Drunks, Murder, and lots of luck: Hitchhiking in Nova Scotia

Originally published on OpenFile.ca. Halifax, NS.

April, 2012.

“It was my first hitchhiking experience and probably my last.”

Harry Sawchuk isn’t the sort of person who would normally hitchhike. In fact, it’s the last thing he would ever do. The 20-year-old student from the University of King’s College prefers more predictable modes of transportation. But unusual circumstances—a fishing trip that left him in Eastern Passage on a Sunday night with no buses and no available taxis—prompted him to gather his things and head toward the main road.

As dusk’s long fingers took hold of the horizon, Sawchuk reluctantly gave the highway the ol’ Fonz thumbs up, desperate for a ride back to Halifax.

It’s a humiliating thing, hitchhiking. People turned away, pretended not to see him, shrugged their shoulders in a ‘sorry, no room’ motion. Some just stared as they sped off.

Dozens of cars passed him and he began losing hope until finally a little green Honda gave him a wave and veered off the road behind him. Thrilled with his resourcefulness, Sawchuk jumped in.

“We had gone about 50ft. and I completely regretted getting into the car,” says Sawchuk. “The driver was quite relishing in the fact that he was drunk. He was going at a breakneck speed, cutting corners and riding the shoulder.” He was like a magnet to whatever car was in front of him.

Sawchuk asked the young driver to pull over; but he only laughed and sped up. He decided it was too risky to agitate the driver further so he clung on to the grab handle for all it was worth. When the car finally jerked to a stop at the Dartmouth Bridge, Sawchuk says he could have kissed the ground—either for thankfulness or because he was almost doubled over with nausea.

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Meanwhile, Taylor Saracuse, 20, has been having some much better luck. He’s been hitchhiking for only a few years, yet he’s covered more than 28,000 km “thumbing it,” the equivalent of more than five cross-Canada trips. He’s hitched in circles through Ireland, crossed Canada and pretty much every square inch of Nova Scotia.

He started hitching on his 18th birthday, going from Victoria to Calgary. It was a way of parting with his closest friend after high school, one last big blowout adventure.

“It only seemed natural for us,” says Saracuse. He didn’t know a thing about hitching except what his sister had told him about her experiences on the highway.

They had been told hitchhiking in British Columbia was a breeze; the coastal friendliness could take you anywhere. Sixteen hours on the side of the road in Kamloops told them differently.

“Kamloops was a bitch,” says Saracuse. “We waited all day and then had to sleep in a ditch beside the road.”

It didn’t take long before he established a set of rules for hitchhiking—if he followed all the rules, he should be okay. Otherwise, he was out of luck.

Rule number one: Wear bright colours and a traveller’s backpack (nothing too big). Rule number two: Have a sign with a clear destination. Rule number three: hitch with a woman if possible but no more than two people. Rule number four: Catch rides on highway ramps where cars are driving slow enough to stop. And finally, rule number five: Always have a guitar (ukuleles are good too). Everyone enjoys a little music during a long ride.

“East Coast hitching is pretty good. You can feel when you get picked up that it is something that people used to do a lot here. I can feel the history and prominence of it here.”

There is an unspoken rule among hitchhikers. For every ride that picks you up, you owe someone else that same favour. For that reason, says Taylor, 50- to 60-year-old males are the ones still picking up young people; they were the generation that hitched everywhere in the 1960s and ‘70s.

But by and large, Saracuse says he doesn’t see many other hitchhikers in Nova Scotia. “It can be a lonely at times,” he says with a laugh. “That bit of culture is fading here just like it has across the rest of Canada.

And it’s not because hitchhikers are afraid of fines.

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Sgt. Brigdit Leger of the Nova Scotia RCMP says that although hitchhikers can technically receive a summary offence ticket, none have been handed out—ever.

She says even though they don’t make a habit of disciplining hitchhikers, they discourage it for safety reasons.

“There’s a double-edged sword to this because there is an inherent danger to hitchhiking and we know that; but, there’s also an inherent danger to picking up hitchhikers,” she says.

“I can think of two murders without putting any thought into it.”

Michael John Lawrence and Michael McGray, two infamous killers of Nova Scotia, may have changed the perception of hitchhiking for good.

In 1985, McGray picked up Elizabeth Gale Tucker, a 17-year-old female from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, as she was hitching her way to work at a fish plant.

