PEXEL PHOTO BY DONALD TONG
It was a split-second decision to pull over to the side of the road in Ste. Anne’s when I saw the hitchhiker’s writing on the flap of a brown cardboard box that read ‘Autoroute 40 Ouest’ as I was on my way to work last week. And though every cop, every urban legend, and everyone’s mom will tell you to never pick up hitchhikers, something in me always makes a quick determination to stop and lend a hand.
I grew up in a town with no public transport and hitchhiking was often the only way we could get around if our bikes weren’t working (often) or we didn’t have taxi money (always). Having lived through a spate of Société de transport de Montréal (STM) strikes (back when it was known as the MUCTC) hitchhiking was the only way to get to school after I’d moved to Montreal. And though some of the rides were odd and certainly memorable – a friend and I once got a lift in an Austin Mini with husband and wife college professors and a back seat littered with text books – they were never dangerous.
My then-boyfriend and I were once rescued by an 18-wheeler driver in the 1980s who took pity on our remote location, a secondary route in the Eastern Townships as we tried to make our way home. The second ride of that sojourn was in a van with two sales reps for some flooring company with the passenger who kept referring to the driver as ‘Coco’ and pinching his cheek. They dropped us at the foot of the Champlain Bridge where a young man had pulled over to better secure some lengths of PVC pipes to the roof of his car. Would he take us across the bridge? Sure, no problem.
I make it a point to pick up women hitchhiking alone as I can offer at least one safe leg of their journey. Like the woman I once drove from the foot of the Galipeault Bridge to her mother’s home in Pincourt. She had thumbed her way in from downtown Montreal to feed her mom’s cat while the parents were away for the weekend. And I once picked up an elderly fellow who was sporting a Hudson Bay blanket coat, surmising that an axe murderer would never wear that. I was right; he was just a regular guy who had been to the hospital to visit his son.
Putting blind trust in a stranger can, understandably, be fraught with apprehension. But I don’t think we could move forward on so many avenues – literally and figuratively – if we didn’t take that risk on occasion. While once leaving my shift at a bar to catch the last bus home, a guy started following and hassling me. “I’m going to meet my boyfriend,” I told him. “See, there he is right there,” I said, pointing to a random stranger at the bus stop who, thankfully, picked up on what was happening and played along.
The young man I pulled over for last week was in his early 20s carrying a large knapsack. He was a chemical engineering student, headed back home to Edmonton after leaving New Brunswick with a stopover in Montreal to visit his brother, a McGill student studying jazz piano. He’d done the backpacking thing across Europe and Asia and, equipped with a tent, canned beans, and even a small stove, was relying on the kindness of strangers to get him west. I dropped him about a half an hour closer to his destination with a couple of copies of Your Local Journal and a promise for him to take a photo for our YLJ around the world feature.
I would like to think if one of my boys were ever making their way around the world in this manner that they wouldn’t automatically be assumed dangerous and that some passing motorist would help them along their way to get safely home.