Features  The hitchhikers guide to the Canadian imagination

This summer, Madeleine Ritts and Orion Keresztesi stuck out their thumbs on a three-week, cross-Canada odyssey.

Madeleine: I grew up with a really romantic vision of Canada, one defined by canoe trips every summer and listening to the CBC in the mornings before going to school. Though my parents never failed to highlight the flaws in this country’s mythology, I’ve always harboured an inherent, and I think idle, Canadian pride.

That is, until this summer. My friend Orion and I spent three weeks tramping along the shoulder of the legendary Trans-Canada Highway with 4,000 miles between us and our final destination – Vancouver. We wanted to get to know Canada, to acquire a founded sense of the land and the people.

Orion: Neither of us had hitchhiked before. Why were we doing this?

M: I’ve been called out on my Canadian enthusiasm; my friends think it’s too idealistic or embarrassingly earnest. But I have trouble swallowing what many of them seem to believe – that being is Canadian nothing more than living within a set of borders. There must be some broader experience, some unifying theme that spans our diversity. Maybe figuring out what makes Canada Canada requires some imaginative effort – and a touch of wide-eyed enthusiasm.

Part of our plan was to keep company with geographically appropriate literature, hoping to discover how the literary voices changed according to the places we would roll, for the most part, right on through. Before we set off on the trip, a good friend gave us a copy of Noah Richler’s recent book, This is my Country, Whats yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada. The book is described as a “cultural portrait of contemporary Canada through the work of its most celebrated novelists, short story writers, and storytellers.” Richler has true confidence in the potential of literature to provide Canada with a real and binding sense of cultural belonging. Storytellers act as guides, unveiling the extraordinary in the everyday, and give voice to Canada’s scattered and diverse communities. But there simply seems to be such a magnitude and diversity of stuff across Canada – what could possibly hold the fabric of this country together?

O: We started in Sudbury. Packs a-swaying, we lumbered through town and walked right out onto Highway 17. It feels ridiculous at first to stick out your thumb, like it’s some bad joke and everyone’s going to laugh at you as they whiz by. We couldn’t fathom how we were going to get across the whole country this way, but within ten minutes an old and beaten red pickup pulled onto the shoulder. The driver was a beef farmer-cum-business-traveller-cum-scrap-metal-hauler. Hoping to gain some sort of enlightenment about Canadian identity right off the bat, we asked him to characterize the different areas of the country based on his own travelling experiences. In his opinion, B.C. has the most “socialist” feel, Calgary is “cosmopolitan,” and Edmonton, he said, is a “frontier town, where you can be talking to a millionaire in a pickup truck. He’ll own a couple oil rigs, and he’ll still have grease in his crack.” “Prairie people” are nice, he told us, but they are often resentful toward Ontarians.

M: We realized pretty quickly that the more profound answers we were after would have to be sought out in other ways.

O: Although the ease with which one can get across Canada makes it seem small (it helps that all of the major cities are in a straight line), it’s hard to ignore the country’s vastness and its geographical diversity. There are hours and hours of scrubby pine and exposed Canadian shield, hours and hours of flat grassland against huge soaring sky, hours and hours of cows and oil wells, hours and hours of mountains. There are smaller, more unexpected land formations, too. In Saskatchewan, you can tumble unexpectedly into a little valley – carved by water, not created by the space between mountains – and all of a sudden the flat expanse has turned into rolling green hills.

M: The physical aspects of the ride – simple things like the vehicle’s height or window size – can really affect the way you experience the landscape. One of the best ways to watch the geography shift and mutate is from the passenger seat in a truck’s cab. The view takes on a striking cinematic quality. On one ride in particular, there had been a really subtle progression from flat prairies to the soft, rolling foothills of Saskatchewan and Alberta. Then, just outside of Calgary, we hit the Rockies. The sudden appearance of jagged crests peeking through the clouds was utterly surreal.

