By Bruce A. Smith
If you travel due north from New York City the road eventually ends 750 miles later in a little mining town called Chibougamou. In fact, when I traveled there in 1969 the last 150-mile stretch of road was an unpaved, gravel highway. But in some ways Chibougamou is even further than that from my family’s home on Long Island, New York, where I grew up.
In the fall of that year I left New York – and my youth – and hitch-hiked to Chibougamou. This story is my recollection of that sojourn, first written twenty years after I arrived in Chibougamou and now updated as the shadows of the Trump presidency push liberals into thinking of emigrating to Canada.
But when I left in ’69 I was feeling full of adventure, and also curious to see if Canada might be a place I might want to reside. The Vietnam War was raging, and I was 20. Prime draft age, obviously, especially since I had just dropped out of college and was losing my deferment. There were other pressures, too. My father was a vet, having been an Army Captain in WW II, and even though he wasn’t a gung-ho kind of guy he certainly wasn’t a man who bucked the system, either.
In addition, America had the Hippie Movement going – the cultural war that was turning the country upside-down. Hard-hat union fellows and the cops were beating up on the long-haired war protesters, and bumper stickers in my upper-middle class neighborhood loudly proclaimed: America – Love It or Leave It!
So, I was eager to find someplace new. A place and its people who would be more accepting, more life-affirming. My journey to Chibougamou was certainly a lengthy trip, but it started long before I stuck my thumb into the northbound traffic of the New York State Thruway.
Oddly, my decision to not fight in Vietnam was one of the easiest I have ever made. I never lost one minute of sleep over it, nor dropped a single bead of sweat. I’m not sure I even made a decision about the Army or Vietnam, at least in a conscious sense. I think I just always knew that I wasn’t going, in a quiet, inner way of knowing.
But I was caught in a fog of family and social conditioning, balanced in part by FM radio and rock and roll, so it took a while for me to sort out the noise.
Strangely, I had joined ROTC in 1967, my first year of college. I did it mostly upon the urging of my father, but I didn’t feel any particular pull to do so. Nor did I feel any conflict when I began to realize that I wouldn’t be doing any soldering in Vietnam. Perhaps I signed up for ROTC as a way to camouflage my hippie tendencies from my parents – after all, one of the few pieces of advice that my father had ever given me about manhood was his bedrock truth:
“Be smart kiddo. There’s a war on, and if you’re going in the Army you might as well be an officer.”
He assumed, of course, that I was going into the military and eventually would go to Vietnam. But the wisdom of twenty years of hindsight has convinced me that my enrollment in ROTC was a clever ploy to protect my tender flanks of independent thinking from the onslaught of parental attack.
I stayed in ROTC for six weeks, until the moment they gave me a M-1 rifle and instructed me to take “dry fire” practice shots – trigger-pulling without ammunition – at life-sized cardboard figures of Air Force recruitment personnel. I had been a good 22 rifleman in Boy Scouts, so I was very familiar with various firing positions. But when I took my bead and saw the cardboard soldier in my sights, I said, My God, this could be for real. No, this is definitely not for me.
I put down my gun down and walked out.
A few semesters later I also walked out of college. I had no worries about the loss of my 2-S deferment – I just knew that whatever I was going to do in life would be okay. I never worried about getting jailed as a draft resister, or needing to escape to Sweden.
In fact, I had a detached feeling about the war, as if it was somebody else’s problem. The Viet Cong were certainly not bothering me. Nor did patriotic calls to duty touch me.
But I did feel some strong, selective political stirrings in those days.
The Kent State massacre was one instance. The killing of four college students by the Ohio State National Guard outraged me, made worse when I learned that none of the shooters nor their commanders were ever held criminally liable.
As a result, I was glad to join anti-war rallies, and went once to DC for a “March on Washington.” There, I saw tanks ready to roll against the protesters, and I knew that regular American soldiers were prepared to shoot American civilians protesting in the streets. America was beginning to feel like a foreign and hostile place.
So in September 1969 I left it all: New York and family, college, and all that I had known. With my life’s savings of $70, I started hitch-hiking to Montreal. It was the first destination in my life as an adult where I wasn’t going to do what others told me, or what I thought they wanted me to do.
Montreal is the biggest city in Québec – La Belle Province, the Beautiful Province. Even though I had gotten only a D+ in French during my last year in college, I was eager to try out my chops and parlez Français. Besides, Montreal is bi-lingual, so I knew I could fall back on my English if the French was too tough.
As a kid my family had vacationed in Québec, and I had seen the medieval walls of Québec City, and the old fortresses of the Chateau Frontenac and the ramparts along the Plains of Abraham, where the French colonialists lost to the British in the decisive battle for Canada. All that enchanted me. Since I had never been to Europe, Québec offered the next best thing, and I-87 and my thumb would get me there for free.
