In the summer of seventy-six, my close friend, Scott McNatt, and I decided to take a little drive from Los Angeles to the Olympic Games in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, over three thousand miles away. Actually, it turned out to be a lot farther than that, as we took numerous detours along the way, such as Lake Tahoe, the Bonneville Salt Flats, Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore.
But first, we needed a vehicle we could drive and sleep in, because we didn't have the money to stay in a motel every night and didn't want to spend a month sleeping on the ground. We had our dads' credit cards as backup but wanted to take it easy on them.
Our search revealed a 1955 Chevy Step Van that had previously been a UPS truck. As it was in rough shape, we spent several weeks fixing it up and hand painting it red, white and blue in honor of our country's 200th birthday. We emblazoned thirteen stars across its massive blue front and a map of the United States on one side to show our route as we progressed. We built out the interior to allow for two fold-out bunks and a refrigerator powered by an occasionally replaced block of ice.
So off we went into the wild blue yonder, or at least up the 101.
Our original itinerary was simply to head north, then east and come back in a month, as we were going to Montreal to compete in the Olympic Games. Sorry, spellcheck. We were going to compete with five hundred thousand other spectators for tickets to the Olympic Games. Common knowledge was that none were available. But what's an extra several thousand miles to find out?
We had quite an adventure, too much to cover in one post, but three things really stand out:
- There is something wonderful about being out on the road on a long trip with nowhere you have to be tonight or tomorrow or the next day. The experience of already being where you are going is exhilarating and takes all the pressure out of the usual drive from, say, Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe.
- We broke down five times and that provided the opportunity to appreciate the amazing kindness of total strangers we met along the way. The dad in me must say that not all strangers are kind, no, no, no. But the ones who picked me up hitchhiking for a tow-truck and drove me twenty-two miles out of their way in the middle of nowhere were, and so were many others.
- After a while on the road, we didn't like coming into a big town as there was so much to see in the little towns and where there were no towns at all. A trip with no itinerary really makes you appreciate where you are.
When we arrived in Montreal, we needed a new tire, and the French-Canadian mechanic who helped us suggested that we go to the office of the Montreal Matin, the morning newspaper, and ask if we could tag along with a photographer to the Games. Now this was a ridiculous idea even in 1976, but since we had none better we decided to go for it.
To our surprise, the paper welcomed us, took our picture and wrote a story about our sojourn across the continent to see the Games. We think they splashed it up a bit, though we weren't quite sure, as it was written in French. But from that moment on, their readers donated tickets for us to see the Games every day we were there, another amazing kindness from strangers.
The paper wrote a follow-up article about the success of their campaign and published our picture again, breakfasting with Jacques and Claudine St. Germain, the reporter and his wife, who had written our story.
Jacques gave us each a Canadian dollar and signed it in French. He told us with a twinkle in his eye, "If you keep this dollar in your wallet, you will always have money."
I have lost and found that wallet with my Canadian dollar in it twice in the forty-one years since that breakfast. The first time was when I lost it in the parking lot of a hardware store, and it turned up months later and miles away. Only the American cash was gone, but that dollar was still tucked inside. Jacques was right, and I will always remember his kindness and generosity.
Oh, and a couple of tips, if you decide to make such a trip, be sure the windshield wipers work on your vehicle, ours never did, though having a nearly vertical windshield helps. And I wouldn't recommend making the return drive from Montreal to Los Angeles in one sixty-nine hour stretch. Click here to see the dollar and a few more photos from our trip.