Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “Dharma bums”

The vanishing hitchhiker

No, I’m not talking about the well-known urban legend (Legends from a small country: Legends that go bump), but about the fact that one no longer sees hitchhikers on the road. It came up in a discussion on the alt.usage.english newsgroup, where someone asked why one doesn’t hitchhikers on the road any more. Was it paranoia on the part of motorists, cops cracking down, or what?

I used to hitchhike and give lifts to hitchhikers in the past, but no more.


Perhaps, but I think the change came when hijacking became a popular method of car theft, possibly due to the increased effectiveness of car anti-theft devices.

Until about the mid-1980s I think most car thefts were of unattended vehicles, and robbery was rare. But with electronic ignition systems and satellite tracking that has become more difficult, so robbery, and especially armed robbery, has become far more common. People are reluctant to pick up hitchhikers, and hitchhiking has become a futile method of getting from place to place.

Concerning the urban legend, I found this interesting:

The first possible variant of the urban legend The Vanishing Hitchhiker occurs in Acts 8: 26–40 with the conversion of an “Ethiopian” by the hitchhiking apostle Philip. More recent variants in the Gambia and Somalia exhibit a different plot, but retain the vanishing hitchhiker motif. A female hitchhiker spends time with a man, who is later unable to locate her, but who finds his coat on her grave. The found-coat variant is part of a widespread cycle of vanishing hitchhiker legends. Could the story have originated in Africa? This article deals with this issue and with widespread occurrences of this legend.

But back to the actual vanishing hitchhiker.

Hitchhiking could be quite interesting. One sometimes met interesting people that way, though sometimes one also met very dull ones.

In 1960 I was told a story of an Anglican monk, Fr Victor Ranford SSM (of the Society of the Sacred Mission) who was based at Modderpoort in the Free State, and used to hitchhike wherever he needed to go. One driver who picked him up told him he knew he was an Anglican and not a Roman Catholic. Fr Victor asked him how he knew. “I can tell by your socks,” the driver said.

Wally Buhler, hoping for a lift outside Ixopo (in those days the distances were in miles)

Wally Buhler, hoping for a lift outside Ixopo (in those days the distances were in miles)

In 1964, when I was at university in Pietermaritzburg, a friend and I decided to hitchhike to Grahamstown, 500 miles away, on a long weekend. We got as far as Ixopo, 50 miles away, and no one gave us a lift, so we walked back into town and took a bus to Springvale Mission, where we hoped to get a bed for the night. The bus was supposed to be for blacks only, but the driver allowed us to board. The priest of Springvale, whom we knew, was away, but someone let us into the house and we spent the night there. There was a lot more trust in those days.

The next morning we hitchhiked to Highflats village, and planned to go down to the coast and up to Durban where my friend lived. Our first lift out of Highflats was from a witchdoctor in a pre-war Packard. We sat in the spacious back seat and watched the gall bladders and goat horns and other paraphernalia that festooned the car swinging as he drove rather erratically along the winding road. He took us as far as Hlutankungu, where he turned off.

From Hlutankungu we walked, waving our thumbs at passing cars, but they were few, and none stopped for us. After an hour we reached Jolivet, which was at the third mile, so we knew we walked at three miles an hour. There was a station on the narrow-gauge railway, and we heard a train whistling and could see it coming winding in and out shosholoza through the hills, so we waited for it at the station, and asked the guard if we could get a ticket to the terminus at Umzinto on the South Coast. He said the train no longer carried passengers. It seemed that the information in Alan Paton’s novel Cry the beloved country was out of date — he describes someone travelling one one of these narrow-gauge trains. But eventually the guard took pity on us, and allowed us to travel in the guard’s van at the back of the train, sitting among the mail bags. That was the only time in my life I managed to hitchhike a ride on a train, and it reminded me of the hero of Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma bums. It’s my favourite Kerouac novel, and on that trip I felt a bit like a Dharma bum.

Four years later, as a student in England, I hitchhiked with another friend from Durham to Manchester, where we stayed with his parents in the village of Saddleworth. Then we went to Liverpool, and took the ferry across the Mersey and stayed with another friend in Cheshire, and from there down to South Wales.

A couple of years after that I was living in Namibia, and we had a visitor, an English guy who had been teaching in Tanzania, and when his time was up and he had to return to England, he discovered that if he paid 30 shillings (R3.00) more, he could change his plane ticket to go from Johannesburg instead of Dar-es-Salaam (those were the days!) He did so, and hitchhiked from East Africa to southern Africa, and saw quite a lot before going to Johannesburg and getting the plane back to the UK.

So people hitchhiked quite a lot in those days.

But I rarely see hitchhikers nowadays, and if I do, I don’t stop. I think it’s rather sad.

Christianity and literature

I have a number of web pages on Christianity and literature, linked to one main page on the topic, and I had a look at the statistics for the main page today to see who had been visiting it.

