What I Learned Hitchhiking Across Canada
I made a 5,600-mile journey in a month thanks to drivers I adorned with nicknames like Kush Grandpa, John the Racist, Four Divorces, and Nice Mike.
Blink 182's self-titled album is blaring and I'm feelin' it. I take of sip of a Molson Canadian and pass it to my partner Nathan as we head towards the Northern Ontario city of Sault Ste. Marie in the back seat of a beat-up silver sedan. Helena rides shotgun and is drinking Wild Vines out of the bottle. She is 32 and her boyfriend/the driver Larry has a beer in his cup holder—it's his first of the day, he says. He works in a slaughterhouse and says it's hard because "you're killing things all day." An hour ago, Helena and Larry took a pit stop to have sex in the washroom of a Tim Hortons and now they're all giggly.
Helena and Larry are ride number 11 of the 45 vehicles who pay heed to the outstretched thumbs of Nathan and myself on our month-long 5,600 mile journey from Toronto to Salt Spring Island, British Columbia and back. We're curious, we're sick of the city, we lack the requisite fear that would prevent us from attempting to hitchhike anywhere.
Our route is straightforward because Canada is so goddamn barren. There's only one way to cross it: the country-spanning Trans Canada Highway. Our cardboard sign simply says "WEST."
We carry tools for survival: sleeping bags, tent, camp stove, fuel canister, dry food, water purification tablets, insect repellent, first aid kit, clothing, duct tape, multiple tarps, massive amounts of rope, and massive amounts of weed.
Ontario is a wet, slow-moving, mosquito orgy. We bypass the hitchhiker graveyard known as Wawa but hit roadblocks in Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay. Ontarians are ruthless. It takes us five days to get out of the most populated province in Canada, yet it will only take five more days to cross the rest of the country. (The first seven are showerless. After ten years of Lady Speed Sticking my odor into oblivion, I accept my natural homo sapien-y scent.)
There are specific techniques vital to hitchhiking. Much of our time is spent in search of the Best Place to Stand, the criteria being a shoulder wide enough for vehicles to pull over onto, which is located on the edge of town before the traffic gets too fast. Anything after a stoplight or under 35 mph is golden. I stand in front of Nathan so drivers make a split-second decision based on a woman, not a heavily bearded man. If our driver is a lady by herself—which is rare, but happens a handful of times—I ride shotgun.
Truck stops, contrary to popular belief, are fruitless hitching territory. Drivers there don't want other truckers to see them picking up hitchhikers—it's against company/insurance policy. But on the open road, some say fuck it; four different transport trucks traveling 60 mph pull over for us. I feel the safest in their spacious cabs, being driven by experienced professionals who can't risk doing any weird shit because their job is on the line. Except Delroy, the sweet Jamaican man who stops three times to smoke three full joints.
As a rule, we never stray far from the road. Each night, we stumble around in the dark behind motels and at the edge of the treeline, probing for a place to pitch our tent—always within earshot of the highway. We look for somewhere dry with level ground and adequate cover.
We eat out of our backpacks as much as possible: oatmeal for breakfast, beans and rice for dinner, trail mix to fill the gaps in our bellies. But sometimes it seems that A&W has effectively annexed the country and we are unable to walk five feet without absently entering one in search of burgers, breakfast sandwiches, and/or root beer floats. We forage for wild blackberries (which are everywhere in BC and considered a weed) and strawberries whenever they're around. In Calgary we strut into a Comfort Inn like we're on the guest list, stash our bags in the unlocked pool room, and gorge ourselves on hot breakfast.
On average, 60 percent of our drivers are successful, middle-aged white dads; they buy us meals and tell us about hard work. Many of them hitchhiked in their youth and can't bear passing by a reasonable-looking thumber.
We quickly become aware of our privilege as a couple of white, able-bodied, "straight," clean-looking young folks on the road. People call us cute even though our skin is caked with dirt and we have knives in our pockets. They shower us with Subway, midnight truck-stop breakfasts, cookies, money, bottled water, beers, ice cream, drugs, home-cooked meals, canned luncheon meat. To them, we aren't sketchy—we're travelers. Single men by themselves, especially those of color, have a visibly harder time than us. They dot the roads where drivers skip over them to pick us up, even if they're first in line.
