A few days before the Easter weekend in the spring of 1992, Ron Murdock woke up in a ditch on the side of the highway. Heavy snowflakes landing on his nose jarred him awake at five in the morning. Snow was drifting around his sleeping bag. He was in the middle of a spring blizzard, and he was freezing to death.
The rides along the Yellowhead Highway had been steady the day before. Hitching the Yellowhead was always smooth, especially along the busy stretch from Hinton to Saskatoon. Murdock’s last ride had dropped him thirty kilometres east of Edmonton, a few kilometres past an Esso Station on the north side of the highway. These are the sort of details Murdock remembers. He’d thanked the driver and glanced at the dashboard before he stepped out onto the asphalt. The gleaming clock read one a.m. He had already spent fifteen hours on the highway that day. “I figured it was time to pull off the road for the night and get some shut eye,” Murdock told me, eighteen years later, when I met him in Nelson, British Columbia.
Murdock sat up, got out of his sleeping bag and gathered up his gear. Then he made his way to the roadside hoping to catch some sunrise traffic. Except there would be no sunrise that morning; the storm had reduced visibility to almost zero and was charging down the highway before the first morning truckers. Wet snow softened his cardboard sign and the black ink of ‘SASKATOON’ started to run. The wind sharpened the snow into ice. Murdock shivered. The muscles in his shoulders began to spasm. He knew then he would be dead in a half an hour.
Murdock thought of the people he would never see again. He thought of his father, a retired long-haul trucker from whom Murdock inherited his urge to travel. He thought of his mother who never stopped worrying about his life on the road—Ron was their only child—and of his grandmother who lived near the railway junction in Burnaby. He thought of his friends and the dogs he knew. The cold muddled Murdock’s mind. He surrendered to the storm, and decided he wanted to die. “Make it fast,” he said out loud to whatever God ruled the highway. “I don’t want to linger.”
Murdock saw lights shining through the blizzard’s grey haze and thought he must already be dead; someone was coming to take him to the next life. But the lights belonged to a van. “It wound up being I hadn’t died yet,” Murdock said to me later. The driver somehow spotted Murdock, stopped, stepped out of the van, and heaved him into the back. Murdock needed the help; his legs had frozen and wouldn’t bend. “Thanks for picking me up,” he said. “I gotta get warm.” He shook and shook and shook.
The driver kept ahead of the storm and a couple of hours later dropped Murdock beside the highway just before Lloydminster. Murdock then caught a ride to North Battleford, followed by one more to Saskatoon from a couple who stuffed two twenty-dollar bills into his pocket as he left their car. He got out and stood on the streets of Saskatoon, warmed and rescued. Murdock’s near–freezing, though, did not pull him off the road. Far from it; by the end of that year, he’d racked up nearly 14,000 miles on Canada’s highways.
I had read about Murdock’s near-freezing in an article he wrote for Street Talk, a street newspaper he used to sell on a corner in downtown Calgary. The article recounted Murdock’s twenty-five years of hitchhiking through Western Canada.He wrote about his favourite highways to hitch on—the Crowsnest, the Alaska Highway—and advised potential hitchhikers to travel light, keep clean, and carry a sign. He described his longest and shortest waits, his longest and shortest rides. The story also revealed that Murdock’s near freezing did not stop him from hitchhiking. “When the ‘call of the wild’ beckons, some of us yield to it,” he wrote. “It becomes intoxicating.”
I found Murdock himself intoxicating, and I wanted to learn more about the life he had yielded to. I found dozens of stories he wrote for Street Talk and other street papers. Most were about things like urban poverty, homelessness, subsidized housing and dumpster diving. Murdock wrote little about himself, but occasionally included a bit of his own history in whatever story he was telling. I started to collect fragments of Murdock. He grew up in Burnaby. He’d sold street papers in five different Canadian cities. He had once worked as a part-time custodian at Calgary’s Central United Church, and had manned reception desks at hotels in Watson Lake, Dawson Creek and Kamloops. He didn’t smoke. And he now lived in Nelson, a town in the West Kootenays.