One of my favourite things about hitchhiking is how it invites you to occupy forbidden spaces. The side of a highway is a hostile place for pedestrians, but after a few days of hitching you feel like you own a part of the road.

O: I once read an article in The Globe & Mail discussing an emergent, widespread “pod” culture. The article argued that this trend toward extreme individualism isolates people and groups, and reduces opportunities for encounters with strange things and new ideas. For example: Podcasts that give you only the radio you’re interested in; Internet ads tailored to your interests; and a seeming refusal to venture into public without your headphones on. Picking up hitchhikers means allowing strangeness and uncertainty into your pod. Being a hitchhiker means becoming a brief part of someone else’s bubble.

M: One of our most interesting rides was with Gabriel, a truck driver from Rivière-de Loup. Despite his choppy English, far superior to our own clumsy attempts at French, we managed to cover some pretty hefty topics of conversation.

O: He got riled up when Maddie told him she studies political science. Gabriel was disgusted. “I hate politics! Every time I go to vote – I write Bugs Bunny! I vote for him,” he said. We were suspicious of his professed hatred for politics, since he was obviously not apathetic – he voted in every election and purposefully spoiled his ballot. We kept pressing, and, to both his and our surprise, we concluded that he subscribed to some type of anarcho-communism.

M: By hitchhiking, we admittedly put ourselves in a pretty vulnerable position. But rather than putting us at a disadvantage, our naive intentions were met with enthusiasm and kindness. People really went above and beyond for us.

O: One guy, hauling with him all his worldly possessions in garbage bags, actually altered his route to accommodate us.

M: I don’t even think he was headed in either direction we were considering – he just seemed to want the company. He said: “There’s a road coming up that heads to Kelowna that I haven’t been on before. There aren’t many roads I haven’t been on before. I’d be happy to go down it.” We flipped a coin – it sounds hackneyed but it’s true – and he drove us five hours to Kelowna, B.C., then took us to dinner at East Side Mario’s – a gesture he wanted to reciprocate, in kind, from his own hitchhiking days. Afterward, he insisted upon circling the city until we found a decent place to camp.

O: In Peachland, B.C., the highway is particularly tricky because it’s far too large for hitchhikers. A young house painter drove us around for over an hour trying to find the perfect place to drop us off. We got lots of friendly advice from everybody we encountered. At a small café in Saskatchewan, a waitress, also from Ontario, gave us free pie because she thought we were “so cute,” two young kids going on an adventure.

M: But there were also some chancy rides.

O: We listened to one pot-smoking, ex-Hell’s Angel’s prophecies of a coming trucking apocalypse. He drove us across Manitoba in the decked-out cab of his 18-wheeler, replete with two televisions – one visible from the bed in the back, one directly underneath his rear-view-mirror – and complete box sets of Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond, which he watched more closely than he did the road.

M: In B.C. we careened along the mountain roads of backwoods Okanagan, sipping a peer-pressured Budweiser to blasted gangster rap, chauffeured by three thugged-out teenage girls, all apparently in a relationship with each other. We desperately nibbled trail mix to try and appear calm. This ride was irrensponsibly dangerous, but a damn good memory.

O: It’s difficult to feel like any retelling does our trip, let alone Canada, any justice. It’s hard enough to find a common thread between, say, Gabriel’s political views and our life-threatening experience in the care of three teenagers, so how can we presume to have understood any unifying truths about the country as a whole? I don’t think that Orion and I would have internalized all of the images and experiences we crammed into our trip if we’d done it any other way. But, I do feel like we experienced an echo of what Richler’s book was getting at, the “nowhere” quality of Canada that encompasses both the empty spaces and the smaller pockets of culture and community. Maybe we’ve constructed a narrative where there isn’t one, but I like the thought that every time I recount our hitchhiking stories, these other parts of Canada and other ways in which people relate to the country seem less daunting to comprehend, less remote from our own understandings of ourselves.