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The Hitchhiker Man: Chapter 6

Winnipeg, Manitoba. 1686 km.

“Not all those who wander are lost.”
—J.R.R. Tolkien

We were on the road first thing in the morning and I was happy to be in the backseat. I shut my eyes the moment we drove off and awoke to the view of beautiful rolling hills lined with evergreen trees. The road hugged the coast of the great Lake Superior.
I had been so worried about all the bad things that I thought might happen on the trip that I forgot that I might actually have a good time. Yet there I was enjoying spectacular views of places I had never seen before. The company was entertaining and venturing into the unknown was exciting.
Pierre was on a mission to get to Alberta as quickly as possible, so the only stops we made were to fill up the gas tank. After ten hours on the road we crossed the border into Manitoba and shortly after we started to see signs for Winnipeg. Our destination was the ocean in British Columbia and the thought of getting to Alberta as quickly as we were was a dream come true. At the rate we were going, we could make it to the ocean in less than a week. But Ryan had other plans.
“Hey man,” Ryan said while looking back at me, “one of my friends lives in Winnipeg. Do you want to stop there for a few days?” He caught me off guard. I was so focussed on our destination that I hadn’t considered taking an excursion. But I was open to anything.
“Sure man,” I replied.
“Sweet,” Ryan said.
I was a bit disappointed that we were going to give up a ride that could take us so far. When I saw the grey smog hovering over the city of Winnipeg, I was sure that I didn’t want to get out of the car. But I kept my thoughts to myself. As we approached the city, we saw two guys that looked like seasoned hitchhikers walking along the sidewalk carrying big backpacks.
“Pierre, can you drop us off here please?”
“Oui, oui,” he said with a smile before pulling up to the curb.
We thanked him and jumped out. Then we briskly crossed the street and trotted until we caught up with the other backpackers. They looked dirty, but with nothing to lose we approached them and introduced ourselves.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked from behind to grab their attention.
“Good, you?” They both replied at the same time with a smile. They were both filthy, stank, and looked like they hadn’t washed in a while.
“Are you guys hitchhiking?” I asked, getting straight to the point.
“Yeah man, are you?”
“Yup, it’s our first time. We just hitchhiked from Sudbury.”
“Oh man! Did you guys get stuck in Wawa?”
“No, we had a ride stay the night with us at his girlfriend’s parents house,” I replied.
“Oh man, you guys are lucky! We always get stuck in Wawa, sometimes for days. It’s impossible to get a ride out of that place.”
“I guess we got lucky to get one all the way through then, eh?” Ryan replied.
“What are your plans for the night?” I asked, aware that the sun was already setting and anxious to find a spot to sleep before it got dark. “We know of a good place to camp a few blocks from here. We were just going to grab some food and then go set up. You guys want to join us?”
We gladly agreed, happy to have a safe spot to sleep in the city. We walked with them to a store to get some food.
Along the way we found out that their names were Sam and Mike and that they were both from Calgary. But they had been hitchhiking back and forth across Canada for years. Their filth was not a good representation of their character as they both seemed like good people.
Mike ran into the shop and left his bag with Sam.
“Hey Sam, can you watch my bag too?” I asked
He scolded me instead.
“Hey man, you don’t know me so don’t trust me with all your belongings. I did the same thing when I first started hitchhiking, except the dude said he would watch my stuff and when I got out of the store it was all gone. I was left with nothing. It sucked. Just keep your stuff in sight if you don’t want to lose it. Some people are desperate on the streets, man.”
“Thanks for the advice, makes sense.”
It was a good lesson to learn. It also re-assured me that Sam and Mike were honest people, even though it looked like they didn’t have a dollar to their names.
When we finished shopping, we followed Sam and Mike along a busy road towards a large bridge that appeared to go into the city. The last rays of the sun left the sky just as we arrived at the bridge. Instead of crossing it, we turned right down a little dirt track and headed straight into Winnipeg’s Central Park. A place that is notorious for being extremely dangerous at night. I wondered what we had got ourselves into. Sam said, “I wouldn’t wander around the park at night, it’s not safe. But we know of a secret spot where we’ve never had any trouble.”
We walked through the darkness and I seriously questioned if what we were doing was a good idea, but I didn’t say a word. I was exhausted from sitting in the car all day and just wanted to sit down, relax, and then go to bed.
We arrived at a clearing that was surrounded by piles of yard waste and grass clippings on one side and a chain-link fence on the other. I could see the buildings of the city all lit up in the distance. The streets were full of cars racing out of town, surely all going to have dinner in their comfortable homes. Just like I would have only a few days before. Instead of a nice comfy bed and dinner at a table, my life choices had sent me to a dangerous park to sleep for the night. I remembered the twelve-inch machete I had brought in my bag for protection from bears. I wondered if perhaps it wasn’t a wild animal that I would need it for.
