From Ontario To Alaska— You’ll Meet Us Kids On The Thumb

When a 15-year-old schoolboy from Cobalt, Ontario, decided he’d hitchhike from his home to Alaska, it seemed an incredible adventure. It was — but one he shared with the crowd


From Ontario To Alaska— You’ll Meet Us Kids On The Thumb

When a 15-year-old schoolboy from Cobalt, Ontario, decided he’d hitchhike from his home to Alaska, it seemed an incredible adventure. It was — but one he shared with the crowd


LAST YEAR I hitchhiked from Cobalt, northern Ontario, to Fairbanks, Alaska, and back again — more than 14,000 miles. I was one of the thousands of kids you’ve probably seen on the sides of Canadian roads in summertime and I learned what it’s like to belong to the fraternity of the thumb.

I stepped into my first car on July 12 — and into the greatest experience of my life. In the next few weeks I was to learn more about people than I had during the 15 years of my life — perhaps more than I shall learn in the next 15. Like other young hitchers, I was throwing myself entirely upon the mercy of those remote and frequently indifferent creatures — adults.

There are as many reasons for hitching as there are hitchers. One basic reason is that the young are suspicious of all convention and hitching is certainly unconventional. It is also cheap. Most important of all, however, hitchhiking is just about the only way would-be Huck Finns can find true adventure these days.

Hitchers today don’t look like Huck, of course. They generally are surprisingly clean-cut, just like the kids your son or daughter chums around with. Their clothes tend to be the all-purpose garments every teenager wears: cotton shirt, jeans, a bright plaid bush jacket for chilly days. But two things distinguish the true hitcher from the stay-at-homes. One is the wind-tanned face and the confident, almost arrogant air of the traveler. The other is the knapsack — the hitcher’s status symbol. No matter how tattered it looks to you, don’t poke fun at the hitcher’s knapsack; it’s his most prized possession.

One of the first hitchers I met was an Englishman named Larry. He had a degree from the University of Aberdeen. He’d flown from London to New York and started thumbing it from there. When he reached Vancouver he was planning to fly back to England. He just wanted to see Canada and as far as he was concerned there was no better way than to hitch it. Jim Rath, a medical student from New York, also just wanted to see some new country. When I met him in Fairbanks he was reading a book on physiology. He thought hitchhiking brought him closer to nature. I know now what he meant. We spent a night together crouched over a dying camp fire beside a silent highway in the pouring rain, and enjoyed it.

Then there was Chris, who had just completed university and was, as he put it, “just bumming around, seeing some of the places I always wanted to visit before I settle down and start to decay like the rest of the human race.”

Many “thumb frats” are romanticists who hitchhike because of the adventure, the hardships and the thrill of achieving something. Mike and Carol, a hitchhiking team from the States, were like that. When rides were few and far between, Mike would light a stick of incense, chant a few mystical words and hope for the best. I rode from Whitehorse to Dawson City with them and we spent a few days together.

Mike was the only Alaska-bound American I met who had read any of Robert Service’s poems or any of Jack London’s books. We visited the cabins where Service and London had lived in Dawson City and I was astounded by Mike’s knowledge of these two men. When we parted, Mike and Carol gave me a few sticks of incense and entrusted me with the magic words designed to guarantee a lift from the next motorist, but I forgot them almost immediately.

Lynn, an Australian working in Vancouver, decided to hitchhike to Montreal and back during her two-week vacation. She wouldn’t have any time for sight-seeing in Montreal — she simply wanted to hitchhike.

Derick, a 19-year-old from Kamloops, BC, had finished high school and, since his parents could not afford to send him to university, he had gone to work. For two years he saved as much as he could. When I met him in Winnipeg he was in the second week of what he planned to be a four-year trip around the world. He was modeling his trip on a book called The Royal Road To Romance by Richard Halliburton, the story of a university graduate who started out with pockets almost empty and yet managed to make his way around the world. Derick said, “If he could do it, I can. Besides, I’ve got more money than he had.”

