By Jamie McLeod
One Wednesday morning, a bit before 11 a.m., I decided that I should probably check in at The Eyeopener office before my classes started. I pulled out a blank sheet of paper and wrote “Yonge & Dundas” on it in big black letters. I slipped on my coat and backpack, and walked the four blocks over to Yonge Street, a few blocks north of Lawrence Avenue.
Trying to look more confident than I was, I held up my sign, stuck my thumb out into traffic and waited. Five minutes later, I was wishing that I’d thought to wear a pair of gloves.
A few months ago, I saw a man standing on the corner of Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue with his thumb out into the traffic. (He wasn’t a pro like me; he didn’t even have a sign.) He was fairly well dressed, in his 30s or 40s and clean-shaven with a decent haircut. I didn’t think much of it at the time. He was probably just trying to hail a cab. In hindsight, I realize that I should have asked him if he was. I missed my window though, because when I walked by again 20 minutes later, he was gone.
Since then, I’ve been obsessed with the notion of hitchhiking in the city. Mostly because it makes absolutely no sense.
My mother spent three weeks trying to talk me out of trying to hitchhike, painting a gruesome picture of what would happen to me if I got picked up by some maniac. This is not to say that she didn’t make some valid points.
“You’re increasing the odds of something bad happening because hitchhiking is so much less common now,” she said. “If the odds were one in 10,000 before, you’re immediately putting yourself into a subset.”
The day I decided to hitchhike, I told my brother that if I didn’t check in with him within two hours he should call the police.
“You know you have to wait 24 hours before you can file a missing person report, right?” he said. He also suggested that in that kind of time, I could be defiled, killed and dumped into a ditch.
Hitchhiking under any circumstances is hardly in vogue, and hasn’t been even a remotely conventional form of travel for at least 20 years. Both in movies, and in some cases in real life, hitchhikers are the target of serial killers, rapists and other violent offenders. And in the classic 1986 movie The Hitcher, a serial killer poses as a hitchhiker, exploiting the good-heartedness of innocent drivers. These concerns are still very much alive today — a remake of The Hitcher is set to hit theatres later this year.
The second reason why it’s insane to hitchhike in the city is because, notwithstanding the fare hikes and delays, Toronto has an excellent public transit system. Some idiot trying to hitchhike from straight down Yonge Street is immediately proclaiming that he either doesn’t have the $2.75 to get on the subway, or for some reason refuses. Out of the three main reasons to hitchhike – it’s cheaper, it’s environmentally friendly and it’s an adventure – the TTC nullifies the first two arguments easily.
It’s hard to find objective information about hitchhiking because most of it tends to be anecdotal. On the one hand, if you look for them, there are many examples of serial killers preying on hitchhikers, or of crimes committed by hitchhikers. On the other hand, author John Stackhouse successfully hitchhiked across Canada and published a book about it in 2004. Proponents of hitchhiking will mostly relate their own positive experiences.
The most recent hard evidence I could find about hitchhiking danger was a 1974 study conducted by the California Highway Patrol examining crimes committed by and on hitchhikers. It found that in 71.7 per cent of hitchhiker related crimes the hitchhiker was the victim. It also found that only 0.63 per cent of the crimes reported during the period of the study were hitchhiker-related, and that hitchhikers were not disproportionately victims of crime.
All of this was weighing heavily on my mind when I held up my sign and stuck my thumb into traffic. But at the same time, a little voice in my head kept reminding me that even by hitchhiking standards, what I was trying to do was highly unconventional. The little voice was also telling me that I really didn’t want to be raped or sold into slavery.
With my safety in mind, I took a lot of precautions. My brother knew where I was and knew that if I didn’t check in with him within a couple of hours, I was in trouble. On a day-to-day basis, I carry a pocketknife, but if there was any trouble, my first line of defence was to give my attacker whatever they wanted. If I had to fight, I was wearing steel-toe boots.
One benefit to hitching in the city is that there are a lot of stoplights, which means you can’t get going too fast. I was ready to bail if we started heading off Yonge Street, or if I was in any kind of danger. In case of robbery, I made sure that there was no money or credit cards in my wallet. And while I would have loved to have taken some pictures, I left my camera at home.
