My wife, Lucy, and I drove to Quebec City in mid-February to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We took Rt 201 through Jackman to the border. North from The Forks, it was a beautiful winter drive, with even the tallest road signs only half visible in the snow banks, and not more than a handful of cars on the road, and virtually none on the last 10 miles between Jackman and the border. When we got to the border, we were the only car entering Canada, but we had to stop, because there was this guy with a backpack talking to the Canadian border patrol agent. “Is this guy really hitchhiking through Maine and Canada in the middle of winter”, I asked Lucy. He looked a bit flustered, and was in animated discussion with the border guard for 5 minutes or so, but then was checked through and walked into Canada. We pulled up to the crossing, and I said to the guard, “I bet you don’t get many backpackers crossing the border in February”. He just smiled and shook his head, and said, “that guys been all over the world. He just spent 6 hours at the border station on the American side, now he’s headed to Rimouski. He’s from Germany”. I didn’t know where Rimouski was, but some of my best friends are German, so I called out to him if he wanted a ride, not surprisingly, he said yes, and that’s how we met Tomas.

Tomas spent the next couple of hours telling us at least some of his story. He was on his way to Rimouski to visit a friend for a day before heading to Montreal where he had a flight to Berlin, where he would pick up the bicycle he had left with his parents, and then head to Kuala Lumpur, where he would bike for a couple of weeks before going to Sri Lanka, where he planned to spend several months. He described himself as a vagabond. He’d come to New York in September or October on a tourist visa, and then found a job for a couple of months to make some money. He’d then hitchhiked to Vermont and spent a few weeks on a ‘hippie farm’ where he’d fixed a roof, among other things. He’d passed through Connecticut where he stayed with a family that took him in during a snowstorm. Nice people he said, except they kept the shades drawn all the time, watched TV all day, swore a lot, and started smoking pot as soon as they got out of bed. When you’re a vagabond you don’t always get to choose who takes you in.

He’d then come to Maine, and had spent the last several days with some nice folks from Brunswick. He’d loved Maine, until someone told him the best way to get to Rimouski, which is about 3 hours northeast of Quebec City, was to go up on 201, because that’s the way ‘everyone went to Canada’. Turned out ‘everyone’ was three truckers, a used car salesman, and five moose. It had taken him all the previous day to get to Jackman, where it wasn’t clear where he’d spent the night in subzero temperatures. He’d then managed to get a ride to the border in the morning. That’s when he met the US Customs, where he’d spent the previous six hours being grilled. They’d taken one look at his passport, which had visas and stamps for many Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, and Syria (before the war), and started asking questions, lots of questions. Of course, they were interested if he had worked while in the States, which he admitted he had, ‘just enough for keeping a roof over his head’, well actually he had a few thousand dollars in his pocket from the money he’d made in New York. That nearly got him deported. They asked him for all the contacts he’d made in Iran and Syria, as well as gone through his phone and computer. All in all, he said it was the toughest border crossing interrogation he’d been through in the more than 40 countries he’d traveled in. He was definitely shaken by it, although he said the customs agent was nice enough, and they gave him some food and drink. I said he was lucky to have done this in Jackman, Maine, and not New York City.

It was fun to get to know Tomas. He’d started traveling when he was 14, and was now in his early 30’s I would guess. He’d gone to University in Austria, and worked as a carpenter, and spoke several languages. Mostly, he just loved to travel and meet people. His parents were working folks who didn’t travel much, and weren’t wild about his wanderings, but had come to accept it.

It made me reflect on my youth when I’d done a fair amount of hitchhiking and some long bicycle trips, including across the US when I was 18. It was a cheap way to get around and see things, but a lot of it was about meeting people. All kinds of people, from all walks of life, and points of view. Some incredibly kind, some wacky, but still kind, a very few might have had some malicious intent if it had gone that way. It was always interesting to me how people that carried guns like to show them off to a stranger. I always had the vague suspicion that they were hoping I would ‘try something’, so they could ‘try something’ with their gun. Mostly though just nice people, a little curious about me, and what I was up to, and maybe someone to chat with on a journey.

It makes me a little sad there aren’t more Tomas’s around these days. Even though, by nearly any statistical measure, the times are safer today (and the safest they’ve ever been), than they were in my vagabond youth. It seemed like there were lots more of us then. But in those times too it was nearly unheard of for bad things to happen to those of us who were on the road. Today it seems like there is more fear of each other, and of unknown parts and people.  I kind of even feel a little bit of it myself. The statistics aren’t wrong, so why is that? An important question to ponder.

We dropped Tomas just outside Quebec City on the road to Rimouski, still 3 hours away, but he had at least an hour of daylight left to get a ride, and had figured there was a bus he might be able to catch, if darkness set in before he had a ride all the way to his friend’s house. He used my phone to call her, and let her know he was on the way. I’m sure he made it, and by now has traded the cold and wild of Northern Maine winter for the tropical heat of Malaysian or Sri Lankan sunshine, where he’ll continue to travel with memories of the people he’s met along the way.

Lucy and I have a nice memory too, and for the foreseeable future will occasionally ask one another, “I wonder where Tomas is today?”

David Emerson

About David Emerson

David Emerson is a professional scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences who studies bacteria that live literally between a rock and a hard place. The views expressed here are his alone.