from A Squandered Life / Hitching '66
First faltering steps....
That first summer after university I took it upon myself to hitch-hike home rather than simply jump on a plane. Two reasons. First, I hadn't hitched before and fantasised about the promise of independence and adventure. Second, I had no summer job lined up and wasn't in a rush to get home and start looking in the presence of parental oversight. Door to door it was about 2000 miles but that didn't strike me as a problem.
I packed a duffel bag, put on my timber boots, and, with Judy Collins and “Take Off Your Thirsty Boots” ringing in the halls of my empty mind, started walking. I distinctly remember feeling slightly silly as I first put out my thumb. I couldn't stand still in one place - that felt even sillier - so I walked until I heard traffic. I would turn, thumb, but keep walking backwards. I thought that looked like I wasn't being lazy and that drivers would be more likely to empathise. To my timorous disbelief, cars and trucks actually began to stop and I was on my way. For years many of those individual rides stayed with me, but now the clouds of time have obscured most of them. You'd think I could remember the first one at least, but no, nothing remains on that score.
There wasn't that much traffic in those days, so I used to get a lot of walking done. In fact it was a wonderful way to see the country. I could smell the trees and hear the streams and the birds. I could feel the sun and notice details like what bridges were actually crossing over (beautiful rivers and streams for the most part), small abandoned shacks hidden in the forest, occasional wildlife (I saw my first moose), and idyllic spots where I could imagine camping or building a house. Mostly it was quiet apart from the trudge trudge of my boots.
Never a brilliant conversationalist, I came to appreciate the odd stilted chats I would have with the various drivers. I found I could fine tune my “story” without comeback. An economy of the truth here; an exaggeration there – all in the interests of making myself more diverting for my bored listeners. I could almost feel my personality beginning to take shape. But mostly I was interested in their stories and, generally speaking, so were they.
I traveled up the Trans Canada Highway from St John's towards the ferry terminal at Port Aux Basques, along the way passing signs indicating turn offs for some of the intriguing places from which my bay colleagues back at Doyle hailed. Although the TCH itself was tarmac, most of the rest of the roads in Newfoundland were gravel, and you could often see dust clouds in the distance indicating traffic. Each turn off called as I went by. I would have gone down them all if I could have.
Just east of Grand Falls I got a lift from a tanker driver. He was a big strong man but very softly spoken. At some point he mentioned he wanted to stop for lunch at a cafe he knew off the main road on the outskirts of a small town. Enigmatically, he said he might take a longer rest than just lunch and that I could either stop as well and carry on with him later or stay on the highway and carry on hitching. Feeling a bit peckish myself I opted to go to the cafe. In the cafe we were approached by a slim smiling waitress and I was a little taken aback as my driver casually slid his hand up and under her skirt and asked, “How's your lovely?”. She didn't seem to mind at all and it transpired that she was to be a participant in his rest. After lunch I read the paper and kicked gravel in the car park until he re-appeared, looking refreshed and rested. But the wait was worth it. He took me all the way to Corner Brook without a further halt.
I was struck by the rich textures of the west coast. Whereas the east coast was predominantly harsh, windblown rock and scrub, the west had proper trees and verdant gorges, modest mountains and waterfalls, and official camp sites that looked inviting. In the east the evergreen trees grew so close that visibility was cut to a few feet and getting through was more akin to cutting your way through jungle. Here there were more and taller deciduous trees which created space and allowed for filtering light and improved line of sight.
Throughout the whole trip I never used a motel or any other kind of paid-for accommodation. I would simply sleep wherever nightfall found me; just roll out the sleeping bag in parks or empty lots or lay bys or edges of forest or river banks. As dark settled I would casually look around for any signs of human observation and, if there were none, slip into a space that looked reasonably hospitable and out of sight. In the morning I would simply rise at first light and carry on trudging. But one night I turned up in Stephenville and noticed a slightly tilting bedraggled wooden clapboard cinema. I thought I might catch a movie and maybe a snooze if the staff weren't too diligent. What I hadn't bargained for was the inter-active chaos taking place within. People were wandering around, chatting, drinking, shouting, pushing, eating, and only infrequently looking at the screen to call out a ribald response to some dialogue or action, occasionally raising a laugh from their companions. I was struck by the heaving and creaking flexibility of the warped wooden floor as all this was going on. It groaned and squealed with every footfall. I don't remember anything about the film, but when it finished it looked as though the party would simply continue indefinitely and I quietly made my way to the door.
I finally arrived at the south eastern tip of the island of Newfoundland, Port Aux Basques. It was the usual gaggle of wooden houses but with the addition of an enormous concrete structure for handling incoming ferry boats. I found my way on board as a foot passenger and settled down for the overnight crossing to North Sidney on Cape Breton Island – the nearest bit of mainland Canada.
The rest of that trip back to Montreal is a blur of passing scenery and chatting people. In between lifts I would stolidly shoulder my bag and start trudging. I found that I had the best results if I timed my turn towards an oncoming potential lift for the last possible moment. I figured the driver might be drawn by my steadfastly walking back into thinking I wasn't actually hitching but just hiking. Turning at the last moment meant he (there were very few rides from she's) would react from the gut rather than think it through. Reacting from the gut seemed to bring out the more humane responses in people. And the trudging would bring me into scenarios well away from the usual crossroads and intersections. I would find myself walking through scented forests or endless tracts of farm land and noticing detail like hidden streams and dilapidated buildings and wildlife (a lot of deer) which I would never have noticed from a speeding car.
The rides on mainland Canada were not as easy to come by as in Newfoundland. There was a noticeable increase in reserve and drivers tended not to be quite so friendly and openly curious as the average Newfoundlander. Even so, I'll wager that everybody was a lot friendlier and trusting then than they might be today. But I revelled in the freedom and the contrast between the silent solitude of the trudging and the sometimes forced bonhomie of the vehicular interiors. And I revelled in the strength of my legs and back and arms as they carried me, like unquestioning servants, through those countrysides and under those blue skies. I would often sing, loud and long, as my boots pounded out the rhythms.
In due course the skyline of Montreal hove into view on the western horizon and, in spite of myself, I found my pulse quickening as those last few miles dragged out. I was dropped off and wandered through the canyons of the city until I got to our new house on Lincoln Avenue. I came in quietly through the back door and heard movement in the room to my left. I peered round the corner to see Mari-Ann doing the ironing. I just watched her for a few moments. She must have sensed something and looked up. My lovely mum. After an instant of confusion she gasped, “Oh Martin,” dropped everything, and almost knocked me over with a charging embrace. My lovely mum. We embraced for a good few minutes before we said anything more. Then it was cups of tea and chattering as the rest of the gang, unprecedentally absent from my neophyte life for the past 9 months, began gradually to appear.
© 2012 Deacon Martin