I walked over an hour to get out of downtown Halifax and close enough to the highway to start hitchhiking home to Montreal. It was Saturday morning.
I leaned against a concrete barrier outside a Petro Canada service station and texted my girlfriend: “I’m trying to find a spot to put out my thumb. This is hard. I’m nervous! I feel so vulnerable.”
I’d never hitchhiked before and I was scared. I felt embarrassed and I hadn’t even put out my thumb yet. I wasn’t ready.
So I went into the Petro Canada station to pee. I didn’t really have to go but I was afraid of getting picked up with a full bladder and being too afraid to ask the driver to pull over. I dribbled out the few drops I had in me.
Afterward, I asked the 15 year old store clerk where he thought I should stand and try to get a ride. He looked at me like a deer caught in the headlights and shrugged his shoulders, so I went outside.
I stood in front of the station beside a set of traffic lights leading onto the highway. I nervously stepped to the edge of the sidewalk, unfolded my orange sign with ‘Montreal’ written on it, and extended my arm over the road with my thumb up. An elderly woman in a wheelchair rolled past and wished me luck.
As the first cars drove past I felt small; I felt like I was begging.
I stood there for an hour before a guy wearing a hoodie walking his big dog said, “You’re never gonna get a lift there, buddy.” He instructed me to go to the other side of the intersection, higher up on the ramp. I did it and stood there for another hour but had no luck there, either.
The day was sunny but below zero. I was getting cold standing in one place so I went back into the service station to get a coffee, which the 15 year old clerk gave to me for free.
“Could I wait inside for a bit while I warm up,” I asked.
“Sure, no problem,” the kid replied.
I drank my coffee and rethought my strategy beside the rack of chocolate bars and gum. My method wasn’t working. Perhaps I didn’t look desperate enough, or maybe people were afraid of me. I couldn’t blame them. I had never picked up a hitchhiker myself and felt like a hypocrite standing on the sidewalk with my thumb out.
I finished my coffee, threw my small backpack over my shoulders, and started walking. I decided this spot wasn’t where I was going to get my first ride. I needed to walk. I had to get farther out of the city and the only way out was on the side of the highway.
The first part of the walk was along a narrow curb next to the concrete railing of the on-ramp. A few inches separated me from the cars and trucks whizzing past, accelerating onto the highway.
After the ramp I had greater safety on the gravel shoulder. I intermittently stopped to pull out my sign but never had any success. I learned that drivers don’t want to stop when they’re going over 100 km/h. Frankly, neither would I. I needed to get to a crossroads and find another on-ramp.
I walked for two hours before I got to the next on-ramp. Then, after only 15 minutes next to a set of traffic lights, I finally lost my hitchhiker virginity; I got my first ride. It was noon on Saturday.
My adventure came to an end at 10:30 pm Sunday night when I entered my apartment in Montreal—more than 36 hours after walking out of my hostel in downtown Halifax. It took four rides, one night in a middle-of-nowhere motel, and several hours standing on the road with my thumb out, but I made it thanks to the help of perfect strangers.
What kind of people pick up a 33 year old white boy like me, you might ask?
Allow me to introduce my good Samaritans along with the distance each drove me:
Tanya = 35 km (22 miles)
Tanya was the first person who offered me a ride. She couldn’t drive me far, but at that point I needed to take whatever I could get. She was in her mid 50s and retired from the military. The military moved her and her family all over Canada throughout her career. She did tours in Afghanistan and Bosnia. I thanked her for her service to our country. She told me the thing she missed most about the military was the routine and joking with her friends. She also told me she didn’t usually pick up hitchhikers, but she didn’t think I looked “too creepy.”
R.J. = 260 km (163 miles)
R.J. picked me up on the on-ramp where Tanya dropped me off. A 51 year old guy working in finance, he had just dropped his sister off at the airport and was heading back to Moncton. He said he felt bad for passing a hitchhiker on the way to the airport, so he gained a bit of retribution from picking me up. He told me stories about driving his car from Alaska to Bolivia and about his off-the-grid house he was going to build this year. He talked about marijuana legalization, immigration, and homelessness. We had dinner together in a truck stop; he had fish and chips and I had a clubhouse. He talked the whole time we were together and I was happy to listen to his stories.
