I smiled at the next car that sped my way from the shoulder of the road. I stuck my thumb out to the winds and hoped to God this would finally be the one who’d pick me up and give me a ride. I made eye contact with the driver, but all I got was a guilty smile and a shaking of their head. Oh, well, tough luck.
I’d just left Calgary that morning. I’d taken the bus all the way to the outskirts of the city, where the Trans-Canada Highway begins its journey west. As the road that connects Canada, it seemed the perfect place to hitchhike from Calgary to Vancouver on the final leg of my six-month stint through the US and Canada— that is, if I ever found a ride to get the hell out of here.
Hitchhiking from Calgary to Vancouver had seemed like a good idea at the time. It was summer and Canadians are very friendly, eh? Little did I know that hitchhiking in Canada would turn into a fucking nightmare.
So far, I’d managed to hitch two rides that took me away from Calgary’s urban sprawl and into the Canadian Rocky Mountains of Banff National Park. From the car windows, the vast sprawling mountains and forests filled my eyes for miles around. I couldn’t get enough of the landscape, the untamed freedom of it all. One of the people who’d given me a ride —a traveler herself— had even taken me to see Lake Louise, one of the mountain jewels that crown this overwhelmingly beautiful landscape.
As luck would have it, most people driving on the highway were people out of Calgary making their way to Banff for the weekend. It seemed no one was driving all the way to Vancouver. I’d been waiting to catch a ride for the past three hours. It usually takes anywhere between fifteen to thirty minutes to catch a ride, maybe even up to an hour if luck’s not smiling that day— but to wait for three hours was crazy!
Another caravan of cars and trucks passed me by. With each car that passed, I felt my restlessness growing. I guess Canadians just aren’t used to picking up hitchhikers. It was then that I made a decision… if I can’t catch a ride, I’m walking to Vancouver, dammit!
I shouldered my backpack and adjusted the straps. I then played some music on my cell phone to help me settle into the long march ahead and began to walk. As I stepped up the road, I listened to folk music and sea shanties (good music for hard times). After a couple of minutes, I felt myself relax into the experience, and the land seemed to open up before me.
Even from the shoulder of the road, the majestic beauty of the Rocky Mountains was all around me. I saw vast forests of high pine left and right. In the distance to my left, I saw a long range of snow-capped peaks running towards the northwest, looking like the grey fossilized teeth of some ancient monster. I passed waterfalls of melted glacier waters cascading down stone cliffs. I felt like a child again, eager to explore what lay beyond my nose.
Then, a song called Kaa-Khem by Mongolian band Yat-Kha —traditional Tuvan throat-singers— played on my cell phone. It was a melancholy nomad song about remembering distant places. I listened to the deep, undulating vibrations of the song and it’s strange, foreign words. It added a mystical quality to my passing through this land, so far away from my own home.
I felt a profound happiness at finding myself on the road, the nomad’s joy. I felt connected, alive and in the moment. Even if my plans had been left by the wayside and all I was doing was ambling along this isolated road in the middle of the mountains, I felt fulfilled. I had no objective, no worries, nothing holding me down but the backpack I carried. I was no more than a small speck in such a vast, wild land.
Soon enough, my stress at not finding a ride, all forms of anxiety, fell away before the magic of finding myself in such a marvelous place. The open road and wide skies caused my spirit to soar far above where my insignificant body trudged on below. I felt elated, blissful even. I daresay this is what fulfillment feels like.
After trekking for ten or so kilometers along the road, I heard the sound of cars coming up behind me. I’d latched the small piece of cardboard that said “Vancouver” onto the back of my backpack using a pair of carabiners and gear straps, hoping to fish a ride when some compassionate soul drove by. I turned to face the cars and stuck my thumb out once more, deciding to take a chance instead of falling prey to apathy. Luckily, one of the drivers, a pretty Czech immigrant, took pity on me and brought the car to a stop in front of me. Huzzah! Finally! I’d found a ride!
We drove across the mountains, following the long string of mountains and snow-clad peaks. We drove next to rivers and forests until, finally, we emerged from the rocky mountains. We were visibly descending in elevation, coming down into the foothills to a small town called Golden. There, I said goodbye to this compassionate soul— thank God for kind strangers!
I walked to a restaurant and ordered a beer. I needed one urgently after a day of hard travel. I stuck around the bar like a tired cowboy until they closed the place. I afterward set about searching for a place to rough out the night. It was nearly sunset and it would be damned dangerous to try to hitch a ride in the dark. Plus, I was completely worn out— but happy.
I found shelter that night in an abandoned ski lift outside the Golden visitor center. It was right by the woods and, since it was early summer and I was still in the foothills of the Rockies, I was worried about marauding grizzlies. At least if I slept in the ski lift, I reasoned, I’d be protected on three sides. I’d just kick the bear in the face with my boots and a big stick I’d placed near me by way of protection. I’d heard bone-chilling stories of bear encounters while staying on the Blackfoot reservation a couple of weeks ago and I was being paranoid. And for good reason too!
As expected, I slept miserably that night. I had a hard time falling asleep and with every little sound I heard in the dark, I swore it was a bear come to snatch me away. I felt another part of my brain wake up, one that was ancient and primal. I was highly conscious that I was alone, which caused me to be in a state of constant alertness. It’s incredible how fast modern conditioning will dissolve when faced with nature.
I woke up the next morning around 5 a.m. or, putting it more accurately, I was shivering so bad from the bitter cold (a Canadian summer is a Mexican winter) that I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. The first rays of the rising sun were already peeking over the pines, bathing the rolling hills of British Columbia with its golden light as if King Midas himself had touched everything my eye could see.
It would take me two rides with other kind strangers and an entire day of hitchhiking to finally reach Vancouver. I even had a stint where I had to hitchhike for five hours before I found a ride. Nevertheless, that feeling of blissful freedom I felt walking along those beautiful mountains still remains with me to this very day. Traveling can be hard and tiring, but it rewards those who seek it out with moments of pure joy and happiness that make any past hardships totally worth it.
And that’s what really matters.