Vagabonding Chronicles

Vagabonding Chronicles – part 1

Hitchhiking from Canada to South America

Written for Startbackpacking.com by Cat Duval

Today I leave the picking world behind and embark upon a new adventure. The unknown is out there and the voices in my head are telling me to find it.

I’ve been sleeping in the park in Oliver, BC, for a week now, with a group of poor fruit pickers like myself who can’t afford to camp out at Loose Bay. Instead, we hide in foliage near a lake full of toxic pesticides which have seeped out of the neighboring orchards. My search for a job picking grapes seems endless, people keep streaming in and there are very few contracts available. I’m losing hope. Picking butts off the sidewalk in front of the 7-11, going to the church to pick up boxes of mac n’ cheese and eating cold Vienna sausages is starting to wear out my patience. The lack of funds is getting me down. The job I’ve been waiting around for since I left Creston, beetle probing at $200 a day up north in Prince George, was supposed to start this week, but now I’m told the season starts in November. Apples are killing my back and working 8 hours for $30 just doesn’t cut it. I have no reason to still be in Oliver, and yet I can’t find a reason to go back to my apartment in Montreal.

Every morning we wake up just after sunrise, generally startled by the noise of the sprinklers in the park a few metres away. This means people will start arriving soon, and if we don’t wake up, the cops will probably give us a ticket. Dew collects on my two sleeping bags (thank God for the wool blanket that I use inside them, or else I’d be freezing my ass off) and I struggle to leave their warmth, but this morning I know things are different. Today will not be spent at Work Zone calling orchards, nor will it be spent in the park drinking aimlessly, waiting for something, anything, to come and present itself.

I drag myself towards the parking lot, my dog Tiago in tow, backpack in place. Suzelle, who I’ve been traveling with for the past three weeks, has managed to scrounge up enough for a large coffee which we are all sharing on this crisp, wet September morning. I take a sip and sit on my bag, working swiftly on a piece of slightly soggy but still usable cardboard, writing in big, bold letters with a fat tipped black Sharpie.

“Well guys, this is it.” I take a mental snapshot of this group of people who I’ve just spent weeks with, singing, picking, hitchhiking, surviving. We hug, exchange email addresses, I promise if I find any kind of harvest work in Cali I’ll send for them. Suzelle hugs me and says I’m bat-shit crazy, that she’ll miss me, to take care. She hitchhiked alone on HWY 16, the infamous “Highway of Tears”, and yet she is worried that something might happen to me in Jesus-land. It’s true that even experienced Canadian and European hitchhikers such as ourselves always have a tinge of fear at the mention of a girl hitchhiking alone in the USA, but I’ve always been of the “do what you’re afraid of” mentality, and although I am scared, I’m confident.

Besides, the real challenge isn’t going to be getting to California in two days in time to see my good friend Aprille, it’s going to be getting into the United States with no money and a dog. I have all of ten cents to my name right now, even though I just spent two months picking fruit. I had bills, an apartment in Montreal that I continued to pay for, and Tiago’s shots to update.

Chantale hands me a few cents, Suzelle a couple cigarettes. Karine finds a dollar in her pocket. I’m up to $1.50, hardly enough to show the customs officer, but I have a canceled Visa which appears to still be valid, an emptied out ATM card and a paystub of my picking earnings, which reads $2,400, from only three weeks ago. Surely I can figure something out, I’m good at finding my way out of sticky situations.

I wave goodbye to my friends and start waking to the end of the town, thumb out, head high. I can probably get a ride into Osoyoos at least, we do this all the time to find work. I pass by an orchard and see some apples in a tree, they probably weren’t ripe enough when they did first pick and got left behind. I take them and stuff them in my bag along with the couple cans of tuna, veggie soup and loaves of bread I picked up yesterday from the food bank.

