Thirty-three years ago, in the middle of a beautiful spring afternoon, I hitchhiked out of Edinburgh, heading north and over the Firth of Forth in the general direction of the Scottish highlands. I was an experienced hitchhiker, which means I knew that setting out in the afternoon was the kind of dumb practice that just about guaranteed to narrow your chances of making a good landing before the sun set; but I felt I had no choice. I had been in Edinburgh three days and had talked to no one except the glum woman who owned the house in which I was paying for an upstairs bedroom by the night, and in addition to being glum she had a habit of entering the room without knocking to retrieve something from a closet or to check that the shades were lowered or maybe raised. In fact, she was nosy and rude. And so on this mid-afternoon, after returning from a splendid walk in the green serpentine park below the castle, where every man I'd seen seemed to have his arm or arms draped around a woman happy to respond in kind and more, I hoisted my backpack and walked out the door without a word and got onto a bus that I rode to the end of the line, where I came to the highway.
By the time a truck driver set me down among dark green hills on the other side of the bridge, it was already time to start looking for a place to lay over, and so I walked east along a quiet country road, and then north up a quieter country road, where I eyed the horses snorting in nearby pastures and wondered if I could take up residence in a hay shed on their side of the fence without risking too much trouble. I was about ready to take my chances when I saw a house beside the road, just past a grove of trees, and when I came nearer I saw that behind it was a long, green field of soft grass.
It was a stone house, and to my American eyes it looked eternal (though today I'd guess 18th-century), and I knocked on the door, and a blond woman, probably in her late thirties, answered. Taller by nearly a foot, I could see into a large and well-appointed living room—this was no farmer's cottage—where two blond children, a boy and a girl of early school age, stood looking at their mother and the tall thin young man with hair down to his shoulders. For some reason she said yes, and I went around behind the house and walked a discreet distance into the field—far enough away from the house, but not so far away as to indicate I had anything to hide—and there, with dusk coming on, I set out my ground tarp and sleeping bag, pulled off my boots, and ate something or other that I was carrying around in my backpack (canned sardines and bread, I'm guessing). And the two kids watched from a first-floor window like they expected me to sprout wings at any moment. Eventually, the husband arrived home from work, and soon I saw him at the back window, another blond.
A man with a soft pleasant voice and soft pleasant features, he came out in the morning when I was putting my pack together and asked if I would like to have breakfast with his family. It was eggs, bacon, toast, and fried tomatoes eaten on good plates at a long wood table, and I paid with some stories of my wanderings in Albion and beyond. And the children, in their school uniforms, stared from their high-backed wood chairs. Afterward, the husband drove me to the highway on his way to work in Edinburgh. A lawyer, he was dressed in a tweed coat and knit tie. He drove a dark blue Peugeot station wagon.
Why do I remember fried eggs in the stone house in Fife, but not
a morsel of what I ate (and little of what I heard) at a business
lunch last month? Why an old woman who asked me to play "Stardust"
on my guitar in a whistle-stop town on the plains of New South Wales
many years ago, but not (until she reminded me of it) the woman
from my town who talked with me last month while we stood on line
at a coffee shop? Why the face of the little Balinese boy who cried
when his mother placed him on the empty seat beside me on the rickety
overnight bus from Denpassar to Jogjakarta in 1972, but not the
faces of my 10-year neighbor's children?
The road—as authors since Thucydides have proved—is a remarkable device to focus the mind: You will never be here again, and once you leave it will be as though you had never been here, so remember. By contrast, you can get lost for years in the domestic tangle of love, duty, disputes with the phone company, and roof gutters that have come unhinged, emerging only occasionally to catch a glimpse of your wife talking on the phone or your son standing like a man or your daughter putting up her hair, when it stuns you to know again how beautiful, real and tenuous it all is, and you think: I must remember this place.
Michael Keith's road story begins here.
Top of page