• Ken Ilgunas

Rule of Thumb #7: To be poor in things is to be free of them

[After a 4-month long hiatus—due entirely to laziness—I begin again this “weekly” (now bi-monthly) series of my 2007 hitchhike across North America with new hopes of actually completing something I set out to do. Select the “Rules of Thumb” entries in the August and September tabs on the right if you wish to acquaint yourself with my journey thus far.]


Day 7: May 21, Prince George, BC to Hope, BC (388 miles)

Hitchhiking may be the most authentic form of travel. There are, of course, safer, quicker, and more convenient ways of getting around, but there is -- if I may boldly assert -- no better way to travel than hitching rides.


The walker—depending on the personality—often travels more in his head than he does on the ground beneath him. The tourist, who ought to leave behind the schedules and structures of home-life, carries them with her as devoutly as she carries her sacred guidebook. Bus rides can be impersonal. The car is a carapace, shielding its riders from the unexpected. The train limits one’s company to that of other travelers and the flyer—who may get a better scope of a region’s geography—flies above and around the people, smells, sounds, and culture that make real traveling so intoxicating.


The hitchhiker, rather, is cannoned headfirst into culture. There is no better way to become intimate with the place you’re traveling through than your driver—a cultural representative of sorts.


The driver doesn’t hold back. He shares his life, his philosophies, and his feelings perhaps more freely than he does in the bedroom with his bride or in the bar with his buddies. That’s because the hitchhiker’s opinion of him doesn’t matter. The hitchhiker is there one hour or one day and gone forever the next—like a journal entry written then burned.


There’s no trade of phone numbers. No promise to exchange letters or to “keep in touch.” There’s a handshake, a goodbye, and a nod that seems to signify that both driver and hitchhiker alike got something out of the bargain.

***


Dennis—my driver for the past two days—dropped me off at a truck stop in Prince George where I bought a badly needed $7 shower. I ate a power bar for breakfast and, on the side of a bustling Route 97, I held out my “South” sign which I colored with orange and purple crayons.


After half an hour of waiting, Frank pulled over for me. I asked him where he was headed—my standard question.


“Ashcroft,” he said.


“Where’s Ashcroft?”


“Just get in.”


After buckling up, Frank brusquely lectured me not to “hold someone up with questions if they’re offering you a ride.”


I explained, politely, that I was going very south and I wanted to select rides that were going long distances. A mere fifteen kilometer drive could do more harm than good, depending on where I was dropped off.


I knew he was trying to be the alpha male—an easy thing to do when you’re the one giving rides—but I wasn’t going to let him treat me like anything other than an equal.


The traveler may be hungry, homeless and haggard, but there’s no one forcing him to get up and go to work in the morning.


Things cooled off and Frank spoke without pause for the next three hours. He was a Catholic priest on a native reservation who had a frosty white beard that gave him a patrician air despite the compact economical car he drove.


Ashcroft, by the way, was in fact very south.


Instead of subjecting me to—what I thought would be—a lecture about how I’m heading straight for hell—as, I found, is often the case with the fervently religious—Frank was actually quite likeable—the kind of guy who might laugh at a joke about Nazis and pedophiles. He told me about life on the reservation, the boons of the Canadian healthcare system, and stories of his own hitchhiking feats when he was a lad my age.


Soon after picking me up, Frank spotted another hitchhiker ambling down the road.


“Are we actually going to pick up a hitchhiker?!” I worried to myself.


Once we got to know Matt—a 20 year old looking for work across the province—we added a third hitchhiker, this time a drunk native who instantly dozed on Matt’s shoulder in the back.


We arrived at Ashcroft just in time; I tired of Frank monologues and began to long for a more taciturn driver.


Ten minutes later—my shortest wait thus far—a car stuffed with teenagers was honking behind me.


They were all in their late teens. I got in. Discussion revolved entirely around pot and exploits with the opposite sex. There were two males in the front and I sat with a pair of blondes in the back. The one rubbing shoulders with me had milky-white skin. They were headed to a party in Vancouver and she asked if I’d pretend to be her boyfriend.


Though tempted, I had a girlfriend of my own just a few borders away in Oregon. I declined with some reservation: certainly things like these—random encounters, new cities, and strange experiences—were what I wanted all along.


Regardless, the ever-changing landscape was enough to sate my wanderlust and capture my imagination. In just a matter of days I went from arctic tundra to arid wine groves and now to howling rainforest. Vines serpentined around elephantine trees whose canopy of floppy green fronds had me saying words like “lush” and “verdant” for the first time.


Like bullet-ridden barrels, waterfalls poured from mountain faces. An errant train chugged alongside the roaring Fraser River. If the train hadn’t been moving so swiftly, I might have hopped on.


The teens—after hugs and handshakes—dropped me off in Hope, British Columbia, just north of the American border. I stored away my sign and set up camp next to a vacant motel, quickly penning my day’s journey into my journal as daylight dimmed.

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I’ve been told that I’m going to hell more times than I can remember. It’s actually been quite a while since someone has reminded me of my fiery destination, but I thought of the common refrain — whic