Murdock’s biography is cartography, a map of a Canada few of us have seen or perhaps even want to see. His story links prairie highways to dive hotels, soup kitchens to soft roadside ditches. His landmarks are rail yards and bus depots and cafés where coffee is cheap. He rejected the obligations of career and family for a romantic life of constant wandering. I didn’t know men like Murdock—a “real hobo” as he describes himself—still existed. I didn’t know anyone this free. I didn’t desire Murdock’s life; I am a husband and new father. But I am also a traveler who, in part, coveted Murdock’s hobo sovereignty and “King of the Road” reality. Surely there was wisdom born of hitched rides and highway miles. Murdock had to know things the rest of us didn’t. I wanted to learn what they were. Murdock embodied a kind of traveler’s dream: What would it mean to live a wholly untethered life?
Ron Murdock and I stood on the side of the road among the weeds and summer wildflowers. We were in Balfour, a town just north of the ferry terminal and the junction where Highway 3A becomes Highway 31. It was a good spot, Murdock said, because there was a shoulder wide enough for a car to pull over. Murdock told me to stand a little behind him so as not to block his sign, a cardboard box-flap with the word KASLO hand-lettered in black capitals. A woman approached in a sedan. She smiled as she past us and held her thumb and index finger an inch apart. “Did you see that? That means she’s going only a short distance,” Murdock explained.
I had contacted Murdock about a month earlier. He said I was welcome to visit him in Nelson where he worked as a night clerk and custodian at the New Grand Hotel. “After years of moving here and there I am glad to find an area I call home,” he wrote. He told me he still travelled every couple of weeks on his days off, usually to towns in the Kootenays or, once or twice a year, to visit his parents in the Okanagan. These days, Murdock travels most often by bus. “I still hitchhike,” he said, “but not like I used to.” I asked if I could join him on a trip, and he recommended we visit Kaslo together. A week before I landed in Nelson he wrote to warn me that the one bus heading north to Kaslo on the day I would arrive went only as far as Balfour. “It leaves the only option to hitchhike the last thirty-six kilometres. What are your thoughts on this?” I’d said I thought it sounded perfect.
Murdock met me in Nelson on the corner of Vernon and Ward. He wore a plaid shirt under a fleece vest, navy trousers and a Bud Light baseball cap. He carried a small backpack on his shoulders and his cardboard sign under his arm. His beard was mostly gray, his smile a little snaggle-toothed. After I shook his hand, he asked “Did you get your sign?” He’d mentioned in an email that “it is wise to carry a cardboard sign with Kaslo written on it” but I hadn’t realized he meant I should bring my own. I’d told him that I, too, was a traveller, but suddenly I felt like a poseur.
The bus dropped us at Balfour and I followed Murdock to the junction. He said we could try hitchhiking together for a little while, but figured we’d have more luck separately. “Lots of people are willing to pick up one hitchhiker, but not two.” The last time he tried hitching with someone else—out of Clearwater in 1992—he waited forty-two hours for someone to stop.
While we waited, I asked Murdock if he remembered his first hitched ride. He couldn’t recall, but it must’ve been sometime in 1979. “That was the year I got wakened up,” he said. He was in his early twenties, had a high school diploma and a certificate in industrial first aid, and worked as a lab assistant cleaning test tubes at Vancouver General Hospital. “I was just a flunky, that was all.” He spoke about his time at Vancouver General with a bitterness that I would learn was out of character for him. “It was a really tedious job,” he told me. “Everyone was always bitching and complaining. There was a lot of politics involved. The hospital was more concerned with saving money than they were with patient care. I thought, ‘This isn’t what a hospital is about.’ I just absolutely, thoroughly hated it. I think that’s probably why I got out of mainstream society and worked on the fringe. It was better for my mental health.”
After working at Vancouver General, Murdock decided he wanted nothing to do with the conventional expectations of an ordinary life. “I didn’t want to fit into that world,” he told me. He left Vancouver, and hitched east to find work in Swift Current.
The shock of moving from a coastal metropolis to a small prairie town roused something in Murdock. He liked Swift Current well enough, but it was the journey itself that most inspired him. There was something exciting about traversing all those miles. He started hitching rides around Saskatchewan. He traveled to Maple Creek, Moose Jaw, Regina, and Saskatoon. He slept in dive hotels with shared bathrooms, and ate in rough cafés and soup kitchens. He worked odd jobs to fund his trips, and sold street newspapers where he could. Murdock recorded the mileage of every journey. 1979 was Year One of Murdock’s new life, and he logged more than 4,600 miles on the highways of Western Canada. “Once it gets in your blood,” he told me while we stood waiting for the Balfour ferry to unload, “it never goes away.”
