After spending years travelling through some of the poorest nations of the world, seeking out the people’s story, award-winning journalist and bestselling author John Stackhouse turns his keen eye toward his own country.
Most people who travel across Canada begin their journey at either end of an impressively long strand of national highway. But S …
I decided to hitchhike across Canada when my editor at the Globe and Mail asked what would be the best way to see the country. I had just returned from nearly eight years of living overseas, in New Delhi, as a correspondent for the newspaper, and he figured I might see my own country differently. “See Canada as a foreigner sees it,” he suggested. He had imagined me taking the train, not realizing that VIA Rail had been relegated to the back roads of travel. I didn’t buy into the train myth anyway. Like every good Canadian high school student in the 1970s, I had read The Last Spike, memorized arcane details about John A. Macdonald’s national dream and concluded it was very nineteenth century. I didn’t know anyone who took the train anywhere. My Canada lived on the highway, and by the highway.
Long before The Last Spike was published, one of my favourite storybooks was about a family’s driving trip along the Trans-Canada Highway, from sea to sea. The route had just been completed, in the early sixties, and the images of a diverse land, from rocky shores to barren prairie, mountains and crowded cities, all linked by one highway, were awesome to a young imagination.
I could not have realized it at the time, but this one road was quietly uniting the country in ways the railway never did. In the emerging era of the middle class -- the motoring class -- the Trans-Canada enabled ordinary Canadians to see Canada. Like most families of my generation, before the dawn of discount airlines, vacations took us along parts of the great highway in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. When I was old enough to travel alone but too young to afford a car, I began hitchhiking on the same road. My student poverty aside, hitchhiking in the 1980s seemed innately Canadian.
There was no better way to see a country and meet its people than to beg for rides along the way, to have long conversations (sometimes very long) with strangers, to test public generosity, to overcome fears, within oneself and in others, and to see the road, and feel it. Standing on a remote rural road, you could see the vastness of what it was attempting to connect. On a suburban on-ramp, you could feel the pulse of a society as it rushed from office to mall to home. And climbing into the cars of that society -- at the invitation of a stranger who had everything to lose, as did you -- you could sense the openness of a nation, along with its fears and prejudices. In short, you could stand on the roadside and put an entire nation on the couch. Over the years, I came to see hitchhiking as the most genuine form of travel. Through it, I was forced to meet new people and new ideas. It was wildly unpredictable, maddeningly erratic, hilariously entertaining and slightly dangerous -- all in all, what a great journey should be.
The Canadian road only added to the allure. The long, lonely stretches of Prairie highway. The womb of a wooded back road in Ontario. The coastal routes of Nova Scotia that hug the shore so closely they blend with the surf.
With exceptions like Ontario’s 400 series of highways, the Trans-Canada and its tributaries seem designed not to remove travellers from their country so much as to make them part of it. In the United States, by contrast, there are so many highways they intersect and overlap with such fury that nothing seems to stand between A and B except four lanes. In Europe, the M’s of England and autobahns of Germany are more efficient still, like those old vacuum chutes in offices that take a tube from one floor to another with utter disregard for everything in between.
But for all the marvels of our roads, never had I attempted the width of the country, a course that meanders nine thousand kilometres, which was what my editor, after hearing my description of the road, wanted me to do. It would be like circling France three times. It would also be more dangerous and considerably more difficult than when I had last hitchhiked, in the mid-eighties. Hitching was once a Canadian rite of passage, like renting vacation property in the American South. Now I feared it had become a national scourge. So reluctant were people to pick up strangers that I had some doubts anyone would be able to complete the journey. I feared that Canadians, like the Americans I had met hitching from Vancouver to San Francisco in 1986, had become too distrusting of strangers, too paranoid of random crime, too, well, American in our fears. But that was the point of the journey, to pry into the Canadian psyche.
I agreed with my editor to set off in the summer of 2000, when Canada would be in bloom and Canadians eager to talk about their new century.
Hitchhiking as a reporter, there would be benefits I had not enjoyed as a student. A company credit card, for instance. And the security blanket of being able to tell strangers I was with a nationally known organization.
There were also the exceeding ambitions of a newspaper deadline. I was given one month to cross the country, which pretty much ruled out the Far North. I would also have to write a daily diary for the paper, which meant carrying a laptop computer and stopping at a motel or bed and breakfast every night to write, rewrite and transmit my copy.
Appearance was another factor. The ruffled reporter look had to go. I got a haircut and packed two changes of perma-press clothes that would both allow me to travel with one small backpack and look clean-cut every day. With a small laptop, a sleeping bag, the Lonely Planet guide to Canada and a few blank notebooks, there wasn’t room for more.
Before setting out, though, my biggest concern was a route. Most people who travel across the country by road begin their journey at either end of the impressively long Trans-Canada. If they start in the east, choosing to follow the sun and Canada’s modern history, their trip invariably is launched in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on the farthest reach of the Avalon Peninsula. In the summer, you can see tourists and travellers there every morning, snapping a commemorative picture by their recreation vehicle or symbolically dipping a bicycle wheel in the Atlantic. At the other end of Canada, in Tofino, across six time zones and a stretch of nationhood surpassed only by Russia, the same models of RVs and bicycles can be seen on the Pacific coast.
Rather than at a highway’s terminus, I wanted to begin my cross-Canada odyssey where my family had landed in what would become this country. More than two centuries ago, in 1783, Joseph and Robert Stackhouse arrived at the mouth of the Saint John River, aboard one of the first refugee boats to reach the continent’s northeast coast. The brothers had come from America where their regiment, the 1st New Jersey Volunteers, had been routed in the war of independence. Their family farm in New Jersey had been lost to rebel forces. They had nothing else to lose by venturing to New Brunswick, except maybe their lives. In revolutionary New York, even those weren’t safe.
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