Hitchhiking from Canada to South America
Go read part 1 of the Vagabonding Chronicles first!
All is calm on the highway.
The truckers are sleeping in their cabins, morning commuters still at their tables drinking coffee and reading the paper. I have been taking in a new morning since before sunrise. It has now taken on its usual bright blue shade and I’m curled up in my blankets wiping the remnants of a long night from my eyes.
My choice in a place to sleep wasn’t as good as I had expected, freight trains chugging by and as such, gusts of wind pulling me out of Morpheus’ arms every two hours. I pull myself out of the warmth because I still have the rest of Washington, Oregon and half of California to cross, and I need to be there by tomorrow evening.
Tiago and I commence our morning ritual, he does a downward dog that would make even a yoga master green with envy and I imitate a golf swing to get all the kinks out. I make sure he gets fed well before stuffing everything back into my broken bag, which after over a decade of use is now held together with various bungee cords. I cross the road with a smile and a stomach that is growling.
Thanks to the pastel pantsuit ladies I can buy a warm breakfast, a luxury I haven’t had in quite some time. The idea of crispy bacon and runny eggs smothered all over buttery whole grain bread after eating canned tuna and stolen veggies mixed in with Mac N´ Cheese is heavenly.
The waitress smiles at me and pours me a cup of coffee as I flip through the menu. There is nothing under nine dollars. That seems a little much to be spending on a meal with my budget. Goodbye, fried pig fat and scrambled chicken embryons, coffee and cigarettes it is. Nothing beats a healthy breakfast comprised of caffeine, nicotine and adrenaline.
The coffee is barely caffeinated water only drinkable once the contents of four creamers and five packets of refined sugar have been added to it. Ugh, fouler than foul, what else is to be expected in this tiny, sleepy desert town? Certainly not an espresso bar. I should have gotten some pre mixed specialty coffee from a coin machine instead – it probably would have tasted better and given me more energy.
I head back outside to my dog and my pack as it’s 7:30 and time is a wasting, let’s go. I walk down about a mile until I find a spot that looks inviting. Trucks and cars are speeding by with such velocity the wind almost knocks me over a few times. Maybe I should have stayed at the station. That’s what Ché B, my intrepid Argentine hitching companion, would have done. We flew through Patagonia together in March, sharing maté and good conversation until the truckers would leave at dawn. He swore by truck stops.
I swore by old fashioned signs and thumbs. Everyone has their method, I suppose, but the truck stop didn’t seem inviting, after my entrance last night. So I stick to the method of roadside thumbing.
After about an hour someone stops ahead of me on the shoulder, I run up to the window and ask if he’s going near the 97, the road I need to catch to get to Oregon. He can take me 20 miles down to a gas station which is the entry point so it’s perfect. I thank him for the ride and typical conversation ensues: Where are you from (a little bit of everywhere), where are you going, aren’t you afraid to be hitching out here alone?
I’m not alone, I say, I’ve got my little Bolivian canine here with me. People often don’t realize what amazing traveling companions dogs are. Why else would so many of us have one? It’s not just for safety. It’s a question of sanity.
Before he drops me off, he asks me if I’ve had breakfast, if I’m hungry. I try to turn down the offer by saying I have money and will grab a bite when I get into town but he insists.
That’s when I see the golden arches. I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s since I decided to never give them any money after working there and throwing a tray in a nagging customer’s face. This is different, though, as I’m not paying, and a free meal is a free meal, right? I leave my principles aside and order hash browns and one of those deep fried apple pies.
It turns out the McDonald’s is right next to the gas station, so once we’ve finished our breakfast, he thanks me for the company on his way to work and Tiago and I are on our way.
I follow the signs for the 97 south. I walk about fifteen minutes, cross a bridge and pick a spot a few metres further down, where there is a little traffic booth and a good, wide shoulder. Perfect for stopping without causing an accident or blocking traffic.
Ten minutes pass, and a big pick up with an Oregon license plate pulls up.
“Where ya going?”
“Well, I’m going to the Oregon border and then on to Portland, so I can take you about 350 miles.” I lift my pack over my head and put it in the back of the pick up.
“Wow, that sure is a heavy load for such a small young thing.”
