Risk Versus Reward: Hitchhiking in Canada
“Aren’t you afraid of what might happen? It’s dangerous. You’ll be raped. Robbed. Murdered. Held captive. Never heard from again. What would your parents say?”
It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford a bus ticket. I was looking for a new way to travel and for a different perspective on the country I was visiting. That meant getting off the buses and away from the tourist trail to find some real Canadians to interact with. Sometimes this was harder to achieve as there were a lot of other nationalities there, namely Australians working abroad and Americans driving to Alaska and back, but if you looked hard enough, you could still find a Canadian or two.
I had a few sketchy moments, like when one truck driver tried to hold me captive for three days because he wanted the company. Or when another truck driver wanted “payment” for giving me a ride but wasn’t referring to money.
It was a risk to hitchhike. I had been raised with all the media stories about how dangerous it is and how unsafe women alone in the world are in general, but for me, it paid off. On the whole, I met only good people while hitchhiking: good people who just wanted to ensure I arrived safely at my next destination, good people who fed me and bought me Tim Horton’s coffees even when I don’t drink coffee. People who, on occasion, opened their homes to me so I had somewhere to sleep, gave me money so I could buy food, allowed me to use their phones so I could call my parents, gave me advice on what to see or do in my next destination and on occasion came with me to ensure I got the best possible experience.
My most rewarding experience was meeting a retired couple in the north of Canada on my way down from Dawson City in the Yukon. They not only gave me a ride but invited me to stay in their RV with them for several days. I was a broke backpacker at the time and surviving on granola bars and whatever was left in the free food boxes of backpacker hostels. They fed me bacon and eggs for breakfast and salmon for dinner, which hadn’t been in my diet for several months. After traveling for just three days together we kept in touch, and they later visited me when I was back in Australia. We are still in contact today.
Another positive experience was a guy who gave me a ride and then organized for me to go commercial lobster fishing. I got to pretend I was on The Deadliest Catch by throwing lines, pulling in pots, and generally amusing the crew with my clumsy efforts. Or the mother in Quebec who stopped to give me a ride despite having a car full of children with her. I thought it was risky for her to stop and pick up a hitchhiker and expose her children to an unknown, but had so much respect for her in doing so and teaching her children not to be afraid. I spoke no French and she spoke no English but we managed to communicate the whole ride and it was a truly rewarding experience for me.
I was a broke backpacker at the time and surviving on granola bars and whatever was left in the free food boxes of backpacker hostels. They fed me bacon and eggs for breakfast and salmon for dinner, which hadn’t been in my diet for several months.
Hitchhiking wasn’t all beer and skittles. Like all travel experiences I had a few sketchy moments, like when one truck driver decided he didn’t want to let me out and would instead try to hold me captive for three days because he wanted the company. (To his disappointment and after much discussion, I was finally let out where I wanted.) Or when another truck driver wanted “payment” for giving me a ride 15 minutes to the edge of town but wasn’t referring to an exchange of money. Or when a large group of motorcyclists, who looked like stereotypical bikers, pulled over, surrounded me, and after a tense standoff with no one talking where I thought they were indeed going to rob, rape, and murder me, they burst into laughter and offered to give me a ride on one of their bikes.
The risk of hitchhiking isn’t all one sided. The drivers are taking a risk when deciding to pick you up. They only have a split second to decide if they will stop for you or not based on no other information than how you look standing on the side of the road. For every story about a missing hitchhiker there is a story about a driver getting murdered or robbed by the person they have picked up, so there is a mutual distrust.
Hitchhiking is risky, and sure I could have been robbed, murdered, and never heard from again, but the simple fact that I was a woman standing on the side of the road with my thumb out triggered a protective instinct in the drivers who passed and made the experience what it was. I am now more receptive to hitchhiking and have even picked up a few hitchhikers trying to pay all the generosity that was afforded to me forward. It is a risk, no doubt about it. So is getting out of bed every morning and that usually works out fine as well.
Top image by Christiaan Triebert, Flickr