Despite all that was swirling around in my subconscious mind, when I left New York I had no plans for immigration or draft-dodging. I was just going to a place that sparked my imagination. Excitement is what guided me.
For the first leg of my trip, I called my friend Art to see if he would like to join me for the run to Montreal. He had been a buddy in the freshman dorms when we both attended Lehigh University, and he had always been ready for adventure on a moment’s notice. I met him at his abode at his new college, NYU, and we headed to the Bronx on the subway. After a short walk from the station we got on an entrance ramp to the Major Deegan Expressway, the southernmost portion of the New York Thruway, and put out our thumbs.
As I was to learn repeatedly, if you have enough patience and balls you can get a ride anywhere. So after withstanding the violent gloom of the south Bronx and a couple of NYC cops who didn’t want a bunch of hippies on their highway, we got our first ride.
The Deegan becomes the New York Thruway, and eventually the highway splits at Albany into I-90 westward to Buffalo and the I-87 “Northway,” to Canada. The Northway is a beautifully scenic highway, and by 9pm Art and I were approaching the Canadian border. Still on the American side, our ride got off at an exit called “Chazy – Sciota,” which made me think of “Crazy Sciots,” as if the area was named after a band of crazed pioneers who went psychotic in the northern wilderness.
Whatever the origins of Chazy-Sciota, we did meet crazy people there, or at least one. As we descended the exit ramp, Art asked the driver if he knew of any place where we could roll out our sleeping bags and “crash for the night,” as the slang of the day was termed for having a roof over our heads.
The driver said he did, and drove a few miles east of the highway, where he dropped us off at what he termed a “commune.” Art and I walked into the main building of a cluster of farmhouses and a community center-looking structure, and the people we met were friendly and cordial. However, no one could tell us if we could spend the night, which made us nervous. We kept waiting and making small talk, but for twenty minutes no one would confirm that we could stay.
Eventually, we were ushered into a small office-like room in an attic above the main community room. A burly guy with a lot of hair and beard motioned for us to sit down in front of his desk. He asked if we had ID.
ID? I thought to myself. This is a commune! Who has ID cards on a commune? Isn’t a commune where hippies go to drop out, tune out, and turn on?
Fortunately, Art and I both had our New York State drivers licenses, which back in those days didn’t have a photo on them. As we handed them to this somewhat unfriendly, obviously cautious guy, I thought, What’s he gonna learn from an ID that doesn’t have a photo? But I knew instinctively that the guy asking the questions needed something in his hands to look at – to assuage his anxiety as to who we were.
After a few minutes of starring at the licenses and turning them over in his hands, he gave them back to us. Then he turned to his commune friends and said that it would be okay for us to spend one night, which we spent nestled atop a huge pile of old clothes in an outbuilding.
As we left the next day, Art asked me if I thought the bearded guy was Abbie Hoffman.
“Nah,” I said. It seemed too preposterous that the famous Hippie Revolutionary would cross paths with us on our way to Montreal, even though the Village Voice and other alternative papers were claiming that Abbie was hiding out from the feds on a commune close to the Canadian border in the northern reaches of New York State. But now I know that the usually insurmountable divide between celebrities and common folk is often penetrated via the vagaries of life.
So, yes, now, I do believe the bearded guy was Abbie Hoffman.
The next day Art and I arrived in Montreal. Chickening-out on the French, we headed to the English-speaking bastion of McGill University, where we found an all-night rock concert in progress. Around 2am we spread out our sleeping bags in a little alcove off the multipurpose room that was filled with hundreds of rockin’ kids.
At dawn we had to leave, with about three hours of sleep. On the steps of the building we met a guy who spotted our packs and sleeping bags. He wanted to know where we were going and he offered to have us stay with him for a couple of days, which we did.
My strongest memory of that time is the anger our host felt towards Art and I for messing up his bathtub. One morning, Art took a shower before me and left an incredible amount of body hair strewn on the porcelain surface of the tub. I followed in the shower, and feeling detached or at least not responsible, I didn’t do anything to clean up my buddy’s mess. Now, however, I rarely shower in anyone’s home without thinking of that shower stall in Montreal, and I continue to ponder how emotionally distant I can get from a friend when they need a helping hand.
After Montreal, Art returned to New York and college, and eventually his law degree. I continued on to Québec City, hitching down Sherbrooke Boulevard, the longest urban street in the world I was told, 32 miles.
La Cité de Québec is 150 miles northeast from Montreal, and is the only city that has thoroughly enthralled me. The Walled Inner City, the cobbled streets, the tiny alleyways, it all thrilled my soul. I suppose Venice or Paris can do that to other people, but since I’ve never been to Europe, Québec City is the place for me.
