“Stay wild. The real world is better than art. Run on your own and with the pack. The group is a form of drag. They can’t catch you… Shift shape. Cuckoo to mistletoe to crocodile bird. One in ten billion. Be a hypocrite. Make sure your name is omni-barrelled and you change it every day. Disguise yourself as something familiar.”
This is the call to action one finds on London-based artist Louise Ashcroft’s website, and it should surprise no one who reads those words that, as a university student, she once embarked on a shotgun journey from Oxford, England to Tangier, Morocco. It was a trip that in just three days shaped her as a person and as an artist thereafter — from the relationships and perspectives she gained along the way to the psycho-geographical principles she formed that continue to inform her work. Later in this piece, you’ll hear about it directly from her.
Even now, years after her hitchhiking trip, much of Louise’s work is concerned with space, particularly in urban environments, and how it is used, divided, programmed, and sequestered provide the backdrops for the stories that we tell ourselves. This interest takes a lot of forms, but she has a particular knack for live performances that contain humor, saying humor is “philosophy at its most precise, and nonsense protects us from passivity by invoking interpretation.”
Reading those words, I immediately think of how they could also apply to travel. Travel requires humans to be at our most active, constantly more aware of our surroundings and trying to squeeze the very most out of life for the time that we have. Maybe we can’t live like that all the time, for fear that it’d be exhausting, but I think Louise would say that you can — so long as you don’t take anything too seriously.
Certain travel concepts, particularly the “holiday,” indeed feature in her work, most explicitly during an improvisational walking tour (entitled Wish You Were Here) she conducted earlier this year in South London. She assembled a group of 20 to role-play that they were all on holiday elsewhere together, and [add some info about how the event went or what everyone learned]. Travel can be just as much about the journey as about the destination; just as much about a state of body as about a state of mind. Louise can tell you about this first-hand.
What inspired your journey to Morocco, and why did you choose to hitchhike?
I’d watched a short student film about some guys traveling the length of Britain in a shopping trolley, and it was both joyful and sinister — they were exhausted and it was near impossible but they stuck to their ridiculous idea doggedly. When I heard that a charity called Link Africa was asking students to hitch to North Africa, I loved the concept of it, because I never really thought of Africa being that close before (just a short ferry ride from the south of Spain). It was like it crunched my sense of geographical space.
Had you done anything like this before, or did you know anyone who had?
I hadn’t done anything like this before, except lots of hiking for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, Girl Guides, and RAF cadets (I liked organized fun when I was a kid!) but this eccentric girl in the year above us at university told us all about it. She made it seem less impossible and less dangerous, so we just went for it. That definitely made it a bonding thing for my group of friends — we divided into pairs and then planned to meet halfway and swap, although that didn’t happen because one group was faster. There’s something about going on an adventure together that develops really deep friendship.
What was the hardest part of such a journey?
I ended up dating the guy I hitched with for 10 years, even though we bickered the entire hitch because he wanted to pay to stay in hotels, but I was dragging a crap tent and eager to pitch it on motorway verges. I remember shaving his beard stubble on the roadside and taking his beanie hat off so he’d look less thuggish and we’d be less daunting to prospective rides. The four of us who hitched to Morocco are close friends to this day.
And what was the best part about it?
The process really restored my faith in people, since everyone was so open and so trusting — we met people we would never normally encounter. Never since have I spent two hours squashed against a chain-smoking Welsh lorry driver and listening to very politically incorrect Jim Davidson comedy against the sounds of the sheep moving around in the back of the truck, while he explains that he is monitored by a clock, and that even though he is only legally allowed to work a certain number of hours without a break, he has now worked out how to turn the clock back, and hasn’t slept for days!
Did the experience give you any new perspectives on travel, life, the universe, or everything?
So many strange things happened: doing a ‘wild wee’ in a seemingly quiet spot by an old railway track, and then having a train full of steel factory workers whiz past mid-flow; being picked up by the Spanish police for walking down the motorway while singing and eating Easter eggs; trying to sleep in a giant ornamental urn in the grounds of a luxury hotel.
The motorway can feel like such a sterile place, but once you enter the little private capsules behind the windscreens you enter another world every time. I drew sketches of each person who gave us a lift and wrote notes about them, like a cast of characters for a play. I don’t know where the drawings are now, but I can remember the characters.
Can you tell me about those characters?
There was a middle-aged Spanish guy with bottle-dyed, jet-black hair and the tendency to shout tiempo mal! (bad weather) while pointing up at the storm clouds, and then “time bad! time bad!” (mistranslating tiempo as “time,” not “weather” — which was weirdly existential). He’d stop every five minutes to buy us coffee at truck driver service stations. His retro Volvo was the color his insides must have been, from all that coffee and nicotine. He drove us late into the night, most of the way through France to San Sebastian.
Then there was a French boy in a little customized Citroen — the work he’d done to pimp his ride definitely cost way more than the car, like a slug dressed up as a butterfly. He pounded our eardrums with dance tracks (maybe his own work, but he didn’t speak much from under the rim of his baseball cap) and drove too fast.
Finally, we hitched with a dad on his way to pick up his daughter from her posh Biarritz private school. We went to their big rustic country house and had a five-course al fresco meal of meat and vegetables from their garden. Afterward, we pet tomorrow’s dinner — rabbits blissfully unaware of their fate. They were a lovely, generous family. The daughter asked for help with her Shakespeare homework, which pushed even two Oxford students (with a talent for over-intellectualizing) to the limits of brain ache. They were very much parading their values, their lifestyle, but not at all in an arrogant way —- their pleasures were simple and sociable, and they wanted to share them with two stray English 19-year-olds they’d found at the side of the road.
My favorite part about Louise’s experience might be how casually she recounts it all to me, which is surely due to the fact that it took her just three days. Three days in the scheme of one’s life is infinitesimal, and I think most of us often have three days pass where nothing remarkable really happens at all. Travel and art are two immensely powerful forces because they can distort and transform time. You’ll probably remember the two hours at your favorite band’s concert for the rest of your life, whereas the two hours you spent relaxing after work today are just routine. Just so, three days crossing continents and encountering a cast of characters of such breadth might just determine who you become.
The best part about how travel shapes your time is that you don’t need to go to such extremes as hitchhiking to another continent in order to experience it. Epic adventures are great, but sometimes it’s hard to make space for them in our lives. I know Louise would agree with me that it’s about knowing that the story of our lives can extend beyond walls and across borders if only we let it, when and how we can. It can be just as good to step out of your front door and take a walk in a new part of town today as it is to fly across the world, if you take the same approach to both. Do things your way, prepare for what you can see coming, embrace what you can’t, and you won’t be disappointed.
You might just make some new friends along the way.
Do you have any spur-of-the-moment travel experiences that made a major impact on you? Let us know about them in the comments!