A car stops, the man is going to Osoyoos and offers to take me to the end of town, but please mind the wet dog on my clean upholstered seats, he says. It’s only a fifteen minute drive, but it’s better than walking it, which I’ve done before – and it’s long. We get to the edge of town and I thank him, he gives me a few cigarettes, and I start walking towards the border, some 10 km down the road.

The rain is really coming down now, and no one is stopping. I guess no one wants to go to the US today. Or maybe they’re scared that I’ve got several kilos of cocaine concealed inside me, or that I’m a wanted criminal and don’t want to risk being refused entry. It’s okay. It’s not far, and as long as I have my feet I will walk until they are broken and bleeding if I need to. Speaking of my feet, they are making squishy noises in my boots, thank god for socks, and my bag is drenched. Thankfully a few weeks ago I came across a poncho, you know the ones, transparent and fluorescent yellow, and had it stuffed away in my shoulder bag, easily accessible to be thrown over my pack.

I finally make it to the customs building and there are butterflies in my stomach. I hadn’t expected to be crossing the border on foot, and to be honest, I have a feeling that I’m going to be back in Oliver by the afternoon.

I walk into the building with my biggest, bubbliest, non offensive smile and put down my pack and tie up the dog. A customs officer barks at me, “NO ANIMALS ALLOWED INSIDE!”

I do as I’m told and bring the dog outside, he starts to whine. “shh, shh, it’s ok mi boli, I’m just inside, I’ll be right back.”

I step up to the desk, the sound of wet shoes resonates in the building, squish squish, and take out my passport. Once again, I flash my nicotine stained but heartwarming “I’m a nice person” smile and let out a squeaky “Hi!”. The customs officer stares at me, flips through my passport. Stamps from the US, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, France, Holland look up from the pages. If he notices that I recently traveled to these countries, maybe he won’t think I’m a penniless vagabond.

The usual stream of questions come out: Where are you from, where are you going, why do you want to come into the US, does your dog have papers?

I’m from Montreal, I’m going to California to meet up with a friend at a festival, then I want to go to Mexico. Here are the dogs papers, yes, I’m aware that some of them are in Spanish, he’s from Bolivia, but I had to get papers to get him out of there and as I’m sure you know, they don’t speak English down there.

Then, the question that kills: “Do you have any money? We require a minimum of $300 to enter the country.”

I have been thinking about what to say since last night, because I don’t have $300. I take out my wallet and show him what I do have, being my Visa, my ATM card, my picking stub. He asks for a bank statement. I explain that there are no branches of my bank in British Columbia, so I don’t have one. I can tell he’s trying to see if I’m lying. I put on my best poker face and stare him down with icy blue eyes.

He tells me to take a seat and wait. I wait. And wait. Forty minutes have gone by. Finally, he calls me over. His face is stern.

I’m screwed.

“You’re walking. How do you plan on getting to California? You can’t take a dog on the bus or train.”

“I’ll figure it out. I have a friend in Portland who I can call, maybe she can meet me somewhere at the Washington-Oregon border?” Saying train hopping and hitchhiking sounds like it could throw me back into Canada. I’m running out of options. The future looks bleak. I see myself waking up next to Lake Pesticides again and running through sprinklers as a sorry excuse for a shower.

He searches my bag for meat products. I’m scared he’s going to throw away my huge bag of dog food. He looks at the can of “Suitable for Vegetarians” veggie soup, puts it down, clears his throat.

“Well, if you’d like to go south, you can go out that door. However, you’ll need to leave us your can of vegetable soup, it has beef broth in it. And remember. You cannot, and I can’t stress this enough, work in any shape or form while in the US.”

A huge smile explodes on my face. I pick up my things, grab the dog and waltz out the door, rain pouring down on me, and set foot on American soil. I take care to walk a good two miles away from the border, so that they don’t see me hitchhiking and kick me out of the country that I just spent an hour and a half spinning the best story that I could to get into. I get to a gas station, ask to warm up some water, dump it into the contents of a cup-a-soup, and light up a cigarette. I figure I should stick around here to wait for a ride, I’m soaking wet and I can feel the skin on my feet pruning up – soon my feet will be itchy and my boots uncomfortable, I can’t keep walking to the next town. I’ve already walked some 15 kilometres today and odds are there is more walking waiting for me down the road.