Nearly as jarring as our privilege is the array of randomly generated humans we're forced to interact with for extended periods of time. We have minimal control over the people who pick us up and are consequently exposed to a mixed bag of characters.
I keep a cumulative list of drivers in my notebook, each with a nickname. Boat Rich, Kush Grandpa, John the Racist, Four Divorces, Nice Mike, Mtl Sk8 Hippies, Goat Cheese People, etc.
One of our first drivers is a huge Bill O'Reilly fan; he's listening to the Fox News personality on the radio when we get in his truck. A heated political debate about race relations ensues—we hold our tongues so he doesn't kick us out of his vehicle. Shitty people are really good at letting you know they're shitty people. We encounter at least two more—one guy who tells us to stay out of northern Winnipeg because it's filled with "natives," and another who says hitchhiking was banned because women in the 70s would cry rape, sue, win, and take all the money of innocent men.
Other drivers are beautifully eccentric. A truck driver named Robert, hauling a load of produce to Thunder Bay, defies the trucker archetype in every way. He brings Lunchables with him on his journeys and makes painted wood cutouts of Disney princesses for his friends.
Two more unconventional folks are Glen and Tammy, who pick us up in Golden, BC. The inside of their car is covered in stickers, plastic flowers, and smiley-face knick knacks. They were unofficially married this year on 4/20—their ceremony included bubbles. Glen runs a scam website ("Do You Want to Make $3,000 a Day from Home?") and he tells us to visit it as a payment for the ride. Tammy is roughly 50 but looks 75 and is the happiest person I have ever met. She talks non-stop for two hours, smokes lots of weed, and turns around at one point to say, "I'm so happy you guys are here with us."
We meet many more outstanding people. Sam, a First Nations community leader, is kind and wise. He tells us it costs people on his reserve an $85 cab fare to get to and from the nearest grocery store, which is 45 minutes away. Primary school teachers are hard to keep because the reserve can't afford to pay them well, and high schools are so far away that students are forced to board out of pocket. He talks about his spirituality and his hobbies and his family. I sit in the back seat, scribbling down everything he says.
Just outside Winnipeg, a "chillout electronic" band from Toronto picks us up in their DIY ice cream truck-style tour bus. They stop for every hitchhiker—we're the third and fourth people to sign their hitch wall. Inside the bus is a PS3, five beds, gear, and a familiar dank. We bond and they give us rope friendship bracelets. After parting ways in Regina, we bump into them again in Revelstoke, BC by accident, where we watch their powerful chillout tunes flood a deserted pub. They are very happy to see us. "We have road friends," Nathan says.
It's on our ninth day that we exit the prairies and enter the mountains, cross the border from Alberta to BC, and time slows down 200 percent. In Field, BC, a mountain town of 169 humans, we float on our backs in a glacial swimming hole. The mountains hug us. Our trek is now worth it.
After spending the next ten days hitching around BC, the land of kush and the home of the vibes, swimming in the ocean off Salt Spring Island, and talking with friendly strangers in parks, it's time to leave.
We give ourselves ten days to hitchhike back to Toronto/Ottawa/reality in time for work and responsibilities. Our "EAST" sign pulls in an overnight ride from Vancouver to Calgary, then a straight shot across the prairies with two pot-smoking grandparents and their grandkid, then a ride from Winnipeg to Sudbury, and somehow we are back in Southern Ontario in the span of five days, way ahead of schedule.
We're so close to home we can practically smell that city stench as we stand on the shoulder of Highway 400 just north of Barrie with our thumbs out. Soon we're in our very last ride, a shiny car with a rifle-holder in the trunk and an OPP officer at the wheel, because it's illegal to be pedestrian on a 400-series highway, silly!
The officer doesn't buy us milkshakes, but she does what we ask. "To the Barrie bus terminal, please."