Adventure and travel writing

Road Tripping at Seventeen, by Steve Van Bakel


There’s not a whole lot to do at 1 a.m. on Good Friday, and most teenagers would probably just give up, call it a night and head home to his Spiderman pajamas and a warm bed. But it was an extra long weekend, my parents were away on holidays, I had their car, and I had a friend that was equally as bored. We had the makings for a weekend adventure that we would remember for the rest of our lives. All we were missing was a plan.

With Good Friday being a holiday, the bars closed early on that Thursday night, so by 1 a.m. we had already been sitting around for a couple of hours. The extra long weekend lay ahead of us and we were already complaining that we were bored and there was nothing to do.

“We should do something really cool,” I said to my friend Jules.

“No kidding, but what?”

“We have access to a car all weekend, I say we do a road trip.”

“Great, lets go to New York City,” Jules said, with a trace of sarcasm in his voice.

I instantly jumped off the couch and said, “Okay, lets go.”

“I’m kidding man, that’s a twelve-hour drive from Toronto.”


There was a long pause as we both contemplated the prospects of a road trip, and then Jules blurted out, “But Detroit City is only four hours away, and I have a friend that lives just across the border in Windsor.”

And so we launched our maiden voyage, a road trip to the murder capital of the United States.

With nothing but the clothes we had on and a case a beer, we piled into the car and started out of town.  Our first objective was to stop for gas and munchies at the truck stop, the only place still open at that hour of the morning. The next objective was highway 401 which, after travelling for four hours on the straightest road possible, would bring us to Windsor. From there it was a quick hop over the border to Detroit, our final destination.

For the first half hour of the trip we were excited. We talked about how other friends would envy us for going to the extreme, and we talked about getting souvenirs as proof of our adventure.

“How about T-shirts with Detroit pasted across the front in great big letters?” I suggested.

“Nope, that won’t do,” Jules countered. “Those shirts are sold everywhere, we need something that proves we made it out of the country. Something you can’t get in Canada.”

“Cheap gas, tax-free booze, women with sexy southern accents?”

“All good, but I’m thinking something a little more risky. I’m thinking switchblades or nunchakus,” Jules said, with his typical mischievous grin.

“But those are illegal in Canada!”

“Exactly! The only way to get them would be to go to the States. Indisputable proof that we made it. And in a place like Detroit, those things aren’t going to be hard to find.”

“Well, how are we going to get them across the border?”

“Piece of cake.”

“You know, my parents won’t be happy if they have to bail me out of jail and then pick up the pieces of their car.” As I said this, memory of a previous border crossing came to mind. I was with my parents and sisters on a family outing to see the American side of Niagara Falls. As we approached the border inspection station, we saw a Volkswagen van, painted with flowers and peace signs, being stripped down by armed customs officers. To the side a bewildered young couple, dressed in clothes that matched the van’s paint job, looked on in disbelieve.

“See that?” my father asked. But before we could answer he said, “That’s what happens to smart ass kids that mouth off to the border guards. They’re probably off to jail once they finish tearing their vehicle apart. So you guys keep it down back there, and if the guard asks you a question, you answer him with respect.”

Going to jail and having the car torn apart because we were misbehaving was too much for our young minds to handle. We sat motionless as we passed through the Custom’s inspection gate and when the officer asked where we lived, we each replied, “Canada, Sir!” We made it across the border that day and I’m sure that my parents were shocked at how still and quiet three kids can be when they are scared silly. As I look back now, I’m sure they were also wondering how they could prolong that fear so they could enjoy a few more minutes of peace and quiet.

Half an hour down the road I noticed that my navigator was being awfully quiet. The car was dark but by the light glow coming from the instrument panel, I could make out Jules slumped against the passenger’s door with his head resting on the window. We were barely past the city limits and I slowed the vehicle as I contemplated driving the next four hours by myself or turning back.

My better judgement said to turn back, four hours on a boring road is a long time, especially considering it was very late and I had been up all day. But in the back of my mind, I heard the echoing words of a high school counsellor, “Do things. Any thing. Be a little adventurous. People love to hear about adventures.”