A line of cars snaked off the ferry and onto the highway. Most vehicles turned south to Nelson and few drove past us at all. Murdock wasn’t worried. “This is good territory to hitchhike out of,” he said of the Kootenays in general. “It’s easy. Lots of people are living alternative lifestyles, and they’re used to hitchhikers.” That said, Murdock knows hitching anywhere has its risks. He occasionally refuses rides from drivers who give him “bad vibes.” He told me about drunks who’d stopped for him in the past, and the two occasions when drivers expected him “to engage in homosexual behavior” in return for a ride. “One guy picked me up in Moose Jaw. He told me to go into his glove compartment and there was a porn magazine in there. He wanted me to get horny looking at all the pictures. I got disgusted and got out of the car.”
Such incidents are rare, and Murdock told me that hitching is a “great way of building a bigger community.” He believes the interaction between driver and rider, though brief and often anonymous, forges another bond in what he calls the “human family.” “It’s something I learned from a guy who picked me up once,” he told me. “He said ‘When you connect with a hitchhiker the way I’ve connected with you, it extends the community by one.’”
Murdock abruptly stopped talking to lift his sign for a passing car. The driver ignored us.
“When you connect with a ride,” he continued, “you make up for not having long term friendships.”
Camaraderie between hobos is common—except when they vie with each other for rides—but enduring friendships are rare. Sometimes they are tragic. Murdock first met Brad Azerbach in Dawson Creek when Murdock checked him into the men’s hostel. Years later, they saw each other at a lunch counter in Saskatoon, then again in Edmonton where both sold a street newspaper called Our Voice. Though their encounters were infrequent, Azerbach and Murdock somehow grew close. One afternoon, Azerbach confided in Murdock that after years of panhandling and homelessness, he wanted to settle down and get off the street. Later, Azerbach helped Murdock through a painful break-up with a woman he was involved with. “He seemed to understand me,” Murdock said. “He was one of these street people that maybe had mental health issues. But I liked him a lot. He meant no harm.”
Harm found Azerbach anyway. In 2006, a homeless woman named Rose Mary Ice killed Azerbach with a hatchet. She struck him five times in the head as he brawled with her common-law husband at a drunken party along Calgary’s Bow River. The blade split Azerbach’s skull and bruised his brain. The next day, two people spotted his dead body on the grass near the Shouldice Bridge. Police caught Ice. They already knew her. Fifteen years earlier, she and another assailant stabbed a man to death with steak knives and a pair of scissors, and she had just gotten out of jail.
Murdock saw a notice of Azerbach’s death pinned to a corkboard at Calgary’s Centre of Hope. A face he recognized, Brad’s, hung over a story he could hardly believe. “Awful, awful,”Murdock said. “I was shocked.” Such a crime had never happened to someone he knew. The murder warranted a story in the Calgary Herald and a few brief mentions on the local CBC. Only the gruesome details made the crime newsworthy at all; the deaths of drifters rarely draw media attention. But Murdock wrote about the murder in Street Talk. He wrote about Brad helping him through a “rough patch” in his life and how his chats with Brad always left him “in a better frame of mind.” It was one of the few stories I could find that described Azerbach as something other than a “homeless man” or a “street person.” “Brad looked rough,” Murdock wrote, “but had a good heart.”
After Murdock and I had stood in Balfour for forty-five minutes without anyone stopping, he decided to disband our partnership. He pointed to a spot about 100 metres up the road where he wanted me to stand. “It would be better if you had a sign,” he said, “but your thumb should work.” We agreed that the first one to Kaslo would wait at the Kaslo Motel for the other, then we’d go to his favourite café, The Silver Spoon. “I usually order a large hot chocolate,” he said. “We can sit outside and listen to the water lap on the lake.”
I smiled at the thought of having to compete with Murdock for a ride. “Which of us has the better chance of getting a ride first?” I asked.
He looked me up and down. “It’s about even,” he said. “We’re both respectable.”
