Hitching Across US and Canada

Tom McCarter
MDI Contributor

In the summer of 1971, I hitchhiked across the US and Canada. What a trip.

Back in those days, a lot of people were getting around by hitchhiking. There would often be clusters of people, mostly young, on on-ramps and highways going to a variety of locations. I started out with a friend of mine, Chris. It took several rides to get out of LA on our way to Denver, our first stop.

Every state had a different set of laws regarding hitchhiking and there was no Google to look them up – it was all word of mouth. In California, you couldn’t hitchhike on the freeways, but you could on the highways, so we had to stick to freeway on-ramps until we got on the open highway.

Author (on right) once hitchhiked with Carolee (aka “Crazy”) in kimonos.

The trip was fairly uneventful with several short rides, but then in Nevada we thought we got a lucky break – two guys with a pickup truck who said they were going all the way to Denver. At the time, hitchhiking in Colorado was illegal with a 6-month jail term. We jumped in the back with our gear and off we went! While driving through Utah, the guy in the passenger seat started shooting a gun at highway signs as we went by, which was a little unnerving, but hey – they were going all the way to Denver! We stopped for gas, and Chris and I went to the restroom, and when we came out, the truck had left with all our gear.

We eventually got to Denver OK. We had friends from college there, and their parents let us crash at their house. Chris hooked up with a woman he knew from college. We stayed for a few days and then Chris decided to bail on the rest of the trip. I needed more gear, but I was low on funds. I went to the Salvation Army and bought an old quilt to sleep in. At that time, the Gap had a deal where if you brought in your old pair of Levi’s, they would give you a dollar off on a new pair. I went down there and asked the manager if I could buy one of the old pairs for a dollar. He just gave me a pair. After that, I hitchhiked to New York City and saw a few more friends.

New York was interesting. There was trash everywhere and junkies nodded out in the parks. One memorable incident was when I was getting off a subway, the woman in front of me was pulling a small cart full of groceries, which got stuck in the turnstile, so she couldn’t move forward or back. She started to scream over and over, “I’m never going to get out of here!” Everyone ignored her and used the other turnstiles. Then this black couple came up and started taking the groceries out of the cart, explaining they were trying to help her. She screamed at them to leave the groceries alone, but they were eventually able to extricate the cart from the turnstile and she could push through. Then they put all the groceries back in the cart and pushed it through. The woman didn’t even say thank you. On our way up the steps, she turned to me and said. “Those black people didn’t help me one bit!”

From there, I hitchhiked to Montreal. Again, most rides were friendly and uneventful. Then I got a ride from a man who took me to a spot where he said he always saw hitchhikers. I soon found out why. In New York, there are turnpikes and you need to pay a toll when you drive on them. Hitchhikers were required to stay on the on-ramp. And this particular on-ramp was the favorite one for the local highway patrol to spot speeders from. On top of that, we were out in farm country, and there was maybe one car an hour coming down the ramp. So we sat there for several hours, me and the cop. It looked like I might be spending the night. At one point, the cop went after a speeder, and I took note of how long it took for him to get back to his roost. Unlike California, the on-ramps and off-ramps on the turnpikes are miles apart, so the cop had to drive a way in order to turn around and come back. So the next time he chased a speeder, I ran down to the highway and pleaded with drivers to pull over, but no one did. I was about to give up when I saw a VW van come over the hill. I resolved that if they didn’t pick me up, I would get back on the on-ramp. They stopped and picked me up. Whew! And just after we got going again, the cop came back, looking all over for me. No sign of me. And lucky for me, my new ride was going all the way to Montreal!

In Montreal, the ride was going to the site of a world fair, Expo ’67, which still had things to do. When we got back to the van, their battery wouldn’t start. It turned out my AAA card worked in Canada, and that was the last day before it expired, so I was able to get them a jump! They took me to the hostel, which occupied several floors of an apartment block that the Canadian government rented out for that purpose. The government created a summer employment opportunity for young people to run hostels clear across the country.

The government rented the spaces and paid young people to staff them. And every hostel was different! I don’t remember them all, but in Sault Ste. Marie, it was a children’s camp with cabins by day. School buses would come out and pick up all the hitchhikers along the road and take them to the camp for the night and then take them back to the highway in the morning. They even took us into town to see a band! In Ottawa, we slept in the cells of the old city jail. In Banff, the government rented out a few acres near the town and purchased several large rolls of plastic for people to make tents with. There were small communities set up with a common area and plastic tunnels branching out to sleeping quarters. Hitchhiking was legal on all the highways except in the large cities. All this for 25 cents a night, including breakfast! What a difference from my USA experience. When I hitchhiked across Canada four years later, they had raised the cost of staying at a hostel to $1. But that’s another story.

When I returned to school, Chris and I rented a house with two other friends, Lance & George.

At that time, rents were very cheap. We got the whole 4-bedroom house for $100 a month! Lance was a biochemistry major and his field of study was plants that got you high. We were his guinea pigs. We sampled a wide variety of plants with varying effects.

Once, he read that lettuce hearts contained opium, so we raided the dumpsters behind the student union building and got a few trash bags full of them. Lance ran them through the centrifuge in the lab, but nothing happened. It turned out it was WILD lettuce hearts. Oh well. Lance also knew someone in town who had grown 500 marijuana plants using Colombian Red seeds (a potent varietal in those days), but he was still living with his parents, so he didn’t have anywhere to dry them.

We had a walk-in attic, so Lance arranged for us to get all the plants and sell the weed and hand over a substantial cut to the grower. We were rolling in weed for the entire semester. At this time, the freshman class elected their class president and they were throwing a party for him. My roommates and I rolled up 25 joints each and went to the party. We agreed in advance that we would wait until 11 to start lighting them up, and that’s what we did.

Soon, everyone at the party had a joint and had no one to pass it to. Great marketing! Then the new president introduced himself to us. When he met me, he said I looked familiar and had I ever been in Denver.

It turned out he was the manager at the Gap.

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