I sped back up to cruising speed and continued on the road to adventure. When I got tired, I rolled down my window for fresh, but it was too cold. So, thanks to power windows, I rolled down the passenger side window. Jules occasionally moaned and complained about being cold, but it couldn’t have been too bad because he always managed to fall back to sleep.

The first hints of a new day were playing across the sky as we neared Windsor and I reached over and punched Jules in the arm. “Good morning, muffin.”

“Is it morning already? I must have fallen asleep.”

“Gee, I never noticed!”

With Jules now awake, he was able to navigate us through Windsor to his friend’s house. On route I questioned Jules about this friend and he told me that his friend’s name was Reed, and that they’d worked together the previous summer. I asked if this Reed guy was going to be open to unexpected guests dropping by at five-thirty in the morning and Jules replied, “Oh yeah man, he’s cool.”

The further we got into Windsor the seedier the neighbourhoods became. I kept hoping we were going to end up in some respectable area but that hope was crushed when Jules told me Reed’s house was just around the corner. 

The occasional trip to Toronto had not prepared me for these inner city homes. The houses were all very narrow and the junk in the minuscule front yards were separated by ratty looking chain link fences. The houses themselves were in a state of disrepair and some looked far beyond being habitable, though full clothes strung out across the porch revealed that some people were willing to take a risk. On both sides of the street cars were abandon, left to rot or be stripped for parts, whichever came first.

I’d like to say I was pleasantly surprised when I pulled up to the house that Jules claimed Reed owned, but I was too shocked to say anything. Reed’s house looked like it was a disgrace even to the neighbourhood. I could envision neighbours rallying outside his property demanding he clean the place up because it was bringing down property value of their homes.

What was left of chain link gate hung on hinges that were rusted beyond use and we had to squeeze through the tiny opening. The yard was filled with so much junk it was hard to decipher what it all was, though I was able to make out parts of a motorcycle and a little girl’s pink tricycle. I wondered it Reed was intending to combine the two in some kind of freaked out experiment.

“Are you sure this guy is going to be cool about us banging on his door at this hour in the morning?” I questioned Jules.

“Oh yeah, he’s a good friend of mine. He’ll be happy to see us,” Jules said, as he began banging on the door.

After a few minutes I hear a gruff voice holler out from behind the door, “Who the hell is it?”

“It’s Jules.”

“Jules who?” the voiced called out again. That was just the encouragement I needed from this person Jules was claiming was such a good buddy.

“Jules from the welding job last summer.”

“I’ve a gun so you best not be messing with me.”

That was all I needed to hear. I turned and started down the stairs as fast I could, picking my way through the junk on the steps. I was half way to the gate when I heard the gruff voice again, “Jules! It really is you.”

“Of course,” Jules replied, as casually as if he faced this type of encounter every day. “Who did you think it was.”

“I don’t know man, the bikers have been after me for a while so it could have been anyone.”

At this point I turned and appraised Jules’ good friend. He was fully dressed from head to toe in black including black cowboy boots, though the pant legs that were partially sticking out of the boots suggested that those had been hastily pulled on. Rather odd attire considering it appeared as if we had just woken him up. His stringy, long black hair was tied back in a ponytail but many strands had escape the elastic and now hung over his face. He was bone thin and his eyes were sunken and bloodshot. To me, it appeared that he lived a hard life of drug and alcohol abuse, very little sleep and even less food. I never found out for sure if he was telling the truth about the gun, but in his right hand he held a machete with a blade the length of his forearm.

I began to question the sanity of this little adventure and wasn’t at all comfortable about our current situation. When Reed turned to go back into the house, Jules followed, leaving me to decide between joining them or turning and hightailing it out of there. I choose to stay, mainly because I couldn’t remember the route back to the highway and I figured I’d end up lost in this less than desirable neighbourhood.

We were guided through a house that was furnished much like the front yard. When we found the kitchen, Reed spent a few minutes clearing away the rubbish before we found the table and chairs. Once seated, Reed opened a beer for himself and lit the first of a chain for cigarettes. Each subsequent cigarette was lit from its predecessor keeping Reed’s yellowed fingers occupied while he and Jules got caught up on old times.