I have several memories of Québec City. One is feeling its enchantment so strongly that I felt emboldened for the only time in my life to walk up to a beautiful woman and tell I thought so, and ask to take her picture, to which she complied. All this was done in French, too.
On the other side of the same magical coin, I also felt desperately lonely. One night eating by myself in a Chinese restaurant, I propped up my pack on the seat across from me for ersatz company.
A third memory is my discovery of a distinct culture very different from my own. For me, the clearest dramatization of this was the graffiti from the Parti Québecois. They’re the French separatist movement in Québec advocating secession from Canada, and known to Anglophiles as the Quebecker’s Party. Their graffiti impressed me. Somehow it looked very real, as if the passions behind it were still vibrating in the paint. This was all the more surprising to me since I had just come from a country being ripped apart over the issues of racism and a war in Southeast Asia. But no one in New York was suggesting that we anti-war folks pull out of the United States. Yet, many Québecois felt they needed to leave the Canadian Confederation. That personal feeling of identity – and feeling assaulted by the dominating English culture – was wholly new to me.
After a few days in Québec City, I decided to hitch-hike north to James Bay to visit Eskimos. The idea just popped into my head, and it seemed like a cool thing to do even though the map only showed a road going halfway.
I’ll figure out the second half when I get up there, I reckoned.
The notion of heading northward into the wilds of provincial Québec may have been planted by Art, who had told me of a friend of his who had traveled about a hundred miles northeast of Québec City to the town of Chicoutimi. Maybe that conversation gave me the impetus to look northward, and my dreams filled in the part about the Eskimos. In any regard, I decided to head north.
The northbound road from Québec City was a nondescript highway that wound through the Laurentian Mountains of Parque du Laurentides to the farm country surrounding Lac Saint Jean.
As I passed through the Laurentians, the weather began to get chilly. It was early October, and I remember seeing splendid blue skies filled with puffy white clouds. An exquisite clarity and vitality filled the air – nothing like that back home in New York.
Strangely, I started smoking cigarettes at this point, for the first time in my life. Lucky Strikes. I thought they tasted pretty good, too, especially the first puff. They also seemed to warm up my fingers as I stuck out my thumb.
Another weird experience befell me as I passed through the Laurentians – I left all connection to the English-speaking world. Once I left Québec City, virtually no one I met spoke my language. I was surprised. It felt like something in the Natural World had flipped – What is this? No one speaks English? I realized I had a deep belief that if I spoke English everyone else should, too.
Nevertheless, I learned that I was faire du pouce, literally, “making of the thumb,” or hitch-hiking in French. Another phrase that still stays with me is, epouché les potates, or “peel the potatoes.” By this time I had run out of money so I was working odd jobs as I traveled. North of Québec City I worked in a bar and grill, and peeled the potatoes for the pomme frite fry man. In exchange, I stayed in a nearby apartment building, whose facilities I was told were usually filled with the members of the ice hockey team the bar owner sponsored. The players received free room and board, and a couple of bucks to play a good brand of “Junior” level hockey.
The potates I peeled were turned into homemade french fires and served in the bar. At the time, I had never heard of a restaurant doing that, but now I know it is common practice in rural, mom-and-pop types of establishments. The frites were fresh and tasty, and whenever I have a french fry these days I often think of all the potatoes I peeled in Québec. But if I were to return to La Belle Province, I probably couldn’t get my old job back because most people these days eat their frites with the skin still on their potate.
Another surprise to me about les frites du Québec is that the Québecois eat them with vinegar, not catsup. It’s an excellent tradition and I think Americans should switch over.
After four days of epouché-ing, I made my way to the town of Misstassini, on the north shore of Lac Saint Jean. I was now about 200 miles north of Québec City.
Around sunset I asked the young guy who was giving me a ride if he knew of a place where I could spend the night. He suggested I try the Trappist monastery. In English he told me, “The monks have a long tradition of taking in travelers who have no money and need a place to stay.” So I knocked on their door.
The monastery had a large wooden door that was mounted into a stone wall that looked as if it was part of a castle. With the darkness of early evening, the scene took on the overtones of a Frankenstein movie, but I didn’t feel afraid. I felt reassured knowing I wasn’t the first guy to ask these monks for a free room.
When I knocked, a monk about 60 years-old answered. He was no taller than five-foot, and he wore the brown-hooded robe customary for Trappists. I explained who I was, and he welcomed me in. Even though it was close to 8pm, he asked me if I had eaten dinner and offered to feed me. I wasn’t hungry, but nevertheless I was impressed by his hospitality. He showed me to my room. It was a typical monk’s cell – small, sparse and meditative. I thought it was great. I felt very warm and secure, and slept well on my little cot. But the 6am call to breakfast was hard too tough to answer. Usually, I don’t wake until 8am or 9am, nor eat breakfast until 10am at the earliest.
