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Four Rides and a Lie on the Highway of Tears

Today's announcement that the RCMP have identified a suspect in a number of the disappearances of young women along Highway 16 over the last 30 years prompted me to dig out this story. I wrote it about five years ago. It is the story of the day I hitchhiked along that highway in August 1977.

   

 I am standing in hot sun beside Highway 16 outside Hazelton B.C., penniless, frightened and 5,000 kilometres from home. And I am sticking my thumb out for a ride.

It is 1977, I am 19 years old, and I am in a jam. I must get to Prince George by evening or I am sure I will be fired. It is a Sunday in the days before ATMs and ready cash. I haven’t got a cent on me.  Pride triumphing over common sense, I won’t put a collect call to my boss in Prince George or my parents in Toronto to explain my predicament, too ashamed to confess the missteps that had lead to this, hitchhiking on the scenic Yellowhead Highway in Northwestern BC, both hopeful and terrified that I will be picked up.

These days they call the Yellowhead Highway the Highway of Tears.  Over the last 30 years some 20 women hitchhikers have gone missing from it, never to been seen again. I didn’t know it back then that already three women had disappeared from this exact stretch of highway. I don’t think I could have stood there knowing that. Now, thinking back on that day, I cringe with what might have been.

It had started with a lie three months earlier. I cannot lie. I am bad at it. I blush. I stammer.  If I can get past the utterance of the lie, then it festers in me. I feel sure I will be punished, if not by those I lied to, then by the cosmos in some form of grand comeuppance for my deceitfulness.

“See, this is what you get for lying,” my conscience nagged as each car and truck whizzed by that August morning, heading east past the towering rock walls of the rugged Roche de Boule Range. “If you hadn’t lied, you wouldn’t be standing here and at the mercy of every weirdo who passes by.”

Worst of all, in my mind, I had lied about my family. I had denied my happy childhood and claimed an upbringing torn apart by divorce, loved ones scattered across the country. It was a lie that had given me a great job I was not eligible for, working with the Fish & Wildlife Branch of the B.C. Ministry of the Environment. Of course, whenever any of the biologists or conservation officers asked me any question about my fractured family life in the coffee room during my training, I tripped over stupid details.  Their smirks told me that they were peppering me with questions just to catch me out.  

Now my lie, I was convinced, was to become a version of the truth, my family’s charmed happiness torn apart, loved ones searching the country for the missing third daughter, the wayward one, last seen hitchhiking where the Skeena and the Bulkley Rivers meet outside the historic village of Hazelton.

The lie seemed so harmless at the time. In fact, to me, it seemed  the director of the Fish & Wildlife Branch in Prince George wanted me to lie.

I was out west from Toronto for the summer because of a cousin. Each spring she would buy a new pickup truck in the east, fill it with antique furniture and get one of her younger cousins to drive it to Prince George, where she would sell the truck and furniture for a nice profit and pay us for the trip out.  Two other sisters had already done the trip. This summer was my turn.

For four days in mid-April, two university friends and I had chatted and sang our way across Canada, our three part harmony rising above the dense pine of Lake Superior, the spring-barren fields of the Prairies and the brown, awakening grass of the Alberta foothills.

The pickup truck bed was filled with a pine hutch, an oak table, eight oak chairs, and a player piano. A blue tarp flapped in the wind, percussion to our constant songs.

But when we arrived in Banff, my friends were seduced by the party scene and abandoned me for the cute boys. I was left to drive the last 600 miles to deliver the load to Prince George on my own.

By May in the Spruce City it was still snowing and grey, the ever-present smell of pulp and paper hemmed in by the clouds. I still hadn’t found a job. A summer as a Banff chambermaid loomed when I heard about a high-paying position doing fish research in Northern BC. Hundreds of university students had applied. The successful candidate would be given a high wage, a truck, a trailer and isolation pay to live 400 kilometres north of Prince George in the Williston Lake watershed, counting and categorizing fish, viewing samples of their scales under a microscope at my trailer's kitchen table, and counting the scale rings just like the rings of a tree to record the fish's age.

When I walked into the Fish & Wildlife director's office for my interview, I saw the huge pile of resumes from university students in Vancouver on his desk. I saw him look at the pile, then look at me, in the flesh, standing there.  I had straight ‘A’s and had just finished my first year of a biological science degree at the University of Guelph.  I had the qualifications they advertised for, except…

“This job is limited to residents of BC, or at least to those who have a parent paying taxes here. This Reg Mullens in Vancouver on your resume, that’s your father?” he asked hopefully.

My face flushed. I had put my uncle’s name down as a contact, rationalizing they could assume what they like. Could I verbally carry it through?

“Umm, yes, ahhh, divorce, really very terrible,” I stammered, somehow spilling out a heart-rendering tale that Mom and the girls had stayed in Ontario while Dad had moved to the coast.

