Hitching in the winter: proceed with caution

As it turned out, hitchhiking across five provinces went considerably more smoothly than just getting home from Vancouver.  And it took almost as long.   It was cold, we waited an average of at least two hours, and it cost about as much as the two of us taking the bus (but not quite).  However bad the hitching was, I know, it is never as bad as the bus.

I’ve always had a hard time getting out of Greater Vancouver, mostly because the city just goes on for so long.  It’s Hope before there’s a decent place to stand on the highway itself, and it takes over an hour to just get to any suitable onramps.

Last time, I found a magic bus route that dropped me right on an on-ramp, about a half hour from the end of the Skytrain, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find the route again on Google.  Public transit is usually a hitchhiker’s best friend in the city, vital for traversing hitching-unfriendly urban sprawl.

This time, we happened to land in the middle of a record snowfall event.  After a few Vancouver errands, we rode the Skytrain to the end, then got on a bus that seemed promising, but turned out to be the never ending bus ride from hell.  I think we were on that city bus for three hours!   I started to fret after one.  Everywhere the roads are in terrible condition, unplowed and heavy with snow.

It got dark, the entire human contents of the bus changed over several times, and then, alas!, the bus turned around and started backtracking without making the Google-promised loop to the highway.  Arrgh!  It was late evening, another bus, and a fair walk before we finally reached a marginally hitchable onramp somewhere in Langley.  Meanwhile, there’s snow everywhere, and still coming down copiously.  Great picturesque mounds of it, no big deal to us, but I knew that this was highly unusual for temperate Vancouver.

At our next on-ramp wait, we encountered a car stranded on the ramp and a television news crew packing up their gear.  One of the guys was right chatty and explained they’d just wrapped a piece on the “general chaos of it all, you know”, meaning the “extreme” driving conditions.  When we explained our own presence there, he was astounded.  “WHaTTT??  Hitchhiking?  Where?  Why???!!!”  We explained our mission and bragged about our trip east and general hitchhiking prowess; they wished us much luck and left.

Two hours later, we got another short ride to the next municipality, waited some time, then cashed it in.  The snow was over our boots and we were pretty cold and tired from standing and breaking trail- down the sidewalk.  In the morning, the weather channel over the continental breakfast was all about the record snow (more on the way), foreboding road conditions, and school closures.  There seemed to be no schools within 100km open this day.

We slogged back out to the on-ramp.  So much snow had fallen in the night all our footprints were filled.  Cars were few and going slow, and the traffic lanes were formed by piled snow more than anything else.  We were very lucky to get a perfect ride here- a smart driver and someone savvy enough to know what we needed as hitchhikers.  We had a great chat as he drove us through the worst highway conditions we saw the whole trip, to Hope, himself debating whether of not he would continue up the Coquihalla.  Visibility was poor, the road was slippery packed snow, drivers were erratic.

Everywhere semi trucks were strewn about on the median and shoulder, looking like they’d casually parked off the road last night.  Trucks still on the road were chained, or else parked or pulled over to chain up, and a couple of drivers appeared to have never done such a thing before by their technique.  At Hope, the off ramps were choked by trucks that couldn’t climb the ramp, with a line of trucks stuck behind them.  The snowbanks were many feet high at each side of the road, and snowplow blades were spewing snow in grey breakers higher than their plows.

We had our hands all fisted inside of our mittens, with the thumb of the mitten arranged to stick out. Our actual thumbs would have frozen off if we'd stuck them out.

Our driver pulled a slick maneuver to drop us in a safe spot, right at our exit, and then zip away.  Since there were no shoulders but snowbanks, it would have been quite dangerous for us to walk on the highway.  As it was, we were relatively safe in the slow down zone right after the split.

However, I just had time to say to H.W., “Be prepared to throw yourself over this snowbank to get out of the way if a snowplow comes,” than we look east and there’s a plow!  He had his turn signal on.  “He’s exiting!”  I shouted and we attacked the bank, climbing over the hard pack and then quickly plunging waist deep in the softer snow behind it, swimming away from the road.  A vision of what the plow driver was seeing and thinking as he passed made me laugh so hard I was gasping as we clambered back over the bank and dropped back on the road, covered with snow.  I just barely had it together enough to throw out my thumb to the car who was passing us.  That car braked hard and stopped for us.  No way!