Ten minutes later a Volkswagen van stopped to pick up Murdock. I groaned, defeated, but when the driver saw my thumb, he pulled over for me, too. A beautiful young woman with big sunglasses, tanned arms and a pierced lip leaned out the passenger window. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“Kaslo,” I said.
She laughed. “Seems like everyone is going to Kaslo. Get in.” I joined Murdock in the back. His eyes widened when I looked at him and he held up his hand as if to warn against telling our hosts we were together. Perhaps there was something in the hitchhiker’s code that prohibited a pair of travelers splitting up and then sharing the same ride. But when the woman, whose name was Carla, asked me where I was from and what I was doing in the Kootenays, Murdock said, “You might as well tell her.”
After I told them, Carla said that she was from Yellowknife and that she and her Australian boyfriend, Aaron, who was driving, had just been to the Shambhala Music Festival near Nelson. They were road tripping to Revelstoke, and had no real plans beyond that.
I sat quietly in the back and read the misspelled messages handwritten on the van walls: HAPPIENESS IS ONLY REAL IF IT IS SHARED; PEOPLE EVERYWARE ARE CONNECTED ETERNALEY. Murdock leaned towards the front and told Carla and Aaron to drive up the 31A to New Denver and travel north to Revelstoke from there. He warned them they might have a four or five hour wait for the ferry at Galena Bay. Carla turned around and told us more about her own travels. She’d journeyed overseas to Southeast Asia, to India, and to Qatar, of all places. Now she wanted to roam through Canada in a van with Aaron.
“Go for it,” said Murdock. “Do it while you’re young.”
Before we jumped out in Kaslo, he warned Carla again about the delays at the Galena ferry terminal. Then he said goodbye.
I enjoyed watching Murdock counsel the next generation of wanderers and asked him if he considered people like Aaron and Carla to be kindred souls. “Yeah, but there was also a little sexual attraction there. I was sitting there looking at her legs and thinking, ‘Thanks.’”
I laughed. “She was something.”
“She is a free spirit. I like that in young people. I like that in anybody.”
We walked down to the Kaslo Motel. The Australian couple that checked us in knew Murdock by name; he rents a cabin there for a couple of nights every six weeks or so. He visits Kaslo for the good price at the motel, for the view of Kootenay Lake, and for the mountains. “The Rockies don’t look like mountains here,” he told me. “They look like mounds of ice cream that have melted and refrozen.”
Mostly, though, Murdock comes to Kaslo just to walk along the street. He comes to relax in his cabin, visit the library below the old firehall, and to drink hot chocolate at The Silver Spoon. He always travels this way. Museums and tourist sites don’t interest him. He’d rather experience the ordinary life of a place. “I do normal things,” he said. “I go for coffee. I mingle with the residents. I become part of the town.”
Murdock has loved trains since he was a five year old watching them thunder through Willingdon Junction in Burnaby, a sight that thrilled him then and thrills him now. Yet Murdock never hops freights like a proper hobo. It’s not the danger he fears most. Nor the law. He simply can’t bear sitting still for hours waiting for a train to move. “You don’t know when the train will leave,” he said. “You can end up waiting at the siding for a couple of hours. You can waste a lot of time doing that.”
Murdock obsesses about movement. Back in 1990, he’d wake up early on Sunday mornings and head to Vancouver’s bus depot. He would catch the long haul bus to Powell River, then a ferry through Blubber Bay and across the Strait of Georgia to Courtenay. He’d leave the ferry terminal, hold out a cardboard sign, and hitchhike south along the Island Highway to Nanaimo, usually arriving with just enough time to board the final ferry back across the Strait to Horseshoe Bay, and make the last bus to Vancouver. Then he would go home to sleep. The wait for the Powell River ferry was the only time all day that Ron was not technically in motion. He didn’t go anywhere. He just wanted to move.
Murdock surprised me when he first said he has been “big into meditation” for the last decade or so. The man did not fit the stereotype of a recreational Buddhist. Then again, what could be more Zen than Murdock’s time on the highway? To meditate, after all, is to unclutter. It is to rid the mind of distractions and desires. It is, simply, to be. And for Murdock, to be is to move. Buddhism also teaches that the journey holds more importance than the destination. Murdock takes it one step further: sometimes he doesn’t have a destination at all. Travel is a meditation; continuous stillness through constant motion.