Yes, it is a big pack. And yes, it is pretty heavy. But compared to the 600 lbs of fruit I picked every day for a month and a half, this forty-five pound pack I walk around with is nothing – I have shoulders that would make Van Damme run for his money.
I jump in with Tiago, and for the umpteenth time in 24 hours repeat my story.
This man, I’m not certain of his name, Bob, or Bill, he’s older, early sixties. He runs some sort of business although it’s not clear what exactly, something to do with driving RVs across state lines. He tells me about the region, how he grew up around here on an apple orchard, and that we have fruit picking in common. It’s probably been about fifteen years since he’s picked up a hitchhiker, he says, and I really should consider deviating my route to go through the Columbia mountain range and then south from Portland. I’m not too sure I want to do that, hitching out of big cities is generally a pain in the ass.
I think about changing my route for a while as I listen to his stories and his reasons why I should follow him. Tiago jumps up on me and licks my face, the driver looks over and sighs.
“If only I were him…”
That seals the deal. The state line it is. I’m not comfortable with that statement.
We get to the interchange which separates Washington and Oregon. He offers to buy me lunch. I decide on a BLT and tater tots which I haven’t eaten in a good ten years. Tiago sits outside the diner, barking at anyone who even comes within three feet of my bag. I would feel bad about having an aggressive dog, except he’s doing his job and the old ladies who come near my bag, our home, should know better.
We finish our meal, yet another person met along my journey to wish well, and I wave at him from the side of the road.
Five minutes later, a woman in her forties picks me up on her way to her annual “just us girls getaway” weekend. She’s steering as she chomps down on her Mcmeal, flecks of special sauce and sesame escaping her mouth. Just as she’s about to drop me off, she pulls over and out comes a little bag full of green. She asks me if I’d like to roll a joint. I’m taken aback by this gesture offered by what appears to be a soccer mom happily integrated in American society. I chuckle and accept. We share a THC moment and I’m left in a ghost town in the middle of the desert, completely blitzed.
I lean on a fence and look around. Nothing. Abandoned everything. Just like in the movies, tumbleweeds lazily roll by. I wait. For a long time.
Down the two lane highway I spot a big rig. The first vehicle I’ve seen since I exited my last ride.It starts to stop.
I wave him past, I don’t like getting into trucks on the side of the road. Thirty or so minutes pass. In the distance, another blazes down towards me.
I tell him to go. This truck gets stuck, taking about ten minutes to back out on to the road again. I feel bad, and now I’m overly paranoid because of the puffs of marijuana. What if he’s really pissed off and because of me he won’t make his schedule? Is he on his CB talking to all his little trucker friends sending out my description? Am I on a trucker hit list?
Another thirty minutes without a soul. The sun is starting to get low, I guess four o’clock by its current position. I pray to get a ride out – sleeping in a ghost town, although devoid of cops and tickets, is a bit creepy, even for me.
A third truck stops. I figure anything is better than nothing, run towards it, jump in, and tell him to drop me off in the next town, 50 miles down the road.
He starts to enter something in his little trucker computer and my inner mother sends me red alert signs, HE’S SENDING MESSAGES TO THE LAST ONE TO SAY HE’S GOT YOU AND ARRANGING A MEETING POINT! I tell the voices in my head to shut up, the dog will know what to do, and I have a pocket knife which I will happily insert in the appropriate areas if needed.
I look around the cabin. No porno posters, no tractor posters, no empty beer bottles. Instead, a battered old copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Anyone driving around the country with Hunter S. Thompson in his truck can’t be bad, right? I’m reminded of Claudio, the trucker Ché B and I jumped in with at Trelew and who dropped us off, 2 000 km later, in Rio Gallegos. He had The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda in his truck, and he was a good guy.
Could it be that you are who you read?
Turns out that John used to work in computers and retired early to go hide out in Amsterdam, spending a year in a a cloud of smoke and an ethylic haze. One day he snapped out of it and decided the only way out was to get behind the wheel. Whenever he had a month off he’d go party it up in Vegas as a special treat, but he’d since sobered up. John is pretty cool, full of stories and we’re on the same page, so once we hit the next town indicated, I decide to continue on to California with him. He doesn’t hang out with other truckers, or sleep at truck stops: instead he finds places off the road so he can wake up surrounded by nature. I tell him about my fear of truckers, and he tells me about a hitchhiker who threatened to call the cops and falsely accuse him of rape if he didn’t take her where she wanted to go.
