Commentary – Getting around on your thumb

Joe McWilliams

When I was coming of age, hitchhiking was the way to get around. If you wanted to get somewhere, you walked out to the highway and stuck out your thumb. Simple as that!

This was the updated version of what my grandparents’ generation did – which was walk if you really needed to get somewhere.

My grandfather, for example, walked from Lillooet, B.C. to Pemberton and from Pemberton to Squamish more than once. It’s just what you did. We walked too, but only as far as the nearest road out of town. Somebody would always stop.

Sometimes you got lucky; sometimes you’d wait for hours. If you weren’t willing to spend the night under a tree, or a bridge, you were better off not even starting. Because sooner or later, that would happen.

Not on the shorter trips, close to home. On those, inevitably somebody you knew would pick you up. Or you could walk back where you came from. Depending on the circumstances, the person might pick you up and take you back where you came from!

Hitching has largely fallen out of favour. Too many bad experiences, maybe?

In 1970, my parents loaded up the kids and one cat in a camper on the back of our one-ton Ford and hit the road for Prince Edward Island. We kids mostly rode in the camper with the cat, with mom and dad up front in the truck.

We’d often be rolling down the highway when we woke up, in the big bed in the part of the camper that projected over the top of the truck cab. So we’d spend time looking out the window at Canada passing by.

One thing notable was hitchhikers. Lots of them. Sometimes crowds of them at intersections in the Prairies. We’d flash peace signs at them, trying to get a reaction.

Years later, I met a guy from northern Ontario who had hitched across Canada in the summer of 1970 and told me he remembered seeing somebody give the peace sign from the window of a camper. “That was us!” I told him.

Well, I hope it was! It makes a better story if it was!

Times have changed. You might drive all day now and not see a single hitchhiker. And carrying your kids, unsecured, in a camper is probably strictly against the rules, not to mention common sense. If we’d come to a sudden stop it would have been lights out for the four McW kids, and you wouldn’t be reading this. The cat probably would have been OK, though.

Getting back to those bad experiences, there probably weren’t really very many of them. But it’s the bad ones that make the news, and that has its effect.

I actually got arrested while hitchhiking in Missouri. Somebody was found dead in his car in the area and the cops were pulling in all the usual suspects along with a few unusual ones. I’ve written about that incident elsewhere – a sort of ‘My Cousin Vinnie’ situation, except they didn’t go as far as charging us.

Was there more trust, generally back then? I guess there must have been. My mother was confident enough, for another example, in the good will of most people on the road to stick out her thumb and hitchhike from Vancouver to New York City in 1947. It’s hard to imagine a respectable young lady trying something like that in 2023.

It was too good to last.

Share this post

Post Comment