Rules of the road: A hitchhiker’s christening

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I stood there, straddling the white line that separated shoulder from highway, wondering whether I actually wanted to do this. The cloud cover broke and allowed the April sun to warm me from above. I closed my eyes, lifted my face toward the heat, and let that warmth soothe my doubt.  The air smelled of spring freshness and moisture. A bird sang sweetly somewhere overhead. This might not be so bad after all.

Then the first wave of cars crested the hill and accelerated toward me.

I opened my eyes and, stepping back off the line, watched the vehicles surge forward. Sedans and SUVs, pickup trucks, minivans and a motor home. Their rush blew wind up into my face, causing my chin-length curls to writhe like the snakes of Medusa. I stepped farther back from the road. The weight of my pack encouraged this motion and I nearly stumbled.

“What’s the problem?” my friend Bennett asked. He was up the highway a bit and had to yell for me to hear him over the din. “Get your thumb out.”

Bennett stood facing the oncoming traffic. He walked backward slowly, sure steps keeping him moving and upright, and held a rigid thumb out over the road. He had his pack hiked high up around his shoulders. “You won’t get picked up just standing there.”

I turned back. The traffic was thin again, probably held up at the light beyond the ridge. But the next round would soon be upon us.

I put my arm out—almost parallel to my body—and poked my thumb up.

“C’mon,” yelled Bennett. “Get it up. No one can see that.”

I got my arm perpendicular to my body this time and I thrust my thumb toward those thundering vehicles. But in the 100-kilometre-an-hour stretch of highway between Victoria and Colwood, cars come a-flying. One slight veer and I could lose my hand. Heck, I could lose my life. I inched off the shoulder line once again.

At first it felt as though each person who sped past glared at me. They saw me as they approached and scrunched their faces in distaste. Families, kids, grandparents—all passing judgement. “Look at that bum,” they thought. “Freeloader can’t pay his own way. Probably wants to rob us.” I thought of my own grandparents then. They wouldn’t be too happy if they knew I was hitchhiking up Island. Probably wouldn’t pick me up, either. I reached down and felt the pre-rolled joint in my pocket. That’s what I needed.

“Hey Bennett,” I called over my shoulder. “Let’s blaze this thing.”

“No.”

“It’ll be a lot more fun.”

But he was more disciplined than I. “No. Save it till we get scooped.”

Code of the road, I was told before we left: Always have a doobie to share with the driver. I liked the idea of that, I did, but I also liked the idea of getting high—right now.

As I stood out there, walking my way backwards along the road, I examined the cars. We’d been out here 10 minutes already and not even a sniff. Vehicles blasted by with no more than a single driver occupying the insides. So much room. Was it too much to ask for one of the many near-empty cars to pull over and pick us up?

“Why don’t any of them stop?” I yelled. “It’s not like they don’t have room.”

“Be patient,” said Bennett. While this was my first attempt at thumbing, Bennett had done it a few times before. Because he was going to school at UVic, hitchhiking was a viable way to get home to Powell River—he just had to get up Island to Comox and take the ferry from there. A single highway. That was it. For me, going to school at Simon Fraser University made hitchhiking to Powell River a much more arduous journey. If I didn’t make a connector, I’d be pooched at an empty ferry terminal overnight. I’d heard how fun (and economical) hitchhiking home could be. I wanted to try it. So when Bennett called me up and told me a few of our friends at Malaspina College in Nanaimo planned to throw a real shaker, that was it. The plan was to head up there for the party, then make our way to Powell River together the next day. But until Bennett and I caught a bloody ride, none of our plans could begin.

We kept at it for some time. Metre upon paved metre passed beneath our heels. My arm got tired after a while. At least it didn’t feel like the drivers were judging me anymore. Now I just felt like I was invisible.

I heard Bennett’s voice from behind me. “Spencer Road’s just a little farther. Subway there. Bathroom break.”

I had been told that a place called Spencer was the best spot to get picked up leaving Victoria. Not only were the drivers at this section of Highway 1 likely heading over the Malahat, but a merge lane from Burnside and an intersection from the Sooke turnoff both converged here as well.

We got subs and ate them inside. “So. What you think?” asked Bennett between bites.

“Sucks.”

“C’mon.”

“No one stops.”

“They will, young Padawan. They will.” Bennett grinned his goofy, toothy grin. He had the mouth of a horse, full of teeth all strong at the front. He was the only guy I knew who still rocked the mushroom cut—a style that had gone out during middle school so many years before. The undershave went high and his top hair dropped down past his ears. He wasn’t ready to let grunge die. I, on the other hand, had a head full of curls. Bennett liked to make fun of these curls, oddly enough. I made fun of his height. At 5’9, he was just a little guy. Stocky as hell, but short nonetheless. If we were both standing, I could rest my chin on his scalp—not that he’d ever let me get that close. He’d have me in an ankle-lock submission before I got within a foot.

We finished our subs and walked back out. It turns out the sun had said adieu while we were eating; the clouds had returned with a vengeance. Now they were dark, sinister things, roiling overhead.

“Doesn’t look good,” said Bennett.

“Better smoke that joint then.”

He eyed me a moment, then made for the highway without stopping.

“But it’ll be raining soon,” I called after him. “We won’t be able to light it.”

It was then that it started to rain.

We stood out on that stretch for a while, watching cars merge and turn and drive on by, waiting for one—just one—to flip its blinker and pull over. Within 15 minutes, my feet were wet. Fifteen minutes after that, my clothes were stuck to me.

“This sucks,” I muttered, blowing water off the end of my nose. Should’ve smoked the joint when we had the chance. I checked to see how wet it was.

Just then a car horn that sounded like the Road Runner made me look up, and there, coming from the Sooke turnoff across the highway, bombed a beat-up little Chevette. It barrelled through the intersection and cut across both lanes of the highway, skidding onto the shoulder ahead of us. I might have thought the maneuver reckless, if I wasn’t so elated that the car was stopping for us. Rust covered the side panels, and the exhaust pipe rattled, even while in idle, but none of that mattered. We had a ride. He honked again and Bennett and I jogged toward him, our packs swaying on our backs.

The car was a two-door, and we quickly saw the back was full of junk—clothes, boxes, and a tool kit. I even thought I saw part of a fishing rod protruding from the mass. The driver leaned over and pushed the door. It squealed in protest as it opened.

“Damn rain,” he said. “Not good for nothin’.” His southern drawl was unmistakable. He had long, dark grey hair tied up in a ponytail and a matching, ratty beard. Through his beard I could see a gap in the top row of his teeth—not one of the big two, but it could have been a canine. “Little guy’s gonna have to get in the back.”

Bennett grumbled. I put a fist to my mouth to keep from laughing. Once Bennett managed to clear a spot on the seat, he crawled in. There wouldn’t be much foot room in the front, either, so I passed him my bigger hiking bag and brought his daypack into the front with me. Our driver had to pump the gas pedal some before the car got moving again.

“Not used to all this weight,” he said, looking back at Bennett through the rear view. I bit my lip and looked out the window. “So where you boys headed, anyhow?”

“Nanaimo,” I said, feeling my pocket. I didn’t know how long the requisite wait period was, but the sooner I pulled the joint, the happier this guy would be. For sure. And then I saw it: a bumper sticker on the glove compartment door that read: No Puffin. A red circle with a line through it covered the picture of a puffin. Kind of like the Ghostbusters emblem. The puffin had a smoke in its mouth. I groaned inwardly. All the people who could have stopped and it had to be this guy. Unreal.

“Nanaimo, eh?” he said, drawing out the eh.

“You going that far?” asked Bennett.

“Going that far? Boy, I’m going to Alaska.” He put a real emphasis on that last word.

“In this thing?”

Again the man peered at Bennett through the rear view. He squinted beneath his bushy eyebrows. “You got a problem with my car?”

“No. Not at all. That just seems like a long way.”

The driver looked back at the road. “Well, it is a long way. And I should warn you boys, wipers are on the fritz.”

I glanced back at Bennett. He didn’t look pleased.

“Hoping this rain lets off a bit,” added the man.

“They seem fine to me,” I ventured.

“Oh yeah, they are. For now. Usually got a good hour in ‘em. Been on about half an hour now, though. We’ll see.”

“And what happens if they stop?” asked Bennett.

The man snorted as if that was the dumbest question he ever heard. “We stop and fix ‘em. What else?”

If I were a religious man I would have thanked God that we made it over the Malahat before they stopped. Well, almost made it. We were buzzing through the home stretch, heading downhill toward Brentwood Bay when they stopped for the first time. They’d been going, going, going, and then they just stopped. The rain came down in droves.

“God-dammit!” the driver hissed. We’d been in the fast lane and he slowed abruptly. This action was met by an angry honk from behind. “Motherfucker,” he said, more to himself than anyone. He got into the slow lane and the cars behind us sped past. The people in them surely gave us the finger and shook their fists, but I kept my eyes on the opposite window.

“Hey!” said the driver, pleased. I looked ahead and the wipers were going again. “Back in business.” Business, as it were, lasted eight seconds.

“Fuck!” He leaned forward to try and see through the curtain of water pelting down on the windshield. “Not sure if this’ll work.”

“You think?” muttered Bennett under his breath. He didn’t look pleased.

We made it to the gas station just before Duncan. Our driver popped the hood and played around with some things, whistling to himself all the while. We stayed in the car.

“This guy’s insane,” said Bennett.

“He doesn’t even puff. Look at this bumper sticker.”

Bennett leaned forward and read it. “Who cares? I just want to get there in one piece.” He shook his head. “Alaska? Honestly?”

We got going again, but had only gone a few clicks before the wipers frapped out again. We drove slowly into Duncan and stopped at the first gas station. The man looked at us. “Either you boys good at mechanics?”

I watched Bennett lean over the hood and fiddle about. He’d been a car guy for as long as I’d known him, ever since elementary school. He and his dad used to debate Ford and Chevy at the supper table. If anyone was going to get the wipers working, it would be Bennett.

After a while, he and the driver got back in the car. We had made it through Duncan, but that was it. By now the wipers were hardly going at all. We stopped at yet another gas station and the three of us got out. The driver bought some of that water bead-off stuff from inside. “Maybe this’ll work. Gotta get the windshield good and dry though.” We each grabbed a couple handfuls of paper towel and scrubbed the windshield. We scrubbed until it was good and dry. Then driver poured the fluid over. “Gotta wait till she dries, till it soaks into the glass. Says half an hour.”

We waited there for half an hour, hardly speaking, listening to the rain thump onto the roof overhead.

By the time we got going again the sky had darkened. We quickly discovered the bead-off stuff didn’t work. At least not during a downpour.

“Really thought that would work,” said the driver. I could feel Bennett’s disdain permeating from the back seat. “All right, boys. Gonna need you to work the wipers. It’s the only way.”

Now it was my turn to contribute. I hoisted my torso out the window and ran the wiper across the shield as best I could. Since I couldn’t reach the far side, the man had to lean over the centre console to see out my partially cleared side.

We went like that from Cowichan through to Ladysmith until the rain let up just before we reached Nanaimo. The speedometer didn’t pass 40 kilometres per hour once. We arrived just after 11 p.m., even though we’d been picked up just after 2 p.m., meaning it took us nine hours to span 100 kilometres. Our driver dropped us off near Malaspina College where our friends had long since started the party. Bennett and I grabbed our stuff from the car and trudged away. I don’t think we even said goodbye to the old guy. I wonder if he ever made it to Alaska.

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