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In the beginning...

I remember when I decided to go to the east coast. It was because of a hat. I made my decision during a great weekend spent on the west coast of Vancouver Island (the “Island”) at Long Beach near Tofino. In those days, it was much harder to get there. The road through the central mountains from Port Alberni was rough gravel and excitingly winding, including a particularly nasty batch of steep switchbacks.



I had been out there with two buddies earlier that year escaping a boring day at school at the tail end of winter. My friend had one of those old fastback Volvos that he dearly loved to drive. I had grown up on farm trucks and big old sedans, so was unused to John’s road rally car and road rally driving. A couple of times I was more than a little anxious as we raced out to Long Beach, but as soon as I realized I was in good hands, I settled in to enjoy the ride.

The road we had been travelling on was rough, and narrow, and snaked through thick, dark mountain forest for a long enough time for it to begin to feel tiresome and tedious. It was the first time I had been over that particular road and really didn’t know what to expect. I was quite unprepared when suddenly we came out of the shadows and found ourselves on a cleared hillside. The bright world had opened in front of us. It was fantastic. The miles of beach and the Pacific Ocean stretched out in front like an awakening. I was absolutely astounded. It is a scene I’ll keep forever.



 We were so impressed by our visit to the place that a few weeks later, we organized an exodus from school to camp out on the beach. There were piles of driftwood all along sand at the edge of the forest. It was no large task to make a kind of lean-to settlement. We had plenty of polyethylene sheeting and a few tarps, and we staked our claim amongst the other hippies. With plenty of substances to abuse and basic foods like chili and bread, we were ready to party away the weekend.

You could drive on the beach in those days. We found that sitting on a stout canvas tarpaulin pulled behind a VW van made a great ride across the sand. Unfortunately, when driving on the beach, there was a real risk of losing your vehicle if you found a soft spot and the tide came in. I remember two vehicles that had gone to their rest in that sand. The discovery of the first came as a surprise when I heard a strange kabunk noise as my buddy Gord and I walked on the beach.

I said to Gord, “Sand doesn’t go kabunk!

I walked back and forth a couple of times to get an exact location and fifteen minutes digging with our hands revealed the top of what we reckoned was a VW bug. No wonder the west coast is called the Graveyard of the Pacific, although I think that name was more for ships than little cars. The second vehicle’s end was more dramatic and amusing.

As I said before, in those days you could drive on the beach. It was all kinds of fun. There were lots and lots of young people on the beach driving lots and lots of cars, so it should not come as a big surprise to learn that some of them were drinking beer while they drove. A lot of beer. Enough beer to make a nuisance of themselves and to encourage the local constabulary to bring their police car onto the beach and put an end to the drunk driving.

Now, most of those young people’s cars were not expensive. In fact, it was a wonder that some of them even managed to make the drive to the west coast. The one that the police were particularly interested in had no muffler because that bit was probably somewhere on the nasty gravel road from Port Alberni. That car also boasted lots of rust, a missing tail light, dents and scratches, and rough body repairs, resulting in a net value that was probably less than the beer it carried. Quite an audience gathered to watch as the police herded those hooligans to our end of the beach where large rocks blocked any further progress. When the occupants of the car saw that there was no escape those gangsters turned their car in the direction of China. Shouting, “You’ll never take this car alive, Coppers!” they drove it straight into the sea until the water was halfway up the doors. They climbed out of the windows and sat on the roof laughing and finishing the last of their beers.

After we enjoyed the car chase and the antics of the gangsters, things quieted down so my friends and I hiked out onto the rocks to seek further amusement. To our delight we discovered a keyhole-shaped niche in the rocks that had a sandy bottom and a fairly long channel to the sea that allowed waves to rush in and fill the round part of the keyhole with knee deep frothing water. Almost immediately the water would retreat, exposing the flat, sandy bottom. In no time we were taking death-defying, or at least wet-defying, leaps down onto the sand and scrabbling back out before the next wave would fill the basin again. To make it more of a challenge, someone had the bright idea of jumping down and writing their name in the sand before they were swamped by the incoming cold seawater.

On my turn, I had jumped down and written my name, but on the way out I dropped my hat into a puddle at the side of the keyhole floor. I loved that hat and had no intention of sending it to China.

A hat is a special bit of apparel which can serve various purposes; you can show respect by tipping or removing your hat; a hat can protect your head from the sun and rain; a hat can also be a fashion statement. You can even “keep something under your hat”. Some hats are worn by members of a certain profession. Mine qualified for all of the above. It was one of those striped caps favoured by railroad engineers and I cherished it.

I had little time before the next wave came in and frothed away with my hat, so down I leapt again, grabbed my wet hat, and scrambled up chased all the way by the Pacific Ocean. Luckily my friend John lent a hand to haul me up. He said it was lucky that my hat hadn’t gone out to sea, maybe on its way to Japan. While I stood there with a little of the Pacific Ocean dripping down onto my face and neck I was imagining the possible travels of my hat. That’s when I came up with the idea that since I had dipped my hat in the Pacific that perhaps I should dip it into the Atlantic as well. In retrospect, it wasn’t much of a reason to travel across the country, but it seemed a good idea at the time.

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