Seems that we mutually live in fear of each other.
A few hours later we stop to tank up and he buys me dinner, “On the road, I only eat Subway, because at least it’s fresh and not deep fried like at those trucker joints, but if you’d rather have something else…”
A veggie melt and a cookie sounds delightful, thank you… I’m not picky if someone else is buying my food. Actually when I’m hungry I’m not picky at all.
As I sit at a picnic table around the corner from where John is filling up on gas, I think to myself how weird to see how things have changed in such a short time frame. Thirty six hours ago I was sitting around in Oliver starving and now I’m sitting in Oregon eating something that wasn’t picked off a tree, donated by a food bank or fished out of a dumpster.
Back on the road happily chatting away about peyote and the tribes that use it, we cross into Weeds, California (How fitting?), John explains to me that he has a certain amount of hours that he is allowed to drive per day, but he intends to escort me all the way to Stockton before he sleeps. I don’t want him to get into trouble but the scales along the way seem to be in our favor and we speed down HWY 5.
He points out to me that he has a broadband connection in his truck and urges me to at least inform my parents of where I am. While I send emails, I manage to get a hold of my friend Carry in Argentina and tell him I’m talking to him from a truck on a highway California.
He answers, “Fucking first world people.”
He’s right but even to a fucking first world person, as he pinpointed, it’s still really, really neat.
It’s about three in the morning when we pull into a gas station so I can use the bathroom. I head straight for the women’s room but before I can make it, I bump into a dandy looking fellow who has a sign that says Stockton. He stops me on my way in.
“Hey! Are you going to Symbiosis festival?”
“Yeah, actually. But I hitched a ride, so I can’t offer you one. John’s cool though, so maybe he’ll accept another hitcher. There’s room anyway. It’s that blue truck over there”
“Oh that would be awesome! I’ve been here all day, and yesterday I was a town away.. it’s been hell hitching out here! I thought people in California were cool, but it turns out that… not so much “
He introduces himself as Blake, from Brandon, Manitoba. I tell him to talk to John and I run inside before my bladder explodes.
I walk back to the truck and John asks if I’m OK picking up another hitcher. Fine by me, we’re going to the same place so I’ll have a bit of company on the next leg of the trip, which is always nice.
Now that Blake is on board, I can finally get some shuteye. I curl up in the cabin with Tiago and in what seems like moments later, I wake up in Stockton just before dawn. We’ve reached our destination.
I exchange email addresses with John who invites me to come party in Vegas sometime.
“Thanks for changing my opinion about truckers.”
“Thanks me for changing his opinion about female hitchhikers. I hadn’t picked one up since that last one, about five years ago.”
He quotes a Mormon who fixed up his bike for free as his parting words: “If you can’t repay someone’s kindness directly, you can always help someone in a time of need instead.”
I like that. It seems like a good philosophy to live by.
The truck stop, which according to John was a skanky lizard lot, is dead. I’m pretty burnt out after having slept maybe two hours since the previous morning and my organism is in need of caffeine. I still have about twenty dollars left after coffee, cigarettes and one beer. Blake has just enough to get into the festival – my next problem. Getting across the border was easy, now I have to attempt entering a $150 “no dogs allowed” festival.
If I can cross into the USA, how hard can it be to get into a hippie fest with no money and a dog who has canine ADHD?
I offer to buy breakfast, so we settle into a Denny’s about a block away from the truck stop and order coffee that arrives looking like gray wash. The food here isn’t cheap, but we’re both starving and I can afford to at least buy one big plate that we can share. I get the biggest omelet on the menu and a chocolate milkshake.
We stay inside until the sun comes up, pack away our things and try to find the road leading to Angel’s Camp. It’s a long ways and we can’t seem to find it. We follow all the signs but after an hour circling around this dreadful looking place, we figure we should probably start hitching. A young Latino in a beat up car takes us to the appropriate road, outside of town, and leaves us in the middle of a field where traffic is scarce but at least it’s in the right direction.
It’s starting to rain. Nothing but buses full of convicts and fruit pickers zoom by. I write up a sign in two languages but it doesn’t seem to help. Thankfully the wait is short, about two hours. A mini van stops and we pile in.
I’m zoned out from little sleep and a lot of kilometres, so Blake talks to the driver and quickly the topic of conversation turns to politics.
