The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking

At various times on various trips over the last fifteen-plus years I’ve ended up depending on the kindness of strangers to lay down miles – that is, hitchhiking.  Sometimes this has been by necessity but more often it’s been by choice.  I’ve thumbed rides with decreasing frequency as I’ve gotten older, mostly because it’s a lot easier to get picked up as a young fellow than someone getting long in the tooth, but I’ve hitched recently enough to make it into this blog.  The vast majority predate this blog though, so I figured I’d toss a few down here.

The main reason I often chose to hitchhike rather than taking a bus or a train wasn’t economy – in a lot of cases, for one reason or another, hitchhiking would end up costing more than a bus – but rather to meet interesting people, and plenty of them I did meet.

While hitchhiking from Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley to the County of Colchester, a car pulled onto the shoulder ahead of me at the confluence of the 101 and 102 highways, a woman immediately jumping out of the passenger seat and into the back.  Approaching the car I said “Hey thanks, you really don’t have to give me shotgun though.”  She responded by saying her kid in the back didn’t like strangers, fair enough.  Jumping into the front seat I looked back to see the couple’s “kid” – a goat.  Their goat apparently enjoyed car rides, and that’s what they were doing when they saw me.

Another time along that same route I met a fellow hitchhiker at an on-ramp and although I didn’t recognize him at first, he recognized me from parties at what was then a bit of a notorious house in Truro – my memory being a bit shoddy at those get-togethers it took me longer to click in but indeed we had partied together, and we were both on the way back to that town so we decided to try to get a ride together as it would make standing on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway less boring to do so.  We were picked up promptly by a full-size panel van with a man and a woman in the front seat, the woman jumping out to open the back doors.  As we climbed in we didn’t find rows of seats but rather a gurney, what seemed to be medical equipment and a couple of jump seats – like the back of an ambulance, but this wasn’t marked as an ambulance.  We looked at each other with some raised eyebrows but didn’t say anything.  After a couple minutes of driving the woman looked back and asked, “Do you know what kind of vehicle this is?”  Both of us responded in the negative.  I can’t remember the exact terminology she used, but the van was set up for transporting dead bodies between hospitals, funeral homes, and wherever else corpses were found or needed to be dropped off.  She kind of grinned and asked, “What do you guys think about that?”  I really didn’t care but my buddy seemed pretty freaked out and wouldn’t stop staring at the gurney.  In his defence I think he may have been on shrooms.

A lot of people I’ve met have been less interesting but very nice, I’ve had countless Timmy’s coffees purchased for me and a good number of meals as well.  I was never particularly hungry or needy but people would insist on buying so I’d let them – and there was only one case where a guy wanted sex, and he even bought me lunch after I declined to blow him.

While standing on the side of the Trans-Canada outside of Fredericton, New Brunswick, I saw a silver Porsche coming towards me and thought it’d be hilarious if it stopped – and I was amazed when it did.  The driver popped the trunk (in the front) and hollered for me throw my shit in, and I jumped in.  He was of my parents’ generation but as we got to talking it turned out he grew up in the same town I went to high school and he seemed to take a real interest in me, asking what I was doing hitchhiking to Montreal and why I wasn’t working.  I’d just finished university and wasn’t working – he told me to wait a second, pulled out his cell and started dialling.  Now the thing about New Brunswick is that two family-owned corporations control a huge amount of the industry there, and once connected on the phone he asked for one of the family members.  A few moments later he told her that he had a “friend of the family” with him that was looking for a job and within a minute he had a job interview lined up for me.  After hanging up he told me not to say anything about meeting him as a hitchhiker.

