Here are a couple of more hitchhiking stories I’ve collected. These two are from later decades.
Hitchhiking died out as a common practice in the late ’70s. But many people remained attracted to this independent, cashless form of travel. A few years ago Tiss Clark was driving a streetcar for the Toronto Transit Commission. But a dozen or more years ago, you might have seen her with her thumb outstretched beside the highway. She is in her mid-40s now. She has thick, flaming red hair and a mole over her left eyebrow.
“Hitchhiking saved my life. I’d hitchhiked around Ontario one summer and then moved back home briefly, but I was very depressed–suicidal. So when I turned 18, I decided to kill myself and even picked a day. Then it came to me in a flash: You haven’t seen the world yet! Don’t kill yourself until you’ve traveled!
A few days before I left, I told my mother I was going out west, to Yukon and eventually Malaysia. I’m sure it was painful for her to hear this. She said “Don’t hitchhike,” and made me buy a bus ticket to Winnipeg.
I met this guy on the bus and we started making out. It got so heavy that we got off in Thunder Bay. We stayed in a motel overnight but it wasn’t a very good sexual experience. The next morning I took off and got this ride with a truck driver to Winnipeg.
At a hostel in Vancouver I met this guy, Tony, from Sept Isles. He seemed directionless, too. We got caught having sex in the men’s section of the hostel. We were in a bottom bunk bed, and suddenly there were footsteps and flashlight shining in our faces. We had to march shamefacedly to the front desk, where they got us a family room. But the fun was all gone after that.
Tony is one of the few men I’ve hitchhiked with. We hung out around Vancouver for a couple of weeks but I never really liked it there. I just considered it a stopping point on my way to Yukon.
About five hours out of Vancouver we got this ride with a Native family who stopped along the way. We went off into the woods and they made a fire, cooked up some food, and gave us tea.
We got one long ride, 700 kilometers up the Cassier Highway. Tony and I took turns switching between the back of the pickup and the cap. We froze. I remember endless, endless woods, sunshine and snow. It was very cold.
Everyone should see Whitehorse at dawn. It sits in a valley surrounded by a mountain range, and there was a blue glow around the buildings as we descended. Phil Collins’ Something in the Air Tonight was playing on the radio. Very slowly and mysteriously, the mountains opened up on a magical city. It was May 8 and there was a lot of snow up there.
With 25 bucks in my pocket, I realized I wasn’t going to Malaysia that year. There was a chambermaid job in Tuktoyaktuk posted in the employment office. I flew up there on a floatplane. But the guy that hired me was not a very good employer. It was a bunch of trailers pushed together that he rented to white construction workers for 95 bucks a night.
John was the owner’s name, and he treated the Inuit like dirt. He was basically a prisoner in his own trailer complex because people had threatened to beat him up. I washed the dishes, chambermaided, answered the phone and served ice cream to Inuit children who would come to the back window (of the trailer-park snack bar). I kept the job for two months before getting fired. The old cook couldn’t stand my whistling.
At the time I was living with an Inuit man, Sam, who started coming by the restaurant. It was a quick transition to living together. He was an artist who’d been in prison and was very traumatized by that. A kind, gentle man.
Sam wanted me to stay, but I was fighting depression. I was so young, I often think of what would happen if I had stayed and learned about Inuit culture. But there was nothing to hold me there. I’d been gone six months. It was now October.
I was back living with my parents when I found out he’d killed himself. It was disorienting hearing a stranger’s voice on the phone telling me he was dead, and then the connection was gone. I still think about him.
Some people have a definitive trip they take before university, but for me there were several hitchhiking journeys that affected me profoundly. There were trips I made to
Gaspe and Labrador and around Ontario.
A lot happened to me between the ages of 17 and 22, between 1983 and ’89. a lot of hitchhiking. I liked being able to say “This is as far as I’m going.” I always had some destination in mind, but not always a good reason for going there.
Hitchhiking influenced the way I see the world. Toronto seemed like all there was until you got outside of it. It still keeps me inspired to know there are people living in fishing villages in British Columbia, without a lot of money. There are other ways to live.”
Tahnea Battle was a born hitchhiker. Her mother was thumbing lifts while Tahnea was in her womb. The daughter of a European mother and a Sudanese father, Tahnea is a short, beautiful woman with dreads, and a vine-like Celtic pattern tattooed high on her forehead. At 24 years, she’s hitchhiked extensively across North America, crossed Western Canada four times by freight train, and been jailed in Louisiana and Florida for vagrancy. Now working as a bicycle messenger in Montreal, she talks fondly of her traveling days while sitting in LaFontaine Park on a summer evening, pulling on DuMaurier cigarettes.
“I first hitchhiked when i was 17, on my way to pick apples in the Okanagan. I decided I liked it, and after that I hitchhiked four or five years straight, though I did stop to winter once in New Orleans. Most of the time I traveled with my friend Jasmine, a blond girl from Vancouver. We used to call ourselves traveling psychiatrists. People tell you everything thinking they’ll never see you again.
If I was hopping freights I’d travel really light, a small bag and a bottle of water. But if I was hitchhiking I could carry a few more things. It was just the basics, though. A change of clothes, shorts, a reading book, a writing book, dental floss and sewing needles, nuts and dried fruit if you had them. I always had a knife on me and pepper spray. I had an old sleeping bag that my mom gave me that I carried around for years.
In the States I had a lot of trouble with the cops. They loved to pick on people like me. They’ll stop you, harass you, go through your stuff. It’s not as bad in Canada. Nowadays when I see a cop, I go the other way, quickly.
The first time in jail was in New Orleans, and I was 17. I wasn’t doing anything, in fact I was buying juice. The cops said I was buying liquor. It was crazy. They put me in a tough section of jail. After four days I called my mom and they made her pay $500. No one even knew I was in there.
One of the weirdest things that happened was when Jasmine and I were waiting for a ride in the desert. This red car screeches to the stop, blaring Janis Joplin. There’s this older man driving with a big grey beard. An old hippie named Sam who’s on his way to Reno, Nevada, to visit his sister. He’s drinking Johnie Walker and I realize hes an alcoholic. So this calms me down, because many alcoholics can drink and handle it. He even stops and buys us lunch. He’s a jolly fellow, singing to the music on the radio.
But at one point. he pulls out a gun and points it at my head. “What would you do if I pulled the trigger?” I turned around and looked at him with no expression in my face. “If you pulled the trigger, I would die” He laughed and put the gun away. My girlfriend was freaking in the back, but I trusted him. I think he just wanted to see my reaction.
The absolute scariest time was with a drunk woman who picked us up in Saskatchewan. She drove the wrong way on the freeway. Now that was frightening.
Jasmine and I would always tell the driver “no sex” before we got in the car, but that didn’t always stop them from trying. I got tired of always having to talk my way out of it. One of my last rides was back from South Carolina with a pair of truckers. Jasmine rode with this young guy who was nice enough, but I had this grandfatherly type who kept talking to me about sex in a nasty way for hundreds of miles.
I still manage to go for short journeys on weekends. I’ve been to Toronto to visit my mom and Vermont. Nowadays I travel with Casey, my dog. He’s a cross between a shepherd and a pit bull, but he resembles a miniature shepherd.
My job keeps me in Montreal these days, but I miss hitchhiking. It’s about freedom. It’s times I was the happiest. It took me two years to settle down after I came of the road. But I’m already planning my next trip – I’ve got itchy feet.”
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs