THAT’S WHAT MY SIGN says. I watch a human-with-a-sign-shaped shadow stretch in front of me as the daylight slowly vanishes and the clouds behind me burn a deeper shade of pink. My first ride dropped me off about an hour and a half ago. Now I’m coming down from that high into the reality of wanting a quiet place to crash.
I’m a bum in my spare time and a student in Montreal when necessary, and this year planting is financing the climbing. But right now, it’s the bumming: the unexpected places, the spontaneous encounters, the ultimate destination–in this case, western British Columbia. I look at the terrain behind me, the sort of land we planted, a cratered swamp with young trees growing from the dry spots. Even if I had a hammock, they couldn’t support me.
Then, for a thousandth time, I hold my sign up and smile at a car coming out of the intersection. It’s a boxy blue-green van with rust-colored trim. It stops about 50 meters past me, and I hoist up my climbing pack and jog-run to the door as it slides open. They’re headed straight to Winnipeg. I didn’t expect such luck, considering it’s getting dark and Winnipeg is 700 km away. I climb in. The middle seat had been removed and all the others are occupied, so I take my implied position on the floor, leaning against the wall and my pack. Again, I feel that high of progress and improved circumstance. I’m no longer on the shoulder. I’m going somewhere, and each minute, that somewhere moves about a mile closer.
I attempt a pleasantry exchange with my new hosts. They all look like they’re in their late twenties. Behind me a tall, muscular man blazes a joint. Down his forearm a tattoo reads “Carissa” in curly letters. A fairly large woman with a curly-lettered “Jack” tattoo on her upper arm is crying into his lap. The man introduces himself as the Jack, tells me that Carissa is coming down from an alcohol high of her own, and busies himself comforting her. In the passenger seat, a pretty girl called Bea carelessly kneels barefoot. She is the friendliest, and asks the usual questions hitchhikers get asked. The driver, Scott, doesn’t say much, but when somebody speaks he gives a knee-jerk “huh?” that sounds more like “hah?” in its nasality. I learn that Scott is Jack’s brother and Bea’s partner, and that the four of them have been driving continuously from Toronto. Nobody seems eager to talk—even Bea is slightly distant in her friendliness and small talk—so I don’t ask questions and assume they’re on a road trip.
We drive on into the darkness of vast Canadian woodlands. We’re in prime moose country, so Scott recruits me take the lookout for potential collisions. Somebody brings up a previous hitchhiker and how they made him drive, although he had tried to talk his way out of it. I plan to deny having a license if it ever comes up.
After midnight, Scott sees that we’re running low on gas and have been for a while. Gas stations are sparse, and at this time of night, probably closed. I’m not sure why he didn’t just buy gas in Thunder Bay, but I’ll know later. In the next “town”—just an inn and a couple houses—Scott intends to siphon gas from a parked car. Before he gets the chance, the inn’s owner comes out to question us. We ask him for gas, no luck. So we keep driving, and we hope.
We cover about 5km before the engine stalls and we coast to a stop on the shoulder. I’m torn between feelings of cluelessness and pragmatism; I’ve never run out of gas, and I’m very tempted to abandon my hosts and pitch my tent just off the Transcanada until morning and try to catch another ride. However, if I stay with them, I’ll have a ride when they somehow do manage to get gas, which could be before morning. Scott decides to walk back to the inn and give siphoning another go. As we start walking back along the highway, Scottmentions something about avoiding cops. I ask him why; they might be better prepared to help us. As it turns out, my hosts’ road trip has actually been a jaunt to Toronto to bring 15 pounds of weed to Winnipeg. Fair enough, I think. In any case, we manage to catch a pickup with no gas to offer but willing to drop us off at the inn.
Scott tells me to stand guard while he tries to find a car he can siphon. I now realize that I have no idea what this entails, and that the whole idea is a combination of my 1:30AM stupidity and Scott’s general shortsightedness. Luckily, I don’t have to do anything; I stand as far away as I can—almost passing for “minding my own business and lacking any idea of what that sketchy dude over there is doing”—and Scott liberates a full jerrycan of gas from the back of the owner’s pickup and runs off toward the road and out of the light.
We try to thumb a ride back to our van to no avail. We end up waking up an elderly man around 2AM who lives a couple hundred meters down the road from the inn. We plead with him to drive us and after some sighs on his part we’re racing down the Transcanada in the back of his pickup.
We arrive at the van and pour the gas into the tank. Scott gives the empty jerrycan to the kind elderly man as a token of appreciation. As we drive off, he recounts the story to the others, gleefully finishing with: “So we stole a jerrycan of gas from the fuckin’ manager who said he didn’t have any, and then we woke up his neighbor to drive us back to our car.” It’s definitely the douchiest enterprise I’ve been part of, but it’s quite effective. To me, he adds, “Now at least you got a story to tell your buddies back home.”
I fall asleep on my pack, expecting to wake up outside Winnipeg and be done with this episode of my thumbing adventure. Instead, I wake up just after 5AM in Dryden (still in Ontario) to screams of “Right! Go! Go! Go! Drive! Drive! Drive!” Carissa is behind the wheel now. I sit there clueless for a moment until Scott explains that he left the nozzle hanging so the pump thinks we’re not done pumping yet, and then I realize that they’ve been stealing gas the whole way, which is why they didn’t take gas in Thunder Bay—a relatively large city, more police, tougher to steal gas—and why we therefore ran out of gas in the middle of the night in the first place. At the city outskirts, there’s a group of police cars and an officer standing on the shoulder, motioning. Carissa freaks out, terrified and screaming for Scott to switch places with her, before he points out that he’s just motioning to slow down. As it turns out, there was a moose accident here in the night.
At this point, Winnipeg can’t come soon enough, and I’m really hoping the rest of the drive there will be fairly normal and continuous. I almost ask to be dropped off early in Kenora, but end up going with them all the way to Winnipeg as planned, half-expecting shit to hit the fan in any number of ways.
“Hey, Ronnie’s outta jail now, ain’t he?” suggests Jack. I hear accounts of armed robberies, selling stolen electronics, and “Man, I was the last one off major crimes that time except Brian. That was some bullshit!” and “Oh yeah, I remember that time you went to prison. You called me on the phone, bawlin’ away… I was like, ‘baby, it’s only 135 days!’?” Come on, Winnipeg. You can’t come soon enough.
And finally, it comes. I bid my hosts farewell at a Petrocanada station on the east end of Winnipeg. They tell me they’re going out to BC in about 3 days, and I smile as if filing under “Good To Know.” And so I go brush my teeth and wash my armpits in the public restroom, fill up on water, and sit on the curb behind the truck stop, basking in the prairie sunshine and eating my late breakfast of dry cereal.
But breakfast ends, and it’s back to the shoulder. Back to the thumb and the sign and the smile.