Ron Murdock knows many things most people don’t know. He knows that when Highway 97 passes through the Okanagan, it brings carloads of migrant workers from all over the country who come to pick fruit, but 97 North between Cache Creek and Prince George is full of ranchers and rednecks. Past Dawson Creek, the 97 becomes the Alaska Highway where you might go 200 kilometres between buildings. “That does something to a person’s sense of belonging,” Murdock said. On the Crowsnest Highway through southern British Columbia conspiracy theorists abound, which always makes for interesting rides. The hitching is good on Highway 16 from Terrace to Prince George, but hard between Terrace and Prince Rupert where traffic is sparse. The Yellowhead Highway from Saskatoon to Edmonton is full of truckers and salesmen who will stop for hitchhikers even in the middle of the night. Or the midst of a spring blizzard.
“Every highway is different,” Murdock said, between bites of sausage and rye toast at the Treehouse Café. “Each road has its own character.”
Murdock knows a little about breakfast, too. He told me that meals served at soup kitchens and free food lines are usually pretty palatable. Breakfasts, though, are always better at the beginning of the month when shelters receive their monthly grocery donations. Shelters serving bacon and eggs the first week are ladling porridge by the fourth.
Between refills of weak coffee, Murdock told me that he sees things “from the back alleys and the abandoned rail yards of life.” He likes this phrase, and repeated it often during our time together. “I have the time to experience life more fully,” he continued. “I removed a lot of clutter from my life. I don’t have a mortgage to pay off. No family to raise. I never have. I am not really interested in that. From the fringes, I tend to look at life through a different perspective.”
“What do you see that I don’t see?” I asked.
“I experience life as it is,” he said. “I see things how they really are.”
“And how are they?”
“People are living in a state of illusion,” he said. “They are caught up in the small picture and miss out what is happening in the big picture. They don’t have time to sit down and think about things.”
Murdock’s answers were frustrating; his observations were astute but hardly profound. I wondered if my expectations for road-borne wisdom were too high. Murdock knows every shelter from here to Whitehorse. He knows the ferry schedule at Galena Bay. He knows what days the Kamloops shelter is most likely to serve bacon and eggs. He knows how to get from wherever he is to anywhere he wants to go.
But I wanted more than that. I wanted insights. I wanted a highway philosopher, a man who might even tell me something about myself I had never considered, or who could have shown me what I might have become had I gone one way in life instead of another. It was foolishness on my part, a projection. He lived the traveler’s fantasy, but at the end of every highway he was just Murdock.
UFO Hunter was on television and Murdock wanted to get back to his room in time to watch it (he has twice seen UFOs: once when he lived in Calgary, and once as a boy in Burnaby when a flying disk rose over Burnaby Mountain while he was watching Laugh-In.) I left him to his television and walked to the Kaslo Hotel for a beer. The man on the next bar stool had a braided soul patch and asked what I was doing in Kaslo. I told him about Murdock. “Just another bleeding heart story,” the man scoffed, as he ordered us a round of tequila. He presumed my story about Murdock would end up a pitiful account of an abandoned man. He was bored of sob stories, he told me.
Then he recounted his own. He told me he was adopted and had a miserable childhood. He talked about his refusal to seek out his biological mother and father, and how he’d broken contact with his adoptive parents. His last relationship crumbled when his girlfriend told him their nine-month old child was probably not his. He described hitting “rock bottom,” then drained another bottle of Miller Genuine Draft and asked me if I wanted to write a story about him.
It occurred to me then that I’d never heard Murdock speak this way. He talked about filthy hotel rooms he’d occupied and the occasional long wait for a ride, but had never complained about his life, at least not to me. He was not bitter. He wanted no sympathy.
The next morning, over pancakes at the Treehouse, I asked Murdock if he felt he’d had a tragic life. He didn’t think so. “Everyone has rough moments in their lives, so I’m nothing special. We all go through tough times. I could sit here and say ‘poor me, I had a crummy childhood,’ but I’m not a child anymore. There are opportunities around me. There are more blessings than negative stuff. So count your blessings.”
