Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: May 1, 1997
I've seen a number of interesting books journaling the voyages of one avid hitch-hiker or the other, but some time ago I stumbled across one that seemed to stand out. In 1960, Wendy Myers, an English girl of 18 years, set out to see the world with a small rucksack, 100 pounds in cash, a thumb, and all her wiles, returning home all of 7 years later. Hodder and Stoughton published her account under the title Seven League Boots - The Story of My Seven-year Hitch-hike Round the World in 1969 (ISBN: 0 340 04331 8).
The book is rather terse, presenting seven years of travel in 24 chapters and about 220 pages. Wendy has hitched from London to Lahore in India within the first chapter, glossing over details on the way. That sets the pace for the entire book, which is best read with an atlas on hand, as the text races about the world at a relentless pace. The text is almost childishly simple in style, as if aimed at children, and Wendy portrays the picture of a very proper and naive young lady with a bundle of courage.
Wendy hitched most of the way, though not in the classic sense, thumb extended by the side of the road. To be sure, she covered some great stretches just like that, but one of the most striking features of the book (for a reader in the '90s looking back on an account of world travel in the '60s) is just how much the very essence of travel has changed in that time. While there is still much hospitality in this great world of ours, I would challenge anyone to find it so openly and freely as Wendy did then.
In the '60s what Wendy was doing was, perhaps, not unique, but it was breaking very fertile new ground. The solo backpacker was a very unusual sight that stirred the sympathies of many. Wherever she went, she encountered the most warming hospitality from local people from all walks of life. She zig-zagged through all of the inhabited continents, through the rich and the poor, the peaceful and the warring. Indeed, on occasion her courage and curiosity bordered on folly.
People who picked her up were so often beguiled by the fact of a young English girl making her way solo around the world that they invited her to stay. They referred her to friends and paid her fares. She stayed with peasants and with kings and all sorts between. In many places, the local media invited her to interviews and accommodated her. One contact provided another in a chain that led ultimately around the world. The friends she made bought her plane tickets and boat tickets and drove her around.
Today, there are masses of young people attempting relatively similar feats all over the world. If it is not seven years, it is seven months, but the backpacking dollar has gained such significance that economies are adapting. The solo backpacker has become the icon of foreign dollars in many eyes, most especially the otherwise impoverished. I recall reading Tony Wheeler's description of the change in Thailand since the 70's.
Tony Wheeler founded a great travel publishing house, The Lonely Planet, upon the success of a single guidebook he published in the '70s describing the then paradise of Thailand. While Thailand is no less beautiful today, the incredible growth of tourism there has left a very harsh mark upon the experience of Thailand that many, including Tony, seem to berue a little. I reflect, occasionally with a little irony, upon the fact that Lonely Planet has, if anything, contributed to the popularisation of Thailand over the years and, hence, to the change the latest edition remarks upon. As backpackers flock to other countries in search of the pristine, the entire world will slowly be enveloped by the phenomenon of budget and adventure travel, in much the way Thailand already has been.
But, so far, I've painted a rather unjust picture of Wendy's accomplishment, I suspect. To be sure, the world of travel has changed, but her hitch around the world was still an extremely impressive affair. Even today, it would be impressive, if somewhat different, in in character.
She suffered Malaria, and Dengue Fever and other ailments. She was robbed, and molested, almost raped on several occasions. In spite of the impressive support she received underway, she wandered from one place to another, often not knowing where she would stay or how she would get there. She stirs a very romantic notion of travel within me.
Above all, her attitudes embody that spirit of hitching that I've come to love so dearly. She is a true hero in my eyes. It is well worth citing her closing remarks:
'If I was prepared to sleep anywhere, fight heat, cold, mosquitoes and eat local food, then I was accepted and protected by the people with whom I travelled. Trust begets trust, respect begets respect, was one of the primary lessons I learned'.
Above all, Wendy accepted people wherever she went. She accepted things without judgement that would challenge most of us very deeply. She was travelling to discover other people and cultures, and not to project hers upon them. Most especially, the hitch-hiker can benefit from just such an attitude.
Postscript: The relevance of the title was something of mystery to me. It is an expression certainly not in common use here in Australia. For others similarly perplexed, it is worth my adding a small clarification. The expression "Seven League Boots" is an English idiom used to describe long and/or rapid voyages. It is based upon and old French fairy tale Le Petit Poucet dating back to the 17th century. Since the mid 18th century, it has been popularly known as Hop O' My Thumb among the English. The fairy tale describes a giant with a pair of magic boots that allow the wearer to cover seven leagues in one stride. The hero of the story steals these boots and escapes. They were the Seven League Boots. Seven Leagues, for those as curious as I am, is roughly 35 kilometers. Wendy's voyage lasted 7 years to the day, the title is very fitting rhetoric.