Travel Day One – Nelson, British Columbia – June 29, 2019
It’s Saturday of the Canada Day long weekend when Mat and I decide to embark on our journey. We’ve got our backcountry hiking bags stuffed to the brim with camping equipment, cycling gear and all the clothes we’ll need to get us through an East Coast summer and into the changing leaves of fall.
Somewhere amongst it all is our travel fare, a giant Ziplock bag full of pungent West Coast weed, because ass is not an option and cash is on reserve. We finish off a double americano and a breakfast sandwich at a favourite neighbourhood haunt and head for the highway hitching spot.
As we stand on the shoulder of the road, holding our handmade cardboard sign with the words “EASTCOAST” printed in bold block letters on the front, a group of nearby mountain bikers laughs in our direction.
“That’s ambitious,” one guy shouts, not entirely off the mark. We are, after all, standing on the outskirts of Nelson, B.C a mere 5,000 kilometres for our aspired destination. “Good luck,” yells another, as a second vehicle whizzes by with no signs of stopping.
I’m trying my best not to take the passing cars personally, but I can feel the turbulence building in my mind. Is it me? Is it Mat? Are our bags too big? Our jackets too bright? Am I making too much eye contact? Not enough?
Sensing my agitation, Mat reminds me to breathe. “It’s only ten a.m,” he says, “We’ve got all day.” I take some deep breaths and remind myself that it will all work out as it’s supposed to. As if on cue, a white pickup truck approaches our lane and comes to a stop up ahead. The driver rolls down his window and with a wave of his arm, motions us towards the cab.
We grab our bags and run towards the truck, leaving the mountain bikers wide eyed in disbelief. “Have a good summer!” I yell back as we head off up the road. Aside from my first-timer turmoil, we’re off to a good start.
In ten short hours, we would travel six hundred kilometres with five fascinating drivers and get dropped off, exhausted but exhilarated, exactly where we wanted to be – in northwest Calgary, just a five minute walk from my brother’s house.
Travel Day Two & Three – Calgary, Alberta – July 1 & 2, 2019
Donnie pulled into the Wendy’s parking lot at six a.m, just like he said he would. He eyeballed us cautiously from behind his tinted windshield before popping his trunk and getting out of the car. “If you two looked sketchy, I was going to drive away,” he said frankly.
We’d found his post on a rideshare site the night before. ‘Calgary to Sudbury. Leaving 6AM Monday. Shared driving.’ We responded and he obliged. He shuffled his flip-flopped feet to the trunk of the car, making room for our bags. I couldn’t help but stare at his neck full of tattoos.
“I’d like to keep rotating drivers so we can ride right through the night,” he said. Matt and I agreed. “How many times have you driven across Canada?” I asked. “None,” he replied. We smiled, knowing that Donnie might not know just how big Canada is.
We filled the day with interesting conversations about social media addiction, the future of CBD and why we all loved Drake. We alternated positions, each trying unsuccessfully to take a backseat nap in between piloting and co-piloting the ship. By two in the morning Donnie was hitting the centerline rumble strips, Mat was sleeping in the back and I was nodding off in shotgun.
“Maybe we should pull over for a few hours,” Donnie relented. I agreed in relief. Parked in the back corner of a McDonald’s parking lot in Kenora, ON, we half slept for a few hours until the sun was too bright to pretend. Another full day of travel lay ahead.
By the time we reached Sudbury that evening, Donnie was hesitant to drop us off at the greenspace we’d located on Google Maps to call home for the night. We’d spent 36 intimate hours exploring each other’s minds, learning about one another’s lives and celebrating our sameness. Alas, we were all ready for some reprieve.
We assured him we would find a nice, soft space to pitch our tent and catch up on some missing sleep. The night was so warm and the stars so bright that we opted for a flyless tent above our heads. As we climbed into bed, I noticed a flickering light wavering above and then another and another and another. “Fireflies!” Mathieu said, “It’s our gift for being brave.”
Travel Day Four – Sudbury, Ontario – July 3, 2019
Donnie would drop us off in Sudbury where we’d get a good night’s sleep. But as we stood amongst the mid-week, early morning work traffic, my faith wavered. Hundreds of vehicles had passed us by and my frustration at the vulnerability of our situation had boiled to the surface.
