Halifax-to-Vancouver hitchhiking odyssey documented by student filmmakers

Two student filmmakers who completed a Halifax-to-Vancouver hitchhiking odyssey last year say they learned a lot about the country, Canadians and hitchhiking itself.

Toronto's Jonah Haber and Jackson Peters, both film students at Ryerson University, recorded and photographed the coast-to-coast journey, which they decided to tackle because they felt talking to strangers in cars would cut through the usual formalities of first encounters.

"You find when you're in a car that there's no icebreaker, there's no getting to know someone," Haber told CBC News from Toronto.

"It's like you're lifelong friends already and the conversations you have are the kind that friends who have no filter would be having."

The roommates set out in May, making their way across the country in 11 days with the help of 26 drivers.

'What am I doing here?'

"I remember standing out on the road in Halifax, and just sort of having this moment like, 'What am I doing here?'" Haber said.

"You look at your Google Maps on your phone and you see 6,000 kilometres ahead of you, you've been standing there for 30 minutes and you've never been picked up before in your life and you sort of question why anyone would stop their car to let you in."

But soon they had their first driver, James, who got them started on their first leg, to Fredericton.

Rather than focus closely on landmarks or geography, the filmmakers zeroed in on the people helping them traverse the country. 

"It was really uplifting to see all these people, I guess, letting us into their lives and giving us a glimpse at what it's like being from where they are," Haber said.

Sudbury Saturday Night

There was Lynn, a magician; Lovey, a trucker from Toronto. People they spent a few minutes with, and people who gave them full tours of their region. The Fort McMurray wildfires were burning then, and a frequent topic. Everybody was kind and generous and interesting, Haber said.

The students both said one highlight was Mark from Sudbury, who took them up a local ski hill with his dog Mako to watch the sunset as they drank Saturday Night beer from a Sudbury craft brewery. The evening combined the landscape with Mark's personal history, elevating both.

"It was physically beautiful, the sun was setting and we were on this hill and we were looking over the clearest skies, looking over this incredible city, but then also it was personal at the same time because we were hearing about someone who'd lived there his whole life and hearing about his own personal stories connected to it," Haber said.

Haber and Peters said they've kept in touch with about 30 to 40 per cent of the people who picked them up, and were even sad to learn that one of the drivers died a couple of months after their meeting. Some of the drivers got in touch thanks to Haber's photos of them, which he's posted in several places online.

Hitchhiking tips

The pair are still working on the film, which they are trying to condense down to 10 minutes, and hope to have it completed by mid-spring. 

Aside from meeting Canadians and seeing much of the country for the first time, Haber said they learned valuable hitchhiking tips, too.

For instance: A highway running to the side of a small community is good, a stoplight heading into a city is a godsend, and appearing as presentable as possible will pay dividends.

Peters played ukulele on the side of the road sometimes, with Haber singing along.

"We realized once we were happy on the road, that's when we got picked up," Haber said. "People can tell when you're faking it."

'No better way'

In the East, several people said they hadn't seen a hitchhiker in years. In the West, Haber and Peters said they would see four other hitchhikers a day.

Both men think hitchhiking gets a bad rap.

"The hitchhiking aspect was something that we realized on the road was interesting in itself," Haber said. "It started as being a means to meet these people but then it sort of became, hey, hitchhiking really does not deserve the rep it has.

"It's quite safe, and in terms of seeing a place for the first time, there's no better way to experience a new town or city than with people who've lived there their whole lives and who can tell you about it."