He beamed. “Oh how difficult … but congratulations you’ve got the job!”

There are moments in one’s life that are quintessential turning points, when suddenly things take a different trajectory and nothing is ever the same again. That moment -- that lie-- was one of mine.  My friends returned from Banff that summer and forevermore stayed in the east. But from that lie, I was immersed in the wilds of British Columbia where I developed a love of the mountains and the ruggedness, the individuality of this place, and from that my eventual settlement here. And, of course, from that lie comes this story of how I came to be desperate and hitchhiking on Highway 16, trying to get the 724 kilometres from Prince Rupert to Prince George in a single day.

For three months I had been working and living among the scrubby lodge pole pine landscape  1000 km north of Vancouver, near Mackenzie BC. It was a solitary life, one full of bugs and bears and the occasional drunken fisherman not letting me take a sample from his precious fish. But I loved my tiny trailer, my days spent analysing fishermen’s catch of rainbow trout and Arctic char. I felt tough with my government-issued Buck knife on my belt, slicing open a fish belly, scraping a sample of scales, or whittling some wood for my nightly campfire. I loved driving my big yellow pickup truck, emblazoned with the big Fish & Wildlife logo. I loved freedom and adventure, and the puzzled looks from the locales at the Windy Point truck stop (known for miles for its cherry pie),  as to what a 19 year old kid was doing in this place.

Then one day in early August, the truck seized. It would take at least 10 working days to get parts to replace its engine. I couldn’t work without a truck. “Take two weeks vacation,” the director told me.

“Go visit that Vancouver Dad of yours” the conservation officers and biologists in Prince George chuckled in the coffee room.

I decided instead to explore the landscape, taking the Alaska Highway to the Yukon, the White Pass railway over to Alaska and then coming down the coast by ferry to Prince Rupert. From there it seemed like a simple trip back to Prince George.

I had no intention of hitchhiking – that was for idiots. I had a different plan.  Working around northern campgrounds had taught me that a young woman putting up a tent by herself is a conversation starter. I would pick my own rides.

The plan worked like a charm. I had traveled more than 2,000 kilometres and never stuck out my thumb. Each night in a new campground I would check out the best prospects for a safe and comfortable ride, put up my tent nearby, and when the inevitable chat ensued, I'd ask for a lift. I got a great one every time, although my ride up a portion of the winding, dusty Alaska Highway, sharing the bench seat of a pickup with a couple on their honeymoon, with a husband who was a bit too friendly, was a tad on the tense side. I suggested a few hours into the ride that I move into the back, wedging myself in their truck bed, listening to their bickering in the cab, as we drove past stunning purple and green vistas from Fort Nelson to the Yukon border.

I secured what seemed like a great final ride on the Alaskan ferry from Skagway to Prince Rupert. I had hung out for two days on the top deck with a group of other young travellers, sunning and then sleeping under the stars as the engines thrummed beneath us, marvelling as we passed glaciers and fjords and charming coastal villages. One fellow from California said he was heading inland when the ferry docked and offered me and another fellow from Oregon a ride to Prince George. I would be back by dinner the next day so I splurged and treated the three of us to a fancy meal in the ferry restaurant. In Juno I bought a bottle of wine, which we drunk from a brown paper bag on the ferry deck.

We were supposed to dock at 8 pm, but the ferry ran aground metres from the ferry terminal. We sat for four hours waiting for the tide to float us off a sandbar. It was midnight when we finally docked and it was chaos. The ferry officials split us into two groups to go through customs, Americans in one line and Canadians in another.

“We’ll see you on the other side,” my companions said as they were marched off in one direction. Of course we never met again. An elderly couple saw me milling around in the dark, crying near the exit ramp. “I’m sure they will be there, dear,” the woman said, reassuringly as they dropped me at the nearest campsite.

 In a drizzly dawn I scoured the campground again but there was no sign of my new friends. It was 6:00 am and I had no money and 725 miles to travel.  I spent my last five dollars on breakfast, hoping I might choose a ride from the roadside restaurant.  At 7:00 am with no prospects, I went to the shoulder and stuck out my thumb.

My first ride came in minutes: a high school teacher heading to Hazelton, three hours east. We paralleled the wide, grey-blue, fast-moving Skeena.  He was the father of a teenage daughter. “You shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “It is not safe.” But somehow I was lulled into a feeling of security by the ease and comfort of this first ride. All would be fine. He dropped me off beside a weigh-scale station, saying, “Call your parents.”

I stood outside Hazelton. And stood and stood. The longer I stood, the more paranoid I became. It would be so easy to disappear from this ribbon of highway that links small towns and villages through the wilderness. Hop in a car and be gone forever. At least the weigh scale stationmaster was watching me. He could describe any car or trucked that picked me up to the police, I rationalized.

