Part of the risk and reward of hitchhiking for me was the time spent on the road between destinations. How many times and for how many hours I held out my thumb, waiting in the wet or the cold for someone to come and take me for a ride, I don’t know. Every driver who pulled over and gave me a ride holds a special corner of my heart. I want to share those corners with you now.
The first ride I ever hitched was on my way out of Calgary, headed East. There’s not much to tell about it- an older fellow in a nice car picked me up and took me to the nearest major on-ramp. The experience was pleasant, easy, and altogether unrepresentative.
My second ride was with a middle aged Indian who spoke next to no English. Our communication was made poorer by the interference of the man’s car radio, which blasted an Indian talk radio programme for the duration of our time together. Our body language was sufficient for a while- and then he took an exit. This was not my exit. I tried to tell him what was happening, but he only smiled and said things to me that I was unable to interpret. He drove on. My consternation rose. He was taking me into the unknown, and I was powerless. I began to understand just how unpredictable hitchhiking could be.
That did turn out alright. After a while I was able to gesture my way to freedom, and then it was time to hitch back to the highway. My next ride, however, was one of the most bizarre I was going to catch.
I had to walk back to the highway- it took me the better part of an hour. Thankfully, my next ride was prompt and took me right to my next stop, some four or five hours East. A white van pulled over ahead of me- the sort of vehicle whose anonymity should always send a warning signal. I hopped in and mentioned my destination, which at that time was Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
My journal from that first round of hitchhiking is missing. I left it somewhere between Portland, Oregon and North California. My friend Mitchell looked after it for a while, but I think at this point it’s been lost to the passage of time. As a result, I don’t remember my driver’s name.
He was about sixty, maybe as much as sixty five. He was on a cross-country drive to visit family and had come from somewhere in B.C. He was headed to Ontario, and he was ready to talk the whole way. What else he had in mind, I can only imagine.
My driver began by telling me that he had been a promising amateur boxer, and that his career had been cut short after a lethal bar fight. He described the fight to me in great detail, down to the shattering tables and punches thrown. Apparently he spent some time in prison after that for manslaughter, or something along those lines. This part of our little chat was not the startling part for me, though.
He told me that he’d spent some time hitchhiking when he was a young man. He did his travelling in Quebec. One cold winter day- so he told me- a car pulled in and the door opened up. A man all in pink waited within. My driver, then an innocent, hopped right in and caught his ride. But then- and my driver looked at me carefully as he said this- “I should have known when I saw his pink clothes,” he told me. “But sometimes you just do what you have to do, you know?”
So there I sat, my burly and intense host staring me down after having dropped a load of innuendos into my lap. I really didn’t know what to say- or to do, for that matter. This was the textbook scenario for the hitchhiker at risk. Well, you know me. I made quiet and desperate conversation for the next four hours, and kept the man satisfied with good company. I really think that my willingness to be a friend, for a while, was what kept me safe that day. I didn’t find much in common with him, but, boy, you wouldn’t have known that.
Truckers made up a major demographic in the rides I took. One drove me back from Moose Jaw area to Calgary. It was a terrible cold day when I left Saskatchewan. It was February and the wind was whipping across the flatlands, all of it hurtling directly into my face. I had nothing more on me than a t-shirt and a hoodie, travelling light as I was. I kept a backpack with me full of books and a change of pants, but not a jacket.
This trucker was just one of the many kind and somewhat lonely gentlemen who shared their cabs with me. This one in particular, though, had a very small terrier who refused to give up his seat to me. We did reach a compromise, eventually: I sat on his seat, and he sat on me. He was very quiet while we rode.
On my way out from Calgary, going West, I listened to Sly and the Family Stone on full blast with a sort of neo-hippie girl. I ended up leaving my precious smokes in her car. She took a little ways, and after a brief venture in a beater full of partygoers, I ended up in company with a middle aged bureaucrat of some kind. He took me halfway to Vancouver in his SUV- just the two of us crossing kilometer after dark kilometer on the invisible Alberta roads. He was a nice guy, but he was obviously more used to the radio as company; I may have been the first hitchhiker he ever stopped for. We listened to a special programme on shark attacks- their history, the misconceptions, the modern situation. They included dramatic re-enactments, and one of the strangest moments I recall was flying along the nighttime highway with John Businessman, a desperate gurgling and splashing erupting at us from the dashboard.
I was stranded for a few hours that night. I never wear a watch, so I don’t truly know how long it was, but I finally found my way into a truck stop and did my exhausted best to chatter with the nighttime clientele. They gave me free coffee and a grizzled older man offered me a seat, going West. This trucker was quieter than some, but had a very pronounced interest in water. Yes, water: the rivers, lakes and swamps that we passed by and over. I probably wrote it all down, but again I must mourn the passing of that particular journal.
My route to the American border from Vancouver was split between a Hell’s Angels pickup and a police cruiser. The pickup driver was long-haired, bearded and tattooed and must have smoked half a pack in the hour I rode with him. I recall thick eyebrows and a wide and frequent smile. He told me about his longstanding relationship with the Angels doing custom work on their motorcycles. He told me that he made good money doing it, and in a rough sort of way, it seemed true. He had bought and remade a convertible for his daughter on her eighteenth birthday, and a motorcycle for his son’s. He did paint and chrome and parts and accessories. I enjoyed that ride.
The cruiser picked me up as I approached the border, taking me to within half a kilometer. He warned me not to hitch on the freeway South of the border- advice I did little to regard, for which I eventually suffered.