On the afternoon of May 1st 1971 Ray and I drove into the Circle M. We had sold everything, terminated the let on the flat and said goodbye to friends, work colleagues and the city of Toronto. We had even arranged to sell the car to a guy at the Circle M. I was glad to be escaping the city, and keyed-up with anticipation and excitement: eager to get started on our three-thousand mile trek. But I was nervous as well at what we were taking on.
When I look back now I see how badly we had planned things; how our optimism and enthusiasm had carried us along and how a lot of basic practicalities and necessary research had been overlooked.
It started with loading certain items onto my horse, George, when George wasn’t used to them. Things like a brightly coloured sleeping bag and a glaringly-yellow slicker. George spooked, snorted, blew and side-stepped, and who could blame him, he wasn’t used to them. God knows why we hadn’t had some trial-runs. Why had we just assumed the horses would be OK with all these strange new things attached to them.
George eventually settled down and I felt a bit more relaxed, but I was still worried. He had one trait that I was extremely nervous about. If he got really spooked he would rear. He hadn’t done it that often but I knew the habit was there, and with me wearing a heavy rucksack I had visions of both of us going over backwards. People get killed like that. Ray did his best to encourage me and waylay my fears but it didn’t help.
Ray’s horse, Rebel, was not prone to any such bad habits, but we were worried about him for different reasons. He had been boarded and looked after well enough over the winter at the Circle M but hadn’t put on much weight and didn’t look anything like as fit as George. Doubts about this whole thing were starting to nag at my mind. We should have had a third horse to pack our gear. Although we had honed our personal rucksacks down to a minimum it was still a lot of extra weight for our horses.
Eventually, late on that afternoon of May 1st we set off, waving goodbye to the Circle M gang and Ray’s great friend Bernie who had driven out specially to take a photo of us as we left. He later sent us the photo which I still have.
I lived the dream that day. I rode off into the sunset on my lovely chestnut horse, in my western saddle, wearing my new dark-blue Bailey cowboy hat, my fringed leather chaps, and my best Tony Lama cowboy boots. I had all my possessions on my back, the open road in front, a heart full of expectant excitement and a head full of dreams. And whatever happened I wasn’t going back!
Cowboys had filled my dreams as a kid. I had watched every western possible: Rawhide, Laramie, Wagon Train, Bonanza, Wells Fargo, and my favourite, Bronco, to name but a few. I was always drawn to the drifters who had no roots or ties. I guess this was the closest way I could come to being like them.
We literally ‘rode off into the sunset’. I remember laughing to myself and thinking how apt as the sky in front of us turned beautiful shades of red and pink. For me there has never been anything to equal the excitement of setting off on a journey with no return ticket. I should have been a gypsy.
Our big adventure, well, the horseback bit, lasted about ten days. I didn’t keep a diary, I was probably too damp and cold and worried about falling off George if he flipped out. We had come to realise two things very quickly: Rebel wasn’t fit enough to undertake such a long journey, and we had set off too early in the year and weren’t equipped for the colder weather as we headed into northern Ontario. No excuses, we had bogged it through bad planning and lack of research. We discussed our options and both agreed – no turning back. We would look for a farm en-route and see if we could get some temporary work with room and board. We were lucky. We stopped at a farm owned by Hazel and Lydle Johnston in Coldwater, northern Ontario. They welcomed us and seemed enthusiastic and happy for some help. I would help Hazel in the house and Ray would work on the farm. We wouldn’t get paid but they would feed us.
Although we were there for six weeks I don’t remember a lot; only that the Johnstons were very kind to us and fed us well and made us part of the family – unlike my experience working for Mrs Milburn. Hazel and Lydle were farming people, salt of the earth, no pretences, no silver candlesticks or table-legs for me to polish.
We had decisions to make. Should we try to carry on with the ride, and if not what should we do? It didn’t take long to agree that continuing was not an option. We had to abandon our dream, but not all of it. We would ride a different horse out west … the iron horse as the Indians used to call it in the old days: better known as the Canadian Pacific Railway. Sadly we sold Rebel and George back to George’s previous owner who came up and collected them. At least they were going to a good home.
We thanked Hazel and Lydle for caring for us so well, threw our saddles and bags in the back of Lydle’s old pick-up and headed for the station. I was gutted at the failure of the trip … but on the other hand I loved the idea of riding the Canadian Pacific across Canada. Sometimes I amazed myself at how quickly I let fall one dream only to slip smoothly onto the back of another.
With our baggage on the train we waved goodbye to the Johnstons and headed west, bound for Calgary. I think it was a four-day trip and we had a cabin with two small bunks. Ray slept on the bottom one and I remember him singing to me one night and making me laugh. I’ll never forget the motion of the train in the dark, the clack of the wheels, and Ray’s singing as I lay snug in the bunk, too excited to sleep.
The train wound up through northern Ontario past Sault Ste Marie; taking in names like Thunder Bay and Kenora. We pushed on into Manitoba, past Winnipeg and then into the massive open flat expanse of the prairies and the province of Saskatchewan, through Regina and Moose Jaw. I loved the names. Finally we were in Alberta – known as cattle-country; stopping briefly at Medicine Hat before going on into Calgary.