When I was young and not too bright, I hitchhiked across much of Canada three times. There was never any money for motels or hot meals in restaurants, only a few bucks for potato chips and cigarettes. These smelly, mosquito-bitten trips usually took about eight days or more each way.
I was always a hitchhiker. At 14, while living with a family for a month in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec on a French-English exchange, my new buddy Normand Chaput and I stuck our thumbs out and toured a big part of the province, even camping out one night on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City.
When Normand came to live with us for a month in Orillia that same summer, he and I hit the road again. And when we did, just a few hours later, only 30 miles up the road, we saw two different icons doing what they do best.
We were let off at a gas station near Gravenhurst, where a small crowd had gathered around a makeshift boxing ring, and we had a look. We watched as a young George Chuvalo, then Canadian heavyweight boxing champ, sparred with a partner.
There he was, the man who would twice take on Mohammed Ali, taking big-time shots to the face at a gas station parking lot.
After the fight, Normand and I carried on to Bracebridge, to the big exhibition charity game between the Orillia Pepsi’s senior club, and the newly assembled Muskoka All-Stars. And because the Muskoka All-Stars were a bit of a stacked team with several pros on it, a young, slight, blond-haired kid was loaned to Orillia to help make the teams more equal.
But it wasn’t equal at all. The blond-haired kid, Bobby Orr, having just completed his first season with the Oshawa Generals, was, at 16 years old, dominating the game so much, so thoroughly, he had both the fans and the other players on the ice laughing and shaking their heads in admiration. He owned the puck, skated through the older, more experienced opponents, skated back hard and broke up oncoming rushes, and controlled and dazzled. It was a major eye-opener for me, Normand, and a lot of people in the Bracebridge Arena.
Hitchhiking with Normand was just the beginning. It seemed like wherever I went, I hitchhiked. A few years later I thumbed my way to Los Angeles after taking the train to Vancouver, and after that, at 19, began my three trips across Canada.
I don’t pick up hitchhikers now, it’s too risky. And it was probably almost as dangerous then, but I didn’t realize it. Maybe I dodged a bullet. And it was hard work, dirty, and uncomfortable, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
But I got to see George Chuvalo and Bobby Orr in action, and that made the dirt and car fumes all worthwhile.