I went for a long drive in 1969 – about 10,000 miles. The drive started as a year-end jaunt to Florida, where Toronto “snowbirds” flock when they escape winter. I was a student and had a few weeks off to play. I could have gone to the UK to see my girlfriend but she had taken up with my best friend, in whose care I had left her when I set off to Canada in early 1969. Serves me right. (They have been happy ever after.)
Almost a year earlier, I had emigrated to Canada on a Norwegian cargo ship, disembarking at Halifax, Nova Scotia. In the meantime, as a a member of an airborne geophysical survey crew I had seen bears, osprey, native Indians, helicopters, remote forests, a myriad of lakes: I was hungry for even more experience and wanted to see something of exciting America!
I did not own a car. But I found an agency that organized the transport of cars for elderly snowbirds who flew to Florida and wanted their cars there. The agency solicited travelers to drive the cars for free, charging them nothing except for a small deposit. Gas money was provided and the duration and route was agreed between the agency and the driver. It was a great deal.
I knew how to drive, having learned the previous summer on a huge crew cab 4WD pickup in the wilds of Ontario and Manitoba. Driving in cities was to be a new experience for me, but not a daunting one. My only worry was that I did not know how to drive automatic transmission cars. A fellow student told me that was easy: all I had to remember was PRNDL – stick the shift into D and get going.
I arrived on time at the home of the elderly man whose car I was going to drive. I was to reunite him with his car in St. Petersburg in three days. Although he seemed nervous at the idea of a juvenile foreigner driving his car to Florida, amiable me quickly seemed to win his confidence. We soon had my duffel bag stowed in the trunk and me at the driving wheel. I stuck the shift into D and tuned the key. The engine would not start. I Tried again. Nothing. There were alarmed looks from the snowbird (who now had less confidence in me), countered by fake bravado from me. He finally opened the driver side door, reached across me, pushed the shift into P(ark) and turned the ignition key. I probably made up some nonsense about British cars having DRPNL instead of PRNDL.
The drive was largely uneventful, being freeways the whole way. But I accidentally ate grits for breakfast because the waitress and I could not understand each others foreign accents. And I had an uncomfortable experience in Macon, Georgia. It was very cold, and there was worry about the peach crops. I picked up a very elderly black lady standing at a bus stop – she seemed frozen. Grateful for the ride, she was also very nervous and insisted I drop her off at the end of her street; walking quickly with her head bundled in her scarf. I was later told that in the South a white man did not pick up old black ladies, black men or, indeed, black anybodies. That seemed odd to me since I had/have little patience for racial prejudice.
I got to St Petersbug in about a day of straight-through driving. I washed the old man’s car and took it to him. He was delighted to have his car back so quickly, and gave me a big tip. I then went to the local office of the same car agency, where the manager returned my deposit and paid me the gas allowance. The manger was a nice guy and we got to talking. He seemed to like me. He told that he had enjoyed England and Brits when he was stationed there during WWII. I told him that St Petersburg seemed boring and I was in a mood to explore some more. Well- I was in luck; he had a repossessed Pontiac Tempest which needed to go back to Seattle, WA. Since it was the year’s end he would give me two weeks for the journey and let me take the car the long way around, via the Southern and Pacific States.
I do not recall if the Tempest was an automatic. It did not matter. The car was cool. I felt cool too. Cool, but dangerously, during an heavy rain storm, I raced one young lady on a freeway – she blowing kisses and egging me on. I had very little money but had a sleeping bag and planned to sleep in the car. One of mysterious aspects of the journey was pulling into a quiet, dark spot late at night and waking up at dawn to be surprised by my surroundings: mossy draped trees, residential neighborhoods, industrial landscapes. But the road was long, and lonely. I picked up many hitch-hikers. Some did their job by talking to me, others were silent and although I wanted to turf them out for not chattering, I rarely did. That would not have been kind or cool.
I finally picked up two young men in Louisiana. I think one was called Todd and the other Dave. They were veterans, demobilized from the Vietnam war and their way to California. They had little money but they had a charm. They were tougher than I, with way more savvy about the world than I had. At least Todd did. He was wiry, chatty, wild and a bad influence. Dave was kind of slow and just went along for the ride. With this pair I got to visit a wild party in New Orleans; got pulled over for driving too fast in Texas (and with a Cockney-accent, talked my way out of a ticket); had adventures of the bawdy kind in Juarez, across the border from El Paso; and ate Tex-Mex and Southern food I would never have tried by myself.
I also spent nearly all my money on Todd and Dave since they had little. We finally arrived in Southern California at a mobile home park where Todd’s aunt lived. As promised by Todd throughout our journey, she instantly paid me what he and Dave owed me. Only rarely in my life has my seemingly-foolish trust in people been betrayed.
I spent Christmas Day at Disneyland, in Anaheim. It was magical – I wished all my brothers and sister were with me. Indeed, the many times I have gone since 1969, I have wished that the children in my life were with me and have enjoyed myself thoroughly on their behalf.
The rest of the West Coast leg was a boring push up I-5. I was eager to get home. I had been gone three weeks, and had planned to be away only one week. My Public Relations program was resuming soon after the New Year. I by-passed San Francisco because I-5 does not skirt the city. It was probably a good thing I missed seeing San Francisco because in he 60’s and early 70’s I was enchanted by hippies and the freedom of the road/ I would have been bewitched by the Nirvana of the Haight-Ashbury district. Actually, I resisted the tourist enchantment of San Francisco for many years. But I succumbed to the allure of San Francisco by losing my heart to both the city and Julie, 20 years later.
The journey northward was difficult – there was a lot of snow. Arriving in Seattle between Christmas and New Year’s Day I was lucky to score another cross-country car transport gig. This time it was an old station wagon, the second car of a family moving from Seattle to in New Jersey. I had about 8 days to get across the country. It was a stress-full drive. The car was not in good shape and because I has so little money I put the cheapest gas I could find in it. My overnights were no longer charming – I woke up very cold and at one Rest Area was anxious when the engine would barely turn over in the dawn’s frigid blue gleaming.
I spent New Year’s Eve dancing at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City. But I was weary of America and Americans and homesick for the warmth and coziness of my new-found home at Marjorie and Irv Brown’s in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto. I barely made it to New York – the car engine was knocking and I got lost in some awful neighborhood looking for the office I was to drop the car off. While in New York I found a cheap student charter flight back to Toronto that left the next day, the last day of my eight day allowance.
My destination was the office of the car owner. I rushed into the office and found the owner. He gave me my deposit and gas allowance and arranged for one of his staff to drive me to the airport for the flight which was imminent. But in my haste I had locked the car keys in the car with the engine running and the tank was nearly empty. I was worried that the car would run out of gas and I would lose my ride to the airport. Fortunately the office janitor was wily – he snagged the door lock from with a coat hanger pushed through a gap at the top of the window. It was the first time I saw that trick, which I used many times later in my life.
I made the flight. I surprised myself by being teary-eyed as the plane started to land in Toronto. I was happy to be back in Canada and glad not to be in the USA. It was many years before I visited the US again and I developed the Canadian habit of disparaging the USA and Americans. Looking back on my long drive I think that I had over-indulged in driving, without taking time to dig into the country I was skirting. My emotional homecoming was the beginning of my desire to stay in Canada, the country that had given me a chance to prove myself that year. I eagerly became a Canadian citizen within five years.
I changed my mind about the USA when I moved to Hawaii in 1979. But that is another story…