Riding With Lady Luck: A journey across Europe in a Grand Cherokee Jeep

It was at a toilet-stop somewhere in Hungary that the song came to me. This drear place of nothing by the side of the road, just a pull-off with a scrubby bit of grass bordered by a fence, with a grey toilet block in the middle, two metal doors, one for the Ladies and one for the Gents, but the same filthy, smeared toilets inside. In the end I decided to go against the fence. Then I got back in the car and sat down, exhausted.

There were several cars lined up beside the road. A couple of lorries. Almost everyone was asleep.

A lorry pulled up about 50 yards ahead. The driver got out and went to look in the toilet block. He looked in the Gents and he looked in the Ladies. Then he went back to his cab and got some toilet paper. He saw me clocking him. We both knew what the situation was. These disgusting toilets. But he had no choice. He disappeared into the Ladies and came out several minutes later feeling a whole lot better I expect. He washed his hands with bottled water, got into his cab, then he drove off.

I was so tired. I’d been travelling now for nearly a whole day, with just a short break in some service station somewhere in Germany. All those miles of ravelling road from Calais to wherever I am now. The whine and hiss of the traffic. This world of ceaseless movement, of ceaseless distraction, of cars, of lorries, roaring and racing in either direction, from somewhere to somewhere else. No one wanted to be here. A kind of dead world, dusty grey and full of danger, always moving, always raging, always screaming, like a terrified monster in its death agony.

You have to keep your wits about you all the time, especially in Germany where there is no speed limit and they’re driving these vicious machines that rush up from behind at 140 miles an hours, lights flashing, and you have to get out of the way quick. You’re watching all the time, checking your mirrors, staying alert, focussed, concentrating on the road ahead.

Every so often I’d find myself drifting off into a thought and I’d have to stop it. You can’t afford time off in that lethal world. There’s only you, the road, and the other cars. Everything else is superfluous. It’s a kind of moving meditation on mortality. One slip and you could be dead.

I’d driven through the night, through the darkness and through the rain, hearing the squeak of the wind shield wipers rubbing back and forth sluicing diamonds from the glass, watching the lights from in front and from behind, mile after mile of road in this great arc across a continent, sweeping though invisible landscapes and the shadows of mountains, like dark, unseen presences, through Germany and through Austria, through unknown borders between sleeping nations, through dreams and night time stirrings, through the first flickers of light on the horizon, the rising dawn, to this place – not even a name on a map – a toilet-stop in Hungary…

I phoned Stuart, my constant companion on this journey, a friendly voice on my mobile giving me instructions. “Hello mate,” he said. I’d had about three nervous breakdowns so far, having missed the hotels he’d told me about, and having wandered off the road and getting lost, once near a MacDonald’s near an erotic supermarket where I’d eaten a burger and lost my wallet, and always Stuart’s voice was there, disembodied, distant but reassuringly familiar, offering sound advice. Now he was telling me about the next leg of my journey, past Budapest towards Szeged, and the most dreaded part of the journey so far, into Szeged itself, my first attempt to drive through a city with traffic.

This was the first time I’d driven on the right hand side. It’s easy enough on the motorway. A cinch. But those couple of times when I’d come off and got lost had frightened me. I just didn’t know what to do at a roundabout. I kept having visions of taking a wrong turn and smashing in to the on-coming traffic. Every time I got to one I’d have to talk my way through it. “That’s right, Chris, veer right. That’s right. Keep to the right. OK, so now you come off here. Keep it steady.” Breathing deeply to hold my concentration. “OK, so that’s it, you’re approaching the motorway. Down the slip-road. Watch for the traffic on your left.” Driving a UK registered right-hand drive vehicle. Looking out from the passenger mirror. Seeing the traffic surge and loom as I indicate, speeding up to position myself between lorries, pulling out. “There you are Chris. Back on the road. That’s it, that’s it. Heading in the right direction again. Good boy Chris. You made it,” before putting my foot down to slip into the fast lane and passed the lorries that were hemming me in.

That’s why I was still travelling all these hours later. It was easier to keep going than to have to go through all that trauma every time I came off the road.

I was still sitting in the car, a Grand Cherokee Jeep, all black, with tan leather upholstery and tinted windows. It was Stuart’s car. I’d agreed to drive it to Romania for him. It had cruise control, which meant you could set a speed and then sit with your feet off the pedal. That was good. You would position yourself between two cars going at approximately the right speed, and then set the cruise control. After that you’d just be sailing, guiding the car with occasional jerks on the steering wheel, though it had very sloppy steering which meant you were adjusting it all the time. My right hand ached from gripping the wheel. Every so often I’d change hands and do these tai chi patterns with my spare hand, like floating magical gestures in the air, pointing at the road, just to relieve the tension.

But I wasn’t driving now. I was just sitting here in this anonymous place of nothingness, watching small birds dart and weave between the traffic signs. There was one little bird close by, oblivious of me, pecking in the grass. I was just watching it blankly, letting my tired muscles relax a little. Letting myself unwind. Tired. So tired. I really could do with some sleep. I closed my eyes, but sleep wouldn’t come. I was too wired-up with the journey. Too wired into the road.

