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Nearly seven years ago, I hitchhiked across Canada. I left the front door of my parent’s Vancouver Island home one morning and began walking into the vista of the road, that vast arena of potential. Eventually I found my way to New York. It was a curious experience, but probably not what people imagine. Frankly, it was rather boring. But it was contemplative and it gave me some insight into the peculiar complexities of humans.
The contrast between boredom and excitement while on the road is quite striking. For hours on end, you may be standing at the side of a highway in some strange state of mind, watching the faces go by. You get all sorts of looks when you’re hitchhiking. People ignore you, smile at you, wave or use their hands to gesture that they’re unable to pick you up. In a few cases, people made faces and one time someone flipped me the middle finger. Often, truckers pick you up.
Once, a Ukrainian truck driver told me he had done some bad things but wouldn’t tell me what. Another time, a truck driver hinted that he wanted to hookup. I respectfully declined the offer and then we talked about other things. He told me how lonely his life was on the road and how he longed for a stable relationship. Once, an Iraqi Kurdish trucker picked me up along with another hitchhiker and told us his phenomenal life story. He had walked from Iraq to Eastern Europe, eventually finding his way to Canada, where he claimed refugee status. He said that when he first arrived in Canada, he had stereotypical ideas about Canadians and he asked the immigration agents something like, “All right, where are the trees you want me to start cutting?” He imagined that everyone in Canada was a lumberjack.
People who pick up hitchhikers tend to be open and sometimes they have curious motivations.
There are lots of adventurous road warriors hoping to meet a like-minded person who shares their passion for risky experiences. Those car rides will be spent discussing epic tales of glorious undertakings and travels. Sometimes, the drivers are hoping that picking up a hitchhiker will be an adventure of its own.
Then there are those drivers who are navigating despair and loneliness. They are usually trying to find someone who will listen. I encountered many individuals who just wanted to unload their problems onto a stranger. I had no issue with this and I always appreciated how open they were with me. I tried my best to bear witness to their tragedies and to break through the barriers of isolation. But the longevity of the therapy session always had limits. Once, an older woman picked me up. If I recall correctly, her husband had died in recent years and her daughter had died within the past few months. She was in deep agony and perhaps she just wanted a quick breath of fresh air from a stranger. The heartbreaking ride was only about 10 minutes. I expressed my sympathy, wished her the best of luck and she dropped me off. We parted ways and I stuck my thumb back out toward the road.
Then there are do-gooders inspired by their faith to help out and hoping to share the good news of the divine. Sometimes these drivers would proudly tell me that they felt led by God to pick me up. I greatly appreciated these people. They were always warm and hospitable.
Once, I was dropped off in a small town in the vast plains of Saskatchewan – the land of the living skies – on a sunny September day. I cannot remember where this small town was, but I remember being dropped off in front of an elderly woman who had pulled over because her car had broken down. I was surrounded by endless golden fields stretching deep into the horizon.
I approached to make sure she was okay. She assured me that she was fine and that her husband – a mechanic – was on his way with a tow truck. So I went back to my hitchhiking, standing about 150 metres away. Soon thereafter, her husband arrived. And after they had picked up the broken-down car, the couple offered to bring me back to their place for lunch. I happily agreed. The woman sat in the middle seat of the tow truck and I sat in the passenger seat. Our communication became a hilarious episode of translations. I could not – for the life of me – figure out what her husband was saying. He spoke English, but his muttering made it almost impossible to understand. Every time he spoke to me, I’d have to say, “I’m sorry, what did you say?” And every time I said this, his wife would step in: “He saaaaaaid … ” and then translate.
When I explained I was hitchhiking coast-to-coast for fun, they were both amazed and impressed. Then, a look of revelation dawned on the woman’s face. “Oh!” she said, “you remind me of that guy, what’s his name…” She thought hard for a couple minutes, then: “Terry Fox!”
What I enjoyed about hitchhiking was the flow of randomness and the constant impermanence. You have non-stop social interactions that are deeply authentic but so finite. A person becomes an important part of your life for an hour or two and then they disappear. The beauty of strangers being so open about their lives never got old. Once, an older Christian picked me up. He bought me a Tim Hortons coffee. He told me that he loved fishing. In particular, he said that he used to love fishing with his son, but that his son had been killed in an accident on the road. He told me that he hoped to go fishing with his son again in the afterlife. Then he dropped me off.
Each encounter I had was folded into a little treasury of memories that has begun to fade with time. But immersed together, they paint a broader picture of the human experience in this country.
Brandon Kornelson lives in Burnaby, B.C.