It was never made clear why Reed thought the bikers were after him. Whether is was paranoia or an apprehension based on fact, Reed’s whole demeanor depicted a man living in utter fear. His hands shook constantly, though that could have been from any number of lifestyle choices including substance abuse. And he jumped at the slightest sounds. Each time he jumped, his hand instinctively went for the handle of the machete, a move that did nothing for putting me at easy is this strange place.

The constant barrage of smoke played havoc on my contact lenses and my already tired eyes. After hearing about our travels, Reed offered us a bed, but first I had to get those smoke saturated contacts out of my eyes. It suddenly dawned on me that we had left in such a rush, we hadn’t even considered stopping to pick up shaving kits which held the supplies for caring for my contact lenses. With or without solution, I had to get the contacts out so I improvised with two beer caps, a little bit of water, and some plastic covers that I ripped from an old shopping bag.

By the time we laid down on the old mattress, the sun was up and the neighbourhood was active with screaming kids celebrating a day off school. Sleep was fleeting, partially due to the noise from outside and partly due to the odd noises coming from within the house. Reed’s paranoia had worn off on me and every creak in the house woke me with the fear the maybe the bikers were going to mistake my sleeping form for that of Reed’s. After two hours I gave up on serious sleep and woke Jules to continue our journey into Detroit.

Never having crossed the border on our own, apprehension began to build as soon as we saw the first signs directing traffic over the bridge to the U.S. To make matters worse, the lineup at Customs was long giving me even more time to contemplate the young couple watching their VW van being torn apart. 

“Citizenship!” the Customs officer demanded with a heavy accent, when we arrived at his booth.

“Canadian!” we reply in unison.

“Got any Scud Missiles or Mexicans in the trunk?”

“Ah, no?” I said, assuming that was the answer he was looking for.

“Okay. Have a nice day,” the officer said as he waved us through.

I breathed a sigh of relief as we drove onto American tarmac and stopped at the first gas station for directions and fuel. When the gas wouldn’t pump, we heard a voice from the speaker box informing us that we had to pay before we could get gas. I approached the attendant who was secured behind bulletproof glass and slid a twenty-dollar bill into a sliding metal drawer. The drawer slid shut and on the other side of the glass the attendant picked up my money.

“What’s this?” the young black attendant asked.

“It’s twenty dollars, Canadian,” I said, surprise that a place so close to the border didn’t know what Canadian money looked like.

The bill was immediately put back into the metal drawer and slid back under the bullet proof glass. “This isn’t Canada! We only take U.S. cash or credit card.”

Jules used his credit card to pay for gas and as he signed the receipt he asked the attendant if he knew of any martial arts’ store in the area. The attendant either chose to be unhelpful or truly knew very little about the area around him. His inability to recognize Canadian currency gave me the impression that the latter was true.

Directions to two different martial arts stores came from another customer who had over heard our conversation with the attendant. With more experience of driving in big cities under his belt, Jules took over driving as I reiterated the directions the other customer had given us. The deeper we got into Detroit, the more we felt like we had entered another realm.

The neighbourhoods we passed in Detroit made Reed’s place look like the Hamptons. It appeared that every other building was condemned and boarded up, though we often saw people somehow exiting these buildings. The streets were roaming with derelicts, drinking from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags, and their was at least one liquor store on every block to help restock those bags once they became empty.

While sitting at a stop light we saw a big old Cadillac pass through the intersection. Like the neighbourhood, the car was in such a poor state of disrepair and rusted so badly that we could actually see right through the vehicle’s trunk to the road on the other side. Though the state of the vehicle did not seem to thwart the driver’s enthusiasm of driving a Cadillac.

