Updated: Jan 4
My love affair with travel began at an early age; in this tale, I am only 17 years old, bit hard by the travel bug.
Escaping the Ice Age- if only temporarily!
Back in my high school days, Florida was the place to be during the traditional March school 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 seemed like a no-brainer.
There was only one small problem: how to procure funds for the journey?
Given limited resources (and a loathing, inherit in most teenagers, toward work), I examined my meager savings: $50.
Things did not bode well for a trip to sunny Florida. Undeterred, my chum Bruce and I hatched a simple plan: we could hitchhike from Detroit to Fort Lauderdale, figuring to get by on youth and ignorance (which we had in abundance).
The school break lasted ten days, the plan was to depart on Friday and be on the beach by Sunday at the latest. Throwing a few things in our oversized backpacks, the quest for golden sands and azure seas was underway.
We were only 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 to the USA, snow blowing as we boarded the Windsor-Detroit tunnel bus, known locally as the cheapest ticket out of town. We worked out a scheme to get our bags across undetected.
Realizing no sane customs agent was going to allow two skinny seventeen year old, long-haired kids, a) without much cash, and b) hitchhiking to Florida, we conscripted my Dad to smuggle our gear through customs in the trunk of his car while we crossed the border by bus.
Not surprisingly, we sailed through customs, simply telling the agent we were going shopping in downtown Detroit, a common phenomenon, as our two cities were almost one. My Dad picked us up on the American side, and we were on our way. Soon, he deposited us on the banks of Inter-State 75, the southbound pipeline that fed winter-weary travellers straight down to Florida, 1,200 miles distant. The anxious look on my dad face as we disembarked his car spoke volumes for our quest: he definitely thought we were out of minds! Which of course we were, but that was beside the point.
While not expert hitchhikers, we had often thumbed around our county, from our cottage on Lake Erie to Windsor, 30 miles away. It never seemed intimidating, despite the often long waits. Sooner or later someone offered a ride.
We made great progress on day 1, down to Lexington, Kentucky. People along the way were helpful and surprised when we explained our destination was Florida. We grabbed a cheap roadside motel, happy to pass the famous Mason-Dixon line, separating the north from the olde south. Many of our “pick-ups” warned about rednecks who equated “long-hairs” with dogs -or worse.
The next morning outside Lexington in pouring rain, we hiked back down to the I-75. The 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, as we hopped aboard of this packed vehicle.
When we asked them where they were headed, they replied: St. Petersburg Fla. Well, handn't this had turned out to be easier than expected. My Irish grandmother Sarah Lee (really!) lived nearby in Zerphyrhills, and I thought it would be very agreeable to drop in (without prior notice, of course).
We rolled along half-frozen hills of Kentucky. I thought how beautiful the country must be in the summer, horses galloping in huge paddocks, stately manors set among the willows. Those thoughts quickly dissolved into what lay ahead: bars, beaches, babes and bikinis.
Near the Tennessee border, we noticed signs indicating the four-lane freeway coming to an end, as the 1-75 through the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, under construction for years, was as yet incomplete. The region had experienced torrential rains that year; we learned the main two lane highway was washed out. With many miles out of our way in the Smokies, we experienced 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 wandered so far off the beaten track, most of the hamlets we passed through hadn't seen this many tourists ever. 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, over 18 hours, and I don’t recall we stopped much except for gas and washroom breaks. When we rolled into the confines of St. Petersburg, Florida, it was 3 a.m. We’d sat with gear on our laps the entire trip, 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 taking out another motel. The good news was the weather: it was sublime. How peacefully uplifting to be outdoors at 70 degrees, after leaving behind below freezing. We decided to lay down in a quiet park for a couple hours rest, until dawn crept in, bright and golden.
Back on the highway, we hitched a short 50 miles to Zephyrhills, hooking up fairly quickly with rides. We surfaced in Zephyrhills right at breakfast, as my grandmother was taking her coffee on the back porch. She was very surprised to see two scruffy looking characters appear at her doorstep on a bright Florida morning (I think her first reaction was to call the cops!).
Picture my grandmother Sarah Lee. An old-school Irish disposition- ie- no nonsense. Red hair gone blue grey, bright, sparkling blue eyes, cheeks done up in blush, the very picture of right wing conservatism. She had her opinions, and I’m sure she must have thought my hitchhiking to Florida more than a little deranged.
With her husband, dubbed “Red Roy” (a good ole boy), her third and no kin to me, Sarah had purchased a 10 acre orange and grapefruit orchard on the outskirts of town in 1950. Recently, they had parcelled off all but an acre where a cozy cottage was situated, surrounded by six citrus trees.
Can you remember the first time you pick an orange off a tree?
Born in one of the main Canadian agricultural belts, we'd munched on our share of fresh picked fruit, but never anything tropical. It was an unforgettable moment to sit 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 1,200 miles in under 48 hours.
This would not be the first time I would be reminded that the harder the journey, the more enjoyable the fruit at the end of the trail.
Up With the Sun, Gone With the Wind
Bright and early the next day, we hit the highway and crossed 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 guns. Their bumper stickers were disturbing: “Hippies are What You Get When a Nigger Screws A Dog."
The great Florida swampland known as Alligator Alley covered almost the entire bottom third of Florida. Miles and miles of water, full of gators and reeds. One driver told us of a fisherman who was casting at the side of the road, when his hook caught something, As he was so cheap, he dove in to try to free it. His hook had caught on a car that had flipped and gone off the road. When they pulled the car up, it contained three passengers.
We hit the east coast at Vero Beach, our good luck continued as we made our way south to our mecca, Ft. Liquordale. What a cast of characters! One long-hair in a vintage Packard invited to his pad for a drink and a smoke (Bruce swears to this day it was Leon Russell!).
Another character, Andrew, drove down old A1A, past dreamy antebellum estates, evoking images of the old south. He gave us his address and told us to come down to Miami- so we took him up on much later that night.
Storming Fort Liquordale
We were deposited in the late afternoon at Ft. Lauderdale without a plan. My goodness, it was nice to set down on the beach, have a swim, lie in the sun (no worries about the sun and skin cancer in those days) and unwind.
Lauderdale certainly lived up to its reputation. Packed with students from every imaginable university and high school, a fair proportion from Canada, it was party time: open drinking everywhere, accompanied by controlled substances. The beach strip was a parade of people strutting their stuff, y’all.
The thing that stands out about the whole affair was meeting some girls, buying some beer (Coor's) and sitting on the beach partying. At some point we realized we didn’t really have anywhere to sleep. A jeep patrol up and down the beach at night kepy people from bunking down, so that was out of the question.
We thought of Andrew, who invited us to his house in Miami. What the hell, we thought, how far can it be to Miami? We decided to hitchhike there at round midnight. Well, the rides weren’t happening, especially as we had added two more characters to our entourage; we spotted a slow-moving train that seemed like it might be headed south.
We hopped on the side of the freight train and it soon gathered up speed. I can still visualize us sitting on a carriage between two box cars, rolling through southern Florida. It was dangerous, it was crazy, but when as we were young and on the road, it was easy to throw caution to the wind.
A most incredible event occurred - the train came to a stop only three blocks from the street we were looking for- no lie. 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!