Murdock abandoned mainstream society because he wanted to. Nobody pushed him onto the highway. “I don’t want to get involved with people who say ‘I feel sorry for you.’ It’s too much negative chatter.” He is even uncomfortable accepting charity. When he lived in Saskatoon, he suffered serious back pains and went on general disability for a year and a half. The government cheques paid him double what he earned hawking street papers, but Murdock would rather make his own money than rely on “handouts.” He has next to nothing, but doesn’t feel society owes him. In fact, Murdock believes something close to the opposite. After decades of hitching rides, sleeping in shelters, and dining on donated food, he thinks he has a debt to pay. At least a karmic one.
“I figure I’ve been given to,” he told me, as he wiped up the last of his pancake syrup, “and so I give back.”
When Murdock lived in Cranbrook, he tried to get a new men’s hostel opened. “There was no shelter between Highway 3 and Kelowna,” he said. The hostel, as Murdock envisioned, would provide beds and meals for the homeless and create a handful of new jobs. Murdock campaigned social services and approached local businesses for support. “Some were receptive. Most weren’t.” In 2001, Murdock drew on his experience selling street newspapers in Edmonton and Winnipeg to start a street paper in Saskatoon. He even recruited young journalists from the University of Saskatchewan’s campus newspaper, The Sheaf, to write for the new street paper.
But the Cranbrook hostel never opened and the Saskatoon paper quickly folded. The projects involved too much bureaucracy and politics for Murdock to manage. “I’ve given up on those things for the time being,” he said. Murdock still tries to give back in his own way, even if it means simply being kind to waitresses, motel clerks, and the girls who work in cafés. And he always offers to buy coffee for the drivers that give him rides. Sometimes they accept, other times they don’t, but Murdock never forgets to ask. The small gesture is part of his personal code.
On our bus ride back to Nelson, Murdock told me about some of the “old-time hobos” he’s known. Calgary Len hopped trains from Calgary to Vancouver and back again, sometimes stopping in Kamloops. He slept in emergency shelters, ate at free food lines, and bet his welfare cheques on slow horses. Robby S. Thompson, named for his love of Hunter S. Thompson, worked periodically for a cattle auction in Dawson Creek. Ross ‘The Baptist’ Draper experienced divine visions he insisted on sharing, loudly, and worked the fishing boats in Prince Rupert. Al the Taxpayer never worked at all. “If it was work, he ran,” Murdock said. “All he wanted to do was hitch around.”
These hobos each had a territory they traveled through. Len kept to his rail route from Calgary to the coast. Al the Taxpayer rarely left Dawson Creek. Murdock had one of the largest terrains, a vast network of hostels and shelters that formed a triangle between Whitehorse, Saskatoon and the Okanagan. The men ran into each other once in a while in different parts of the country. Even men like Calgary Len and Al the Taxpayer drifted off their regular routes from time to time. Murdock keeps track of the hobos he meets and where he meets them. When he sees someone in three different cities or three different provinces, he inducts them into his Hat Trick Club. Len, Al and The Baptist are all members.
Murdock hasn’t run into any of these old friends for years now. Pure hobos, he told me, men who choose a life of highways and hostels, are becoming hard to find. When governments cut funding to social services they changed the complexion of Murdock’s milieu. Most of the men sleeping on emergency shelter beds or standing in the free food lines nowadays are rarely travelers like Murdock and his hobo cohorts, but are more often addicts, recently released convicts, and the mentally ill.
Of course, there is never a shortage of transients-by-choice in the West Kootenays, and we stepped off our bus in Nelson into their midst. These are not fifty-year-old career hobos like Murdock, but young drifters who’ve left their parents’ homes to gather in loose bands; women in long gypsy skirts and headscarves, men in unbuttoned shirts and sagging jeans, both with piercings and dreadlocked hair. The Shambhala Music Festival had ended only a few days earlier, and young hippies—Nelsonites call them the “Shambha-lost”—crowded the street corners more than usual.
I paused to listen to a dreadlocked busker drone a chorus about being “connected to nature.” I didn’t envy or admire these kids the way I did Murdock. Their activism seemed naïve, their rebellion shallow. The young transients rejected the rules of the majority, but embraced conformity within their tribe. They were not free the way Murdock was free, and they did not give back. The same kids who spent two hundred dollars for Shambhala tickets showed up for lunch at Our Daily Bread, a church-run soup kitchen set up to feed Nelson’s poor.
