The Mexican Caper (1976) Part 1- Going to California
Updated: Jan 14, 2021
“I’m gonna see the folks I dig, I’ll even kiss a sunset pig, California, I’m coming home.” Joni Mitchell
LA Bound In the seventies who didn't dream of going to California?
I moved to Toronto in the fall of 1975, when the city was vibrant, and awakening from its staid colonial roots, like a sleeping giant. I found work in a famous Canadian record store on Yonge Street. I loved music and it was an exciting time, my first move from home; I was 19 years old. Since I worked the afternoon shift, even though I was earning minimum wage, it was difficult to spend money, especially as I laboured on Saturdays.
I saved some cash for a winter adventure: California and Mexico. I had two friends who were also interested: Roland, one of two roommates in Toronto, and Walt, a neighbour near my family cottage in Oxley, Ontario on Lake Erie.
After Christmas, when the snow began to blow in earnest, we plotted the cheapest way to migrate. Hitchhiking was out of the question; three guys trying to hitchhike would never make it to Toledo, let alone LA. Instead, we looked into a “Drive-A-Way” car to California.
A Drive-A-Way car is perfect for budget travellers. We were to deliver a brand new vehicle to one destination in Los Angeles for a shipping company. The Drive-A-Way company was paid a fee, we weren't compensated but had a badass ride to the coast; we paid for gas, accommodation (as required), food and road drinks. It would be incredibly inexpensive split three ways, a great way to see the USA on our schedule. We might even get our fix on Route 66!
It was easy to find a company that had a car to deliver from Detroit to LA; they advertised in the Detroit newspaper classifieds. After we signed forms, were fingerprinted by the agency (in case we had the audacity to keep the thing), my sister deposited us at a suburban Detroit address.
We fired up the engine of a brand new Chrysler Cordoba (which I had ironically built a year earlier as a Chrysler factory line “ratchet head” in Windsor), and headed south, out of the long cold toward the land of sunshine.
Our goal was to drive in shifts for as long as humanly possible before we had to stop. We had food, a few amphetamines for late night shifts, and as we crossed the mighty Mississippi into St. Louis after midnight, we were literally riding high.
American interstate freeways are a joy. Although they often pass through the least scenic regions of a state, they are very perfect for those in a hurry to be somewhere else. We wanted to make LA in 48 hours if possible; it would afford us five extra days to cruise around in a new car before we had to deliver it to its rightful owners (the agency gave us a week to arrive in LA from Detroit).
By daybreak, we’d made Oklahoma City; all was proceeding as planned. When we rolled across the Great American Plain into the Texas Panhandle, we were delirious and exhausted. We decided to stop for the night at a cheap highway motel in Amarillo, home of the 100 oz. steaks (“if you can eat it in one sitting, it’s yours for free," according to highway billboards). We were road baked but halfway to L.A.
After a few drinks at a local bar, we crashed for the night at a cheap hotel, back on the highway at first light. We trekked across the New Mexico desert into Arizona aboard the fossil-fuel camel, passing towns heard in songs: “I been from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tahatchapi to Tonnappa” (Little Feat) and “I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and it’s such a fine sight to see…” (Jackson Browne.)
We were not happy to see snow as we crossed over a mountain range near Flagstaff. Not surprising, considering it was January, and nearby Humphreys Peak topped at over 12,000 feet. The next instant, we were in the midst of the desert, an ancient sea bed surrounded by dry brown mountains. We took a pass on a side trip to the Grand Canyon, (next time!) and Las Vegas (lost wages). We were anxious to get to the promised land, where the streets were paved with gold: Los Angeles – city of fallen angels.
We made excellent time across the desert, although it was pretty boring scenery to our untrained eyes (I wouldn’t fully appreciate desert landscapes until many miles down the road). The desert is best appreciated by walking, not from the view of a car window, which is much like watching a television program. At one point, we did stop and hike out into the desert, and we did appreciate the vastness of wide open spaces in this stereotypical cowboy country, albeit briefly. We thought of the pioneers who had first crossed these plains, and realized that travel in our air-conditioned camel was a pretty soft journey.
We thought the scenery would immediately change once we crossed the California border, turning from desert into palm trees and pink stucco cottages. Imagine our surprise when desert was all we could see, all the way into LA! Still, it was very magical to drive across the southern California desert, with the sun setting in our eyes, basking in 80 degree temperature streaming in our rolled down windows at 100 miles an hour, while drinking Coors beer, only available west of the Mississippi in those halcyon days.
Welcome to the Hotel California
As we cruised into LA, 48 hours after leaving Detroit, the radio blasted the latest smash hit by the Eagles: Hotel California. We were off to our own special hotel in LA: a friend’s house in Hollywood: big brother Bill. We couldn’t believe it when we snaked up the side of the Hollywood Hills towards his place, a view of the city that was spectacular.
This time, I called in advance to warn of our imminent arrival, but they had no way of knowing exactly when we were due. No one was home, but Bill and his gal Steph eventually showed up. He was delighted to see us, led us into his place, and our jaws dropped at the layout and design of his pad.
The house was built into the Hollywood Hills overlooking LA, above Sunset Boulevard. We were in the heart of the Great American Fantasy known as Hollywood, and although we were exhausted from the long road trip, we somehow found another gear. Bill’s place featured a solid wall of glass built into the hills; we were literally hanging over the edge of Hollywood.
Bill was a great host, offering us champagne to get us into the swing of things. We showered off the desert dust, and then Bill and the three of us drank, listened to tunes and chatted until the wee small hours of the morning.
The next day, it was time to explore the city. Stephanie gave us a tour of the region in the electric camel; we spent the day cruising through canyons to the Malibu, up the coast to Santa Barbara. It was like being on an electric avenue; in 1976, large tracts remained undeveloped. We stopped at a seaside bar for cocktails as the sun faded into the Pacific.
We’d truly landed in Hollywood!
The rest of our stay was a blur of drinking and partying at clubs, including the famous Roxy, cruising up and down Sunset Blvd., taking in the sight. We were young wide-eyed tourists, the weather was terrific, and our plan was to keep having more of them real good times. Needless to say, it was all a blur and the time passed quickly.
After about a week of non-stop debauchery, we felt it was time to move on. We had ditched the electric camel at the last possible moment of the one-week drive-a-way period; after some more festivities, we caught a bus south to San Diego.
San Diego’s urban core was dominated by sailors, based in the nearby port. We grabbed a sleazy downtown hotel near the bus depot.
The next morning, we bought cheap bus tickets to Tijuana, our first stop in Mexico.