A Canadian Summer: Hitchhiking on Cortes
“Need a lift?”
“Sure. Thanks!” my husband and I said, climbing into the Nissan pickup and squeezing in next to the driver. There wasn’t much room. I folded myself into a pretzel so I could sit on my husband’s lap, then shot the guy a glance: wiry, late 60s, gray beard.
In a world where so many of our lives seem governed by fear and where we’re increasingly reminded that to be afraid is part of the modern condition, it had been years since either of us had hitchhiked. But landing on Cortes Island off the coast of B.C. without a car was a revelation. There are no cabs or taxis on Cortes. The island culture is so laid back that pretty much everyone stops if you need a lift. This was our fifth in two days and each, in addition to getting us closer to where we thought we were supposed to be going, turned out to be its own separate event – and in some ways, more interesting than our original destination.
The hitchhiking started after we'd walked three hilly miles to the island’s main intersection. (We were traveling by boat and running low on provisions.) After stocking up, we were trudging the three miles back lugging groceries, when a woman driving a Toyota Corolla pulled over. Her white terrier was riding shotgun and looked so ridiculously happy we jumped in the back and sat on the dog blanket.
When we asked if she’d lived on the island a long time, she said she had. In fact, she added matter-of-factly, her grandkids were 5th generation islanders on both sides. “Wow, real island royalty!” I said once she'd dropped us off. My husband just rolled his eyes and laughed.
The next time, a peaceful-seeming man with a craggy face, black T-shirt, long gray ponytail, and maybe most tellingly a tiny Madonna swinging from his rear-view mirror drove us a mile out of his way. He had a melancholy air about him. “How’s your day going?” my husband asked. The man said the smoke from the summer forest fires was getting him down. Still, he drove us right to the front door of Cortes Island’s Hollyhock spiritual retreat center.
“Thanks!” “That was really nice of you!!” we called, climbing out. “I hope he feels better,” I said. The smoke had been getting me down, too.
On the way home, we’d barely walked a hundred yards, when my husband put out his thumb and a young woman driving a Subaru pulled over. She had long blonde curly hair and the back of the Subaru was exploding with flowers. “It smells great in here. Can I ask where you’re taking all these flowers?” my husband inquired jauntily from the back seat. When I turned to look at him, his head was swimming in a sea of white lilies. I had to smile.
Neither of us quite got where the flowers were going, but once she dropped us back at the T-intersection, we agreed their scent had totally lifted our spirits. I could have kept walking, in fact, but now that my husband had caught the hang of hitchhiking he wasn’t about to WALK three miles and stuck his thumb out at the very next car. I sighed.
This was the Nissan pickup.
In the five minutes it took for Mr. Pickup to ferry us to the road leading to the harbor, he told us his entire life story: He’d lived on the island two years, but in the time it took for him and his wife of 40 years to build their dream house, she’d suddenly up and left him, moved back to Montreal, and married her high school sweetheart.
“Wow.” “That’s terrible!” we both said.
I was dumbstruck: what's the right thing to say when you’re curled up like a pretzel inches from a stranger who’s doing you a kindness at the same time he’s telling you that his life has possibly gone to shit.
“Do you think you’ll stay on Cortes?” my husband said smoothly.
“Well, if you have to have your heart broken, Cortes Island is a great place for it,” this man said before driving way.
I hoped to never have my heart broken on a bucolic island. But as my husband and I trekked the final quarter mile back to the boat in our flip-flops, picking sun-ripened blackberries along the way, I felt my faith in the essential goodness of people restored in a loose-limbed summertime kind of way.
And based on our “road" research, I decided Mr. Pickup would be fine.