Hitchhiking is always a little bit risky. Hitching in Canada is safe but you run the risk of being left out in the prairie for a cold cold night.
First of all let me admit that there is a certain amount of concern that I’ve felt about the advisability of this plan. Canada has 33 million people and is the second largest country by land mass in the world. To put this in perspective, New York has about 8 million people alone. What this means is that there are great stretches of unpopulated landscape in Canada. I can already tell you two days into this that Canada is BIG. And beautiful.
Kelie in Quebec City
After a great couple of days hanging out with Kelie and her boyfriend Sylvain, I hit the road two days ago. I pulled out my trusty sharpie, pulled some cardboard from a garbage pile and made a sign. Vancouver. Always make a sign and always carry a sharpie. I also found a pinwheel in the garbage so I attached it to the sign too.
I started walking West from Kelie’s place and after about 15 cars a yong couple named Patrick and Patricia stopped and gave me a lift. They had just driven to Quebec City over night and were driving back to Montreal because they had rented an apartment in Quebec City and accidentally overdrew their account so they pulled out the cash and rushed to Quebec City in the middle of the night to leave cash for the landlord so they didn’t lose the lease.
Great people. Before parting outside of Montreal they gave me cookies for the road and we exchanged emails so that when I head back this way in September we can go river kayaking and hang out again.
My next ride was an old Frenchman named Andre who spoke no English but saw my sign and said “Vancouver?” “Oui.” I said. “Vancouver?” “Oui.” He said. I couldn’t believe my luck and sort of thought we had a misunderstanding since he didn’t look like he had prepared for a long journey. I was right, he dropped me off in an industrial gas area in the North of Montreal a few minutes later and headed off to work. He simply liked Vancouver, unfortunately, hitching in industrial areas of cities is much harder than hitching from the outskirts.
I spent most of the day walking about 15 miles from one end of Montreal to the other. It seemed an urban wasteland as I followed the highway. Finally, a bus came and since I had picked up a few used bus transfers from bins near a few bus stops, I decided to jump on board the next one and get out of town. No luck, Montreal has an electronic validation system. I walked more and then decided to try again from a really gritty industrial area. The bus stop was broken glass and bad grafitti.
The bus stopped and I told the driver I only had a $2 and she told me to just get on board. Then she gave me two valid transfers. These got me all the way to St. Anne du Bellevue, a really nice little burb in the west of the city. Then I met a really nice couple named Josie and Alex and we walked across the final bridge to get out of Montreal.
I was set up in a great spot for hitching with a few hours of daylight left and hopes of reaching Ottawa about an hour and a half away. A young couple stopped and offered a short ride which I declined and they gave me some snacks and a juice box. Then an older guy named Henri stopped and offered a slightly longer ride that I accepted, but in hindsight, I probably should have held out in the sweet spot for a ride to Ottawa.
Henri drove me past the highway split Ottawa/Toronto and assured me it didn’t matter. Since I have no map, I didn’t argue, but the signs looked like it wasn’t true. He dropped me off in the middle of nowhere on the highway heading to Toronto.
“Okay,” I thought “I’ll head to Toronto.” I stuck out my thumb and about ten cars later someone pulled over. It was the police. They examined my passport and told me to get off the highway and go to the little used 338 to hitch.
Bad advice with only an hour of daylight left. By the time I got there the mosquitos and black flies were out, it was starting to get dark, and there was little to no Westbound traffic. I was exhausted too.
So I figured I would find a place to crash out. There was an abandoned old pickup truck with a camper shell off the side of the road so I crawled in and put on my two jackets and fell asleep. No sleeping bag. I knew it was a bad idea doing this without one, but no other option.
After about 4 and a half hours of sleeping in the old dirty truck I woke up freezing. My teeth were knocking and I knew that I had to warm myself up or else things could get very bad. I walked down to the river and lit a small fire and thawed myelf.
Then I walked back to the highway again, despite the police and began hitching. Soon a car pulled over. It was two more cops and the same routine. I was really sorry I took the ride from Henri at this point.
