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Saturday, 2 June 2012

On The Road In 68'

There was a guy I knew in high school when I was growing up Montreal who was from Australia. Many of us back then were intrigued by his accent and his stories about where he grew up. I was one of them. He told us about the outback, the white sandy beaches, and kangaroos. His father was a diplomat and he could get his hands on duty free Foster’s beer and 555 cigarettes which made him even more likable. On a late November day in 1963, right after school, we heard some talk about John Kennedy being assassinated and I ended up at the Australian guy’s house and watched on TV as Walter Cronkite, with a tear in his eye, said that the president of the United States was dead. It was a very surreal moment in time.
Over the next few years, from time to time, I would think about travelling to some far off exotic place. I had had a number of jobs, most not lasting very long, and really wasn’t getting anywhere. Expo 67 had come and gone and English speaking Montrealers were leaving town in droves. I started to think that it was time to shit or get off of the pot. I was going to find a way to get to Australia.
I was living in the student ghetto area near McGill University in a rented room on Hutchison Street at the time and I had a girlfriend who lived a block or two away. I had been working on the trains as a waiter since the beginning of Expo 67 and started putting a little bit of money aside for train fare to Vancouver and a little bit more. This Australia thing was going to happen. My departure date was set for early January in 1968. There was a little going away party and my girlfriend and I promised each other that we would write.
I got a bit of a discount on my train ticket and left Montreal on one of those cold bitter winter days. The train ride was about 4 days. I didn’t have enough cash to afford a berth and slept each night on a seat in one of the passenger cars. I can’t recall much about the train ride other than noticing the ice on the windows change to condensation as we wended our way through the Fraser Canyon in BC.
The train finally pulled into the station which was located on Main Street in Vancouver. For whatever reason, I changed into a sports jacket and tie. I took out my umbrella, checked my trunk, and walked out of the station eager to investigate the city. The first thing I noticed was the run down hotels. Ones with names like The Ivanhoe. Somehow, I found my way to English Bay. There was a light drizzle as I sat on a large log and stared out at the Pacific. Seagulls flew about and did their screeching thing. I was alone and a stranger in s strange city. I didn’t know a soul. Cue Otis Redding and Sitting In The Dock Of The Bay.
I picked up a local newspaper and found a room to stay in on Nelson Street in the west end. The room was in a three story wooden house and had a distinct smell of dankness. A couple of guys who were in the construction business owned the place.
A day or so after arriving in Vancouver, I decided to find out how I could get a job on a ship to Australia. Back then, there was ramp at the foot of Burrard Street that led down to the docks. I found some kind of shipping office and went in to ask about working my way across the Pacific. The guy behind the counter told me that all of the ships were foreign owned, almost no hiring was done in Vancouver, and they weren’t about hiring unskilled young guys like me. Right then and there my plans and hopes came to an abrupt end.
I went back to my room and tried to come up with a plan B. Maybe I could see if I could stick it out in Vancouver? Find a job. Make some money. Make the best of it.
A few days after moving into the rooming house I ran into the owners and they offered me a job on one of their construction sites. I turned them down which was a really stupid thing to have done. I was young (21) and healthy and could have really used the cash. For some reason I was determined that I wanted to work in an office.
I filed for unemployment insurance and used general delivery at the main post office on West Georgia Street as my mailing address just in case my job search didn’t work out. The waiting period back then was something like six weeks. As it turned out I couldn’t find work in any office and the final straw for me was the day the wind tore my umbrella apart near the Hotel Vancouver.
I was starting to run out of money. I remember walking by a hamburger joint near Stanley Park called The Texan and almost salivating. I spent a lot of my time in my room listening to my Lloyd’s radio. Jack Cullen, the original Vancouver Canucks in the old WHL and tunes like Hugo Montenegro’s The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly and The Son Of Hickory Holler’s Tramp. 1968 was Hippie time in Vancouver but I never really experienced it. I did see the posters on wooden telephone poles advertising joints like the Retinal Circus and bands like Jason Hoover and the Epics.
I was now down to my last few dollars. I had given up on Vancouver completely. Each day I would take the long walk to the post office to see if my unemployment cheque had arrived. There was a feeling of despair and emptiness each time I was told there was nothing there for me. I did get a few letters from my parents and my girlfriend. I got so desperate that I went down to The Sally Ann and they gave me a few coupons to a Chinese restaurant near Main and Hastings. A delightful area to be broke in.
As soon as my cheque arrived I knew I was going to do two things. Buy myself a brick of ice cream and get out of town and hit the road back to Montreal as soon as I could manage. I carried my trunk over to the train station and sent it back to Montreal. Then I packed up my navy blue duffel bag, stuck out my thumb and headed south to the US. Of course it was one of those typical rainy winter days that Vancouver is known for.
I got as far as White Rock, BC that first day and found myself under an overpass on route 99. It was now dark out and raining more than before. Cars started to veer as the drivers spotted me with my thumb out. Nobody was going to risk their life trying to pick me up.
I made the decision to walk into the seaside town of White Rock and find a motel room regardless of the cost. For some reason, the guy behind the counter at the first motel I could find gave me the bridal suite. I took off all of my soaking wet clothes and rolled around on the fashionable shag carpet naked. Seemed like the thing to do. It dried me off.
Washington State and Oregon
The next day I got a lift across the US border into Washington State. I made it as far as Tumwater, Washington south of Seattle. The home of Olympia Beer. Spent the night in a truck stop and partook in the all the pancakes you can eat deal and endless cups of coffee. By sunup my stomach wasn’t feeling too good.
I didn’t have a map and only had a general idea of where I was headed. I would go as far south as Portland, Oregon and then turn east. Somewhere along the line someone told me about Interstate 80 and how it ended up in Chicago and it seemed like a good plan to take that route. Getting to Interstate 80 would turned out to be easier said than done and I kind of wandered off a more direct route more than once.
By the early evening on my second day on the road I found myself on the outskirts of Portland and was trying to figure out my next move. From off in the distance I could see a German Shepherd dog headed my way. Then I noticed he had a few friends with him. All in all there were about ten of them. They must have escaped from somewhere. They started to give me the old sniff routine and I was getting more than a bit nervous. Luckily, someone pulled over and gave me a lift. I was very grateful.
The Dalles, Pendeleton, La Grande, Baker City, Fruitland