I warm up, feed the dog, drink some water, slurp down stale, flavorless noodles and dehydrated peas that taste rubbery. After half an hour with no cars in sight, I realize I probably am going to have to walk into town. Great.

Finally, someone stops. A five minute ride gets me to the end of the next town. I stop in the library to warm up and send an email to Suzelle, Made it across the border. Can only go up from here. Tiago is well, my feet hurt from walking 15 km in the rain.

I walk a few more miles and a couple picks me up, drops me off at the next town. And this continues for a while, probably due to my sign, “AS SOUTH AS POSSIBLE”. People are bringing me as far south as they can, even if it is only town by town for a couple rides, which is fine by me. I get a ride in the back of a pickup for 30 miles through the desert, I make myself a sandwich, let Tiago lick the can. Take in the scenery, which hasn’t changed much seeing as it’s still, technically, the Okanagan, where I’ve just spent the past 2 months.

We arrive at the next town, I grab my stuff and thank them for the ride. The driver hands me $10, telling me to get a bite to eat and whatever it is I may need. I’ve got enough food to last me 2 days, but I’m out of cigarettes, something that can make standing on the side of the road for a few hours a lot more stressful than it actually is. A pack of Camels is of utmost priority.

10 minutes later, I meet a young woman, Rachel, who offers to drop me off a little further down the road, about 50 miles. We smoke and Rachel offers to buy me a beer and a sandwich. We sit down at the bar and she tells me about her kids, ten year old twin boys, and how wonderful they are. She cries a bit when she tells me their father died just a few days after they were born. I feel like I should be the one buying her a beer, and not the other way around. She opens up to me and treats me not as a stranger picked up on the side of the highway, but as a longtime friend. In the end, for lack of anything better to do, Rachel decides to take me to a truck stop just outside of Wenatchee about 100 miles away, where I’ll have a better chance at catching a ride into Oregon than where I started off. The road I had planned on taking, after looking at a map of the state, is apparently winding curves up the mountains and almost out of use. Places to sleep tentless are almost unheard of and it’s full of coyotes and rattlesnakes, so I accept her offer of dropping me off at the truck stop. I thank her immensely, she wishes me luck, and our time together ends.

She’s dropped me off on a very busy highway, on the other side of the truck stop. I cross the three lanes hastily and realize my boot sole is dragging on the asphalt. Shit.

Then, it hits me. TRUCKERS. Everywhere. Being a woman, truckers scare me. I’ve had a lot of luck in that department. Every time I’ve gotten into a truck, I’ve been accompanied by a another hitchhiker, generally male, so I have no horror stories to tell. I wish I could say the same for some of my girlfriends. It’s a hard world out there for a female hitchhiker, and truckers are one of the reasons why.

The only thing scarier than spending the night alone in coyote infested deserts is walking into a truck stop at sundown and having every fat, John Deere-hat-toting, grease stained t-shirt wearing trucker look at you like a piece of meat dangled in front of a hungry pitbull. I shake off the feeling of being a lamb thrown into a pack of wolves and walk towards the cash register, my sole making flapping sounds on the tile.

I buy some super glue so I can stick my boot back together, and I buy a beer (Bud Light, all they have in single cans, my god, this stuff is foul and I can’t understand how it can even be sold as a beverage), sit down with my bag and the dog out front and start to write. My sign is under me – I never hitch nearing sundown or after dark, and I don’t want anyone to offer me a ride to tempt me.

A guy in a car rolls down his window and calls out to me.

“Hey, kid, here’s 8 bucks. Go buy yourself a burger.”

