I got a late start on the day of hitch hiking, arriving at Fernie, BC’s eastern edge at 1 p.m. The combination of bad timing and location proved to be an issue as it took me about four hours to get my first ride. After standing in the same spot for so long I started to stand out. Multiple townspeople drove past me more than once, one shouting “you’ll never get to Lethbridge,” after reading my black-markered cardboard sign. Another teen stopped, then pulled away once I walked up to the car. Funny, I remember doing that once or twice when I first started driving so I couldn’t get annoyed. I’d been there once, now I’m on the other end. Is this karma biting back at me? I thought to myself with a laugh.
As it was getting late in the afternoon, I considered giving up for the night. But just as I was about to give up, a car pulls up with a man and his young son. It didn’t matter that the ride only brought me a few kilometers out of town, I’d gained my momentum back. With luck now on my side, I got my next ride in only 10 or 15 minutes.
The outdoors is a popular topic in these parts, so I asked the drivers of both these rides if they like spending time in the mountains. What seems like this area’s next most popular topic—bears—then came up in both cases. Interestingly, both drivers provided diametrically opposed opinions on the same topics. One does a lot of hiking and has had a few bear encounters with no incident. He wasn’t concerned about bears and enjoyed being in the mountains. The other told me it’s not safe to go in the mountains without a gun because of the bears. He said he rarely spends time outdoors and only ventures out with someone who has a gun.
I got dropped just past Crow’s Nest pass near Frank Slide in Alberta. This an interesting bit of Canadian history—a massive rockslide buried much of the village of Frank, killing about 90 people. Canada doesn’t get much in the way of natural disasters, so I was surprised I’d never learned about this growing up. Perhaps because I grew up in Ontario, which sometimes seems like another country.
Now approaching dusk, I considered setting up camp for the night. But since I felt back in the flow, I decided to push on. Not more than 10 minutes later I got a ride from Bea, a sweet middle-aged mother from Claresholm, Alberta. She told me she hadn’t picked up a hitch hiker for many years, but she felt compelled to pick me up.
I felt a surge of gratitude come over me. For me this is what the trip is about. A driver from a demographic that is less likely to pick up hitch hikers, feels something in her heart and takes a chance to trust me. It was great she did. We had a lot in common and shared a wonderful conversation.
Meeting her helped me break down the common preconception about Albertans being conservative-minded people—largely generated by the way people vote in Canada. I noticed this conditioned thought come into my head a few times: “Am I going to get rides in Alberta? Are they going to judge me or fear me?” Turns out those thoughts were completely unwarranted as getting rides in Alberta was quite easy.
People often look to politics as a way of making the world a better place. Sure, politics can do a lot of good in the external world of form, but I find that in our own internal worlds, it usually creates discord. Political parties exist to define a certain platform, but in doing so, they pigeonhole people according to their affiliation with these parties. Party politics brands people, similar to how advertising shapes a consumer’s identity.
Labeling makes communication easier. In our information-crowded atmosphere, the mind turns to labels to easily understand all that it gets hit with. The problem isn’t so much the labels, but our limited awareness of them combined with our reaction to them. If we just hear a label and don’t react to it (neither consciously nor subconsciously), then it doesn’t hold any influence over us. If we all talked, watched TV and read a little less, our minds could handle the more complicated conversation that would arise. If we’re talking politics, we would discuss the issues more, replacing the term “Conservative” with “those who vote according to this or that value.” “Albertans” would get replaced with “people who live within a few hundred kilometres west of the central Rockies.” “Hitch hikers” would turn into “pedestrians standing on the side of the road with their thumb out, looking for a ride.” But, since most of us tend to deal with a lot of information, labeling is the norm and we have to deal with a certain amount of it, even if we alter our own conversational tendencies. While speaking in a more complicated fashion is impractical in a lot of situations, we can at least draw awareness to the labels we use.
Statistics show Albertans consistently vote “Conservative.” So, certain mental formations exist about them. Only problem is, those formations aren’t grounded in the truth, just some illusion based on societal conditioning. Just last night Calgary (Alberta’s largest city) voted in the biggest underdog, Naheed Nenshi, as mayor. Pundits didn’t give this “left-of-centre racial minority” even the slightest chance of winning. He started the race polling in the single digits, finishing with a 40 percent victory. The nice thing about municipal elections is that there are no parties. So, when people don’t get locked into their preconceptions about what one party or another stands for, amazing things can happen—people actually make more of an informed vote. Remove the labels, the branding, the tags. What remains are people. People professing their values and how they plan on making their world a better place.
Ultimately, everyone wants inner peace. Achieving outer peace doesn’t bring inner peace, but it’s still a good thing for us to achieve. Politics is a way of doing that. Nenshi won on a strong platform of change. He talked about building a Calgary that is “innovative, risk-taking.” Now he has the chance to bring that change. While watching the news in Lethbridge, Alberta (just south of Calgary), three analysts pondered his electoral victory on the local news. The general consensus was that he managed to stir up the youth vote by putting issues that matter on the table. His use of social networking helped get people to the polls and he ended up winning. While I’m sure people still judged him according to this or that label, his focus on the issues ended up winning out.
A striking sunset illuminated Alberta’s golden wheat fields to our rear as darkness fell to the front. Bea kindly drove me all the way to Lethbridge, a full hour out of her way. I was almost speechless with gratitude. I didn’t ask for a drive all the way there, she just felt like giving. When I offered to repay her, she didn’t want to take anything in return.
It was a sweet connection I was glad to have made. Though I only had the pleasure of knowing her for a couple of hours, that short time represented a lot more. It represented a breaking down of mentally-conditioned barriers. For her, of “hitch hikers,” for me of “Albertans.” We talked about the fear surrounding hitch hiking, and agreed that the media tends to blow stories way out of proportion. Now, with 24/7 news stations there’s never been more of a voracious appetite for news. The news also helps shape Canadians’ interpretation of Albertans—it’s based on a lot of numbers, statistics and labels, but not grounded in reality. Whenever we meet a person, we have the choice to face them as a human being or as an identity representing that human being. We can see them as a person with the same ultimate human needs trying to access them the best way they know how, or as a competitor, trying to get as much as they can, however they can.
I arrived in Lethbridge, just as my belly was calling me. I had a great meal at a downtown restaurant and later walked over to my couchsurf host’s house, Chloe and Ian. Their warm hospitality made me feel right at home. Looking up at their living room wall, I saw a familiar sight: a brown cardboard sign with “LETHBRIDGE” printed on it. “Is that a hitch hiking sign?” I asked curiously. It sure was, compliments of their last guest, Chloe informed me. I offered my sign up, thereby making it official: the hitch hiker’s wall of “art.”
These two enjoy hosting so much that they’re on the emergency Couchsurf list for Lethbridge. During my stay they received an emergency request from two travelers who expected the buses to run later and ended up getting stuck in Lethbridge. They drove to the bus station to look for the stranded surfer, not knowing if they’d still be there. Unfortunately, they were nowhere in sight.
I caught up on a bunch of work during my time in Lethbridge and rested quite a bit. I also spent a lot of time in their kitchen, getting to cook some of my favourite recipes and trying some of theirs. Food is always such a great way to connect. I left three days later, happy to have a nice relaxing time in a chill city with great people.