My love affair with all forms of travel began early; in this story I am only 17 years old. I was bit hard by the travel bug.
ESCAPE THE ICE AGE
In my high school years, during my wasted youth, Florida was the sunshine mecca during the traditional March break – if you had the cash!
The hot spot was Fort Lauderdale aka Fort Liquordale; rumour had it the beach was long, the sand white, the water blue, the babes bikinied- a place where like-minded students partied all night. As I looked out my window, up to my ass in snow, a trip to Florida was a no-brainer.
There was one slight problem: how to procure funds for the journey?
Given my limited resources (and a loathing- inherit in most western teenagers- toward work), I examined my meager savings: $50. Things did not bode well for a trip to tropical Florida.
Undeterred, my buddy Bruce and I hatched a simple plan: we’d hitchhike from Detroit to Fort Lauderdale, figuring to get by on youth and ignorance (both in abundance). The March school break lasted ten days, and our plan was to depart on Friday to be on the beach by Sunday- at the latest. Throwing a few things in our metal framed backpacks, the quest for golden sands and azure seas was underway.
We both were not quite 17 years old.
On a typically miserable, grey, wind blown Canadian winter day, we set out to conquer our first hurdle- crossing the border from Canada into the USA, snow blowing as boarded the Windsor-Detroit tunnel bus, known to locals as the cheapest ticket out of town. We had already worked out a scheme to smuggle our bags across undetected.
Realizing no sane customs agent was going to let pass two skinny long-haired kids, a) without much cash, and b) hitchhiking to Florida, we conscripted my oldest sister to smuggle our gear through customs in the trunk of her car while we crossed the border by bus.
Not surprisingly, we sailed through customs, simply telling the agent our usual story- we were going shopping in downtown Detroit, a common enough phenomenon, as the two cities were almost as one before 9/11, the day when everything changed. My sister met us on the other side at the rendezvous location, and we were on our way south. Soon, she deposited us on the banks of US Inter-State 75 on the outskirts of Detroit, the southbound pipeline that fed straight down to Florida, some 1,500 miles distant. The anxious look on my sister’s face as we disembarked her car spoke volumes of our quest ahead: she definitely thought we we’d lost our minds! Which of course we had, but that was beside the point.
While not exactly an expert hitchhiker, I had often thumbed around our local county, from our cottage on Lake Erie to Windsor, some 30 miles away. It never seemed intimidating to me, despite the often long waits. Sooner or later someone would offer a ride, but timing was always the key.
Our first day proceeded well enough, and we made good progress as far as Lexington, Kentucky. People along the way were extremely helpful and often surprised when we explained we were on our way to Florida. That first night grabbed a cheap roadside motel (back when Motel 6 really was 6 bucks), happy to have crossed the famous Mason-Dixon line, separating the north from the olde south. Many of our “pick-ups” warned us to be on lookout for rednecks who equated “long-hairs” with dogs and “niggers.”
The next morning outside Lexington in the pouring rain, we hiked back down to the I-75. The hitchhiking gods must’ve been smiling as an overpacked VW wagon pulled over to the shoulder. The patrons, a couple of freaks from Kentucky, told us to pile our bags on top of their gear, and we hopped aboard this ubiquitous pile.
When we asked them where they were headed, they replied: St. Petersburg Fla. Well, this had turned out to be a lot easier than we expected. My Irish grandmother Sarah Lee (really!) lived in Zephyrhills near lakeland, and I thought it would be sensible to drop in (without prior notice, of course).
We meandered through the rolling half-frozen hills of Kentucky. I thought how beautiful the country must be in the summer, with horses running in huge paddocks and stately manors set among the willows. Those thoughts quickly dissolved into my favoured scene which lay ahead: bars, beaches, babes and bikinis.
Near the Tennessee border, we noticed signs indicating the four-lane interstate was coming to an end, as the 1-75 through the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, under construction for years, was as yet incomplete. The region was under a lot of rain that year, and we soon learned the Tennessee by-pass was washed out. We had to travel many miles out of our way in the Smokies, through the old south that cannot be witnessed from the speedy InterState highway.
Old general stores with huge signs announcing FIREWORKS of all shapes and sizes, billboards for Tennessee sippin’ whiskey, fried chicken stalls, small towns and shanties along the highway. Since we had meandered so far off the beaten track, most of the hamlets we passed never saw tourists. It must have been quite a sight for the locals to witness this gaggle of sun-seeking Northerners streaming past their porches.
Our journey was long, more than 18 hours, and I don’t recall that we stopped all that much except for gas and washroom breaks; there was plenty of food and drink on board. When we rolled into the confines of St. Petersburg, Florida, it was 3 a.m. We’d sat with gear on our laps the whole way, so we were ready to get out and stretch our legs.