Her decomposed body was later found in a Digby County field off the side of the road.

Michael John Lawrence was charged with the murder of Charles Maddison, 55, who disappeared on his way to a doctor’s appointment in Halifax in 2000 after picking up Lawrence on the side of the road.  The story became an infamous murder mystery in Nova Scotia. Maddison’s 1989 blue Dodge Dakota truck was found abandoned in a clearing near Rhines Road in Hants County two days later—burned to its bones.

Brigdit Leger, who was spokesperson for the RCMP back in 2000, had said at the time that she was unable to release any details on why Maddison, who was in no way associated with criminal activity, was targeted. However, Leger now says Maddison was murdered after picking up Lawrence on the side of the road.

“There is still a culture of hitchhiking,” says Leger. “But it’s diminishing because of the fear associated with it.”

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If anyone in Nova Scotia knows about hitching, it might be the truckers that dominate the sprawling highways of Canada.

For 16 years, Paul Edmonds has been trucking with Atlantic Tiltload Limited in Nova Scotia.  He says that nowadays, you just see the odd hitchhiker on the side of the road, nothing like the old days.

“When I was kid there used to be all kinds of hitchhikers; it’s how we got around,” he says. “Today you can’t trust anybody. There’s just too many killings going on. You pick a kid up in Halifax and he ends up in Rodney somewhere dead.”

He says he would never let his own kid hitch a ride.

Ed Corkum joins Edmund on Nova Scotia’s sprawling highways. He started Evangeline Transport Incorporated and has been trucking for 35 years. After the death of Maddison in 2000, he put a policy in place telling his truckers they were no longer allowed to pick up hitchhikers.

“I think most companies have policies like that now. It’s a pretty open issue with regards to insurance and the risk you expose yourself to.”

He says hitching is a thing of that past for the most part; another lost fragment of culture left to an aging generation.

“As for the few hitchhikers out there now, I wouldn’t pick one up for luck or money. You get in enough trouble without asking for it.”

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Graham MacDonald knows all about the fear surrounding hitchhiking. He and his brother decided to cross Canada in the summer of 2010. The least accommodating stop was Regina. They waited for five hours, taking turns trying to yield cars while the other cooled in the shade.

Finally a young couple pulled over beside the road. As they drove, they explained that just a few weeks before, an elderly couple from St. Albert had gone missing. Their camper was found two days later completely engulfed in flames on the side of the road near Edson.

They explained to MacDonald that the reason they weren’t being picked up was because the community was on high alert. Everyone was afraid they were the abductors.

“We couldn’t believe it,” says Graham. “Figures.”

They had better luck elsewhere. In Espanola, Ontario, MacDonald and his brother were searching for rides at a gas station. They approached a young man but were turned away because he had his six-year-old daughter with him, a dog and “no room as it is.”

“An hour later when he saw us still asking people for a ride he told us to hop in,” says MacDonald. They were headed to Yellowknife from New York. “He said he was glad to have someone to talk to and someone to keep his daughter entertained.”

MacDonald remembers this part of the trek as one of his fondest memories. Shawn and Sophie were their names. Sophie had nine stuffed teddy bears and he spent most of the 30 hours impersonating voices for each of them. The rest of the time they spent discussing Leonard Cohen and blasting Sisters of Mercy on the radio.

But MacDonald says this experience was an exception.

“A lot of the people I talked to were apprehensive about picking us up. They say nowadays they are more afraid to pick up hitchhikers,” says Graham. “They feel like they don’t see hitchhikers the way that they used to be. They don’t see young people out there just trying to see the world. They see people who are drunk, dangerous or desperate. Maybe the older generation has just lost faith in hitching.”

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Sitting alone at the back of a Metro Transit bus heading towards Exhibition Park, the furthest the buses will take him down Highway 333, Graham wonders if he’ll get picked up when he takes to the side of the road this time.

The bus is empty so the driver yells back at him, “where are you headed anyways?”

“Peggy’s Cove. I’m going to hitch the rest of the way there.”

As the bus makes a clumsy turn on the highway and comes to a stop. Graham grabs his backpack and drops onto the pavement.

The driver laughs. “Yah good luck with that hitchhikin’. Our next bus will be here in 40 minutes for a ride back into town.”

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Drunks, murder, and lots of luck: Hitchhiking in Nova Scotia

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