However, the monastic schedule did give me an early start on the road to Chibougamou. Since there is very little between Misstassini and Chibougamou, I got a through-ride and was in Chibougamou by mid-afternoon. As usual, the big question was: Where am I going to stay?
I wandered into a small music store and was there for a few minutes before a saleswomen asked me if I needed any help. I blurted out most of the French phrases I had been practicing during the long hours of standing with my pouce out.
I explained I was traveling, out of money, and looking for a place to stay in exchange for working any odd job. She looked confused. I didn’t know if it was my French, or my request. Probably both. Fortunately, her English was better than my French, and between the two languages we understood each other.
I learned she lived with her sister and brother-in-law, and I might be able to stay with them. She said that she would have to ask them first, which she did over the phone. They agreed to take me in.
Their house was a small, working-class home. I slept in the living room on the couch, which was about five feet long. It had no arm rests, so my feet were able to dangle over the edge. The living room was pretty small – just big enough for the couch and a TV stand.
I remember the house because it had no sliding, just lots of exposed tar paper. Many houses in the neighborhood were like that. Even though the brother-in-law worked full time in the local copper mine, they didn’t have enough money to install siding or insulate the house properly. It must have gotten very cold in the winter.
Speaking of winter, in Chibougamou I was surprised to see all the cars dangling the male end of an electrical cord out their front grill. The brother-in-law explained that it was for the engine-block heater. The winters were so cold that the engines had to be heated before they would turn over in the mornings.
In addition, he told me that the rubber on the tires would go flat in the cold, and would require a few miles of slow driving before they would expand back to their original, round shape. So the brother-in-law went to work in the cold dark of early morn with the thwrop, thwrop, thwrop of misshapen tires sounding in his ears. I was beginning to see people who lived a much different life than I.
The woman who befriended me was a couple of years older than I and very good looking. She was also very ambitious and worked two jobs. Besides the music store, she worked several nights as a barmaid in one of the local taverns. She told me that she wanted to make a lot of money so she could leave Chibougamou and support herself for a few months in a city like Montreal. There, she wanted to become an airline stewardess for Air Canada.
That evening we talked for a few hours, past the time her sister and brother-in-law went to bed. I began to feel romantic towards my friend and I reached out and grabbed her wrist, saying, “I’d like to touch you.”
“You already are,” she said icily. I quickly let go, and we went to our respective rooms.
The next day I visited her in the music store. The incident the night before, although leaving a bad taste in my mouth, did not make her any less friendly in the light of day. But I suspected that she felt some kind of contempt for me. Nevertheless, she suggested that I visit her that night at her second job tending bar. Since the Montreal Canadiennes were playing that night and the hockey game would be on the tavern’s TV, it would be the place to be in Chibougamou.
Hockey is one of my favorite sports, and I played it briefly in college. As for viewing the Canadiennes in Chibougamou, it felt wonderful watching one of the best hockey teams in the world while hanging with dozens of their hometown fans.
As the Canadiennes kicked the butts of some NHL team from America, I nursed a Labatt Cinquante – a Labatt “50” – while my friend served beers and drinks to the hordes of men cheering at the TV screen.
But every now and then, the bar owner would call her over to him, and she would leave the room for about fifteen minutes. I didn’t think much of it until I moved my seat in the course of the game, and with a new angle I could see her ascend a staircase on the far side of the tavern. She entered a second story that had a few rooms, apparently, judging from the closed doors. On two occasions I saw her climb these stairs, and on the second I realized a guy was following behind her. It didn’t dawn on me until much later that she might have been turning tricks up there.
Regardless, the next day I decided to explore Chibougamou and see exactly where the road north led. I walked down Main Street. The pavement turned to gravel about a mile out of town, and then it became a rutted jeep trail. Eventually, it turned into someone’s driveway. Getting to the Eskimos was clearly a little trickier than I had first imagined. When I told the locals of my intentions they said, “You’re either gonna have to fly, or wait a few weeks and take a ski-doo or dog sled.”
But, as I stood on that jeep trail at the end of the road and looked at the cool, wet fir trees, I knew I had reached some kind of special destination. I had gone as far as I could go, and I had gone to a special place.
In my young life, and my even younger era of living just for myself on my terms, Chibougamou has come to represent the first special place I have ever taken myself to. Since then, I have traveled to many wonderful locales. Some of them are on maps, others are in poems and songs, and a few precious ones are in my dreams. Many of them are unique, but they all trace their roots back to Chibougamou.
And to this day I have never met anyone who has ever been to the end of the northern road in Chibougamou.
1990, revised 2017
Bruce A. Smith