August 16, 2015 Features & Images » Feature Story

Pullover Whistler 

Hitchhiking the Sea to Sky one ride at a time

Pullover Whistler: Hitchhiking the Sea to Sky one ride at a time - STORY BY DAN FALLOON
  • Story by Dan Falloon
  • Pullover Whistler: Hitchhiking the Sea to Sky one ride at a time

I'd been the driver in my group of friends ever since I'd passed my Manitoba road test at age 16.

Few had licenses of their own; fewer had access to vehicles even if they did.

It wasn't that I wasn't necessarily making Winnipeg more accessible for my pals — they all had Winnipeg Transit monthly passes to get around town — but it saved them some time and hassle, and I enjoyed the camaraderie of the car rides.

A few months after moving to Whistler last year I stumbled upon the Hitching the Sea to Sky group on Facebook, and being a fairly social person, I'd decided to extend the offer to fill my extra seats on a couple drives down to Vancouver.

But I'm rarely, if ever, the one in the passenger seat. I'd seen people seeking lifts on the side of the road, so when my car needed some repairs and was going to be in the shop a couple days this past spring, I thought "Eh, what the hell." I toddled down Autumn Drive, bypassing the Emerald Drive bus stop, and continued to Highway 99. I stood on the shoulder and stuck out my right thumb, pondering what stretches I might need to use to keep it from tiring out. No matter. The first car pulled over and picked me up.

That was easy.

Maxine Lister, the driver, said she could only take me as far as Creekside. No problem. I hopped out by the Husky, jutted out my opposable digit once again, and though a green light's worth of cars passed me by, one turning from Lake Placid Road swung onto the shoulder and offered me a lift the rest of the way to Pique's offices in Function Junction.

In an interview over an espresso a few weeks after we first met, Lister estimates she'd picked up 15 to 20 people within Whistler over the course of the past year. She's seen the odd friend out on the road and pulled over, though those she's driven are generally people from other countries living here on working visas.

"It's interesting to hear where people are from. It's interesting to hear how thankful they are," she says. "I like meeting people and I like telling people about Whistler. Since I'm a full-time local, it's fun to explain everything about Whistler."

click to enlarge The Hitching the Sea to Sky group on Facebook is a popular option for locals and visitors to get around, often to Vancouver or Squamish. - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • The Hitching the Sea to Sky group on Facebook is a popular option for locals and visitors to get around, often to Vancouver or Squamish.

Risk vs. ride

In a province where the Highway of Tears' murders along the Yellowhead Highway (Highway 16) between Prince George and Prince Rupert still ripple in memory, those interviewed for this story say they have all felt safe as a driver or a hitcher in Whistler.

Though the decision to pick someone up is one a driver will make in a second or two, Lister says she has a set of criteria she reviews before slowing down and flicking her turn signal. She looks for someone "well-dressed," with a female in the group and a "friendly face." The time of day is key as well, as she'll look to help out someone trying to get into work and avoid those who have likely been partying and drinking and could pose more of a danger.

Her advice is to always ensure someone knows where you're going and when you'll be back if you are hitching a ride.

Despite Lister's strict criteria, she's had poor experiences, though thankfully they are more to do with manners than menace.

"I had one girl who was really unthankful," recalls Lister. "I think she thought that she always gets picked up because she's pretty, but I don't know, I never even got a thank-you.

"And she had just woken up and it was 3 p.m., so that was a little sad."

Lister started out as the one seeking rides after a friend convinced her it was safe and worthwhile in Whistler. That, combined with frustrations from the bus system, made her decide to try her luck with a friend "a couple times."

"It was usually when we had to be somewhere quickly and the bus was off-schedule," Lister says. "Our first choice was always to bus, though, because it's safer. And I would never choose to hitchhike anywhere other than Whistler."

So when she got her car, essentially one of the first things she did was try to give back.

"I was so happy to have a car and I remember what it was like to hitchhike," she says. "I thought 'Oh, this person deserves to get picked up.'"

Sociologist Stephen Lyng of Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis. focuses on risk-taking, specifically "edgework," referring to extreme risk-taking.