I made it as far as eastern Oregon that night and ended up near a town called Fruitland. The motel back in White Rock, BC had eaten up a good part of my funds and I knew I was going to have to find a place to stay each night that wasn’t going to cost me any money. I got the bright idea of walking into the local police station and asking for a cell for the night. It was going to be a bit of a sympathy sell of the weary traveller, out of money in a foreign country, in need of some temporary shelter. It worked.
Jail cells are pretty much the same everywhere I travelled. Metal bunks attached to the wall, a metal toilet, a metal sink and maybe a metal table. No bedding like sheets, a blanket, or a pillow. Lots of carved out messages, often on the rude side, most likely made with keys. Cue Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens singing The Streets Of Bakersfield.
In the morning a deputy gave me a brown bag with an apple and a sandwich in it and wished me luck as I went on my way. I gave the place a half a star for atmosphere and three stars for friendliness. As I walked out of town I noticed some guys shooting hoops behind a school. Small town America eh?
A rancher gave me a long lift out of Oregon and into Idaho in a pickup truck. There was no mistaking that he was a real cowboy. A lanky kind of guy with a big belt buckle. He had his young son with him. This was one the longest rides of my whole drip. Eventually the rancher’s son fell asleep on my shoulder and it felt kind of good being trusted to that extent by both of them. We pulled into a restaurant and the rancher offered to buy me dinner. It was turning out to be a pretty good day on the road. I remember ordering Ranch dressing on my salad. Seemed like the thing to do. We headed out on the highway again and after a few hours they let me out as they were now going to go in a direction that wasn’t the same as mine.
It was the month of March and it got pretty chilly at night. I remember looking up at the sky and that the stars looked much bigger than I had ever seen them before. It was now about 11 p.m. and I was basically out in the middle of nowhere. I decided to walk down the secondary highway I was on until I ran into some lights and some kind of civilization. And then I heard these strange sounds. It took me several minutes to figure out that it was just cattle grunting in the darkness. I have no idea where I ended up spending the rest of that night. Probably at another a truck stop.
Boise, Mountain Home, Pocatello, Idaho and into Utah.
One of my rides in Utah was with some native Indians who were Utes. I also met some Mormons and found out they weren’t big on smoking or drinking. I breezed past Salt Lake City and ended up in a small town in eastern Utah called Vernal. I was told that it is the biggest town in the US without a railway station. It was in Vernal that I spent my second night in a jail cell. The crowbar hotel. Fortunately for me I never had to share a cell. Something I didn’t mind missing out on.
As I was walking out of town along the main drag the next morning I kind of got the feeling that I was being followed and turned around to have a look. Four young gals in a convertible gave me a wave and slowly drove past me kind of giving me the once over. Something dawned on me right then and there about these times in small town America. A lot of young men were overseas fighting in Viet Nam and a good many of them were drafted from places like Vernal where they were unlikely to get student deferments.
I got a lift through Dinosaur National Park and into the state of Colorado. I still hadn’t hooked up to Interstate 80 but I was going in the right general direction. The Rocky Mountains were up ahead.
A couple of slick looking guys in their late twenties picked me up in their late model Cadillac. We were now deep in the mountains and the highway had a number of hairpins. Ski country. I was sitting in the back seat. Up in front of us was a Mustang with what looked like two couples in it. We were pretty close to them when the traffic had to slow down at curves in the road. One of the guys in the car I was in said something to his friend about a gal in the backseat of the Mustang having her arms around a guy in the front seat and that it looked like he wasn’t paying any attention to her. A moment later the Cadillac driver pulled out a gun and asked his friend if they should shoot the guy in the front seat of the Mustang. I think my head hit the car ceiling in shock. They were only joking but they scared the crap out of me. I was quite OK about them finally dropping me off when they found a resort and a bar they wanted to visit. Sheeesh!!!
That night, I found myself in downtown Denver. Larimer Street to be specific. Once again I needed a place to sleep for the night. A couple of winos who were panhandling asked me where I was from and where was I going. I told them I was going to see if I could get a cell for the night at the local jail. Not a good idea I was told. The Denver jail wasn’t your rural Andy Griffith kind of place. The winos offered me a spot on the floor of their room. I needed somewhere to sleep and they had convinced me that jail wasn’t the place. Their room was in one of those old high ceiling run down hotel kind of places. A light bulb, at the end of long wire, that hung from the ceiling. Altogether, about four down and outers shared the space. They took turns going out and panhandling for more booze money. I lay down on the floor and rested my head on my blue duffle bag. My eyes flickered. I could see other eyes looking at me, perhaps wondering what was in the duffle bag. This was not a good idea. I got the hell out of there.
I was back out on Larimer Street. I still needed a place to stay. A thought came into my head. Maybe I could fake being a frat brother from Montreal. I asked a passerby where the University of Colorado was and was told that it was in the city of Boulder about 60 miles away. Then they told me about The University of Denver that was close by. That might work. I had stayed at frat houses in Montreal and knew about some of their rituals. The one thing I didn’t know was the secret handshakes.
I think the frat house I found was a Delta Upsilon. I rang the front door bell. After telling them I was a brother from McGill University in Montreal and on the road hitchhiking, I was welcomed with open arms and 20 questions, all that I managed to answer satisfactorily. It was nice to sleep in a cozy bed again. It had been a weird past 24 hours. I had a nice breakfast in the morning and hit the road again after thanking my temporary pals.
I made it as far as Scottsbluff, Nebraska that day. Once again I stayed at the local jail. I was getting used to jails. The following day I made it as far as Lincoln, Nebraska. A young guy, about my age, picked me up in his Volkswagen van. When he found out where I was from he decided to give me a tour of the city. He then offered to put me up for the night at his parent’s house. The guy’s name was Mike Disney and yes he was a distant relative of Walt Disney.
In later years I wondered what might be in the water in Nebraska. Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Fred Astaire, Montgomery Clift, Walt Disney, all came from there.
It was kind of neat spending the night in an American family home. Sharing dinner with them. It wasn’t the last time that I would see Mike. About a year after being in Nebraska I was living in yet another frat house at the top of University Street in Montreal. One day, there was a knock on the front door and it was none other than Mike Disney. He had got my address by contacting my parents. There was no parking on that part of University Street back then and I told Mike that he could park his van around back. A few minutes later there was another knock on the door. This time a bit louder. It turned out that the emergency brake on Mike’s van had failed and his car slid down the street smashing into some other cars. Mike stayed for about a week and spent a good part of that time with a blow torch trying to fix his van. He drove back to Nebraska being able to see the asphalt from a hole in the floorboard.