Our kind chauffeurs couldn’t offer us a place to sleep, and we didn’t want to deplete our funds by seeking out another motel. And the good news was the weather: it was sublime. How peacefully uplifting to be outdoors at 70 degrees after being below freezing for 3 months. We decided to lay down in a quiet park for a few hours rest, until dawn crept up, bright and golden.
Back on the highway, we hitched the short 50 miles to Zephyrhills, again hooking up fairly quickly with rides. We surfaced in Zephyrhills right at breakfast, as my grandmother was taking her coffee on the back porch which faced an orange and grapefruit orchard, some five acres of property. She was very surprised to witness two scruffy looking characters appear at her doorstep on a bright Florida morning (I think her first reaction was to call the cops!).
Take a picture of my grandmother Sarah Lee. A sweet soul with an old-school Irish disposition- ie- no nonsense. Red hair gone blue grey, bright, twinkling blue eyes, cheeks done up in rouge, a picture of conservatism. Never shy with her opinions, she commented on the insanity of hitchhiking to Florida- something never attempted by any of her many grandchildren.
Her husband, whom I dubbed “Red Roy” (a good ole boy), her third and no kin to me, purchased the orange and grapefruit orchard on the outskirts of town in 1950. Recently, they had parcelled off all but an acre where a cozy cottage rested among the trees.
Can you ever forget the first time you pick fresh citrus for immediate consumption?
Coming from one of the top agricultural regions in Canada, we munched lots of fresh picked fruit at our cottage on Lake Erie, but never anything tropical. It was a sublime treat sitting on the back porch with my grandmother, Red Roy, and Bruce enjoying a well-deserved breakfast featuring home-grown grapefruit and fresh-squeezed orange juice after a journey of 1,500 miles in under 48 hours.
This would not be the first time I would be reminded of the adage: the harder the journey, the more enjoyable tastes the fruit at the end of the trail.
UP WITB TE SUN, GONE WITH THE WIND
Bright and early the next morning, we hit the highway across the state to the Florida’s Gold Coast. Hitching was relatively easy, but often bizarre. Rednecks passed in their pick-up trucks with their “Easy Rider” rifle racks, stocked with three or four loaded guns. Their bumper stickers were very amusing: “Hippies are What You Get When a Nigger Screws A Dog”, was one- real nice.
The great Florida swampland called Alligator Alley covered almost the entire bottom half of the state. Miles and miles of water, full of gators and reeds. One driver told us a tale of a fisherman who was casting by the side of the road, when his hook got caught on something, As he was so cheap, he dove in an attempt to rescue it. His hook caught on a car that had flipped and gone off the road. When they pulled the car up, it contained the remains of three passengers.
We came to the Atlantic coast at Vero Beach, our first view ever of the ocean, and our good luck continued as we made our way south toward our terminus: Ft. Liquordale. Most of our rides were with a rich cast of characters. One freak in an old Jalopy invited us to his pad to have a drink and a smoke. Another character, Andrew, took us down old A1A, through palm-fringed estates, evoking images of the old south. He left us with his address and told us to come down to Miami- we took him up on his offer much later that night!
STORMING FORT LIQUORDALE
Soon, we were deposited on the golden beach at Ft. Lauderdale. Pretty heady stuff as we had reached our destination right on schedule. We were delirious with joy and road burn as we set down on the beach, took a swim, lie in the sun (no thought about the sun and skin cancer in those days) and wound down.
Lauderdale certainly lived up to its reputation in those days. Packed with students from every imaginable university and high school, a fair proportion from Canada, it was party time- drinking everywhere, with the usual accompaniment of controlled substances. The strip was a parade of people marching up and down, strutting their stuff, y’all.
About the only thing that stands out about the whole affair is meeting some girls, buying some Coors beer- still a rarity and sitting on the beach partying. At some point we realized we didn’t really have any place to crash. The jeep patrol nazis stalked up and down the beach at night with their spotlights blaring to keep people from bunking down, so that was out of the question.
We remembered Andrew, who invited us to his house in Miami. Hell, we thought, how far can it be to Miami? We decided to hitch there at round midnight. Well, the rides were non-existant that night, especially as we had added two more characters to our entourage, but we did notice a slow-moving train along the highway that seemed be headed south. It seemed to be beckoning us…
We hopped aboard the deck on the back of one of the cars and it soon picked up speed. I can still visualize us sitting on a carriage between two box cars, rolling through the southern Florida night. It was dangerous, it was crazy, but when you are young and on the road, it is too easy to throw caution to the wind. At one point we went through a crossing where a state trooper was sitting in his car- not sure if he saw us as we moved like ghosts into the night.
A most amazing occurrence happened next- the train came to a stop some three blocks from the street on our paper. We jumped off, and strolled over to Andrew’s house at 2 a.m. waking up his roommate.
We were offered a place to crash in the living room and thus, we ended our first day on the gold coast of Florida, and the full extent of our time on the beach!
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