More than an hour passed. My paranoia grew. I hid my knife under my shirt so no one could see it. But what about my camera? I was a budding photographer and I had more than $1000 in camera equipment around my neck including telephoto, macro and wide-angle lenses. It been loaned to me by my real father back in Ontario for the summer. It would be such an easy snatch.  I took it off and placed it at my feet to remove the motivation of robbery from would-be rides.

Twenty minutes later a black Jimmy GMC with Playboy Bunny mud flaps pulled beyond me and honked. I picked up my pack and ran. He was in his early 30s, flashing gold jewelry, and smelling of aftershave and breath mints. “I’m going to Burns Lake,” he smiled. I threw my pack in the truck bed and hopped in.

Three kilometres down the road, I suddenly gasped: “Oh MY God! I left my camera by the side of the road!” I pleaded until he finally turned the truck around. “Christ, are you stoned?” he said.

By the time we got back to the site, the ground was bare. The driver, who I’ll call Pete, stayed in the truck as I ran into the weigh scale station. “I was standing there for about an hour, remember? Did you seem my camera?” But the clerk snarled, “I’ve better things to do than to watch hitchhikers.”

I returned to the truck devastated. Not only had a lost my father’s Canon camera, but I had lost about 500 photos in the film cannisters in the case. Pete tried to help. He got on his CB radio and called other truckers. He even filed a report with the Hazelton Police. I cried quietly, head against the side window, oblivious to the idyllic homesteads and farmland backed by mountain walls as we drove east past Smithers. "I am such a fucking idiot," was the refrain repeating in my head.

After about an hour, tired of my blubbering, he pulled into a roadside park. “I have something that will help.”  He hopped out of his side. I hadn’t paid much attention to him until then, but as he jumped out of the truck I suddenly saw that despite a normal-sized torso, he was only about four feet tall.  He was driving with hand controls as his legs couldn't reach the gas and brake pedals. He came back, swinging himself up unto the seat with his muscular arms, and showed me a white powder wrapped in cellophane. “Try this,” he said as he pulled out the review mirror, took out a razor and cut up lines of cocaine.

It is only now that I shake my head in disbelief: I was riding with a coke-snorting midget!

Back then, I shook my head, declining. I'd never done drugs and I wasn't going to start now. I was in enough trouble already.

“Suit yourself,” he grumbled. He stopped about every 40 minutes to do another line and when he finally dropped me off at a gas station outside Burns Lake he seemed glad to be rid of me.

My next ride came in minutes, another concerned father, a vacuum cleaner salesman. He paid for and watched me eat an omelet in a German-themed diner and pressed $20 into my hand before he left me by the side of the road near a shimmering stand of aspen, I am not exactly sure where.

It was around 7 pm and I still had some 200 miles to go. A beat-up orange Toyota Tercel pulled over. Behind the wheel was a blond, tousle-haired man, maybe age 25 or so. He looked like a scruffy, dissolute, slightly older version of my university pals.

I hopped in. It was only then I noticed the opened case of beer behind the seat, half of the 24 bottles  already consumed.  “I’m going to Prince George,” he slurred.

He chatted about his summer job as a logger, his loneliness working in the bush, how he'd always go to PG on his days off. I was so exhausted I finally fell asleep, one hand resting on my hidden Buck knife under my shirt. 

I woke up when I suddenly felt the bumpiness of a gravel road instead of smooth blacktop. He had left the highway. We were going off on some desolate side road.

Fear surged inside me. I was instantly awake. I pulled my knife from its sheath, turning on him.

“What the $#!!* do you think you are doing!!” I yelled, brandishing the blade at him.

His stricken eyes said he feared exactly what I had feared all day:  I’m going to be knifed by some jumped up weirdo!

“I just have to pee,” he whimpered.

I looked around. We were about 15 metres off the highway on a gravel road.

“Oh, okay,” I said, sheepishly. “You can pee”

I put my knife away. We laughed nervously. He went out and did his business and we were back on the road.

Dusk was falling and the rocky, scrubby landscape was getting familiar. An hour later he dropped me off at the Inn of the North in Prince George. “Can I call you sometime? he asked.  And then I knew just how lonely one could get in the bush if you would ask out a girl who had pulled a knife on you.

“Sorry, I don’t have a phone. I am living in the bush 400 miles north of here. I go back tomorrow.”

The next morning, I walked into the director’s office. “I have a confession.  My parents are not divorced. I’m not a B.C. resident. I have spent all my life in Ontario. I come from a happy family.”

“You think we didn’t know that already?" he said. "You are a terrible liar. We knew after the first day.”

My conscience was now clean. I smiled.

“Hey,” he called after me. “Good to see you back safely.”

I have never hitchhiked again. And of course, I try to never lie.

-30-

 

 

Posted on Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 11:44PM by Registered CommenterAnne | CommentsPost a Comment | References2 References

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