“Well, this is home for the night,” Sam said. We dropped our bags on the ground. I took a quick walk to survey our surroundings. I wanted to know exactly what was around us. I stood in the shadows and I could see a path that led deeper into the park. There were figures on benches and on the grass, but they didn’t notice me in the shadows. Satisfied, I crept back to our campsite. Ryan and I set up our tent while Sam and Mike built a fire. I hadn’t imagined having a fire in Winnipeg Central Park. In fact, I had been hoping to draw as little attention as possible to our location. But the night had become a bit chilly and the warmth of the fire was nice.
“Aren’t you guys going to put up tents?” I asked Sam and Mike.
“Nah, we just sleep in our sleeping bags under the stars,” they replied.
Mike pulled out a tiny speaker and put on some music while our cans of chilli heated up in the campfire. Everything was shaping up nicely – we had made friends and we had music, accommodation, warmth, beers, and the Winnipeg skyline in the distance. Besides being in the most dangerous park in Canada, things weren’t too bad.
“So where have you guys hitchhiked? I asked.
“Just across Canada, but from coast to coast three times already.”
“That’s a lot of hitching” I replied while swatting at a swarm of mosquitos. I wondered how the guys could possibly sleep comfortably with all the bugs.
“Yeah, we’ve been on the road for years. We kind of just left and never looked back. Some days are hard, but it beats working for the Man.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“There is a lot you learn on the road when you don’t have money. How to survive with nothing. Dumpster diving for food, going to shelters. Man, grocery stores dumpsters are full of good food to eat. They fill them up every night with old food.”
I had never heard of dumpster diving before, but I guess when you’re hungry and have no money you have to find food somewhere.
“So how was your trip here?” Sam asked, changing the subject.
“Well, we struggled to get a ride all day yesterday, we must have walked ten kilometres,” Ryan said.
“Walked?” Sam replied with a look of confusion on his face. “Don’t walk, that’s a rookie mistake. When you walk everybody thinks you’re going to get there eventually and nobody stops. If you just sit and wait on the side of the road people know the only way you are going to get anywhere is with a ride.”
It made sense, I thought. We didn’t get any rides when we were walking. We chatted until we finished our beers. Then, tired of fending off the mosquitos, we all went to bed.
I didn’t bring a tent on the trip because Ryan had told me that I could share his two-man. I just hadn’t realized that a two-man tent literally only fits two people with no extra space for our stuff. Worried about our bags getting stolen while we slept, we tied them to our feet and put them just outside the tent door. We put my guitar in between us in the tent and I put my machete close by my side. Nobody could run off with our bags without waking us up, and surely I had a bigger knife than any thief would have.
I faced many of my fears that night. I was further from my comfort zone than I had ever been before. I had abandoned my cosy bed back at home for a dangerous park with no glamour. What had I been thinking? Halfway through the night trains started passing by on the tracks some twenty feet from our tent. The ground rumbled while the trains clanged away.
I felt more alone than I had ever felt before. I wondered what I was really expecting out of our adventure. How could I have possibly thought that hitchhiking was a good idea? But the realization was arriving a few days too late.
When the trains finally stopped in the early morning, I was finally able to fall asleep for a short period of time before the sun’s heat made the tent unbearable to be inside. When I finally looked out, our friends were already gone. Again, we were alone so we packed up the campsite and made our way into the city.
We spent the day exploring the sights while trying to get a hold of Ryan’s friend on a pay phone. Late in the afternoon we started looking for hostels to stay in to avoid another night in the park, but they were all too expensive.
Just as the evening was approaching, Ryan tried one last time to get a hold of his friend Pat, and at last was successful. Pat drove into the city and picked us up. Then he thankfully took us out of the city to his house in the suburbs. When I walked through the door, I realised from the decorating that Pat still lived with his parents, but it was way better than being in the park downtown.
We had dinner with Pat’s family. The ornaments and trinkets that decorated the living room reminded me of all that I had left behind. At dinner, Pat said, “So I’m going to a three-day music festival called the Winnipeg Folk Fest this weekend. Do you guys want to come too?” With very little money, buying tickets was not an option. But by the time we went to bed, we had devised a plan to sneak into the festival.
The next day we gathered all the necessary supplies for three days of partying. Then we looked over maps of the festival grounds, examined the fence lines and tried to predict where the security guards would be. By the time we went to bed, the van was packed and we had hatched a plan to sneak in. It was starting to feel like nothing was going to be easy on our trip.

Thanks for reading Chapter 6 from my book The Hitchhiker Man I hope your enjoyed it. Chapter 7 will be posted on the blog next week. 

Top Photo By: Ben O'Bro