I drive into France with a British van, the driver of which is fond of using collective nouns. “The French hate the British,” he tells me. “And we hate them too.”
I try to think of a good response. Finding none, I change the subject.
“Got kids?” I ask.
“Two of ’em. Grown up. Don’t much see ’em now.”
He takes me far—right up to the turning to Loriol—and drops me on a roundabout.
The date of the Hitchgathering was changed at the last minute, since the owners of the fields we’ll be camping in are having a different gathering right before ours. We can’t arrive at the main site yet, but there are a few pre-gatherings scattered around. I’m heading to one at a place called Chute de la Druise, not so far from where the main gathering will be held.
A rather wonderous thing about hitchhiking in France is that women drivers pick up hitchhikers. A plump middle-aged French woman stops for me at the roundabout and drives me halfway there.
I make a sign for the next town on my way, and giggle as I hold it up: “Die”.
A French man and his dad stop for me. “Oh wow, that’s really far,” he tells me, when he hears the name of the place I’m trying to get to. It’s almost dark, and this isn’t the news I was hoping to hear. He takes me just a few kilometres and leaves me on the road with my “Die” sign, apologising that he can’t be more help.
Twenty minutes later, a car pulls in—the same car. “I’m so sorry!” The guy tells me. “I got the place you are going to confused with another place. It’s only 8km from here. Get in, I will take you to the right road.” He drives me a couple of kilometres, into a nearby town, and puts me on the road out on the other side. He points to a sign as we drive past: I’m heading the right way. I stand for over thirty minutes on the small, empty road. I put my jumper on.
A young woman stops for me, only the fourth car I’ve seen. After some awkward attempts at both English and French conversation, I discover she can speak Spanish. We laugh and the conversation takes on a relative fluidity. She’s on her way to visit her father in the house she grew up in. She tells me she never appreciated the beauty of the area until she moved away to study. Only now, she realises how incredible this place is.
“It certainly is,” I say, gazing out of the window into the last light: a thousand shades of green and the tracings of a mountain range.
Worried for my safety at night alone in such a remote place, she drives me up, up, up along the winding narrow mountain road, past her father’s house. I had thought about walking, but even in the car it’s another fifteen minutes or more before we reach the top, past a solitary village with what can’t be more than a dozen houses.
“There is a school here,” she tells me, strangely echoing exactly what a man had told me earlier.
“There’s a bar too,” I tell her, remembering the next thing he had said.
“Sí, how did you know?” she asks.
We arrive at the bar—actually an inn—and drive past it. After another kilometre, we reach a car park and the road ends. This is my stop. She gazes around the dark car-park.
“You are meeting your friends here?”
“Oh yes, no problem.”
“You are sure?”
“Oh yes, really, it’s fine.”
“You don’t want to call them?”
“Oh no, I’m sure I will find them easily.” I don’t bother mentioning that I don’t know who my ‘friends’ are exactly, or that I haven’t actually met any of them yet.
She gives me a reluctant hug goodbye and I wave her off. I look at the instructions I have printed:
“So when you arrive at the car park for Chute de la Druise you follow the mountain trail which goes downhill and leads to a huge waterfall. If you take this path (I’m not sure but I think it’s marked with red/white signs on the tree but even if not, it’s marked or will be marked somehow by us before you get there). Anyway, as soon as you go down the trail towards the river (river Gervanne), the trail will turn right (north) and you need to turn left (south) and go with the small trail along the bank of the river till you see a large glade.
We should be there in the open space amongst the forest.”
I find my torch in my bag and hunt for the trail. I go through a gap in the hedge and stumble along a slither of a path that heads down into the gorge. I lumber under the weight of my pack, wishing I had learned to travel light after all these years. Among other things, I have a large metal cooking pot to donate to the gathering.
After walking for what seems like thirty minutes already, I begin to feel the gnawings of doubt. Was this really the right path? I hadn’t looked absolutely everywhere at the top—perhaps I missed something that would have been obvious in daylight. I stumble along for another ten minutes before deciding to stash my bag behind a bush. Lighter, I continue at a faster pace. I see the markings of a waymarked trail, but nothing to indicate a Hitchgathering. I had been expecting to see a stack of stones, or a scrawled message.
Finally, I reach the point where the path forks. I take the left turning along the river as directed, and after a few minutes come out into a clearing. It seems obvious that this is the place. I yell several times at the top of my lungs: “HELLOOO? HITCHHIKERS?!”
Nothing, but the gushing of the river. I must be the first one here. Weird.
I sit on a rock and mull over my options. More people may arrive tomorrow and this is a good spot to camp. If I climb back to the top, I won’t be any better off. I don’t have any food, but I’ll be ok for a night and a morning. If nobody has arrived by tomorrow afternoon, I can make the long trek back up. But… I do need my backpack. I groan.
I stash my small bag in another bush and stride back up the path, more certain of my footing now I know the way. Even so, it’s disorienting. I beg my cheap China-made torch not to give out on me.
I find my big pack and hoist it down to the bottom, even more certain the second time that this must be the glade.
I put my new tent up, fail to make a fire from soggy wood and notebook paper, and finish off my sangria perched on the rock.
A trillian stars gaze down on me.
A man and his two boys swimming in the river awaken me sometime in the morning.The sun is bright, but hasn’t yet hit my tent.
I wander a little further along the path to give my legs a stretch. After only a couple of minutes, who should I find, but several naked hippies, drying by the river.
“Are you the Hitchgathering?” I ask.