Day 15: Wawa, Ont.
What's good for the goose is good for the hitchhiker
Tuesday, August 22, 2000
I first heard the Wawa legend in 1986, while hitchhiking in Oregon, where an aging hippie told me there was a small mining town in Northern Ontario, north of Superior, that was the hardest place in North America to thumb a ride.
I've heard the legend many times since, from hitchhikers who tried and failed to get a ride out of Wawa., Even though there are far fewer hitchhikers and far more drivers today, a retired school principal who picked me up outside Sault Ste. Marie said Wawa remains a hitchhiking trap. Out on the Trans-Canada Highway, two hours from Sault Ste. Marie, he explained, there is no great reason for drivers to slow down in Wawa -- except tourists wanting to photograph the world's largest goose.
That wasn't good news, since I planned to get out in Wawa, five hours short of Thunder Bay.
I explained to the driver that I had to test the Wawa legend. I had been stuck for more than three hours in Baie-Comeau, Que., and spent more than four hours trying to get out of Kanata, the super-rich -- and super-unfriendly, it seemed -- high-tech city next to Ottawa.
How bad could Wawa be? The retired principal let me out at the giant goose, the gateway to Wawa, and sped off.
In an extraordinary effort to grab passersby, the people of Wawa -- Ojibway for "wild goose" -- erected a plaster goose in the 1960s next to the Trans-Canada, which had unfortunately bypassed their town. When the plaster goose was severely damaged in a winter storm, the townspeople replaced it with the current 1,980-kilogram, 9-metre-tall creature made from local iron.
Next to the goose, I asked a tourism official about Wawa's other claim to fame, the hitchhiking legend. "There'd be hundreds of them out on the highway!" James told me, but then said the situation seemed to be improving. "I've seen some people out there, and the next day they're gone."
A day's wait was small comfort but I returned to the junction where the road coming down from Wawa meets the Trans-Canada.
A transport truck blew by me. Then a white Dodge Malibu with Quebec plates came to the junction. I almost didn't put out my thumb, so poor were the odds of getting a ride from an out-of-province rental car, let alone one driven by two women.
The passenger side window rolled down. I said I was heading for Thunder Bay. The Montrealers, a middle-aged woman and her mother, said they were heading for Vancouver. They had only stopped to see the goose.
I was out of Wawa in less than a minute.
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on globeandmail.com, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.