When I was ‘slightly’ younger 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. Those tiring, mosquito and black fly-filled trips usually took about eight days or so.
I was always a hitchhiker, even before the cross country trips. 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, to Toronto, Buffalo, and also only 30 miles up the road from Orillia, where we saw two different icons in two different places, doing what they did 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. A look at a young George Chuvalo, then Canadian heavyweight boxing champ, sparring with a partner.
There he was, the man who would twice take on Mohammed Ali, giving and taking shots to the face and gut 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 from the junior ranks 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, came 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. Barrie, Toronto, into parts of Muskoka, Sudbury. When I was 17 I thumbed my way to Los Angeles after taking the train to Vancouver, and after that, at 19, I began my three trips across Canada.
I don’t pick up hitchhikers now, it’s too risky of course. 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 time in Bracebridge made the dirt and car fumes all worthwhile.