Thumbing a Ride: Hitchhikers, Hostels, and Counterculture in Canada
By Linda Mahood. UBC Press, 331 pp, hardcover
This wise, comprehensive, and highly readable book will strike a chord with those of us old enough to have been personally familiar with the subject. Just as some of our fathers or even grandfathers may have ridden the rails during the Depression of the 1930s, so did we, tens of thousands of young women and young men, hitchhike back and forth across Canada in the 1960s and early 1970s. Expo 67 helped to ignite the mass desire to see the rest of Canada, while Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Hollywood “road pictures” provoked the search for greater personal freedom.
Between 1970 and 1975, 100,000 hitchhikers a year passed through Winnipeg, headed in one direction or the other. No part of the country went untouched by this grungy, manic ricocheting from place to place. Vancouver and Toronto, however, were the two most popular destinations. I made that trip three times, once doing so with the help of only two kindly drivers. Conversely, I also found myself stranded for an eternity, as many of us were, in Wawa, Ontario, the hitchhikers’ hell.
The people now known as boomers considered the hitchhiking experience a rite of passage, whereas adults back then considered it a problem that had to be either eradicated or managed.
Vancouver’s ridiculous mayor, Tom Campbell, believed that hitchhikers were “undesirables” and worse. He wanted them outlawed. The Georgia Straight, not unreasonably, called him “fascistic”. One critic characterized Campbell’s followers as people who “feel that anyone who slings a knapsack over his back during the summer and takes off travelling is nothing more than a Commie Pinko slob”.
Outrage about Campbell led one commentator to compare his agenda to Hitler’s rounding up of the Gypsies. Toronto’s mayor was just as silly but more thoughtful, arguing that young women might be vulnerable to exploitation both on the road and in the complex system of hostels that Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government created in partnership with various foundations and charities.
The conflict in Vancouver came to a boil on October 15, 1970, when local police and Canadian Armed Forces ferociously attacked residents of a hostel in what was called the Battle of Jericho, in which many were injured and detained.
Linda Mahood, who teaches history at the University of Guelph, is a crackerjack researcher who has conducted many interviews and ferreted out obscure reports, hitchhiking guides, and other literature. Surprisingly, though, her rich bibliography seems to have missed the anthology of hitchhiking writings by Canadian authors such as bill bissett, George Bowering, Al Purdy, and even Margaret Atwood. It was published in 1969 and quickly sold out three printings.