Though, from his observations, most people hitchhike as a "practical gamble," there is still a thrill-seeking subset of the population who enjoys doing it specifically because of the risks involved.

"I see hitchhiking as having the potential to involve a certain kind of edgework where people are perhaps looking to hitchhike for a way to experience extreme risk. But that would be something you'd certainly want to distinguish between someone who is using hitchhiking to get around and they're just willing to take a certain level of risk in doing that," he said in a phone interview.

"There are people out there that pursue hitchhiking experiences in a way that really puts them in extremely risky circumstances," he added.

"Women hitchhiking in urban areas or something like that, I would definitely see that as a form of edgework.

"For the kind of hitchhiking that I think most people do, it's probably more along the lines of what another well-known sociologist described as a 'practical gamble.' You have a practical goal in mind and you're willing to take a risk in order to achieve that goal."

click to enlarge A promotional photo for HitchWhistler, which has developed into HitchPlanet, is shown. - PHOTO SUBMITTED
  • Photo submitted
  • A promotional photo for HitchWhistler, which has developed into HitchPlanet, is shown.

The 'official' word

Staff Sgt. Steve LeClair of the Whistler RCMP said that while enforcement of the Motor Vehicle Act's item 182(3) — "A person must not be on a roadway to solicit a ride, employment or business from an occupant of a vehicle" — has been stringent at times, but more often than not, officers generally don't slap people with the $109 fines. The act's definition of "roadway" does not include the shoulder, however, so those looking for rides are legally in the clear if they stick to the very side of the road.

"We haven't written very many tickets in relation to hitchhiking," LeClair says. "We don't encourage hitchhiking. We've got great public transit in Whistler. We've got a great Valley Trail system that's set up for bicycles and pedestrians. There's an inherent danger in hitchhiking, not just from vehicles, but you don't know who's picking you up."

When it comes to the more organized rideshare programs, LeClair's advice was to know enough about the driver to gain a sense of confidence about him or her.

"You want to ensure that the person you're getting into a vehicle with is a safe driver and a safe person to be travelling with," he says.

The virtual thumb

The Internet has affected nearly every facet of life, and organizing a ride is no different. Easily accessible interconnectivity has allowed people to provide any number of services for one another, be it renting a room or car, using services like Airbnb or Zipcar, renting goods like tools through online libraries, or even hiring workers for errands like house cleaning, moving or snow removal through a site like Ask For Task.

The availability of these services is part of the sharing economy movement, which allows consumers to deal directly with a provider as opposed to a corporation, which will generally face greater overhead costs and drive up prices. Having the online platform affords consumers and providers options and additional security through a vetting process where users submit personal information, like a phone number and credit card information, and set up a public profile.

For example, taxi service Uber expanded into Canada late last year, though it has already been halted in cities like Calgary and Vancouver for violating local bylaws.

However, there are still legal ways to book a cheap ride online — some even have a local connection.

The prime difference is drivers offering seats through ride-share services must not seek a profit, but may only cover their costs.

Being a place where people may make odd but practical requests in Facebook groups like Whistler Summer and Whistler Winter — a cursory browse on a random day recently revealed a man seeking to use a printer to print a single page and another looking to borrow a pump to inflate a football — it should be of little surprise the ubiquitous social networking site is also used to set up rides.

Here in Whistler, the Hitching the Sea to Sky group on Facebook boasts over 8,700 members. The page is regularly filled with posts from those seeking or offering rides, though details are generally arranged via private message or by text.

Dara Sklar is the group's current administrator, first joining the group in 2013 after moving up from Vancouver to live while maintaining her employment in the city. She would find herself making the trek regularly — two to three times a week during her first year living in Whistler.

"It was expensive," she says. "I was travelling back and forth by myself, and sometimes back and forth in an evening. It became unaffordable.

"I had to cut back on some of my family obligations and activities as a result."

About nine months into her time living in the mountains, Sklar came upon the group and began taking passengers. It took her a little while to get into the mindset that the assistance was a two-way street.

"At first, I didn't want to charge anybody because I thought 'Well, I'm going anyway,'" Sklar says. "Then I became more comfortable with it."

Sklar opts to try to find a "mutually beneficial price," generally $10 a head or at most half of what someone taking a Greyhound would pay.

