It was a Saturday night, about 8 o’clock, sometime in late March, 1970. I was standing on a corner in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, trying to hitch a ride. There wasn’t much traffic. My only companion was an old stoplight that clicked regularly – green, yellow and red, over and over again. Across the street was a huge lumberyard, its façade painted a hideous dark orange. It looked depressing in the light of the streetlamp.
It was cold. I was wondering where I would sleep that night, or whether I’d just have to stand where I was until morning. Nine o’clock came, then ten. Finally a dusty old car stopped and a smallish man in his fifties beckoned me in. I felt relieved.
As I stepped into the car, the man asked where I was going. “Canada”, I said. He said he was going to Fargo, which was a good distance away. I was glad. But as the man spoke, I noticed an antiseptic odor. He’d been drinking. I hesitated, but only for a moment. I was too cold and tired to refuse the ride.
As we exited the town and proceeded down the highway I was relieved that the man drove at a reasonable speed and unerratically. I got the impression that he had made this trip many times before, probably in the same inebriated state. Our conversation was superficial. I learned that the man was a carpenter who had worked in Minnesota and North Dakota his whole life. He was unmarried but had friends throughout the area. I surmised that these friends were drinking buddies, and that he had been visiting them that evening.
As we approached the Dakota border I mentioned that I was looking for a place to sleep – something not too expensive. The man said he knew just the place; he’d stayed there many a time. It started to snow. The car’s tires made a crunching sound as we cruised the streets of wrong-side-of-the-tracks Fargo.
The man dropped me off in front of an ancient pale red brick building. I entered. A group of haggard men camped in front of a small television set looked up at me. Cigarette smoke swirled about everywhere. It was a flophouse.
I made my way to the front desk. The clerk was an old man whose appearance bespoke seventy years of drink and defeat. His demeanor, however, was gentle. “How much for a room?” I asked. “A dollar,” he replied.
I took the key and walked to my room. It was small, containing only a bed and a bed stand. The blanket was threadbare, and the sheet bore faint green and yellow stains that a hundred washings had not effaced.
I crawled under the covers and fell fast asleep.
It was the next day, a cold Sunday morning. I was standing beside the highway at the outskirts of Argusville, North Dakota, trying to hitch a ride. The few cars that passed paid scant attention to me. Down the road a hundred yards away were some houses whose chimneys poured forth white smoke that was immediately dispersed by a north wind that was gaining in strength. A few flakes were falling.
I wrapped myself up as well as I could, keeping my back to the wind. The snow picked up a bit. I felt the flakes pattering my back, then observed them as they swirled around me. I became entranced by the patterns they formed. Each gust of wind generated a new design, as if nature were trying to impress me with the infinite variety of forms reserved to her, even for a petty observer on a lonely highway in the vast interior of America.
The diversion helped me forget the cold for a while, but I soon began thinking how foolish I was in believing I could make it all the way to Calgary with just a few dollars in my pocket. Of course, I knew that North Dakota was a cold state – but after all, it was nearly April. It shouldn’t have been this cold and snowy, should it?
Well, at least there was civilization nearby. If I absolutely had to, I could go knock at one of the nearby houses. But if I did that I would be admitting defeat. I decided to hold my ground as long as I could. Surely traffic would pick up as the morning wore on.
It kept snowing, but the snow didn’t pile up. It just blew. The cars that passed had their headlights on now. Couldn’t these people see that I was cold?
Finally through the slits of my eyes, I saw a pair of headlights that appeared to be slowing down. But wait, it wasn’t a car – it was a Greyhound bus! It stopped. The driver opened the door. This wasn’t a part of the plan! I was supposed to be conserving my money by hitchhiking, not riding buses.
But this was an emergency. I stepped aboard. “Where are you going?” the driver asked. I caved in, opting for a long hop, not a short one. “Winnipeg,” I said as I handed over too, too many dollars.
I walked to an empty seat, sat down, and basked in comfort as wave after wave of blessed warmth penetrated every cell of my body.
It was now Sunday afternoon. I was still on a Greyhound bus bound for Winnipeg. We were approaching Pembina, North Dakota, the last stop before the Canadian border. Although it had been snowing and windy most of the day, the weather was now calmer. The skies were actually blue, with only a few wisps of white along the horizon. It was sill cold, though.
The bus came to a stop at the border and a Canadian official climbed on board. He eyed the passengers one by one, and eventually focused on me. His visage became sterner as he walked over and began questioning me.
“What is your destination?” he asked.
“Winnipeg,” I answered, though I really wanted to get to Calgary.
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
“To see some friends.”
“How much money do you have with you?”
“About twenty dollars.”
“That’s not enough. Please come with me.”
I followed the official off the bus. The other passengers and driver stared at me as if they were being relieved of the presence of a criminal. The bus took off without me. I watched wistfully as it proceeded north.
I entered a small, sparse office with the official. He asked to see my identification, filled out some papers, then stamped “entry denied” on them. He gave me a copy and bade me on my way.
I had no choice but to go back to Pembina. My plan was to continue going west, then try to reenter Canada at another point.
I established myself at a gas station near the edge of town and stuck out my thumb. As usual, there was little traffic. A car full of local teenagers passed me by, eying me with curiosity. I waited. The same car passed me by again, and a third time. This time it stopped. I wasn’t too optimistic. How far could a group of teenagers take me?
The driver of the car was a boy only a few years younger than me, about eighteen. The other passengers were girls, about the same age – one in the front seat, and two in the back. I sat in the back. The girls were friendly, and began asking me all kinds of questions, but the boy remained silent and apprehensive. He went along with what the girls wanted though.
“Are you a draft dodger?” one of the girls asked.
“No,” I said. “Just trying to see some people I know in Calgary.” I could see that they didn’t believe me.
“We could take you over to the next border crossing and just tell the guard that we’re visiting friends in Gretna. We cross over all the time. No one will be suspicious.”
I couldn’t believe my luck! But would it work? And why were these strangers helping me?
We drove about ten miles west and approached a much smaller border station.
“Put your arm around my shoulder, so you’ll look like part of the group,” one of the girls said. I complied. The guard was indeed more lackadaisical than the ones at the main border crossing. He just peeked into the car and waved us through.
The group dropped me off in front of Gretna’s general store, which also served as a bus depot. It would be too risky hitchhiking this near the border, I realized. I exchanged addresses with my newfound friends and bid them adieu.
The proprietors of the store seemed somewhat suspicious of me, but said nothing as I sat in the waiting area for about an hour. I boarded a Grey Goose bus and was once again on my way to Winnipeg.
There is more to tell, of course … of Regina, Moose Jaw, Medicine Hat, a snowstorm in the Cypress Hills, the border crossing at Turner, Montana, my acquaintance with a North Dakota professor, and my trip back to Crystal Lake, Illinois and a warm bed. But more of that later.