Me and Mike Disney, Council Bluffs, Iowa April 68

After spending the night at Mike’s, he gave me a lift as far as Council Bluffs, Iowa which is a twin city to Omaha, Nebraska. I’m not sure if it was that day or the next that I heard the news. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee and cities were burning throughout the United States.

Can't remember how I got this card
I got as far as Iowa City and did my fake brother act at another fraternity house at The University of Iowa. I remember the brass eagles in front of the fireplace and that they had fresh baked croissants at breakfast. Go hawkeyes!
Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan
I travelled into the State of Illinois and missed Chicago. Big cities that were rioting were not a place to be. I zoomed through part of Indiana hardly knowing that I’d been there. In Flint, Michigan some police officers stopped me and drove me to the other side of town so I would avoid the rioting and burning. I spent one more night in a small town jail in Lavonia, Michigan. Years later I found out that this is where Ryan Kesler, a forward for the Vancouver Canucks, grew up.
Back in Canada
An elderly insurance salesman drove me across the bridge and back into Canada at Sarnia. Somehow, I managed to leave my passport in his car. The same passport I planned to use to get to Australia. I kind of lucked out though. The insurance guy sent the passport to my parent’s house. However, it was stolen from me a year or so later.
I finally made it back to Montreal. I had stories to tell. The girlfriend I had left behind and exchanged letters with had moved on. Oob-la-dee, oob-la-da.
The whole odyssey wasn’t quite Jack Kerouac and On The Road but it was an amazing experience. I never did get my kicks on Route 66.

1 comment:

  1. Great story Colin! Thanks for sharing. From a fellow ex-Quebecker.