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Hitching Canada

Hitch hiking is a tradition that had been around for a long time. It has always been the ultimate in budget travel to me. It usually went hand in hand with surviving on a sheckle or two a day, along with washing and relieving yourself in McDonalds or some similar establishment. One of the greatest aspects of it is the social interaction. You are almost guaranteed to come into contact with the kind of people you would never otherwise meet. People will sometimes tell you extraordinary things, personal things they would never normally say, just because they know they will probably never see you again. Sadly, as the world develops, the tradition has suffered with the apparent rise in crime and its related “untrustworthy” characters, and the unhelpfully spiced up horror stories in the media.

I first tried it on a big scale when I was in New Zealand a few years ago. I had heard stories from older travelers about how it, like many under developed places, was a dream place to hitch in the 70’s and 80’s. People would pick you up on any random road, and not only take you to where you wanted to go, but they would point out anything of interest on the way. If that meant a detour of countless miles to show you the oldest tree in the world, or the oddest looking rock, then that’s what they did. Then they would apparently often take you home to their place, cook you dinner, and give you a free bed, before sending you on your way the next morning with a hamper of food.

Of course, I knew that paradise would probably have been well lost by the time I got there, and indeed by the time I did, things had changed a fair bit. There had been a number of bad reports in the press about people getting relieved of possessions by errant hitch hikers, and various other overblown stories. The first time I tried to hitch I spent 3 hours in the rain before I gave up and got a bus. After that I had varying degrees of success. In the more rural areas I found it easy to get short rides, but near cities, as in most countries, people would usually not even consider stopping.

When I arrived in Canada in November, I knew that without a car, hitching would always be an option, a way of avoiding the inevitably overpriced tourist buses. Through construction contacts, I got hooked up for a three week contract in Pemberton, the next town north from Whistler. After looking at the bus timetable, I realized that I would have to hitch, as the first bus didn’t go there until noon.

Pemberton is 35kms up through winding mountain roads. The town used to be a place filled with nature loving rednecks, the old rural hillbilly’s with snowmobiles and rifles. Stetson’s were a frequent sight. More recently it has filled up with the Whistler worker population, paid too little to afford to live in the town itself. My new boss introduced me one of the only places to get a beer in central Pemberton by saying “welcome to the bowels of hell.” Its not that it’s a bad place; its in a stunning location beneath Mount Currie and surrounded by the coast mountains, its just that the most noticeable focus of the social life is the McDonalds next to the highway…

On the first day my friend and I hitched from Whistler it was a very cold, clear morning. The sun was out but we could hardly feel its heat. We picked a spot just north of a junction of the highway. It had a long straight road approaching from central Whistler, and there was an easy place to pull over. The traffic also had to stop at the lights coming in from the side streets, so the old ‘eye contact-make you feel guilty’ trick could be employed if no one else stopped. Once we reached our spot, I turned to the approaching traffic and stuck out my thumb, arranging myself to try to look vaguely respectable, and as non axe murderer like as possible.

The first car in the advancing line put on its indicator and pulled over. At first I didn’t move. I wasn’t scared, just flabbergasted. I have hitched a fair amount in England, and New Zealand, and never once had the first car to pass pulled over. Was this a good thing, or a bad one? We walked up to the car. It was an old blue Volvo estate, a car that I think my aunt and uncle had years ago. We climbed into the back, as there were books all over the front passenger seat. The driver was an old fella, with wrinkles and grey hair. He confirmed he was going past Pemberton, but then said that we must put up with what he was listening to. Sure we said, just thankful to be out of the cold. As we pulled away, he turned the stereo back on. A clipped south eastern English voice announced, “we entered the mortuary.” My friend and I froze and glanced at each other. The driver didn’t speak again.

The opening minutes of most hitching encounters are usually a little tense anyway. Both parties try to awkwardly get some talk going. This, however was on a completely different scale. For the next 10 minutes, the narrator described a murder and a conspiracy around it, before the talk turned to horses. I suddenly realized that it was a Dick Francis audio-book.

The journey out of Whistler begins by winding around Green Lake. It is huge, frozen and snow covered. There were snowmobile tracks weaving across it. The ice can be anything from 50cm’s to 3-4 metres thick. The Canadians are mad for their ice hockey, and there were precisely cleared areas all over it, exact rectangles for playing on.

Then the road turned away into the mountains. The Garibaldi Provincial park is 195,000 hectare park stretching from Squamish, 70 kms away to the top of the Whistler valley. Further north along the route to Pemberton, there are many backcountry roads going off to the east that peter out into trails up into the mountains. Mt Weart at 2588m can sometimes be seen. On the left the coast mountains stretch away to the north west. Mt Callaghan is the nearest and is 2515m. The entire area is a wilderness filled with many varieties of animals. Even now it has only been slightly touched by man.

