Over the years I’ve had this hobby of collecting hitchhiking stories. I suppose I’ve had a book planned somewhere in the back of my mind called Stuck in Wawa: a generation on the road; stories by Canadians and others about the golden era of hitchhiking. At one time I even sent off a few chapters to a publisher and got a form rejection letter back from an intern. I hate rejection so I gave up on the idea. Besides, what is published? One day maybe I’ll put up a website and then anyone can read my stories whenever they want.
Not all the tales are from the 70s, I’ve got ones from other eras as well. Some of them are my own, because I was one of those kids who stuck out my thumb in the summer with a few bucks in my pocket and not much else to my name besides a knapsack, a change of clothes and a few books. I can’t find any record of this, but I think the prime minster at the time, Trudeau, encouraged young people to go thumbing. He’d been a great traveler as a young man, and been around the world.
Those were different times, liberal, somewhat affluent times, and a series of hostels existed along the TransCanada, operated mostly on LIP grants from the feds, where you could stay for a couple of dollars a night, and get a lift to the highway in the morning. Most hitchhikers were male, and traveling with a female companion made getting rides so much easier. And I always admired those girls and women on the road, especially the ones who traveled solo. Here’s a couple of interesting gals and their stories.
Now in her 50s, Katherine Edwards owns a card and gift-wrap shop in upscale north Toronto. In 1970, she was working as a chambermaid at a lodge at Jones Falls, north of Kingston, when she decided to hit the road.
I was going with a guy and we decided to hitchhike to P.E.I. His name was Lumpy. He reminds me of a guy in Bonnie And Clyde who was working in a gas station and ends up going with them. Those same chubby cheeks.
The problem is that I’ve never been forgiven for this incident and I’ve never been able to talk about it with my family. It was something so frowned on that I don’t have any memories. To top it off, I had been elected head girl in high school the next year. An officer of the student government shouldn’t run off.
Mostly, it was truck drivers that picked us up. I wore hip-riding jeans and a leather-cinched belt, and this terry looped top that was kind of rose-burgundy with a collar and zip front. It was the age of not wearing a brassiere and this thing was tight-fitting. It’s nothing compared to what girls wear nowadays, but at that time it was very daring. I remember truck drivers staring at my top.
New Brunswick was very barren and depressing. I soon grew weary of Lumpy, but I didn’t have the confidence to leave him. Somewhere along the way I developed a bladder infection and it was agony. We weren’t very clean on that trip; I don’t think we bathed at all. I’m sure we stank to high heaven.
We went to a community dance in Truro, Nova Scotia. I’d never seen so many black people in my life, being raised in Kingston. So that was eye-opening.
In P.E.I we slept on the beach. There were crowds of kids and bonfires and parties. Most of the young travelers were from Quebec and there was a lot of talk about Quebec nationalism. They wanted to know our opinion because we were from Ontario. I was 17 and knew who Rene Levesque was, but that was about all. It was surprising how politically attuned these people were.
After a couple of weeks, I wrote my parents to say I was coming back. I was tired of being dirty and hungry all the time. Back in Kingston, Lumpy went with me to collect my belongings and accompanied me home. I remember him standing at the side door to my house telling me he loved me. I think he felt obligated to say that.
My Mom was cold. She said, “Maybe some day we’ll be able to talk about this, but not now.” We’ve never been able to talk about it. This was a great experience that I had and I regret that I’ve lost part of it. Over the years, I’ve picked up the hitchhikers but I’ve never told anyone about this.
Eileen Mullen is striking and tall with a mane of long brown hair. She’s part owner of Alchemy, a specialty import shop on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue.
I started hitchhiking when I was about 17. At first, short trips around Racine, Wisconsin, my home town. Then one weekend, I told my parents I was going camping with my girlfriend and we took off for California.
It scares me to think about how stupid I was. One time, I hitchhiked from San Francisco to L.A. In shorts that barely covered my ass. If it was one of my daughters, I’d be appalled.
This guy in a sports car picks me up and tells me I could be a model. He pulls out a roll of money and waves it around. “Look, I’ll give you all this money just to retain you.” I didn’t know what to make of this. We were zooming along and I can’t remember what we were talking about. I’m looking out the window, trying to be cool, and he keeps asking me questions and trying to draw me into conversation. It was the liberal ’70s. I thought maybe that’s what people did out there.
He did talk me into taking off my cloths at a rest stop. You know the line, “I have to see what you look like as a model.” But I refused to take off my underpants. I wasn’t taking off undies for anybody. That seemed to satisfy him and we got back in the car. We drove a while in silence and then he took the next exit into a little down. He dropped me at a greyhound station. “I’m buying you a bus ticket,” he told me. “A girl like you shouldn’t be hitching.”
Looking back on it now, I can laugh about it. We trusted people and usually got through all right. But there were some terrifying things that happened, too. Years later, in Austin, Texas, I hooked up with this beautiful girl, Edna, originally from Sri Lanka, although she’d lived in Australia. She was astonishingly beautiful and had this tanned look. Her attitude was that life was a party and nothing could go wrong.
We hitchhiked together from Austin to Laredo, Texas. From there we were going to take the bus to Mexico City. That was the plan. I was heading for Taxco to buy silver jewelry. That was what I did those days – bought jewelry in Mexico and sold it in the U.S. At the time I was five months pregnant. My future husband was somewhere in South America and I hadn’t heard from him in months.
While I was lining up for bus tickets, Edna comes back and tells me she’s found us a ride to Monterey. “It’s going to be just great,” she says.
We ended up in the back of an old Chevy pickup truck with these men driving around the streets of Neuvo Laredo in Mexico for about two hours. It’s getting to be dusk and I’m crying. At one point Edna grabbed me as I tried to step out of the rolling truck.
Then they turned down this dirt road. Now, I speak Spanish so I knew that these guys were up to no good. Edna’s dark skinned and they assume she speaks Spanish, but she doesn’t. Finally she clued in when one of the men in the back told her in English: “Oh, by the way. These guys want to rape you”
She goes, “What!” And I was crying, “Dios, mio. Don’t Kill my baby.” I went on and on in Spanish, moaning and praying.
Somehow, they decided not to bother with us. They dropped us off at the next village. They weren’t even going to Monterey. We had been driving parallel to the border.
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