Most of these tips I got online, modified for my unconventional approach. Along with just about everything else, there is a significant hitchhiking community on the Internet. Wikitravel has a section about hitchhiking, which gives advice on the best ways to pick up rides, safety concerns and information about hitchhiking in different countries. In Canada, hitchhiking is listed as common and easy. Most websites advise against hitchhiking within cities.
The other major innovation the Internet has provided for hitchhikers is a networking system that allows people planning a trip to list available seats in their car. For example, the rideboard on the website digihitch lists a seat in a car going from Toronto to Alberta on Jan. 9. Saul Jacob, the driver, mentions in the comments section that he’s not interested in the hitcher paying a fee, but if they could “split the costs with me and may drive a bit if you are qualified.”
These sites offer further security for participants because they keep a record of connections they make. That way if there is an incident, or if someone doesn’t show up at their destination, there’s a way to investigate.
During my attempt, I used the advice of some of the hitchhiking how-to websites I visited. I made eye contact with all of the passing cars, focusing on the ones that were stopping at the adjacent traffic light. For the most part, the people who acknowledged me gave confused looks, with a few looking sort of apologetic — not unlike the look you might give a homeless person if you’re not going to give him any change. An armoured truck pulled up to make a pick-up from the bank I was standing in front of, and in doing so, it completely blocked my view of traffic. I decided not to ask the driver for a lift.
Five minutes later, a green Toyota Prius pulled up and a girl shouted, “Hey hitchhiker, get in!”
It took me a few seconds to figure out what was going on. I hadn’t really been trying to attract the attention of the cars until the armoured truck pulled away. I’d been holding my sign half-heartedly at my waist, and my thumb wasn’t even out. But far be it from me to turn down serendipity, I walked around the car and hopped in the back seat.
There were three girls in the car, Carly, Erin and Emily, all in their 20s. They told me they’d never picked up a hitchhiker before, and that they’d probably never hitchhike themselves. Right away, they started making fun of me for my “half-assed” hitchhiking. They joked that in the future they’d demand better chops from their hitchhikers. They never gave me a clear answer as to why they’d picked me up, but they said it was my coat that tipped the balance.
“An axe murderer would never wear a peacoat,” Carly said. To pay my way, I felt I had to keep conversation going (although we lapsed into silence a couple of times) so we talked about going to university, what journalism school is like and some of the stories I’ve covered over the past few years.
Carly and Emily both went to school in British Columbia, but they were from Toronto. They’d both gone to school in the same neighbourhood as I did, so we talked about that for a while.
Just north of Bloor Street, I asked if they were heading to the Eaton Centre. “I guess so,” Erin said. I remembered that they’d pulled up on an odd angle, and may even have made a U-turn in order to pick me up.
“We’re going where the wind takes us … in a car,” Carly said.
When I’d first gotten in the car, she’d said that the three of them were “hung over and dishevelled.” It seemed entirely possible that they were driving down to Yonge and Dundas because that’s where a random urban hitchhiker wanted to go — either that, or they were kidnapping me.
They stopped at a red light and dropped me off on the corner of Yonge and Dundas streets. The entire adventure had taken less than 45 minutes. Longer than a subway ride for sure, and not really much of an adventure. But as I walked to the Eyeopener office, I smiled. There was something comforting in knowing that it was, in fact, possible to do something as insane and idiotic as hitchhiking down Yonge Street.
I felt a bit like Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire: insane, close to being raped by a big man named Stanley and happy to always depend on the kindness of strangers.
Four days later, I left my house at about 7:15 a.m. on my way down to Ryerson. I had my “Yonge & Dundas” sign in my backpack and I thought about trying to thumb my way to school. But it was cold and wet out, and the cars raced by, fast and indifferent. The sun wouldn’t be coming up for another 35 minutes. Walking down Yonge Street in the dark, I didn’t want to risk it, and I didn’t want to waste my time. I had firmly established that you could hitch a ride in the city, but I was still no closer to coming up with a reason why you would want to.
I hiked my backpack, slid my hands into my pockets and trudged to the subway.