Heed the Lore When You’re on the Move

Until very recently, I had never heard the expression “hitchhiker’s thumb”.

Oh sure, there was that weird guy in Grade 9 named Pete Moss, who had double-jointed thumbs. He also had a habit of turning his eyelids inside-out, a truly gory sight that the girls in the class generally found disgusting, but the boys considered hilarious.

But who knew there was an actual genetic characteristic known as hitchhiker’s thumb, where the top joint takes a distinct turn away from the rest of one’s hand? It even has a fancy name: distal hyperextensibility of the thumb.

As a former chronic hitchhiker, I should have known this. I could have used my boringly-straight right thumb as an excuse on those many roadside days when I couldn’t seem to flag down a lift for love or money.

Not that I’m complaining. In my heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, thumbing allowed me to see vast stretches of Canada I could never have afforded to visit otherwise.

It also introduced me to some of the most generous, interesting (and occasionally terrifying) people I’ve ever met.

Alas, the art of hitchhiking is in serious decline, at least on this continent. Highways are bigger and faster, laws are stricter, and (for many sad, but understandable reasons), both riders and drivers are less willing to trust strangers.

In a simpler era, fellow travelers would offer tips on successful hitching techniques: where to stand, how to stand, what to wear, what to carry, which cars to avoid at all costs.

One of the cagiest guys I knew carried his clothes in jerry can with the bottom cut out, then sealed with an inconspicuous strip of duct tape. Drivers were always keen to help someone they assumed was a fellow motorist in distress.

There were unspoken rules, such as never planting yourself in front of someone who was already on a given corner.

There was also shared travel lore, passed from generation to generation. Those who occasionally rode boxcars, for instance, would tell you to keep the lowest possible profile in Capreol, Ontario, where the yard dicks were the toughest in the whole CNR system.

The most common piece of lore, however, concerned the town of Wawa, on the northeastern side of Lake Superior.

“Never accept a ride if the driver’s just going to Wawa. You’ll be stuck there for days, maybe weeks,” the story went (and still goes, I’m told).

But I say piffle. In fact, the longest I was ever stranded there was that day in June, 1965, when I stood in the blazing sun, thumb outstretched, within sight of Wawa’s famous Canada goose sculpture.

My westbound ride arrived after a mere nine hours. It only felt like weeks.

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