Her experiences have been overwhelmingly positive, with the odd "awkward" interaction thrown in. Some of her passengers have been people new to Canada and making their way up to Whistler for the first time, and she's even had a hand helping some find employment. Some have become friends as well.

"People are so appreciative. I would say that 95 per cent of the people that I've met are very nice, punctual, and respectful. This is a very nice group of people," says Sklar. "The group won't just let anyone in. If you request access, you will only be granted access if you have friends in the group (or at the discretion of an administrator)."

Her worst experience, Sklar recalls, was when a couple had just smoked cigarettes before hopping in with her and her husband. They then smoked again during a pit stop in Squamish and the odour was overwhelming.

"We both felt it was an extremely inconsiderate act on their part," she says. "We're sharing personal space here, and we hadn't had that happen before, where people had done that at all.

"It's their prerogative, but I started asking for non-smokers only."

Other problems that can arise are users not paying, showing up late or being unreachable by phone. In the group rules, Sklar places a particular emphasis on being respectful of one another's time and to communicate clearly.

She estimates she spends 30 to 45 minutes a day in her role as administrator, often in spare moments throughout the day. As she is more established in the Sea to Sky corridor now, she is down to driving passengers an average of about once a week.

Lister has used the group catching a ride to the city with a couple that was meeting a friend at Vancouver International Airport.

"I ended up meeting this really funny English couple," she says. "Then we ended up picking up a hitchhiker on our way and he was a tree planter. My sole purpose for going was I was getting a cat in the city. It was pretty funny. I just met all these people and it turned out we were all looking for kittens."

click to enlarge Kelsey Webb seeks a ride to Squamish along Hwy. 99 just south of Function Junction. - PHOTO BY DAN FALLOON
  • Photo by Dan Falloon
  • Kelsey Webb seeks a ride to Squamish along Hwy. 99 just south of Function Junction.

When driving is a necessity

For a little over a year, Katie Mills regularly made three trips a week to Vancouver for work. Though there aren't usually people teeming to pack her car for the 6:15 a.m. trip, the ride back half-a-day later is a little more desirable.

It's an arrangement that's made the Brit's life in Canada sustainable — for more than just financial reasons.

"I literally wouldn't be able to finance the trips down to the city if I didn't rideshare," she said. "My job in the city is how I'm getting my permanent residency in Canada. They pay me better than a job in Whistler would, but still not enough to justify six trips a week.

"Parking downtown is $20 for the day, so (ride-sharing) just sorts me out."

Mills landed her job with Ashton College as an online marketing assistant when she moved to Vancouver from just outside Oxford, England in 2013. She thought she was essentially resigning when she decided to move to Whistler, but instead received a promotion and a commitment from the college to support her through her residency application.

However, finding work-life balance was of the utmost importance for Mills, and doing rideshares is a way to not only support living in Whistler, but also helps her enjoy some of her spare time by meeting new people every week. She has already found new running partners and made friends.

"The reason why I wanted to stay living in Whistler is because of the whole social aspect and the skiing side of things," says Mills. "Balancing that with working three days a week (in Vancouver), and getting my residency, (those were) probably the main drivers for starting the commute, but I knew my gas, parking and car maintenance (would add up). (Then I realized that) I could have help with that financially by doing ride shares."

Mills makes a point of meeting people in a public spot in order to get a bit of a sense of them before inviting them into her car. When she started, she would pick them up at home, but after the frustration of no-shows, she has passengers meet her at a Creekside location.

"You also meet some weirdos, but you remember the awesome people more," she says. "It's a safe environment and you can check them out. If anyone feels unsafe in the car, I don't have any problems pulling over and kicking someone out. It's just all about gut feeling."

She also checks out users' Facebook profiles before agreeing to meet up. Once she did get a bad vibe from a request from someone who appeared to have few friends and a "weird profile."

"Something wasn't quite right," recalls Mills. "I just ended up driving by myself that day."

As a veteran driver, Mills has developed her own spidey sense to determine whether she should take someone.

"The big thing for me is just to trust your instincts. Don't feel pressured into picking someone up."