With bike travel, we were independent. We could load up our lives and ride away on our own accord, but this was new territory. I knew there was a lesson to be learned in having patience and asking for help, but I hadn’t yet internalized it.
“It only takes one,” Mat reminded me, his sentiment making our odds seem better as a wave of rush hour traffic passed by. A little brown car with Massachusetts plates lagged in the distance and pulled in behind our bags.
“HITCHHIKERS!” the driver exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air enthusiastically as he got out of his car. “I’ve been looking for you!” Kevin was from Boston, but decided to travel back from his high school reunion in North Dakota through Canada. He was hoping for some company to pass the time. We were as grateful for Kevin as he was for us.
As we travelled East, we had what he referred to as ‘level three conversations’ deep, stimulating and introspective contemplations, a far cry from surface chit chat. He was an open-minded, progressive thinking baby boomer, which he attributed to his newfound relationship with the mind expanding nature of cannabis, and his two millennial children. We loved him.
As we approached Mattawa, ON, we asked if he would make a brief detour. Our friend Denis had always told us to stop at his friend Danny’s chip truck there for ‘the best fries on this side of the Atlantic.’ He obliged and before we knew it, we were standing in front of the Turcotte’s Chip Stand, drooling over a menu that’s been filling bellies since 1944.
We met Danny and his wife Tamra and told them about Denis and the adventure we were on. To our utter amazement, they gifted us with three of the most deliciously fully loaded chicken burgers and heaping piles of fries our eyes had ever seen. This trip was getting better by the minute.
Stomachs and hearts full, we waved goodbye to our new friends and got back on the road. We went all the way to downtown Montreal with Kevin that day, navigating the congestion of after work traffic and the confusing signage of the city. As we parted ways on a dead end street, we hugged him wholeheartedly, wished him the best and watched him disappear in the distance.
Travel Day Five & Six – Montreal, Quebec – July 5 & 6, 2019
We spent the next day in Montreal, renting bikes, touring the city and catching a free Cirque du Soleil show in the park. With the bustling Trans Canada Highway hovering above the city and no great place to thumb a ride, we decided to take public transit as far East as we could and hitch from there.
The day was getting on by the time we figured out the transit system and the ticket booth operator finally understood my English butchering of the French pronunciation of the town Saint-Hyacinthe (pro tip : the ‘H’ is silent). We got off the bus, strolled through town and picked up some food at the local grocery store.
Both feeling a little lacklustre and exhausted by the hyper nature of our trip, we decided to tent the night in the Parc Les Salines, hoping to have our energy restored for the next day. It worked. Leaving the Tim Horton’s early the following morning, I stuck out my thumb as we neared a highway off-ramp and a young French man picked us up.
He wasn’t going far, he told us, a few hours down the road to the other side of Quebec City. We assured him that any little bit helps and we set off down the road. He knew a good highway rest spot on the outskirts of the city that would be full of weekend traffic. “You should be good there,” he said.
We stood at the rest stop for all of ten minutes when a little white sports car pulled over at our feet. A young man named Louis was on his way back from a Def Leppard concert in Quebec City. He was tired and hungover and thought the company would keep him awake. Smelling the stagnant beer in the air, I offered to drive.
Louis told us he was going to Grand Falls, New Brunswick, which would get us 300 kilometres from our final destination. We were stoked. “Where are you guys going?” he asked. “Shediac.” Mat replied. Louis looked baffled, “Seriously?” Seriously.
As luck would have it, Louis was driving to Shediac Bay the very next day to meet at his family’s cottage for the weekend. “Well,” Mat joked, “if you see us on the highway tomorrow, feel free to pick us up.” We all laughed.
When we arrived in Grands Falls, Louis had a change of heart. “What the hell,” he said, “I’m going to stop by my parents place, pack a bag and then we’re going to Shediac!” We could hardly believe his words. “Are you sure?” we asked. He was sure.
Six travel days after standing on the shoulder in the B.C mountains, we would arrive at our final destination on Mat’s parents porch our “EASTCOAST” sign tattered and torn, but us, alive and well. We had spent less than $500 on food, gas and accommodations and doled out many a sticky bud to our grateful new friends in lieu of their role in our adventure.
As it turns out that you can still successfully hitchhike across Canada in the year 2019.