Freezing, no rides, 3:30 am. As I walked off the ramp a car pulled over and two guys asked if I knew how to get to Ottawa. I told them I did and asked if I could catch a ride with them. They said yes. So I hopped in and fell asleep in the back seat.
They dropped me two hours later at a truck stop outside Ottawa…no trucks there though. I went inside and used the restroom to brush my teeth and clean up a bit and then I went and sat at the counter and explained to the truck stop cutie behind the counter what i was doing there. Her name was Stephanie and she sold me a bottomless cup of joe for 1 penny which I had found on the side of the freeway. She even gave me a cup to go when I decided to go start hitching the onramp again.Very sweet girl.
On the highway I was picked up by an army nurse who treated me to a cup of joe from Tim Hortons and got me just to the outskirts of Ottawa. Too close to the city though and I ended up walking a lot again. By noon I was tired of walking and scoured around a bus stop to find used transfers and find out which busses I needed to take to get to the Western edge. Ottawa looked interesting, at least the center, but I didn’t feel like stopping.
My transfer trick worked in Ottawa and I caught long city bus rides to the Western edge. From there I tried hitching the ramps for about 3 and a half hours with no luck. The highway patrol station was right next to me so walking onto the freeway was not an option.
Instead I walked across the street to “The Beer Store” found the manager and explained to him what I am doing and then asked if he had any damaged cans of cold beer he would give me for free. He did. That cold beer tasted like heaven as i sat on a nearby bench drinking it. Thanks Mike!
Back to the ramp and finally I drew a sign that said Aloha! on it and started to give people thumbs down when they passed me without stopping. A fella named Derek gave me a lift to the outskirts where I stood on the highway again. He also gave me 5 cigarettes so I didn’t have to quit smoking.
I stood for quite a while and then Jim, a long haul trucker on his two days off picked me up in his mother’s car. Jim was Canadian but certainly way more American than me. He talked about how our two countries are the same, how we all have ‘niggers’ and ‘chinks’, and how the border is already open for criminals and it might as well be open for everyone else.
Despite his bigotry and sort of Rush Limbaugh mentality, Jim had a real heart of gold. I make a point of not arguing with my rides and yet when they make statements like his, i certainly can’t agree, so I would just ask him questions in the hope that he would broaden his mind a bit. I don’t know if it worked or not, but I do know that Jim drove me about 4 hours west, bought me a chicken and fries dinner, and a coke. When I got out of the car he gave me $5 and wished me good luck. I wished him good luck to since he was on his way to meet a woman he had met online on a singles website.
So there I was in North Bay. It was a few hours to sunset and on the way there I had seen signs that advertised “The Worlds Best Smoothie” and free wifi. So I headed there. I used the free wifi for a while and then started talking with the girl behind the counter. I told her about my trip and asked if she had any extra smoothie for me. She did. Jen was concerned that her boss would find out if I wrote about her giving me the smoothie so I won’t mention the name of the place, but I will tell you that smoothie as I sat in the sun was certainly the world’s best.
So there I stood, i had put in a couple of last minute couch requests but a few hours went by with no rides and no calls from couch surfers. I figured I might just sleep on that corner since I was stuck by a no pedestrians sign again. Then two smiling girls pulled over and waved.
Dawn and Lia live in Sudsbury about 45 minutes away and had just had an urge to take a drive to North Bay. When they saw me hitching, they decided to pick me up and within a couple of minutes of getting in the car, we were solidly friends. Great music, great conversation, funny stories. They offered to let me crash on their couch and here I am the next morning clean after a shower, rested after a night on a comfortable couch, and using their wifi to update all of this. Their house is filled with musical instruments and empty beer bottles, we watched funny youtube videos and one of my favorite films last night “Dead Man” and this morning I was able to feast on some leftover Chinese noodles. They also gave me a pack of smokes and a couple of delicious Canadian beers. They’ve offered to let me stay a little longer if I like and I’m debating whether to take them up on it or hit the road, there is still a whole lot of ground to cover….
Dawn and Lia through my weary eyes at a rest stop.
About 941 kilometers (585 miles) covered so far with about 3400 kilometers (2113 miles) to go.
(originally published 19 May 2009)