With the sounds and names of my far away home country as a rather surreal background, I relaxed and stared out the window. No one spoke for the whole journey, but just before we got out, I asked him which Francis novel it was. He was astonished that I knew the author, and we spent a few minutes discussing England, and his old life there in his younger years, before he rattled off in a cloud of exhaust. I got out wanting to talk to him more. That’s the nature of hitching, a fleeting glimpse of someone’s life, and then they’re gone.

The next day, I hitched alone, and got a ride after about ten minutes. Not as lucky as the first day, but still o.k. It was a new Chevy truck driven by a middle aged guy and his wife. As soon as they realized that I was English, they talked non stop for the rest of the journey about their vacation to London the previous year. I managed maybe 5 sentences in half an hour. I got out feeling a little flattened by this tourist onslaught.

The following morning, a guy in a battered old 4×4 Jeep picked me up after about more than half an hour of waiting. It was minus 8 degrees in the early morning and windy. I was cold and shivering when I gratefully got in. I tried for 20 minutes to start a conversation with him. I got only monosyllabic answers. I asked him about his work, (construction), his home, (Whistler) and whether he had gone up the mountain yet, (nope) then I stopped. Personally, I pick up hitchhikers if I fancy a conversation while I am driving alone. He wasn’t interested, so I gave up and watched Mount Currie appear before the dancing clouds until we began to descent the last section of downward coasting into Pemberton. I got out wondering what his problem was.

Next morning he passed me shaking his head. As the sub zero blast of dirty air behind the truck hit me, I was confused. After over an hour of freezing our arses off, we finally got a ride, but only to Cougar mountain, about half way to Pemberton. Once we had got out, I realized it was a mistake. It was a bad point on the road with little visibility, or space to be picked up. After another 40 minutes without success, during which time we ran up and down the road trying to defrost ourselves, we gave up and got a ride soon after back to Whistler. We had now seen probably the best and worst of hitching here.

The next morning, a girl in her mid 20’s pulled over after 15 minutes. I didn’t expect her to stop, and was about to stop thumbing when she slowed. I generally subscribe to the theory that a guy will pick up a girl, a woman will pick up another woman, but a female will not usually pick up a male on her own. I was getting cold, and happy to be proved wrong. I guess she just thought I was about her age, and looked normal enough. She was going home after a night shift in a hotel where she worked the grave yard slot most of the week. Sometimes she could sleep in the rooms, while supposedly at work, if there was nothing to do. We agreed that crappy jobs were worth it, if you could live in the mountains and go up them sometimes too. We passed the sign for the Nairn Waterfalls, about 6kms before Pemberton. I had passed it frequently, but had not seen the falls themselves. I asked her about it. She told me she had camped around that area a lot the previous summer. Groups of people often stayed there overnight and had parties. As we slowed coming into Pemberton, we passed a huge boulder beside the road. On it, the large sign that welcomed us to the town was covered in Christmas lights. Just after it there was a large lake. Before she dropped me off, the girl told me she had skated on it each winter every year since she had been a kid. I got out wondering what it would have been like to grow up in a place like this.

The next day, a young guy picked me up in his rusting Nissan. He was chain smoking, and the ashtray was overflowing with butts. The car was full of rubbish, wrappers and empty cans rolled around in the back. After a few minutes, I asked him why he was going north to Pemberton. He told me he was going home to Vancouver. I pointed out that it was the other direction, south. As he chucked a Ueey, he was really embarrassed. He told me that he had been drunk when he had got back to his friends place late the night before, and had no idea where he was. As he dropped me back at the junction, a lady at the nearby bus stop, who had been there when I got picked up, was looking at me in a very odd way.  

After 20 minutes a brand new, fully loaded Ford Explorer truck pulled up. The guy driving was about 45, and wore a hunting cap. We got talking about the wilderness. He told me he had recently taken ownership of a mountain cabin, north of a little town called Lillouet. I think he was a big city guy who wanted to go out and pretend he was back in nature. He told me he bought the cabin off a business contact in Vancouver. The first weekend he had owned it, he had arrived late and gone to bed. The next morning he had walked out onto the porch. There were Cougar tracks that had circled the hut, and a messed up area in front of it, where the cat had sat down and watched the shelter. The guy had left immediately, and returned to the city. He was returning now with a new rifle, and lots of ammo.

We talked about other animals. He had seen loads of bears. He told me about a time when he and a friend had gone camping.

