la vie d’un routard

fifteen years on the road

At age 20, Youenn Kervennic, look a Senior Lecturer in the Brown French department, recipe did not know what he wanted to do. “I knew what I did not want to do,” he tells me, chuckling. “There were a lot of jobs I did not want to do for the rest of my life.” In his tiny village in Brittany, on the northwest coast of France, he was looking at a life as a fisherman. Youenn had traveled some as a teenager, and mostly what he wanted was to have done something. He had traveled, hitchhiking in trips that started small and got more sweeping: first the fifty miles or so home from school, then into Paris on the trucks that carted fish to the capital, both common for kids from his town. By 17, he was hitchhiking to Spain and to Germany, where he would work summers in factories that would pay him just enough to let him hitchhike around Europe for the rest of the summer. Hitchhiking is cheap, and adventures are stories. So Youenn became a traveler.

There is not an exact translation for “routard,” the word which Youenn uses to describe his lifestyle-cum-career from age 20 to 35. It is something like “globetrotter”: “hitchhiker” but more ambitious, “backpacker” but less mountaineering and more vagabondish. On about a dollar a day, Youenn explored more than 50 countries and “played with” nine or ten languages.  He picked up rides in trucks, pirogue canoes, and somehow, airplanes. Mostly, he tells me, you don’t get rides by sticking out your finger on the side of the road—although he does have photos of himself alongside streets and highways holding a variety of cardboard destination signs. Mostly, you just talk to people.

“Of course, most of the people you meet are just, y’know, people who pick you up hitchhiking,” Youenn says. But there are many connections that become something useful or interesting. In Louisiana, he ended up on a television program through a friend of a friend, and a couple degrees of connection later he found himself with reliable jobs in roofing and crawfishing always waiting for him. In Chile, he approached crafts salespeople to ask where he could sleep and ended up selling bracelets and decorations alongside them, displayed on cloths to easily grab for a quick escape should police walk by the makeshift market.  “Those who work are always very nice,” he says. He swapped housing with a friend in China, cheap hotel room for shared dorm. He had friends talk his way across national borders and talked others across.

One standout connection in a decade and a half of sleeping under highway bypasses and in fields led to a three-month stint in the house of the richest person in Chile. In the mid-1970s, Chavela Eastman de Edwards owned several of the country’s major newspapers and dispatched 16 servants and a chauffeur to look after Youenn, who was spending his days with his artisan street friends. “Quite often, I would be selling my handicrafts, and [the chauffeur] would pick me up—I was making like a dollar a day! At one point the other guys didn’t want to work with me because they thought I was rich.” The handicrafts guys ended up coming to a birthday party Chavela threw for Youenn, attended also by the businessmen and political elite of Chile.

At this point, Youenn is showing me photos, and the next one is a close-up photo—no zoom, taken maybe two feet away—of Queen Elizabeth. No big deal.

Life as a routard, though, was far from glamorous. The only reason he saw the Queen, Youenn explains, is due to a kind cab driver in the Bahamas trying to make a terrible day better: “I got attacked the night before. I was sleeping on the pier, and three guys came and they wanted to steal my backpack. I always had a chain in the backpack, so I started swinging the chain and they left. That night I had to leave the pier, and I found a bathroom where I could sleep. It was full of mosquitos, it was really bad. It was so bad. But I slept there, and … the next day, that’s when I hitchhiked for the first time by plane.” (The plane, incidentally, was owned by some people from Chicago, whose daughter Youenn encountered, entirely by chance, six months later in Mexico, where she was telling some people the story of the time her parents picked up a French hitchhiker in their plane.) “They dropped me at the airport in Nassau, and in Nassau, the first car that gave me the ride was a taxi.” Youenn explained he couldn’t pay.  “I explained that I was attacked and all that, and he said, ‘Have you ever seen the Queen? I can just drop you a couple feet from her.’ And that’s what he did.”

Many of Youenn’s stories are like this, about desperate times being salvaged by the kindness of other people. Failing to find a ride, he slashes his way across the jungle in Panama with a machete. He comes face-to-face with the wrong end of a gun on his way down, but he ends up being given some food by and taking pictures with the people before they each continue on their way. All you really have to do is talk to people, Youenn declares. I have a sense that the darker times were, maybe, darker than Youenn likes to focus on, because I get only brief details. One night he and his girlfriend were attacked and he was beaten and she was raped. A young woman’s baby died while they rode in the back of a flatbed truck. He arrived in Mexico mere days after a disastrous earthquake and his family thought he might be dead for two weeks.  At one point, he drops a reference to having been in prison in Paraguay. “It’s like your regular life, but the experience accelerated,” Youenn tells me. There are just more stories. More bad, more good. We focus on the good.

His trips were not the meticulously planned work of a tourist. They were an adventure, but they were also his life. He would sometimes go home, during those fifteen years, to touch base with his family; he would stay in one place for months to work as a roofer or a fisherman or a sheepherder or a cowboy or a beekeeper; he would give presentations at schools of the photojournalism he began doing; he would write home, often, and pick up letters at “poste restantes” (places that held mail for travelers) in larger cities, very rarely. Besides the cities that he would plan to end up in eventually, and the more reliable jobs that he would often return to, he would travel where he was taken. A seven-month trip to Canada and the United States turned into a 25-month trip down the Americas all the way to Patagonia.  “The thing is, on the road you never know. If someone tells you, well, there’s a beautiful place, you should visit there—you go. Or if you get a ride that goes for all night long, you stay with it that night, because the ride goes there, wherever that is.”

Eventually, Youenn’s ride ended. After fifteen years on the road, he settled in the American Midwest, where he had a girlfriend. He took classes at junior college and discovered that fifteen years after disliking school, he had started to love it. He got a BA in just a few years, and then an MA and a PhD, and now he is here: a professor of French at Brown. He still travels, though, and he visits his friends from the road.


Youenn: “[And people would say] What are you going to do later … What about your retirement? What about financial security? And I would just [*shrugs*] … That was not my concern.”

Me: “And it’s clearly worked out, so!”

Youenn: “Yeah, it did. And I always laugh with friends about it because some people have done things for supposed security, but they haven’t done much except they live with some regrets. That was always a major thing for me. I didn’t want to have any regret. And I don’t think I have any major regret in my life. I have always done what I wanted to do. I got lucky enough when I wanted to go back into the more regular life it worked out, also.

[There is a brief pause.]

Youenn: “But [if I hadn’t] done that, I would have never been to … even college, you know, if I had not traveled. …  I would have been a fisherman, or I would have kept my job in the factory in Germany, when I was 20 I stayed there for a year and a half. I would have, I don’t know, probably gotten married, [had] a family, and then [gone on] with, y’know, [my] responsibilities. It just didn’t happen like that. The road told me I could do anything I wanted in a way … Which is not completely true, but I could do a lot if I wanted to, if I put in effort. But traveling was like my job for years, it was wonderful. Just … a hitchhiker.”