The first two martial arts stores were closed and hopes of obtaining our prize dwindled as we realized the chance of finding a store open on Good Friday was very slim. In the parking lot of the second store, we confronted a couple of young males who pointed us in the direction of two more possible stores. We wove our way deeper and deeper into the heart of the city and we were just about to give up and head back to Canada, when we happened upon a martial arts store that looked open. Jules pulled into the parking lot and we both jumped out of the car like kids anticipating a huge candy store. To our surprise the doors were open and we entered an armoury of exotic weapons, most of which would be illegal in Canada.

On the walls hung swords of all shapes and sizes, fighting sticks, nunchakus and weapons neither of us could identify. The rest of the store was lined with showcases containing, guns, knifes, and an assortment of other weapons and paraphernalia. This was a guy’s dream place, no matter what age he happened to be.

We must have looked awestruck when a store clerk approached us and said, “So what kind of weapons can I put into your hands today?”

We told him our plans and with no questioning asked on how we were going to get our purchases across the border, he showed us an array of weapons, many of which we had never heard of. Nunchakus, a martial art’s weapon that consists of two sticks joined by a short piece of chain, the weapon of choice for a martial arts expert like Bruce Lee, made them a perfect weapon to start viewing.  After we each chose a set of nunchakus, the clerk took us before a display case of knives where we took our time choosing switchblades that we thought would most impress our friends back home.

In the parking lot we opened the trunk an began stashing our purchase for the trip back over the border. At the time, the wheel well around the spare tire seemed like the best place to hide contraband from any nosey Customs officers, but I would agonize over that decision all the way to the bridge back to Canada.

As we left the store, we realized that we had worked our way so far into the heart of Detroit that we really had no idea how to get back to the bridge. Jules, taking the typical male role, decided we would find our way out if we drove around for a bit. With Jules behind the wheel, I sat back looking for familiar landmarks or signs directing us back to Canada. All we succeeded in doing was getting ourselves deeper and deeper into bad neighbourhoods where we were receiving unwelcoming glares from many of the black residents.

Fearing we had stepped outside the safety zones, we decided it would be best to keep our eyes open for a police officer that could direct us back on route. As luck would have it, we found one walking down a street a few minutes later. Jules pulled to the curb and I started to explain our situation to one of the biggest, meanest looking cops I’d ever seen, but I didn’t get very far before I was interrupted.

“What the hell are you white boys doing around here,” the officer said, glaring at us.

I stuttered a bit, but was finally able to get out our story about being lost Canadians. The officer was kind enough to point out that we were damn lucky that we hadn’t gotten are stupid white asses shot off for being in that neighbourhood. In my defense, I mentioned that he was also a white guy in what appeared to be dominantly black neighbourhood. 

“You see this,” the officer said, pointing at his gun.

I nodded.

“And you see this,” he said, pointing at his badge this time.

I nodded again.

“Even with these, I still go home every night and thank my lucky stars that I haven’t go my ass shot off.”

If he intended to scare us, he had succeeded tenfold, and it only got worse from there. The officer gave us directions to the quickest egress route out of that neighbourhood and back to the main highway that would take us in the direction of home. He then added and important point, “I want you to keep driving and don’t stop for anything until you get back on the highway. And I mean, I don’t want you stopping for red lights, stop signs, or anything else that might try to stop you.”

“But...,” was all I got out before being interrupted again.

“No buts!” the officer yelled. “If you get killed around here, it’s going to mean a lot of paperwork for me, and then I will really be pissed.”

Neither of us said a word as we followed the officer’s directions back to the highway. That little scare was successful in keeping my mind off the illegal weapons we were about to smuggle back into Canada. But that only lasted until we made it to the highway and started seeing the signs for the border. 

I kept thinking about our hiding place in the trunk, surely that would be the first place they would check, but I couldn’t come up with a better solution. Since the car was in my parents’ name, we thought it would be best that I be the one behind the wheel when we crossed the border. When we stopped to make the switch, I seriously considered dropping the bag of weapons in the nearest garbage, I’d had enough excitement for one day. The problem was admitting my fears to my friend, so in the end we just changed positions and headed for the bridge to Canada.

“Citizenship?” the officer asked.

“Canadian,” we both replied again, thinking this was going to be as easy as our first crossing.

“Let me see your passports!”

