The 60s and 70s were times of change around the world and we wanted to be a part of it. Teens voted for the first time in Great Britain, Mick Jagger was busted for pot possession, Nixon was president, the Beatles were nearing the end of their life as a band together, and rock festivals were in vogue after the legendary Woodstock. I was 18 years of age. A friend and I were both finished our high school classes at Christmas in 1969 and would not be able to enrol in any university until the fall of 1970. We had both managed to save a few dollars from logging jobs while savouring a small taste of freedom and adventure. Both of our fathers were career Armed Forces veterans who provided us with a free pass on our Canadian Military fleet of jets. It was sort of a graduation present. Our only obligation in boarding one of these jets was to look fairly clean and wear a tie.
We deliberated for weeks in preparation for our first sojourn to the European continent. We made plans of where we wanted to visit and what we would take, secured passports and shots, and dreamed of life on the road. By this time our only worldly experience had been the three months in a logging camp. Our parents expected we would travel to Eastern
“We were a tiny bit naïve”
Canada and hitch-hike our way back home. We had other ideas born on the wings of our free air passes, a few hundred Canadian dollars each, and our thumbs. Being unfamiliar with the specifics of backpacking through Europe and no access to Google, we packed tents, pots and pans, cook stoves, and found ourselves hauling 80 pound metal frame pack-sacks. I, seemingly, had some vision of embarking on some form of pilgrimage and brought only sandals. No shoes or even socks. We were a tiny bit naïve.
Our parents, a little nervous, drove us to the airport with our burly packs and skinny ties. They wished us well for our adventure and, I am sure, were having second thoughts. We were allowed to board the plane amid several guarded glances from the air crew. I am sure they were wondering why two scruffy teenagers with skinny ties were allowed on a Canadian Armed Forces transport plane. This was 1970 and these planes were equipped for troops. We, therefore, found ourselves sitting on benches aligning the walls and holding on to nylon cords hanging from the ceiling. This was not business class. We didn’t care and, actually, didn’t know any better.
Our first stop was the Trenton, Ontario air terminal many hours later where we reviewed the destination of subsequent flights. The large display revealed that a flight would be leaving for Germany in a few hours. We were planning to board the plane but had to break the news to our trusting parents. Each of us phoned home to say we had safely arrived and would be embarking on the next leg of our journey. My dear dad enquired what our destination might be and his voice could be heard cracking when I unearthed our devious plan. At 18, in my mind, I was invulnerable and ready for any adventure. A few months later, when I finally returned, he confided that he would have done the same thing. In fact, at 16 years of age, he had lied about his age and joined the Canadian Marines to protect our shores during the Second World War. My little adventure was paltry compared to brandishing weapons in a foreign land and dodging bullets. Regardless, we were on our way to Germany.
About 20 very noisy hours after our departure we landed in the fatherland just as the sun began to announce a new day’s beginning. We expected Gestapo-like security with passports closely monitored and luggage ruthlessly examined. Our motley crew descended the gangplank and wandered over to the terminal. There was no one to welcome us, friend or foe. We were on the continent of Europe, with our cabin mates, surely glad to see the end of us.
We had landed in Lahr, West Germany and while the sun began to aluminate our path, we walked to the nearest road. Our idea was to hitch hike through Europe, sleep in our tents and cook our own meals as our resources were very limited. I was in possession of about $450.00 while my buddy was flush with cash at $500.00. So far we had not actually walked any distance in our mountainous packs and, don’t forget, I was wearing sandals. There was just one road from the airport so off we trekked in the only direction we knew, straight ahead. We walked and walked and walked while trying to hitch a ride from passing cars. After about 5 hours of walking and no success hitch hiking, we realized European cars could not accommodate the both of us with packs. They were simply too small.
“I fell asleep thinking how excited I was to be in Europe, free, young, and ready for adventure.”
My feet were getting very sore as, it seems, my sandals had no arch support and the 80 pound pack was more than my body could accommodate. It soon became apparent that I could walk no further. My foot arches had fallen and I was not going anywhere. I needed some new shoes. Luckily we had made our way to a small village with a shoe store where I was able to purchase a sturdy pair of hiking boots while tying socks around my feet to help push those arches back into place. After about a day it seemed to be working and I was able to walk without too much pain. We had, however, still not travelled any distance beyond that which our feet could take us. We had seen about 20 kilometers of Europe and, in our present state, hitch hiking as a means of travel was not working.
Our first night we decided to camp in a quiet spot along the highway. A ditch beside the road became our chosen encampment as it was very dry and provided cover due to a smattering of bushes. We weren’t sure about the laws associated to camping in this foreign land. We stealthily pitched our tents and ate some of the bread and cheese we had purchased in the village. I am not sure about my friend, but I fell asleep thinking how excited I was to be in Europe, free, young, and ready for adventure.
At about 2:00 AM our dreams were shattered. Rain could be heard on our nylon roof and our sleeping bags began to float as a newly formed river ran through us. A grim realization began to emerge in our little minds that ditches are carved in the land to channel water during times of precipitation. One does not camp in a ditch. At first we tried to ignore the water and continued our romanticized reveries but the water persisted. We packed up our sodden gear in the cold hours before dawn and relocated to the nearest high point. Waiting out the night sleeplessly under a tree, we began to re-evaluate our strategy.
With the morning came dawn and a new plan. We decided to discard the heaviest and most unnecessary gear in our pack, adopting a minimalist approach. We returned to our first little town and put most of our possessions in a box to be shipped back to Canada. We kept our sleeping bags, one change of clothes, and little else. With reasonably light and small packs, hardy footwear, and a new understanding of being a budget world traveller, we were off to discover Europe.