Murdock likes the hippy kids, but he doubts they have the stamina to stay on the road as long as he has. “They’re doing it while they’re young and getting it out of their system,” he said. “It’s excellent that they’re doing it, but they don’t last. They get married. She gets pregnant. They’ve got to settle down and raise a family.” He paused, as if for emphasis. “Nothing stops a traveller cold like an unwanted pregnancy.”
Murdock knows more than anyone the unromantic demands of his sort of life. “Doing it for years does take a lot out of a person,” he said. “There’s the tension of not knowing how long you’ll be waiting for a ride. Then, here you are, waiting, and you turn around and there’s a thunderstorm coming.” Even a dedicated transient like Murdock has endured moments of fatigue and doubt. “After being stuck in a place for five or six hours, I would think ‘Maybe I should go home and get married and find a real job,’” he admitted to me. “But then you get that ride and immediately those thoughts go away. The adrenaline of someone stopping for you.” He smiled. “Even after all these years, it happens every time.”
King’s Family Restaurant is the kind of place that serves Chinese and Western cuisine and still uses the word “smorgasbord.” Murdock and I shared our last meal there; I went Chinese and he went Western. After we finished our chow mein and pork sausages, we grabbed six Kokanee Gold and went to his place on Ward Street, a basement apartment with a single window that lets in little air or light, only the occasional view of sandaled feet on the sidewalk. Murdock has a bed, a stove, a fridge, and some green patio chairs, but he shares a bathroom with the other tenants in the basement. I twisted open two beers, handed one to Murdock and asked him about his visit to the doctor that morning.
“I lost forty-three pounds in the last two years,” he announced.
I was shocked. “How?”
“Just exercise,” he said.
“Is it healthy to lose that much?” I found myself worried for him. “What did the doctor say?”
“He said it’s good. I was overweight before. But he said I don’t need to lose any more.”
Murdock seemed tired. He sat on his easy chair and let me tour his place on my own. He pointed to a collection of toilet paper rolls stacked on a counter. “It was my idea to recycle the unused toilet paper,” he said. Part of his job at the New Grand is to clean the adjoining bar and restaurant. Each night he replaces the toilet paper in the restrooms. Murdock brings home the roll ends rather than throw them away. “I give it to people who can use it,” he explained. “Occasionally homeless people come over.”
Murdock’s cardboard hitchhiking signs sat in a pile at the top of his closet. Each had NELSON written on one side, and his destinations on the other. Murdock visits these towns on a regular rotation. The sign on the top of the pile represents Murdock’s next trip. When he returns, the sign goes to the bottom of the stack. His recently-used Kaslo sign was at the bottom; Grand Forks, his next destination, on top, followed by Creston, New Denver, Yahk, Nakusp, and Cranbrook. I restored the signs to the closet shelf, careful not to shuffle the order.
Murdock showed me a sheet of paper lying on a shelf. Under the heading Yearly Mileage Record was an annual accounting of his travels. A column of typed dates crawled down the left side of the page next to the miles traveled each year. In 1979, the first year of his travels, Murdock covered 4,609 miles. In 1992, his record year, he traveled 13,527 miles. “Almost all hitchhiking,” he said. The following year’s total was the lowest, only 1,472 miles; he’d clearly been exhausted from the year before. Murdock handwrites his more recent sums on the right side of the page. After each journey, he crosses out the previous number and adds the updated total. He uses an old calculator to convert kilometres to miles.
I held the mileage-sheet in my hand like a sacred text. I had wondered before meeting Murdock what it would it mean to lead an untethered life such as his, and holding that sheet felt like some kind of answer, almost as if I were peering into his DNA. He didn’t tally destinations, only miles, and as I stared at his list, at the roster of the tens of thousands of miles he’d traveled without a single mention of a place, I thought that perhaps there was a final wisdom here after all. Murdock is a body in perpetual motion, but he is also no more or less than any of us. We are not best defined by the road signs of where we arrive, but by the miles, and actions, in between.
Murdock, of course, doesn’t care to be a symbol or a sage. All he wants is a ride. And then another. And then a ride home. I looked at the sheet one last time. The final number, written in blue ink, represented our round trip to Kaslo. Eighty-six miles. Already accounted for. I touched my finger to our tally, and returned the paper to its shelf. EB