Dawn comes early that far north in late June.
I was sixteen.
4:15 AM, or there abouts, I squeezed my way out of the back seat of a Volkswagen Beetle, one of the old, tiny originals of the mid sixties. Bent and folded and sore, a lank 6'5" folded up, crick in my neck from sleeping sort of propped up crammed into the back of that small car. That small wonderful car with the girl driving and her friend who had been so kind. They had stopped and offered me a ride, I was hitch hiking, some eight hours before. When I got into the car it was some miles north and west of Sault Ste. Marie on the north shore of Lake Superior. And that morning, at the intersection of 11 and 17, they were headed west to home on 11 and I was traveling the Trans Canada, route 17.
The little beetle brurrrped its way through the gears and faded with distance slowly, and I was left in silence. Before dawn about 30 miles north of what is now Thunder Bay, but then was Fort Williams. Silence. Short larch and tamarack forest, water everywhere. A northern Ontario wet forest. The highest land was the road bed that I stood on. Wide and firm two lane asphalt, good gravel shoulders, some weeds and cattails, and then a water filled ditch on either side filled with clear, still, tea colored water.
Silence. A bird or two maybe and then again nothing. No wind, no car sounds, just the steady gravel crunch of my feet walking north and west, Banff more than two thousand miles ahead. Every so often as the sun rose and the day warmed, I would hear the approach of a truck or a car from miles and miles away. It built the anticipation.
When the vehicle would near I would spin , still in stride, the noise level rising with the rush of the approach, now walking backwards, and stick my thumb out, the hitch hikers universal request for a lift. As the car or truck would pass, I would spin back to the fore, never breaking stride, and continue walking north and west, crunching the gravel, with steady tread. The tire sounds and whoosh of passage winding down to silence again a few minutes later. Walking.
I came upon a sign. I been watching it near for some time, "Construction next 10 miles". I laughed. Here it was 7 something AM and I had already walked that far. So I took a short break and peeled off yesterdays socks. Yesterday. Wow, what a yesterday it had been. 24 hours ago I had boarded a bus near Detroit, Michigan and headed out for a student's summer adventure touring national parks, both Canadian and US. Up through the Soo and west to here.
With the socks off, I took a break and propped my tired, stinky feet up on the suitcase and leaned back against the pack and lo and behold there was that sign framed by my big toes. Scrambled for the camera and took that photo. Bare feet crossed with sign of 'Construction next .....'. Laughed, put it all away and the fresh socks on and started my walk again.
The day grew warmer and the hour later and my water ran out, but I just kept to that steady rhythm of spin in stride, thumb out, the roar and rush passing, spin back and don't stop. Saw a sign up ahead. A ways off. I knew what it was going to say. And it did, "Construction Zone Ended, Thank You For Your Cperation."
You know. I put down pack and suitcase, propped my feet up and took another picture of feet and sign. Yep, I did. Kept walking. A while later I came upon a corrugated steel culvert that ran under the road and stuck out into that ditch filled with the tea colored , clear water. Well, I still didn't want to drink it but damn that would feel good on my feet. I stepped down onto that curved steel and sat myself down on the sun hot gray galvinized surface and peeled off those now not so fresh socks and plopped my feet into that tea colored, clear, and oh so welcome, cool water. Ah!
The next few minutes were wonderful. Curling naked toes, feet paddling up and down in that tannin laced water. It felt SOOOO good. I grabbed the camera and took another photo of those happy, wet feet in the clear, cool, tea colored water in the ditch beside the road.
I stayed there long enough that I stuck my thumb out twice while sitting there soaking my feet. I didn't care. Let them think what they will. And then one huge dump truck stopped! Boy I shot up out of there grabbing camera, socks(not so fresh), pack and suitcase and climbed up what must have been ten or twelve feet to the passenger side of the truck. A Yuk. Huge construction dump truck with tires twice the size of last nights Beetle.
Five miles. Just five miles. But he was headed to breakfast at the diner. Which was also the gas station, general store, post office, etc., etc.
Bacon and eggs never tasted so good. Water, coffee, bathroom, fill the canteen and back out on my way to Banff, still more than two thousand miles away but at least a little less of the more.
I walked another twenty miles. Upsala. I walked beyond that. Took more photos of feet but the humor along with the thickness of the socks was wearing seriously thin. Dusty, dry, somewhere back there the land had risen and dried and now I was in slightly rolling land covered in pine forest. No ditch with cool water. No water left in the canteen. 4 PM. Near 12 hours of walking. Near fifty miles. I finally had had it! No rides! No ditch! Sore feet with blisters!
I threw the suitcase down in disgust. Who's BRILLIANT IDEA was this summer National Park tour?
Mine. Oh good. No one to blame but myself! I threw the pack down. I flopped my sorry butt down on that pack and peeled off the socks again. Just to try and soothe the discomfort. Dry my sweaty, stinking feet and oh yeah, I TOOK ANOTHER DAMN PICTURE TOO! Dust and blisters.
This raincloud, it must have come right straight out of the Snoopy or Peanuts comic strip, this one raincloud sought me out PERSONALLY! And it started to rain the biggest drops I think I have ever seen. They hit like small golf balls in the dust so dry that the rain drop would splash dust not water. The drop would actually hold its shape of a small ball covered in dust for a moment or two and then sink into the dry road side. They pelted me too making mud on my face and arms. And I sat there. I just sat there. I wished I was home. I wished there was some place to escape this rain, this day. And the yellow Ford Mustang stopped.
They had pitied me sitting in the rain at the side of the road. And would you believe it! A ride all the way to Calgary, Alberta. 2000 miles. Banff just the 'more' on the other side.
I traveled the country by thumb for years after that while in school and shortly after, before I bought a car and entered the adult mainstream.
I possibly traveled 100,000 miles by thumb in those next 5 or 6 years. But I never again either walked so far or caught a ride so long as I did on that first day of hitch hiking and adult freedom when I was sixteen years old.
Some things remain a constant. The photo today submitted for the collage brought back memories. The span between the story and the photo aboard my sailboat is nearly 40 years. I had not thought long on it, but the collage photo has some history about it, some truth.
I don't know what happened to the original photos from when I was sixteen , lost in some move somewhen, but a woman named Lena and today's collage photo, remind me of them and that beginning, walking on the shoulder of that stretch of route 17. It seems a life time ago, it nearly is.