The Ukrainian Brothers = 240 km (150 miles)
Two Ukrainian brothers shaped like strongmen picked me up after 3.5 hours with my thumb out. I sat in the back seat of their SUV. We never exchanged names. The driver had a beard, shaved head, and forearm tattoos. His brother had a mohawk and never spoke one word of English. The driver said very little to me in his thick accent but I found out they were both truck drivers originally from Ukraine, but had also lived in Israel and Toronto before moving to Woodstock, New Brunswick. He said they loved living in a small town; Toronto was too big and busy. Our conversation didn’t last long and I spent the two hours split in two:
- Half the time the music was cranked and Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Ukrainian heavy metal thumped the vehicle.
- The other half of the ride was spent listening to them talking and laughing to someone on their cell phone in Ukrainian. The thought of them planning my death crossed my mind, but in the end they dropped me off at a truck stop, we shook hands, and I continued my adventure.
The Brampton Crew = 730 km (455 miles)
A Ford Explorer full of the most wonderful Brampton, Ontario misfits I’d ever met squeezed me into their truck. They were on a weekend road trip to New Brunswick and they were driving all the way back to the Toronto area in one shot. They adjusted the backseat and made room for me even though I insisted they didn’t have to make such an effort. “Bull shit, man!” Kira said. “We can’t just leave you standing on the side of the road. Want a beer?”
Among the six of them were first generation origins in Trinidad, Bahamas, and Philippines. They had different expressions and accents that I wasn’t accustomed to, and I enjoyed listening to their conversations. Before long we were joking and laughing like old buddies.
I rode with them all the way home to Montreal. We talked, sang, danced, ate junk food, and peed on the side of the highway together. When they dropped me off a kilometer from my apartment, I felt like I had made a new group of friends.
So…what did I learn from this experience?
I learned a number of things, but this adventure reaffirmed what this blog is all about.
We live in a shitload of fear.
Speak to anyone about hitchhiking who, a) has never hitchhiked before or b) has never picked up a hitchhiker before, and you’ll probably notice that the level of fear is the same no matter which foot the shoe is on.
What I mean is, hitchhikers fear drivers and drivers fear hitchhikers. It’s like a merry-go-round of fear. When both parties to a relationship are scared shitless of each other, where does the fear stop?
People have told me that our world is “crazier now than it was back in the day.” I’ve heard it over and over again. “The world is scary, you know? It never used to be like this.”
To these people I ask, “Do you think that’s true, or do you think we live in a time where we’re so bombarded with negativity in the news that we can’t help but be afraid of everything?”
This is the information age. We’re exposed to incredible amounts of new information on a daily basis and if we choose to ingest information that is negative, our thoughts become negative, too.
Fear begets fear.
Does it feel good to be afraid of our neighbours? I don’t think it feels good at all. It feels much better to think the best of other people and have faith they only want the best for us, too.
I thought that this challenge was only about facing my fear of being a hitchhiker, but I was wrong. This challenge was also about facing my fear of picking up a hitchhiker when I’m in the driver’s seat. The friendly and generous people who gave me a ride taught me the importance of always remaining open-minded.
I thought I was open-minded before this adventure, but I realized I have a lot of room for improvement. I now know what it’s like to feel desperate, vulnerable, and embarrassed on the side of the highway. Because of that, I’ll never be able to drive past a hitchhiker again without giving them a second thought.
Maybe my Year of Fear isn’t only about facing personal fears; maybe it’s also about understanding what it’s like to walk in other people’s shoes. We often dissociate ourselves from strangers and get stuck in our bubbles. I feel like I can empathize better with a hitchhiker now because I’ve experienced it myself.
I know I can increase my empathy towards the struggles of others and I don’t think I’m the only one. Perhaps we can all adjust our mindsets when it comes to how we view strangers, whether that stranger is a new neighbour, a hitchhiker on the side of the highway, or a Syrian refugee, for example.
Yes, there are assholes out there, no doubt. And yes, some of them could be dangerous. But the majority of people are just like us: they want love, happiness, and success for themselves and their families.
I’ll never forget the people who opened the doors of their cars for me and helped me get home safely.
Dear: Tanya, R.J., the Ukrainian Brothers, and the Brampton Crew,
Thanks for picking me up.
You’re all good eggs.