Australia is big. Really big.
One marginally effective way to get across it is by hitchhiking. But hitchhiking is never just hitchhiking, a theory solidly proven by Tony Horwitz in his book One for the Road.
Early in this travel narrative, he notes that hitchhiking east to west across Australia is the country’s “answer to Route 66 and the Appalachians.” And then: “I found myself crawling along a scar of used-car lots connecting one smoggy suburb to another.” This is all before he even leaves Sydney.
But once he hits the outback, Horwitz’s tale becomes a hilarious foray into body-biting bugs, relentless heat, dead kangaroos, sketchy travel companions, beer, beer and more beer. He catches a ride with a woman intent on wiping out the kangaroo, wombat and Tasmanian devil populations through the Nullarbor Plain. In Coober Pedy, he chats it up with folks hoping to strike it rich with opal mining. On the western coast, he attempts to lend a hand aboard a crayfish boat, but with the rough waters splashing over the side, Horwitz does nothing but spend the day “calling Earl.”
He catches a ride with a truck driver who rides the road at forty miles an hour on 14 bald or receding tires. In Broome, he finds a Jewish family to take him in for Passover. And he struggles to describe the “un-ness of outback scenery” which he ultimately decides is “flat, bare, dry. Bleak, empty, arid. Barren, wretched, bleached. You can reshuffle the adjectives,” he writes, “but the total is still the sum of its parts. And the total is still zero. Zot. Nought.”
And between it all: “My own grip on sobriety is slipping away, as is my grip on reality, or at least my place in it. Here I am, drunk in the back of a ute with three drunk cockies racing from nowhere to nowhere in the South Australian scrub.”
It’s a hilarious and easy-to-read race. Horwitz masters the art of sharing his experience while intertwining relevant tidbits from Australia’s history and social commentary, especially as it relates to hitchhiking. For example, I love the quote he pulls from Anthony Trollope, who toured the New South Wales bush in the 1870s: “One seems to ride forever and to come to nothing and to relinquish at last the very idea of an object.”
Horwitz also offers an explanation about why no air-conditioned luxury cars stop to pick him up: “Perhaps they’re simply worried that a scruffy wanderer with a rucksack will scratch a polished leather seat. But having hitchhiked now on three different continents, I suspect there’s more to it than that—some universal law stating that the higher one climbs on the economic ladder, the lower becomes one’s quota of generosity toward strangers. The converse is also true. If anyone ever put together a group profile of hitchhikers’ most frequent patrons, it would come out looking like the lobby of a welfare office: Mexican fruit pickers in America, Turkish laborers in second-hand Volkswagens on the Autobahn, Aborigines and hard-luck cockies in the bush. It is the disadvantaged who are also most likely to offer you a seat at their dinner table or a bed for the night. Meanwhile, those who can afford to share their petrol and tucker very rarely do.”
He also does an excellent job of showing how he’s become a changed person through his journeys. After an afternoon spent with Hazel, who was raised with the Aboriginal clan known as the Kooma, discussing the changes that have come and gone throughout her life in the bush—forced segregation, lost legends, muddled identity for Aboriginal children who have grown up in a white man’s world—Horwitz realizes that what he sees out the passenger window is not just bleak and monotonous land. It’s covered in stories if passersby take the time to find them.
One for the Road isn’t just a story about a man hitchhiking about Australia. It’s an evenly mixed commentary about the open road, self discovery and personal drive in the face of the seemingly impossible. Travelers and home-based folks will both appreciate this lighthearted but meaningful read.