I don’t usually pick up hitchhikers. Partly because I really don’t see that many on the roads I travel, and largely because I usually have so much stuff — snacks, drinks, assorted wrappers, garbage, camera bag, briefcase — piled on my passenger seat that it becomes a major project to make room for someone. But I recently made an exception.
On a July trip to a farm visit in southeastern B.C., I had just grabbed coffee and donuts at the Tim Hortons near Invermere in the Columbia Valley and there at the Highway 95 intersection was a young man thumbing his way south.
He looked pretty presentable, no obvious signs of being a psychopath or serial killer, he only had one backpack, it was getting late in the day, my next destination was Cranbrook, B.C. — I could give someone a ride that far.
I stopped at the road side, he opened the truck door, expressed his appreciation for the opportunity for a ride, and said getting about 100 k further down the road to Cranbrook this evening would be just fine with him.
It’s amazing how much information two strangers can exchange in the first six minutes of a road trip — name, country of origin, travels so far over the past 24 hours, destination today, careers, education and other pertinent detail. We didn’t get around to our birthdays or favourite colors but the trip was young.
My years of linguistics training immediately alerted me to the fact this young man was not from Canada.
The traveller I had picked up was Inigo Arruabarrena, a young man from Basque Country. Here in Canada, listening to the news, we often hear it referred to as the Basque region of Spain. Well, Inigo made it clear it was the Basque Country. It borders Spain, but it is a territory with its own language and culture and as much as the regime of Spain has tried to suppress the Basque people over the past 80 years, most residents still consider Basque a distinct country (some similarities to Quebec in Canada in my opinion.) A small town of about 1,200 people in Basque Country was Inigo’s home territory.
While he didn’t grow up on a farm, he came from a rural area and had studied agricultural engineering in university. What are the odds — an old farm writer picks up a stranger on a touristy stretch of Highway 95 in B.C. and the guy has some connection to agriculture.
I didn’t catch the details, but Inigo had helped start sort of a small co-operative in his home area helping growers market their farm products in local communities. He was primarily a supporter of natural or organic food production. He felt it was healthier and more environmentally sound and more sustainable. I agreed. That’s why I buy only organic apple fritters at Tim Hortons.
He explained the politics of the Basque Country. An independent country that had been suppressed by the General Franco regime of Spain during his 40-year term as president which ended in 1975, and largely continued by a succession of presidents over the last 40 years.
Spain has done everything it could to stamp out the independence of Basque Country, discouraging and perhaps outlawing many language and cultural practices, and that included arresting, torturing and killing any dissidents — many people simply disappeared. On the flip side, some Basque militants had committed violence against the authority of Spain. But as Inigo made clear, they just want to be left alone to live peacefully as an independent country. The objective is simple, but getting there isn’t easy or fast.
Inigo wasn’t just visiting Western Canada for a view of the Rockies. He had left home nearly two years before on a round the world tour. He had learned lots on his travels so far, including how to swear pretty regularly with an Australian accent.
His plan this day was to make it to Nelson, B.C. before nightfall. A bit optimistic I thought, since even from Cranbrook it was still a three-hour drive. He didn’t look discouraged. His longer-term plan was to make it to the Okanagan region. He needed some cash and he was hoping to find seasonal work picking fruit. The next leg of his trip would be Central and South America.
I dropped him at the intersection of Highway 95 and 93 near Cranbrook. We exchanged contact information. I said if I wrote a column I would send him a copy. A couple days later he emailed to say he made it to Castlegar in the West Kootenay region that night
He seemed like a good young fella who is certainly getting an interesting take on the world — first-hand experience on a low budget.
I forgot to ask how he managed to spend two years on the road with only one small backpack. I had twice as much stuff as he did and I was only gone for a weekend. I will have to watch for his book The Inigo Arruabarrena Guide to Economical and Compact World Travel.