Rocket 88

I had all these CDs with me. Nothing special. I hadn’t selected them for the journey. They were just some CDs I’d grabbed hold of the last minute to keep me going. The first was a compilation from Uncut magazine specially selected by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. That was the one I’d played ultra loud as I’d descended the ramp from the ferry and taken to these European roads for the first time. Amos Milburn, Down The Road A Piece , this boogie-woogie piano reeling and rolling like a fast car careering down the motorway, followed by Jackie Brenston, Rocket 88 , which is about a guy singing the praises of his new car, its V8 engine and how fast it is. I screamed with laughter at the appropriateness of these songs, banging my fists on the steering wheel and singing along at the top of my voice. Later, in the night, it had been Leonard Cohen keeping me going with all his wry, unsentimental, cynically acute observations about the meaning of life. I’d gone through the entire collection, one by once, ten CDs in all.

There was only one left, Closing Time by Tom Waits.

Now there’s a history to this album for me. A sad history. A lost romance. There’s one song on it I can’t bear to hear. It’s too full of loss, too full of heartache. But it was my last record and I had no choice. It had been years since I’d last heard it. I slipped it into the CD player, put the car into gear, and nudged out onto the slip-road, heading straight for the dawn. It was about 6.45 am. I’d been on the road for 22 hours.

The sound of a sentimental mushy piano filled the car as I indicated into the traffic on the motorway, picking up speed, and hustled my way into the general flow, Tom Waits’ familiar voice rising up over the piano, full of lonely regret:

Well my time went so quickly,
I went lickety-splick,
Down to my ol’ 55
As I pulled away slowly, feeling so holy,
God knows I’m still alive.
And that’s me now, pulling away slowly into the traffic, feeling holy and God-knows alive.
Now the sun’s coming up,
I’m riding with Lady Luck,
Freeway, cars and trucks,
Stars beginning to fade,
And I’ll lead the parade,
Just a wishing I’d stayed a little longer,
Oh Lord let me tell you that the feeling’s getting stronger.

Ha! And the sun is coming up, yes! And I’m riding with Lady Luck, yes! And there’s a freeway, cars and trucks, yes! And the stars are beginning to fade, yes! And I don’t know about the parade or wishing I’d stayed longer, but, yes, yes, yes, the feeling is getting stronger.

And it’s six in the morning
Gave me no warning
I had to be on my way,
Well there’s trucks all a-passing,
Their lights all a-flashing
I’m on my way home from the place.
Now the sun’s coming up,
I’m riding with Lady Luck,
Freeway, cars and trucks,
Stars beginning to fade,
And I’ll lead the parade,
Just a wishing I’d stayed a little longer,
Oh Lord let me tell you that the feeling’s getting stronger.

You know how it is with music in a car. I wasn’t consciously listening at first. Too busy driving. Too busy keeping my eyes peeled for danger, for BMWs and Mercs with flashing lights coming up from behind. It took a minute or two for the words to sink in. And then, there they were: this exact description of my situation, as if Tom Waits had written them for me all those years ago, just waiting for this moment, as if this moment was written into history, complete with its own theme tune.

It was that line about Lady Luck that struck me the most. That’s exactly what I was doing. Taking my chances on the road of life, driving into a future I didn’t yet know, my heart pounding with fear and anticipation, cautious and alert, watching the changes. It wasn’t just this drive. The drive was the beginning of the journey, the prelude to an adventure. Me, driving from the UK to Romania to try my luck with the changes. Yes, me: Riding With Lady Luck.

And there was something about this car too. I can’t remember at what point I noticed it. It might have been here. It might have been before or later. The car had a note. As you drove so it played a single note, quite musical, quite distinct, like the high tone of a flute or an organ, and as you speeded up so the note rose, and as you slowed so the note dipped, and at some point I found that I was accelerating the car to hit exactly the right harmonious note to go with whatever song was playing – in this case Tom Waites’ Ol’ 55 – and it was this note that determined the speed. Yes. Riding With Lady Luck. In harmony with Lady Luck. Even the speed of the car was down to luck. The tunes I was listening to. None of it was determined. It was all part of some flow I was caught up in, some movement like traffic on the edge of the world.

And now this car journey was symbolic. It was all symbolic. Life was a series of ever changing symbols, a movement through time. All that concentrated energy of the road. That focus. That determination – my determination, my choice, not forced on me, freely chosen – that movement through space, all leading somewhere, to something, something not determined by a pre-written fate, but undertaken as an adventure, by myself, interacting with the rest of the traffic, careful not to let it mislead me or misdirect me, concentrating on my part of the road, careful to play my part and not slip-up, careful not to put myself or anyone else into danger, staying awake despite the weariness, keeping going in spite of the time.

Later I pulled off the motorway and into Szeged near the Hungarian-Romanian border, and it was easy. No problem. I just followed the signs and the flow of traffic, sticking to the right hand side, and the traffic told me what to do, and an hour or so later I was coming up to the border itself, the first time I had been stopped in the whole of this amazing, relentless journey through space and time, this journey into the depths of a continent, into the depths of myself.

© 2008 CJStone

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