Num Perc. Country Name
drill down 21 33.33% United States United States
drill down 13 20.63% Germany Germany
drill down 6 9.52% Malaysia Malaysia
drill down 5 7.94% South Africa South Africa
drill down 5 7.94% Canada Canada
drill down 3 4.76% Philippines Philippines
drill down 2 3.17% New Zealand New Zealand
drill down 2 3.17% Jordan Jordan
drill down 1 1.59% Australia Australia
drill down 1 1.59% Morocco Morocco
drill down 1 1.59% Austria Austria
drill down 1 1.59% United Kingdom United Kingdom
drill down 1 1.59% Poland Poland
drill down 1 1.59% Belgium Belgium

One of the things that surprised me was the number of visitors from Muslim countries – Malaysia, Jordan and Morocco. Nobody left comments in my guestbook or message forum linked to the page to say why they were visiting the page (unless they were the ones who keep visiting my guestbook to enter advertising spam, which I delete before anyone has seen it). So it leaves me wondering if there are Muslims who are interested in discussions of Christianity and literature, and whether there are Muslims who are interested in the kind of literature I discuss on those pages (mainly fantasy literature by the Inklings (Lewis, Williams, Tolkien & Co) and Beat generation literature).

Another thing is that there are no Second-World countries on the list. One thing that struck me when I was doing my doctoral research on Orthodox mission was the number of young people at the end of the Bolshevik period who came to faith in Christ through reading fantasy literature by the Inklings. Quite a number of them were interested in space travel and science fiction, and when they came across the space travel books of C.S. Lewis, like Out of the silent planet, said that these had changed their perception of the Christian faith, and aroused their interest in it. Have changing times caused them to lose that interest?

Statistics by StatCounter – see sidebar for link

The vanishing hitchhiker

Phil Wyman has blogged about the vanishing hitchhiker here: Square No More: The Death of Hitchhiking, the Death of Trust?

Phil was talking mainly about the American scene, but I think the same applies here in South Africa, and in lots of other places. As I commented in Phil’s blog, I think an important reason for the death of trust is the increase in vehicle hijacking. Drivers see a hitchhiker and wonder if it is hitchhiker or a hijacker, decide to play it safe and drive on.

And like Phil, I think it’s rather sad.

In my youth I went to a Christian student conference at Modderpoort in the Free State, which must be one of the coldest places on earth (in winter). There was a priory of the Society of the Sacred Mission (an Anglican religious order) there, and one of the SSM Fathers was Victor Ransford. We were told that at one time he hitchhiked halfway round the country with a Christmas tree. One man who gave him a lift said “I wondered if you were Anglican or Roman Catholic, and then when I got close, I knew you were Anglican.”

“How could you tell?” asked Fr Victor.

“By your socks.”

At the same student conference one of the speakers was a member of another Anglican religious order, Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection. He spoke on Pilgrims of the Absolute, and extolled the beat generation vision of a rucksack revolution, of the Dharma bums who would hitchhike from place to place to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out eternity.

I never really realised my ambition to be a Dharma bum, but it is sad to think that it is that much harder for anyone to realise such a vision nowadays, or at least the hitchhiking part of it. But some parts of the vision are still alive. There are people who have a vision of urban monasticism and similar things. In the mean time, let’s pray that the vanishing hitchhiker will reappear.

Pilgrims of the Absolute

In various blogs I have been reading about and the , and discovered that quite a lot of people had been talking about these in various forms.

This led me to review and revise a web page on which I had posted a paper called Pilgrims of the Absolute by Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection.

Brother Roger read his paper at a conference of the Anglican Students Federation of South Africa. It had the sub-title of “the unrespectability of our religion”, and was aimed at shaking Christian students our of the complacency of their bourgeois upbringing.

Back in the early 1960s Christianity in South Africa was a good deal more bourgeouis and respectable than it is now, and Brother Roger gave examples of countercultural figures like the Beat Generation authors Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes, the playwright Jean Genet and others.

Pilgrims of the Absolute blew my mind, and I began reading Beat Generation authors, especially Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma bums (which was soon afterwards banned in South Africa). Brother Roger kept me supplied with reading matter from the well-stocked library of the Priory of the Community of the Resurrection in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, and became a kind of guru, sharing his vision with me.

I was not a particularly apt pupil, and the vision remained a more or less unattainable ideal for me. One consolation is that it also remained unattainable for Jack Kerouac. It was the vision of a , in which young people would give up the security and comfort of home, and the dominant values of an acquisitive society, and become Pilgrims of the Absolute, similar, in a way, to the kind of life described in The way of a pilgrim, which is a prime example of a pilgrim of the absolute, and it could also be seen as a vision for a new monasticism. One could find more examples in recent times, like , zine and .

I wrote something about this in my LiveJournal so won’t repeat it all here, but I was moved by the discussions in various places to revamp the Pilgrims of the Absolute web page, in the hope that some might find it interesting and useful, and that it might contribute to the discussion about a .



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