I would like to point out at this time that I was not begging for money, nor did I particularly look starving or worn out. Tiago looked well fed and in good health, and was happily gnawing on a rawhide bone. I didn’t look like I had just crawled out of the gutter – if you look past the almost completely shaved head save a few multicolored dreadlocks and a face full of piercings, obviously.

I look up from my notebook, puzzled. He holds the money out the window. I smile, get up, and take it,

“Thanks, God bless.”

After the cigarettes, super glue and beer, I was down to my original $1.50, Canadian currency. The eight dollars are welcome at this point.

I buy another beer, light a cigarette and say goodbye to the sun: the sky is painted in shades of purples and blues, faint hints of hot pink and gray clouds scatter the horizon. The moon is out, overlooking a desert, rocky mountain and I decide to snap yet another picture of a sky from a gas station. A woman, absolutely grotesque in all of her stereotypical American splendor, stringy hair falling onto a scarred and acne ridden face, thighs that seem to scream “STOP THE HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP” and her wide-at-the-ass-tight-around-the-ankles acid wash jeans topped with a grease stained purple sweater of a wolf howling at the moon, walks by. She looks at me, then says to me in that western drawl:

“Beautiful country, ain’t it?”

I answer, before realizing the words pouring out of my mouth:

“Yeah….sure is.” (Oh my God. Did I just say that? I did. Amazing – Cat, the adamant anti-American advocate, agreeing that the US is beautiful.)

By this time, my notebook is 5 pages fuller and newly covered in scribbles: chap stick and superglue in a heart, a cup of coffee, a pack of camels, a sunsetting over mountains with the glowing Shell sign. A fat trucker munching on a donut. I sketch the outline of the US and A, framing it in its beloved piece of cloth, the Star Spangled banner, the flag that almost got me expelled from school, having refused to pledge allegiance to it fifteen years ago. I write fear in the middle, topping it off with a question mark. I’ve done pretty good so far, here’s hoping I manage to get through the night without getting arrested or attacked.

I’ve spotted an abandoned building next to freight tracks across the street. I decide this will be my home for the night – far enough away from the truck stop, close enough to be able to come back in case of a problem, hidden from the wind. As I’m collecting my things to cross and call it a night, a group of three old women with white hair the texture of cotton candy and pastel pantsuits approach me and ask me if I’ve run away from home.

I look up and smile, “I’m twenty three years old, I left home a long time ago.”

“Oh, that’s lovely dear. Are you traveling alone with your doggie, then?”

“Yes ma’am. I am. We’re going to California.”

“Oh, delightful. Well, we just had a wonderful dinner at the diner here, and well…we don’t have much, but here. Take this.”

In her hands, thirty dollars. I stutter, she insists.

“Please. Now go get yourself some help!”

They walk away with their arms linked, hunched over and taking small strides to return to their over sized gas guzzling SUV. At first, I chuckle. Then, I smile. What lovely little old ladies. Thanks to them, I’m going to buy myself a warm breakfast in the morning and drink some wretched filtered coffee. Maybe a nice piece of jerky for Tiago.

I cross the street and set up camp in between two buildings. Tiago curls up with me in my sleeping bags, I cover him with the wool blanket and give him a nuzzle. “We’ve had a long day, little one, and it’s only just begun.” The road is out there, waiting for us. I look up at the starry sky and think about the events of the day. I made it out of Canada and managed to get about 200 miles into Washington. I’ve made $50 today without even asking. I didn’t even have to hold out my hand, rather people extended theirs to me. I left this morning thinking I would be encountering scary monsters, instead the people on the way have been nothing but kind, helpful and reassuring.

Suddenly, being a girl alone with a dog, hitchhiking across the USA, doesn’t seem so scary anymore.

Now go read Chronicles Part II

Meet the Author:

Cat Duval is from Ottawa, Canada and left home to travel Europe at age 17. She hasn’t stopped vagabonding and wandering without a budget since. Cat currently lives in Buenos Aires.

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