The driver popped out, hollering “What on earth are you two doing out here?!” as he tried to open his trunk and helped us in.  What a savior!  He had seen the two of us lumbering out of the snowy woods like Sasquatch, and imagined that we were just emerging from a night in the woods.  He was a really great guy, unusually positive about life, thrilled with all of our stories, and excited to share about his life’s work working with youth.   When he left us in Princeton with his phone number in case we got stuck, we were on a real high.  We were on the move now, we’d had a great time talking with this man, and we were warm.  However, standing on the road in the wind sucks all of that out of you after hours pass.  Eventually, we were driven into a laundromat to warm up.

Our next ride thoughtfully left us by the Subway in Keremeos, which was fortunate, because the wind was blistering.  A wall of wind was driving up the hill we were on top of, and we were rather pathetically trying to shelter in the lee of a power pole.  Here we discovered that the world’s friendliest people live in Cawston, Organic Capital of BC.  I think the first car past pulled over, “I’m just going to Cawston!”  We declined, thinking it best to stay near shelter.  We really needed a ride through to Osoyoos. The next car stopped too, and the next.  Perhaps three cars drove by without stopping.  Apparently everyone was going to Cawston, and they all wanted to take us, although they readily agreed, probably best for us to stay here.  Finally, an old farmer said when he stopped, “Not as windy in Cawston.”  So, we went with him.

Datrex bars got us through. They're delicious, full of coconut oil. I guess this falls under "Other Emergencies on Land"

Not as windy was just barely true.  We waited there until dark, once driven into the small shop there for snacks and tea.  Cawston was hopping busy with people coming and going, but all in the other direction.  Very very few cars passed where we were going.  At last we got a welcome ride in a big pickup with the heat cranked.  I barely stopped shivering when he dropped us in Osoyoos.  We walked across town and stood for a couple hours more under a streetlight before giving up and retiring to a rather awful motel which will go unnamed.

After mustering meager hope with a night’s sleep we got back on the road.  This was the worst wait.  It was windy, a scouring wind blowing snow in hard drifts across the road.  Traffic was nearly dead.  Every 15 minutes a car might pass, but 80% of those turned off the road just past us.  Still ahead of us were the Paulson and Salmo-Creston passes, not to mention Anarchist Mtn.  Now I was wondering if these were closed, because there were so few big trucks coming, and I was pretty demoralized.  Osoyoos is the biggest city between Vancouver and home, and if we were having no luck here?  We were wasting time at this point, ready and overdue to be at home, and still no telling how long before we would make it.  Were we gonna stand on this patch of gravel shoulder all day?  I watched H.W. go into soldier mode, determined to endure until we got picked up no matter what, and I was of the same mind, that I could grit my teeth and stick it out.  If we went in anywhere to warm up, we might miss our one ride.

A young woman picked us up in the afternoon who had seen us on the road when she drove into town that morning.  When I warmed up enough to start shivering after an hour in her car, I realized how cold I’d been.  Our next ride brought us tantalizingly close to Castlegar, and Castlegar is practically home.  26km close.  Since it wasn’t quite dark, and the likelihood of waiting three hours or more there in the middle of nowhere was pretty high, we discussed our options.  We could walk to town in five hours, and if we waited a while first, well then we’d still be five hours away.

We started walking.

Then we got plucked out of there by a one-in-a-million ride.  Not only was he a godsend for driving us all the way home – right to our driveway, at the end of that difficult trip, but he was also one of those rare rides that make me happy to hitchhike, because I’d never otherwise meet them.   Meeting people like that just makes your world larger.  He was so interesting, wise, full of experiences and stories, the time flew by, and it felt like hanging out with a fascinating friend.

Those uniquely awesome rides also make me really excited about hitchhiking because you just never know when the next person who picks you up is going to blow your mind with their life experience, or their exceptional openness and kindness.  Awesome people are everywhere, and you just never know when they’re going to pop up.  I find that hitchhiking is just a great way to get out there in the way of chance.   The odds of randomly meeting someone amazing is much higher when you leave your house, leave your well-traveled paths, and higher still when you throw yourself on the mercy of strangers by throwing your thumb out from the side of the road.

So, it ended well.  It was a very difficult trip though. We could have been a little better prepared, but I never dreamed that a 10-hour drive could take two and a half days to hitchhike.  We depleted all our snacks and relied heavily on Datrex bars.  The biggest factor had to be the weather, though.  Coinciding with a record-breaking snowstorm in temperate Vancouver wasn’t part of the plan.  Add to that the terrible weather and road conditions everywhere reducing traffic dramatically.  No one wanted to drive anywhere in that, so we ended up standing out in it a lot longer.

2 thoughts on “Hitching in the winter: proceed with caution”

  1. Wow. Just wow. What an awesome adventure.Love your reminder that to meet those amazing people you gotta get out there, off your well-traveled paths.

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