The one struggle she has occasionally comes from asking people to pay up once at their destination, noting riders have said they have little to no money.

"It's not a free ride. I'm not your best friend. It's got to be a two-way street," she says. "It's happened to me a couple of times, and I think it's because I'm not super vocal about 'Hey, a ride's $10.' I kind of expect it now for that to be the case.

"I just feel really awkward rolling down my window, chasing after them being like 'Give me some money.'"

As the group has grown, there have been new problems cropping up. Mills feels some drivers are looking to make a profit and she has seen people discouraged by the asking prices. As well, there have been issues with those who are looking to bring along more luggage than Mills can accommodate in her vehicle, noting she's had people looking to fit skis, snowboards and even a surfboard.

"Most people expect you to have a truck in B.C.," she said.

Hitchin' all over

Though Facebook is a behemoth for getting any number of messages out, it can something be on the rudimentary side.

A partial answer to this may lie in another ride-sharing website that got its start in the Sea to Sky — HitchPlanet.

Founder Flo Devellennes posted a crude bulletin board that later morphed into this sleek website in late 2010. He had recently moved from France to Vancouver, was hired for contract work in Function Junction and commuted regularly to Whistler from the city. It didn't take him long to notice a trend.

"I noticed a lot of people on the side of the road with their thumbs out," he said. "After taking a few people onboard in my car, I realized that there was a bit of a challenge in terms of transportation between Vancouver, Whistler and Squamish."

Less than a month into his regular commuting, Devellennes started the admittedly basic message board, HitchWhistler, in November 2010. Today, the site connects people in British Columbia, Alberta and Washington State with over 80 destinations, though the ones highlighted on the website are the cities of Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle and Kelowna, and are rounded out by adventure destinations like Whistler, Squamish, Tofino, Nelson, Revelstoke and Banff.

Like the Facebook option, Devellennes stresses the not-for-profit essence of the service.

"People are sharing the costs of getting somewhere," he says. "You're allowed to cover your gas costs, your insurance costs, maintenance costs, but not make money."

Though users in the Facebook group are reminded membership is a privilege, not a right and all parties are encouraged to be mindful of one another, Devellennes feels adding more structure is a lure for some people, especially drivers. When booking a ride, those looking for a lift pay via credit card, and the driver is paid once the trip is completed. HitchPlanet collects a 15 per cent booking fee in addition to the driver's requested gas money to cover the cost of running its service. There is no cost to drivers.

"We offer a convenience that a Facebook group doesn't offer," he says, though links to rides offered through the site are posted to the group to help spread the word. "Some people want a little more sophistication — in particular, drivers. They don't want to be going around fishing for people or verifying that people are actually going to show up or pay, whereas we offer all of that."

Additionally, users can provide feedback on other hitchers and drivers for other members to see. As well, when signing up, users have their email addresses and cell phone numbers verified.

It hasn't been a perfect system — Devellennes says some passengers have expressed concerns about speeding drivers — but said no user has been flagged for anything more nefarious.

"We're pretty confident with the mechanisms we have in place for verifying people's credentials," he said. "If anything happens, we will collaborate with the local authorities to give any information that we have on the person."

Another benefit, Devellennes explains, is that those looking to take longer trips — Whistler to Kelowna was the example he provided — don't have to trawl multiple Facebook groups hoping to land a lift or passengers.

"We're getting drivers that are slowly coming into our product and seeing the value," he says.

The drivers on HitchPlanet tend to be in their 20s through 40s, with the hitchers generally skewing younger, though Devellennes says he's seen the odd older person sign up as well.

Devellennes hopes to hire more employees on the route to expansion.

In Whistler's own way

Most highways in Canada will have the odd hitcher on the side of the road, often with a cardboard sign with the name of a far-flung destination scrawled in Sharpie.

But here in Whistler, hitchhikers would nearly end up as part of the scenery — if they generally didn't snag a ride so quickly. No repurposed carton with a thick black "Brio" or "Rainbow" needed.

Sometimes, there's certainly the practical value of the ride. Sometimes it's a bit of a charge for sharing the vehicle with a stranger.

But more often than not, the reason it works highlights why most people do most things in Whistler — they have the willingness to make a new friend.

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