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Published: January 2nd 2009
The joy of traveling comes from many elements, whether it be sampling new foods, sleeping in new surroundings, or exploring new places. Two of the major ones - alternate modes of transportation and meeting new people - are combined in one activity, that being hitchhiking. Despite a decent travel resume all of my hitchhiking experiences have occurred in Canada or the USA. When I travel I am on a tighter itinerary and throwing your travel fortunes upon the mercy of others would mean that my plans would be harder to follow, so I have hitchhiked closer to home, only in Ontario, and given rides to people only since I got my first car in August, 2008. The following is my recollection of the 5 most interesting people that I have met to date:
The African Priest
On Friday my dad had unceremoniously dropped me off on the side of the road and told me that if I wanted to get into Ottawa from Renfrew that I would have to hitchhike. Getting in turned out to be not much trouble, I had gotten a ride which had taken me the rest of the way. Returning proved more difficult. As with any large city the concentration of traffic in the city center makes it unlikely to find a ride there, so I set out on a 90 bus journey to the edge of the city. From here the first open stretch of road was a further kilometer. The major problem here proved to be one of geography, one of the minor roads from Ottawa to Toronto split off only a few kilometers ahead and while the chances of someone heading to Toronto on this route were small they were indeed not so small that my first ride only gave me a ride for these first few kilometers. While I was grateful for the ride that far, I had ceded an important advantage to someone who wanted to pick me up. People picking up hitchhikers can suffer from the problem of access and so it is best to sit at a relatively busy on-ramp where cars have not yet picked up much speed. Now I was waiting at a nearly deserted on-ramp (not many people head from the road to Toronto north to Renfrew) and those who were passing were already at highway speeds. Not usually happy just to sit and wait for a ride I turned my back and started to walk up the highway, thinking that a busy truck stop 10 kilometers or so ahead might offer better possibilities, all the while not thinking that I would actually have to walk that far. In fact it was not long until a small red car stopped by the side of the road to pick me up.
Although the driver was only going as far as Arnprior, another 25 kilometers, I willingly jumped in, knowing that it cut in half the distance I had to make before I was within distance of my father's car. The driver opened up immediately and it was clear that he had an ability to talk. He told me that he was a priest on exchange from Botswana to this small town within Ottawa's reach. Having at this point only been to three countries (and one of those, the United Kingdom, before I had conscious memory of it), my ability to relate to Botswana came only from little I knew from geography lessons. Correctly tagging the capital city as Gaborone, the driver thought automatically that I was well versed enough to engage in a discussion of Botswanan politics and development. While clearly out of my league (the capital city and its location and neighbours were all I knew about the country), I tied in some arguments about needing to throw off the reins or colonialism, much like the Americans had done with the British during their revolution (which was a theme I had learned only a year previous in first year American history). Happy to have picked me up the driver dropped me off on the far side of Arnprior, out of his way, but in a better place for me to catch my next ride, which quickly took me back to Renfrew.
The Bomb Squad
On one of my next times hitchhiking not long later, I found myself with my brother and sister-in-law, all three of us eager to get to Southern Ontario. The logistics of hitchhiking with three people should be obvious to anyone. The safety issue for drivers is greater, knowing that they are significantly outnumbered. There is also the issue of space, there are simply not as many vehicles which can pick up three people. Finally there is the problem of the social atmosphere - three of the people already have an existing social relationship. And so the three of us stood in the southern reaches of Ottawa, just past a donut store, which we figured a lot of people might stop into before a long drive. Our strategy worked as before not too long we had our first ride. This one was taking us only as far as Kemptvile, about 30 kilometers away, but we jumped at the opportunity to at least get started on our journey south. So about twenty minutes later we found ourselves at the edge of the road again waiting for someone's generosity.
Our next ride, in a spacious truck, was with an off-duty policeman. My brother and sister-in-law insisted on sitting in the back. They weren't very keen on making conversation, nor were they particularly lively anyway. So I began to talk with the policeman and he started to tell me about some of the aspects of his job. For a long time he had been a member of the bomb squad at the international airport in Toronto, dealing with far more bomb threats daily than I had thought would have been possible. At the time bomb makers were still maintays of the news. The Unabomber had just recently been caught and the trials of those implicated in the Oklohoma City bombing were still underway. Though an interesting topic to a 20 year old with a limited exposure to the world outside of school, when the man showed me the mangled remains of one of his hands, the result of one of many bombs which turned out to be real, and told me how this one action had ruined his marriage, I knew it was time to shift the conversation elsewhere. He had found refuge in canines. Not only was his new job entirely centered around dogs (he worked with the canine unit) but he informed that all of his best friends were also dogs, having tired of the complexities of human relationships, he found them fair more simple and uncomplicated. An hour later we were dropped off again, this time at a much busier section of highway, by this man who had tired of human contact.
The Navy Cook
The only one of my five whose name I actually discovered (Phil) came many years later. After having bought my first car my years of hitchhiking were finally over. Indeed they had mostly been over anyway. Other than the occasional ride which I would give to hitchhikers when riding in someone else's car I had no exposure to hitchhiking for about ten years. This was mostly due to acccess. I had begun to travel to many more areas and my ability to research other viable transport options meant that the need to hang out my thumb was never necessary. My wife Aleks, after finishing the long immigration process had joined me in Canada in august 0f 2008. Never one to miss a good travel opportunity, I picked her up at the airport in Halifax in our new car and drove straight to the ferry for Newfoundland. Our car however was packed almost to the limit. While never one to overpack, we had all the stuff she had borught to Canada with her, all of our camping equipment, as well as the few things which I had. Our possessions invariably spilled over into the back seat of our car, and so being able to pick up one of the few hitchhikers which we had seen was nearly impossible.
