A Senior Moment – ‘Travellin’ by Thumb’ – part two

Philadelphia proudly describes itself as the “City of brotherly love.” While this familiar slogan unintentionally leaves out half of its population, it is also lamentably inaccurate—when one considers the sad fate of HitchBOT. This Canadian-designed robot successfully hitchhiked unmolested across our entire country in the summer of 2014.

A year later, HitchBOT’s American summer adventure did not end nearly as well. After two weeks into its long odyssey, and attempting to replicate that earlier Canadian coast to coast journey, HitchBOT was “murdered” in Philadelphia, of all places. By stealing its electronic brain, any “brotherly love” the local perpetrator may have possessed, obviously was not extended to an innocent robot.

These days, hitchhiking has lost most of its its allure—for both driver and anyone trying to get a ride. An OPP spokesman told me that the practice is illegal on major Ontario highways, such as the 400 series. On other roadways, while not against the law, hitchhiking is strongly discouraged. There are obvious safety risks, as evidenced by the recent tragic disappearances and murders of women along BC’s infamous “Highway of Tears.” A traveler never really knows who is stopping to pick them up.

I also no longer pick up hitchhikers. I want to avoid issues of civil liability in the rare possibility that I incur an at-fault accident with a pick-up passenger in my front seat. I would also not risk being robbed—or worse. Assuming a female hiker to be a less risky option, can be unwise. For many male drivers, the threat of false accusations of sexual assault, as unlikely as it may be, act as a deterrent.

Admittedly, my caution may be excessive. The vast majority of hikers simply need a ride from A to B and present no danger. And with very few exceptions, drivers who stop to offer a ride do so out of kindness or perhaps a desire for some conversational companionship to break the lonely tedium of a long road journey. When does reasonable caution blur into paranoia? Are the roads now really more dangerous or are we simply more careful?

My attitude leaves me feeling somewhat guilty. As mentioned in last week’s column, on three occasions In the 1960s, I returned home to Toronto from University in Iowa walking backwards with my right thumb hopefully waving in the air. Diary entries note that on June 6, 1961, a college classmate and I hitchhiked from Dubuque to Windsor using a mere three rides to cover 420 miles in 10 hours. After staying in a motel overnight, we arrived home the next day after a further seven hours of thumbing lifts across western Ontario.

On December 15, I was again back on the road for home. This time I was chased out of Flint, Michigan, by an over-zealous police officer, who loudly decreed that no **z!!:## hikers were allowed in his town. I ended up thirty miles off the interstate highway, trying to thaw out in a seedy motel in someplace called Charlotte, Mich. Discouraged by the day’s events, I took a bus home from Windsor the next morning.

I have vague recollections of a fourth trip from Iowa but my diary records no entry. All I remember was sleeping in a weedy ditch along a deserted roadside somewhere in Illinois and waking up bright and early with a curious cow placidly staring over the fence at me. I recall, in the cold, dark of that night, gratefully accepting a ride from a rough-looking young man and his sleeping infant daughter in their battered old car, which sped me toward home along the newly-completed 401.

Guilt emanates from my long-ago experiences with those many generous drivers, contrasted with my avoidance behavior all these decades later. I now ignore similar young hikers, perhaps students as I once was, just trying to get home while saving a few bucks.

I also carry some sadness for that lost innocence of yesteryear. It is unlikely a modern-day Claudette Colbert would simply stick out her leg as she did in It Happened One Night and happily find a safe ride that next instant. And young folks aren’t nearly as inclined to hike across the broad width of our beautiful land as we did, while along the way, enjoying our adventure of the unknown.

I hear that hitchhiking in Europe still retains some of that missing allure of the open road. Backpackers can usually find rides between hostels as they discover the joys of travel in foreign lands. Perhaps some future child of HitchBOT will find better luck hitchhiking there.