“We had pitched the tent and gone for a hike. When we got back in the afternoon, we took a nap. I woke up to a strange noise outside. It sounded like a very overweight man who had been forced to run a very long distance as fast as possible. I stuck my head out and saw a large black bear trot past, panting and out of breath, after its rush up the ridgeline behind the tent. It was heading for the steak and sausages that my friend had brought along. They were hanging from a tree about 50 feet away. I ducked back in and woke my buddy, who grabbed his shotgun and leapt outside. The bear, steak and sausages had all vanished. We walked to where the food had been and looked around. A bear appeared from the bushes for a moment then scuttled off. Not wanting to intimidate it, we moved back to the tent but could not see the bear anymore. After five minutes we began to relax. Then a bear appeared behind us, on the other side of the tent. At first we thought it was the same bear, but it looked smaller. Then we realized it was a mother and cub. The mother reappeared and the juvenile moved towards her. They was clearly distressed, and aggressive in their movements. We were thoroughly freaked out by this stage, and started packing fast. One of us held the shotgun, while the other stuffed the equipment into bags. Then we hiked away quickly down the ridgeline, hoping the bears didn’t think we had any more food for them.”

He was starting on another story, but I had to cut him off to ask him to drop me off, as we had just passed the point where I needed to get out. As I walked across to the worksite, I thought about how much I wanted to go into the backcountry, camping and staying in cabins. I would definitely make sure there was someone with a gun handy for emergencies though.  

One morning a lady picked up a mate and I. She worked for the Mountain Safety on Whistler. She told us about the death that had occurred recently up on the hill. It had been in the news, but exact details were sketchy. She told us that a man coming down on the lift had reported to the Lifty that he had seen a person who was stuck in the snow. The report was passed on to the mountain rescue lady, who began to organize a team to go out. Then another report came in from someone else riding up the lift. They said that a person had been seen upside down in the snow by a tree. The safety crew moved faster, but it was a hard area to get into. It was a closed section, with rocks and many trees. When they finally found the individual, they saw that he was stuck upside down in a tree well. A tree well is an area around a tree that is hollow until collapsed. As most Alpine trees have no branches low down (they would be below the snow), and the first ones above are wide (Christmas tree style), there forms a small hollow space around the base beneath the first branches, where snow does not fall. The guy (who was riding alone in a closed area very early in the season-not sensible!) had crashed and been flung forward into the snow around the bottom of the tree. As he was on a snowboard and his arms were wedged under him in the snow, he was completely stuck. The rescue team, including the woman who was driving us, had pulled him out and tried to revive him. A rescue helicopter had tried to land but the location was very inaccessible, and a chairlift passed close by. After an hour they had managed to get a proper doctor in, and he immediately pronounced the guy as dead. Our driver was obviously cut up about it, blaming herself for not getting there quicker, but also angry that the first report had not mentioned that the person was upside down. They would have tried to get there much faster, but the report only said someone was stuck in the snow, and frequent reports like that usually led to wild goose chases. I got out feeling sad, and sorry for her. She had a hard job, and I realized that those small mistakes could be the difference between life and death.

One day we spent nearly 2 hours trying to hitch. No one would pick us up. Eventually I called my boss and told him, planning to just take the day off. The work was running behind schedule, and the boss told us he would come and pick us up. A half hour later he arrived and we jumped in. For some reason on the way back, the subject of deaths kept coming up. The boss, Rob, who had lived in the area all his life,  told us about a friend of his who had lost control on a tight bend next to the railway line. He had rolled the car, crushing himself as the roof caved in, and it had ended upside down on the tracks.  My friend nervously announced that the ride he had got a few days before had lost the back end on that curve, and had spun onto the tracks. Luckily no one was hurt.

A few miles later, Rob pointed to a memorial plaque on the side of the road. A guy he had worked for, had been driving too fast on his way home from a night out, and had gone off the side into some trees. The autopsy had revealed that he was 3 times the legal drinking limit. He was well known and liked in the area. He had been a very wealthy guy, but only once he had died did his family discover his true value. Without a Will, they were still fighting over who should get what. It was obviously a sad, and painful story for my boss, who had built his house for him.

Further on, we came to Rutherford Creek. In the floods that had ravaged the area a month before, the bridge had been swept away in the current. With no lighting and the consequent poor visibility in the torrential rain, two cars had failed to see the lack of a bridge and had gone off into the river. Only one guy managed to escape. 7 people had died. Neither car, nor any of the bodies had been found. In a small community like Pemberton, the people were all known and it was considered a real disaster. We slowed and Rob told us to look at the bend in the river just downstream from the bridge. The bank was about 30 feet high, but was gouged out by the force of the water that had come plowing down from the mountains. It looked like a knife cut into the ground, and tree roots hung out in the air. I tried to imagine the power of the water needed to dislodge so much earth.