One month later, over the Labour day weekend, we decided that we would go to Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia for the long weekend and see some of the highlights of the southern portion of the province. This time far less crowded we fit all of our stuff into the trunk and one of the back seats leaving open a spot for our hitchhiker. When he got in we informed him that we were on our way to Halifax by way of Peggy's Cove, the overly touristy tourist town but one nonetheless that I wanted Aleks to see. Not only undeterred by the route that his drivers were taking, Phil instead was more than happy to tag himself along to our small group in looking around the area. He considered himself to live in the small town past Peggy's Cove, but he actually lived in Halifax during the week, so he was a veteran of the 30 kilometer route between the two places. He was working as a security guard in Halifax, but he was hoping to get transferred closer to where he lived. He had also spent some time in the navy, he told us, as a cook, though he didn't shown any interest in discussing any culinary related topic.
On our way into town Phil insisted that we stop at the SwissAir 111 memorial (coincidentally on its ten year anniversary which I found out later) something which I had planned anyway. As we looked around the gift shop right next to the famous lighthouse, Phil made numerous suggestions to us on things to buy and he ran into a friend that he hadn't seen in over a decade. As we drove onto Halifax about half an hour later, he informed us that he had seen the victims of the SwissAir crash walking up to heaven through the clouds, an extremely open thing to share with a couple of people that he just met. We dropped Phil off at the Halifax citadel in the rain, as he ran off to catch a bus, a colourful character brightening an otherwise dreary day.
The Symmetric Booty Call
My friend Derek had emailed me at work a few weeks previously as to whether Aleks and I would be interested in doing Operation Red Nose with him over the holiday season. Red Nose is a charitable organization which offers its volunteers to drive home people that have consumed too much alcohol to drive in their own cars, in exchange for a small contribution. Derek had offered his van as the pickup vehicle, Aleks operated as navigator and I got the task of driving people's cars. So while not technically hitchhiking I was exposed to new people in their cars. Over the course of the night I got to drive home a few people, and drove some cars which I had never driven before, a BMW and a Mustang. It was the BMW who provided the best story.
We were centered in Oromocto, the town just off the army base where I worked and we had a maximum coverage area to work in. One ride called up and asked for a ride from one edge of the coverage area to the other. When we got there we met a younger girl whose twenty year old BMW's back seat were full with her winter tires. Normally Aleks was supposed to ride with me, but in this case she had to ride with Derek. I myself barely fit in her car. But over the course of the next 40 minutes that we drove she talked with me almost non-stop (as drunk people are prone to do). At almost every conversation point she found that Aleks and I were one step ahead of her. Her favourite name was Ava (which was Aleks' middle name), her dream vacation was an African safari (where Aleks and I went for our honeymoon), her desired choice of occupation was in the health field (which is the same as Aleks was hoping to go into.) When we finally dropped her off in Fredericton we found that I had left the charity's cell phone in her car, and we had to go back and disturb her to get it back. Already stripped down nearly to her lingerie she came back out to the car and got us our phone. None of the three of us had any doubt about what she was doing there, especially me who had been subjected to the tales of her previous dalliances, but nonetheless she had provided a bright spot on an otherwise relatively slow night.
Our New Year's Eve plan had been thrown into a bit of disarray over the course of the previous week. Family and friend commitments had proven difficult to mesh together and so on New Year's Eve we found ourselves with no viable place to stay. A late arrival to our New Year's Party in Ottawa had offered us a spot at her place. One thing was for sure though, we were going to stick with our plans to make it to Lake Placid in upstate New York the next day for some winter activities. We woke up at a quarter to seven and we were out of the house 25 minutes later on our way south. The roads not surprisingly for the early hours of the first of January were all but empty. The US border guards had little interest in us and we were soon in the Adirondack State Park. The almost deserted roads eventually produced a lone hitchhiker. After picking him up we made a bit of conversation, with him telling us that he had been out to a New Year's Party for the first time in nearly a decade the previous night, and all signs pointed to him wanting to get home to get some sleep. Practically giving up on him, I drove on talking quietly with Aleks.
Aleks, being a native of Europe, had been constantly questioning me since coming to North America and seeing the occasional house in the middle of nowhere, about what specifically it was that these people who lived there did. Aleks again asked me this question, only difference this time being that in the back seat of our car I had someone else who could giver her an answer. My query revealed an interesting answer. The man in our back seat worked at an animal hospital to pay his bills, but his main interest was in animal sounds. He told us about traveling all across the USA, often while being sponsored by Cornell University, recording all manner of bird noises, and a few other animals like frogs, for whom he had made extensive recordings from every from Louisiana to Alaska. A few weeks previous we had attended a listless lecture by a photojournalist and his journey to the gorillas of Africa. His lack of passion in this interest topic was counteracted by our fellow traveler's interesting discussion about his life's hobby.
Although hitchhiking is far from the mot interesting or stimulating experiences which one can have while traveling, it can also provide the basis for some great encounters. Travel as a whole lets one open up their minds to new ideas and new concepts, and this mode of transport is no different.
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