. The sun is blazing all the time, and there are plenty of trees for shade. I am surrounded by something like 120 people who share a lot of my own ways of seeing the world. This gathering is truly a hitchhiker’s heaven.
*women — when I write this, I mean self-defining women and non-binary genders