Of course there have been some people who were friendly enough but also batshit crazy.  Along with a friend I was walking around 10 pm on a Saturday night in Shediac, New Brunswick, pretty drunk but looking to get even more so by hitching a ride to Moncton to hit the bars.  An old Chevy Caprice pulled over and the driver jumped out – he was clearly drunk and probably high, he threw open the trunk and yanked two handfuls of beer from a cooler in the back, giving us each one as we jumped in.  There was a sketched-out looking young fellow in the back who didn’t really say anything, he looked way too high for his own good.  We burnt into Moncton way over the speed limit but before getting downtown the driver said he had to make a quick detour, we pulled into a gravel parking lot next to an apartment building and the young guy started to jump out, but paused and looked at me and said “Do you need any angel dust?”  I thought about it for a second and then said “Nah, I think I’m good.”  After a few minutes he jumped back in and we got back on the road.  When we reached downtown, our driver told us to hold onto our beers as he pulled out into an intersection, did about six donuts and then lets us out.

For some reason again outside of Moncton, I was picked up by an elderly gentleman driving a Crown Victoria.  One of the first things he told me as we got moving was that it was an old police cruiser and it could go like stink – “Just as fast as any police car on the road today.  And if those sons of bitches try to catch me they’re going to have one hell of time trying”.  We were soon going about 170 km/h.  He was chomping through a big bag of peppermints like there was no tomorrow and sounded a bit drunk.  He kept insisting that I should eat some mints as well.  He was swerving around and kept saying crazy shit about being on the run.  When he pulled over for some gas at a truck stop I took the opportunity to make up a story about having a friend nearby that I was going to visit and bailed, hitching a ride with a trucker.

In more than a few cases, communication has been an issue.  Particularly when traveling through French Canada…  One day I got picked up by a francophone trucker outside of Levis on my way to Montreal – I tried to engage him in conversation, I know from what many have told me that’s the main reason truckers pick up hitchhikers, but my French wasn’t good enough at the time.  He spoke virtually no English, so there were long gaps of silence.  That is, until someone traveling on the other side of the highway inexplicably drove off the shoulder and into the ditch at full speed right in front of us.  There was a huge cloud of dust and other oncoming traffic slowed down to see what happened.  My driver looked at me, grinned, and said with a thick French accent, “That guy, he is, ahhh, not so good at driving.”

While traveling on Ganghwa-do (an island west of Seoul) in 2005, I went to check out a 19th-centry fortress as night approached.  It was a half-hour bus ride from my yeogwan to the fortress, as I jumped off the bus a group of elderly Koreans jumped on and as far as I could tell I had the place to myself.  I spent a couple hours walking around taking pictures and before I knew it, it was well past dark – something like 10 pm.  The bus had stopped running so I started the long hike back to town through the rice paddies, sticking out a thumb to the rare motorist but failing to get a ride – until a police car pulled over.  One cop was an old gruff type who didn’t care for the looks of me one bit and didn’t speak any English, while the other was younger and could converse with me a bit but still didn’t seem to like me very much.  I could handle some very basic Korean at the time but not enough to explain myself.  They put me in the back of the car and drove me to some kind of line where, from what I could understand, was the end of their jurisdiction.  They’d spent some time on the radio though and when we stopped at the boundary there was another cop car waiting for me.  I was “handed over” to the new guys who spoke no English but understood me when I told them the name of my yeogwan.  They drove me right to the front door but before letting me out gave me a stern talking to – I couldn’t comprehend the content but could infer it from the tone.

Every once in a while a whole series of interesting encounters will string together.  In the summer of 2001 I’d hitchhiked from the Annapolis Valley to Ottawa, spent a week partying, then started hitchhiking back.  I had a ride from Ottawa right into Montreal but hitching straight into Montreal is a bad idea – it’s very difficult to get a ride out, typically the best bet is to catch a bus to Saint-Hyacinthe and then walk to the Autoroute 20.  So I jumped off at a bypass before Montreal and got picked up by a second car, a guy about my age driving an old Mazda clunker that was overheating on the 35 degree day.  To pull the heat off the engine he had the vents going full-blast, even with the windows down the car was so hot I felt nauseous within ten minutes.  We went north of the St. Lawrence River and took the 40 all the way to Trois Rivieres with the heat on us.  I felt fucking terrible when we arrived, and the guy who picked me up apologized and asked if I wanted to go meet up with a bunch of his friends at a bar to re-energize with some brews.  Of course I did.  We grabbed some seats on a patio and about a half dozen of his friends showed up – I never paid for a drink, his friends were mostly francophone so we had a hard time communicating at first but nothing a few beers couldn’t overcome.  We had a time, got a real good buzz on and these guys were real dogs, whistling and making kissy faces at girls walking past on the sidewalk and being real greasy, it was a riot.