They always say don’t talk politics with people you don’t know, and this is the perfect example… The things coming out of this man’s mouth are making me sick, as if he’d swallowed a biased CNN commentary and I was forced to listen.
“Muslims teach their children that violence is good, as opposed to the United States who have no such culture.” Am I hearing things?
“Because random school shootings that happen multiple times a year aren’t a culture of violence?” Like some sort of verbal diarrhea it just spilled out of my mouth.
New arguments come forth and I turn my tongue in my mouth, trying to bottle up my left wing, half-Muslim upbringing from getting me into trouble, or standing out in the middle of the rain..
Blake is looking at me in the rear view, thankful that I’m keeping quiet while squinting my eyes, so I decide to block the hate spewing from the driver and shut up for the rest of the drive.
Thankfully along the road, I see two Danes I had met the previous month in Creston and take it as my cue to jump out of the car. Blake continues up to the festival and I stay behind, waiting for people who are leaving to attempt using their bracelets to get in.
After a few unsuccessful and wet hours I decide to just go with a ride going up the mountain. I try to talk my way in but I’m required to leave my bag and passport with security as a promise to return and pay full fee, even if the festival ends in less than 24 hours and has been going on for three days already. As soon as I cross the gate I spot a fluorescent green tent, obviously Aprille’s, my pseudo twin, the girl I’d come down to see.
I walk up to it and see a familiar head of woolen striped dreads, sucking on a bombilla. It would appear I have arrived just in time for maté. Perfect! I cry out to her, OIGA PUTA!, and the look on her face shows her surprise. She can’t believe it. A mutual friend, Steve, who I had talked to the day before leaving Oliver, had told her I was going to try and come down but she never thought I’d make it. I point out the obvious, smiling proudly.
“If I made it to Ushuaia in 4 days, of course I can make it from BC to Cali in two.”
So I’m in the festival but now the problem is how to stay – my things are at the gate and I can’t sneak in without security keeping them. Money is scrounged up and finally I am allowed to retrieve my belongings and immerse myself in the festival. I happily accept some liquid LSD amidst the festivities and promptly pass out from having slept so little, only to wake up in the tent tripping balls.
The festival suddenly seems like a mascaraed of corporate lies. It announces itself as a sustainable community of people who in fact are consumerists hiding behind eco-friendly and fair-trade, organic labels.
For me it’s all hippiecrite hogwash and it changes the feel of the gathering completely.
I spend most of my trip, and the day, hiding out in the woods with Tiago, furiously scribbling in my notebook. Everywhere I look I see a rainbow colored, scintillating mesh wire fence: in between tents, people, trees; it’s caging me in. I try to focus on the manzanilla trees with their tortured barks and textures like Japanese paintings instead of the negativity, but having paid for being out in the woods makes me even angrier.
I finally emerge from my bubble and attempt to find the good side but it’s just not there. I meet a girl from Seattle who came up with her live-in bus, the organizers made her park it down the mountain. It just confirms that this festival knows nothing of sustainable living and saddens me even more. I write down what I see around me. People are prancing around in multi colored feathers, leather and fur, looking like the bastard children of Jim Morrison and some random candy raver; their enormous SUVs quote Gandhi on their bumpers and their rented RVs are plastered with logos; the corpses of items bought at the local Eco-Walmart are piled high like totems of a civilization gone wrong. How is this sustainable living?
By this time the music is over and my friend is going back to Portland, and now I have no idea where I’m going or what to do. Go back to Canada? Stick around and try and find some work trimming marijuana? I really don’t want to go back to British Colombia so hitchhiking around California until the job in Prince George contacts me seems like the best possible option. It should only be a few more weeks, in theory.
I sit in the sun with Tiago and my notebook. All around me people remind me of ants – all have a task, a purpose. I feel like a cicada, wasting time as I sit on my backpack and watch everyone collect their things. Eternal observer lost in the masses, I scribble, with no discernible path, until I see a familiar head of dreadlocks and an unmistakable Quebecois accent.
It’s Julie, a girl I’d met picking cherries in Oliver and again in Creston. She’s going up to Ukiah, but first San Fran, and offers me a ride. I’ve never been to San Francisco, so why the hell not?
It’s not like I have anything better to do.
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.