“Passports?” I said, breaking out in a sweat and hopping the fear was not showing on my face.

All we had for identification were drivers’ licenses, which at the time was strictly a piece of paper with no picture on it. The officer wasn’t too happy about the lack of photo identification and continued to harass us with concerns that we weren’t who we said we were. I’m sure he noticed that I was about to break down and said, “I better not catch you here again without picture ID.”

“No Sir,” I promised.

“Okay. Anything to declare?”

Suddenly by stomach clamped up and I thought I was going to have to vomit out the window. If this officer was such a stickler about our identification, surely he was going to find out about our package hidden in the trunk. In mere seconds, thousands of images of prison, the car being torn apart, and my very pissed off parents flashed before my eyes. I’m not sure how I manage to blurt out, but I finally said “No, Sir.”

“Fine, have a good day, and don’t forget you picture ID next time.”

I wanted to hit the gas and burn out of there before the officer changed his mind, but I knew that would be too suspicious and they would end up chasing us down. I slowly accelerated and drove off, keeping my eye on the rear view mirror, sure that at any moment the officer would realize he had made a mistake and coming running out of his booth.

“WooHoo,” Jules exclaimed. “That was a piece of cake.”

I didn’t say anything. I was still afraid I was going to throw up.

With no other place to go, we headed back to Reed’s dilapidated home. Jules had no sooner walked in the door when he reached into the bag to show off our prizes to his friend. The nunchakus came out first and, attempting to imitate a martial arts expert, Jules swung one of the chained sticks over his shoulder and caught with his other hand. When he attempted the same manoeuver on the other side, the upwards swing caused one of the sticks to crash into the hallway chandelier, sending fragments of shattered bulb raining down on his head. Now the chandelier was already hanging loose from the ceiling, and its only decoration was a solitary bulb and a build up of cobwebs, but I was sure Jules was about to meet the pointy end of Reed’s machete for destroying his place.

Instead, Reed came down the hallway, pushed the broken glass away with his boot and said, “Cool let me try.”

While Jules and Reed played with the new toys, I decided I would attempt to sleep again. Most of the day my body had survived on the adrenalin but now that things had quieted down, I was feeling exhausted. I lied down for about two hours but had only been asleep for twenty minutes when Jules woke me to inform me we were heading out for a party.

It was supposed to be a big party and, according to Reed, it was at a friend’s house, it would be easy to find, and he would meet us there. I was a little hesitant about going to any party that invited the likes of Reed, but we decided to check it out and leave if we didn’t feel comfortable. For me, I figured that would be as soon as we entered the house.

It turned out that the party wasn’t so easy to find and after driving around for forty-five minutes, I decided to veto the party plans and head home. I was still exhausted but didn’t feel like trying to sleep at Reed’s again so we found the highway and started heading home. Again, Jules was asleep shortly after leaving the lights of the city behind us and I drove for four hours by myself. It was late and we had the highway to ourselves causing me to catch a bad case of white-line fever. As long as the white line separating the two east bound lanes was going under the front of the car, I knew we were still on the road.

When we made it home to Oakville, I realized that driving that tired was just as bad as driving drunk. Only a few blocks from home, I stopped at a red light, looked both ways, than drove on. Now awake, Jules was quick to point out that I had just run a stoplight. A block from home I stopped at a stop sign and was waiting for it to turn green when Jules was so kind to point out that the stop sign was never going to turn green.

In total the trip took about twenty-seven hours, but while I was crawling into bed early that Saturday morning, I thought it felt like weeks since I’d last seen my bed. I learnt one important fact from that adventure; it’s great to explore new places but it is always nice to make it home to your own bed. I’m sure I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. 

I woke in the late afternoon with Jules banging on the door with the news that since my parents were still out of town he’d invited everyone over for a party. I tried to object but he insisted it would be the best opportunity to regale of friends with stories of our adventure.

Some friends question whether we could do all that in such a short period of time, but they recanted once we showed them what we had purchased while in Detroit. Everyone was awed by the weapons, and that night was the first time one of our friends knocked himself unconscious with the nunchakus.