On my way to Lake Louise, I was picked up by a Volkswagen van with six other hitchhikers already aboard. Among these was another thumbing team, David from New York and Marice from Montreal. David had dropped out of university because, in his opinion, he was not learning anything. He had bought a guitar and taught himself to play. Then he landed a recording contract with a company in Vancouver and was on his way there to seek his fortune. Marice had no family and no money; she simply tagged along with anyone who would pay for her meals — in this case, David.

Paul Matson was thumbing his way home after a summer of fire fighting in Alaska. He had a good deal of money (fire fighting pays about $50 per day) and could have taken a plane, but he chose to thumb it for the experience. He did not particularly enjoy it, but he did find a few things amusing. Such as an almost sleepless night we spent on the floor of a cabin in an Eskimo village, with children peeping in at all hours to see if we were still there. When we separated in Burwash, Yukon, a place so desolate that it made me wonder if I was ever going to get a ride out, Paul said reassuringly he would send a bush pilot to get me if he had not heard from me by the next fall.

A lot of hitchers could be called the “don’t knows” — kids who just don’t know why they ever stepped on to the side of that road and stuck their thumb out. I asked two girls from Montreal why they were thumbing. They looked at each other dazedly for a few seconds, then both started to giggle stupidly. They had never really thought about it. They had hitchhiked more than 2,000 miles without knowing why. One girl said, “All the other kids were doing it and all of a sudden . . . well, there we were, standing at the side of the road with our suitcases.”

Jean was a Montreal hippie on his way to Vancouver. I met him in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and he announced that he expected to reach Vancouver the next day. He had absolutely no idea of the distance involved.

Bill was thumbing from Halifax to Chilliwack, British Columbia, to be best man at his brother’s wedding. When I crossed his trail he had 2,000 miles to go and one and a half days to do it in. I wished him luck, and hoped his brother had another candidate lined up for best man.

An Australian hippie, who had flown from Sydney to New York, was hitching to Trail, BC. His sister-in-law was expecting and he was to be godfather. I found it surprising that he got rides because he was the weirdest-looking character I ever saw. He wore a daisy in his hair over his left ear, and carried a double-barreled shotgun slung on his back.

As a general rule, the kids who are today’s hitchhikers are not “bums” or potential criminals. Often I slept with four or five hitchhikers, with my wallet stuck in my shoe beside my sleeping bag and my camping gear strewn all around. Nothing was ever taken.

Cheapness is, as I say, a factor, but teenagers rarely thumb simply because they cannot afford some other means of transport. The experience is the thing. The weary, hungry-looking individual you pick up may often be carrying more cash than you are. He may say he doesn’t have much money — but then, how many of you would tell a hitchhiker that you have $300 or $400 in your back pocket? Suspicion works both ways.

Where does this motley brotherhood come from? From all over the world. I met hitchhikers from the U.S., Australia, England, France, Ireland, Denmark, even Czechoslovakia.

Where are they going? All over the world. When I got home to Cobalt, Ontario, two guys I went to high school with were planning a three-year tour of the world. The last I heard, they were in the Yukon — it seems everyone heads west.

And why do they do it?

Next time someone wags a thumb at your car, pick them up and find out for yourself. □


Your knapsack and thumb may get you from one end of Canada to the other this summer at very little cost, but it’s wise to know the rules of the road. Hitchhiking is illegal on limited-access highways in all provinces east of Manitoba. (Penalties range from $5 to $100.) The exception is Quebec, where a newly formed organization called Stopmobile is trying to take the danger out of hitchhiking for both motorist and hiker. It’s issuing special cards to members over 18 who have an accident policy and permanent address. (Write: Stopmobile, 8770 rue Foucher,> Montreal.) In the western provinces there are no regulations prohibiting hitchhiking, except in British Columbia (where the rules are not enforced very vigorously). If you are traveling this summer, the Trans-Canada Highway is the most popular route.