As we came into Pemberton, the boss insisted we go through the McDonalds drive thru. The guy at the window handed him his food, and thanked him by name. Like I said, it was a small town… 

The days began to blend together, sometimes rides were memorable, sometimes not. One morning it was raining hard and I got a ride early on, probably out of pity. The driver, a middle aged guy who was rather overly chunky around the neck and belly, greeted me with a booming “morning”. He drove an old cheap truck, and told me that he had lived in Pemberton for 30 years. He had seen the prices of property in Pemberton and Whistler increase massively. The number of beds in the area had been capped by the local government in an ineffective effort to slow construction, and this had artificially pushed up housing values. Many locals to Whistler had been completely priced out of the market. They had simply uprooted and headed further into the Interior of the State to escape the advancing development. The 2010 Winter Olympics had recently been awarded to Vancouver and the Whistler area. It had only to served to accentuate the problem.

We moved on to talking about his family. His sister lived an hour and a half away, north west up the ridge of coastal mountains, as the crow flies. He was going to visit her the next weekend, but as there was no road, it required a 500km round trip down to Vancouver, onto a ferry for an hour then a long slow drive back up the other side of the mountains again. His sister had not spoken to him in 6 years. He didn’t elaborate as to why.  

She was a single mum, and had called out of the blue to complain that her 15 year old son had stolen her Christmas bonus. She had brought the $1500 cash home and put it in her jar of Christmas money. Then she had gone out to buy food, and when she returned it had gone. There was no sign of a break in, and the son was the only other person who could have got in. He denied everything. The sister wanted my driver to come and deal with it. The guy was going to take the kid out into the wilderness and leave him there until he confessed. If that didn’t work he told me he would rough him up, and knock the truth out of him. He told me his dad had beaten him whenever he felt the need. I didn’t say anything. Then he told me that his dad had worked until he was 72 years old, then retired and died at 74 of a heart attack. He had no intention of working for that long and was aiming for retirement at 45. As I got out, I was worrying about delinquents, in-breeding and unlikely parental techniques.

The next day it was snowing heavily. The truck that picked me up had not been treated well. I looked hard and realized it used to be white once upon a time. The driver was a young guy, no older than me. We pulled away. The vehicle was in no better state on the inside, wires and broken bits of dashboard hanging out everywhere. Above 60 kms/per hour, the whole thing began to vibrate so much it made my teeth rattle. The first 15 kms of the journey is on fairly straight roads, but then after passing Rutherford Creek, the road goes into switchbacks up and over a ridgeline. The snow was blustery in the winds that whipped over the hill. As we came out of one of the turns he gunned the engine too much and we lost the back end. The truck slewed across the road, causing a car coming down the hill to stomp on the brakes. Both drivers had a moment of absolutely no control, and mine gave out a hollow screech. Then we recovered just in time and got back on the right side, facing the right way. I found out later that the spot was called Suicide hill, because many people failed to make the sharp turn coming downhill.

I tried to get a conversation going, to distract us both from the near miss. We talked about jobs and discovered that he lived in the same units that I was working on. They had been flooded with water up to nearly a metre in the recent record floods. Fortunately, the housing authorities had stipulated that the properties must contain no accommodation on the ground level, and only the garages had flooded. As I got out I was still a little shaken. He asked me to take care doing up his garage, and I nodded weakly.

One day, a Scottish guy picked me up in a rattling old Mazda 4×4 truck. It seemed that if you lived here, it was compulsory to drive a rust bucket of a truck. (Locally known as a “beater“) We talked about Scotland, and then British snowboarders. He knew many of the guys that were now at the top of the British scene. Then we talked about Canada. He had lived in the Whistler area for 5 years. After marrying a Canadian girl, he had got a work visa to stay in the country.

“Ye should do the same,” he suggested.
“I’m not sure how easily I could persuade my Irish girlfriend to go with that idea,” I explained.
“Ah fook it, do it anyway.”

We talked about Whistler and he told me that most of his original friends had moved on from the area. He complained, just like many other locals had, that Whistler had been spoilt by the massive influx of second home rich people. He had moved to Pemberton, priced out of the market like many other long term residents who had rented, and could no longer afford to buy or even rent anymore in their home town. Just before I got out, he told me his name was Eren, and asked me my name. I told him. When I got out, I realized that he was the first, and as it turned out only, guy who I had got a ride off, whose name I had found out. Perhaps strangely, it was just something that usually never came up, even after half an hour of talking. 

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