I could’ve stayed there all day – they told me they were going to keep partying all night and had places I could crash – but there was a party back in Scotia in a couple days’ time that I wanted to make it back for, so I had to bid them adieu, throw my backpack over my shoulder and hike back to the 40 feeling really good.  It didn’t take long to get a ride which took me to the outskirts of Quebec City uneventfully, and then I was picked up again a few minutes later by a couple of young fellows who asked me right away if I knew where to get some weed.  “In Scotia sure, but I don’t know anyone in Quebec City.”  They were disappointed; I asked them why they thought they could get weed off a hitchhiker with a sign that said “NS” on it and they shrugged and said “You look like a guy who knows where to get weed.”

They dropped me off across the river at Levis, and it didn’t take me long to find another ride.  It was getting late in the evening and I was really hoping to find a ride that’d take me through the night – I only had about $50 to my name, not enough for a hotel – but the guy who picked me up was only going as far as Riviere-du-Loup.  Ironically, given my previous ride, he picked me up so he’d have someone to roll joints for him while he drove.  I’ve never been good at rolling but at this time I was more capable than at any other time, so I did my best and we got pretty ripped – which was good cause my earlier beer buzz was just about to wear off.  We picked up a third guy about halfway to Wolf River and he was better than me so I handed off the responsibilities.  We reached the turnoff to RDL around 10 pm and I jumped out and once again started walking, feeling fine.

Trying to catch a ride on the 20, a dozen kilometres outside of RDL, at 10 o’clock at night is an exercise in futility.  I had high hopes given how well I’d been going all day but after forty-five minutes I gave up and walked into an adjacent highway rest stop to try to find a place to catch a nap.  I tried sleeping on a picnic table, then under a picnic table – car loads of people zipping in and out of the rest stop got my nerves up though, and after half an hour I was back on the TCH and trying to get a ride again.

Sometime around 1 am I walked past a spot in the median where a car had veered off and knocked down a bunch of trees.  I was pretty cold at this point – when I’d left Ottawa it was 35 degrees Celsius, but on my approach to the Gaspe in the middle of the night it was more like 6 or 7.  I jumped down into the median and found a couple of pine trees that had been knocked over, put on every piece of clothing I had (about three t-shirts, three pairs of socks and two pairs of pants) and dug myself a burrow into the dead pine needles.

I didn’t sleep well but walked back out to the highway at daybreak and got another ride pretty quickly, this time all the way to Grand Falls, NB.  The driver was a funny guy, seemed really happy to have some company, but it seems like I passed out on him after like 10 minutes.  I felt like kind of a dick when he woke me up in Grand Falls.  After that it was a total shitshow, I got drives from exit-to-exit through New Brunswick (it took me 8 lifts to get from Grand Falls to Fredericton), finally getting back to my folks’ place in Scotia as the sun was setting.

A lot of people who’ve never hitchhiked seem to fixate on the perceived danger, and as unpleasant as being kidnapped, raped and decapitated by a Buffalo Bill-esque psychopath may be, I think the risk is probably overblown.  I know people who’ve been robbed while they’re hitchhiking but for the most part I’ve got nothing but good things to say for it.  If it wasn’t so tough to get a ride as an old-ish looking guy I’d probably still be doing it on the regular.

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