In the spring of 1980, the year I turned 14, Greyhound Lines, a bus company in the United States, ran a “Thank You Canada” special to mark our country’s role in the Canadian Caper that had seen U.S. diplomats in Iran rescued with the help of the Canadian Embassy.
By purchasing a Thank You Canada pass, Canadians could enjoy unlimited bus travel in the United States for a month.
For reasons I never have completely understood, my father proposed that he and I should take advantage of this offer and take an adventure together. And so we did. I must have missed a month of school; he must have missed a month of work; and my mother must have been convinced to stay at home with my three brothers as a temporarily-single parent.
And what a grand adventure it was.
We took a Canada Coach Lines bus from Hamilton to the Greyhound station in Buffalo where we bought our passes. As far as I can recall, we didn’t have a plan, other than to see where the bus would take us for 30 days.
We started off by heading west, from Buffalo to Chicago, through Des Moines, Omaha, Salt Lake City, Reno, and Sacramento. We had to switch buses a number of times, but we never stopped moving, never spent a night in a hotel until we got to San Francisco. Those were the days when smoking was allowed on buses, and so my enduring memory of that mad transcontinental dash is of the pungent cocktail of cigarette smoke and bathroom disinfectant.
The rigours of sitting on a bus for three days put Dad’s back into spasm, and so our time in San Francisco consisted of a lot of hobbling around. Until we got to Golden Gate Park and he decided that we should rent bicycles: his theory was that riding a bike would either disable him completely, or solve his back problems. Miraculously, it solved his back problems, and he was fine for the rest of the trip.
From San Francisco we went south, bypassing Los Angeles and stopping in San Diego for a night or two; from there, having reached the end of the U.S., we turned back east, stopping in Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio, and Springfield, spending a few nights in every city, usually at the YMCA or a cheap hotel. We ate a lot of chicken fried steak. We never did laundry. And we saw corners of the United States of America that we never would have seen otherwise.
I think, in the end, we were gone for 21 days, not quite wringing every last drop of our 30 day entitlement out of the pass, but coming pretty close.
The trip was, by times, grueling and uncomfortable and scary. But it was the best trip of my life, and the best gift a father could give his teenage son: 21 days of undivided attention in a “wherever the wind will carry us” spirit.
It is not an exaggeration to say that trip changed my life, and laid the groundwork for an approach to travel, and an approach to life, that has been far more fearless, confident, and improvisational than it might have been otherwise.
Whatever possessed him?
My father died yesterday, at the age of 82.