When I was 17 I hitch hiked around Canada with my friend Steve Mays for a month.
There were distant family members to stay with along the way in far flung areas North of Toronto & as far West as Winnipeg but essentially we were fresh out of school & left to our own (de) vices:
We loved Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell & Rush - We would be secret Canadians for a memorable summer.
Steve & I both had long hair, enjoyed getting high & playing the guitar.
Neither of us would have minded if you had called us hippies but whilst Steve Mays was enviably cool with his curly ringleted hair & limpid brown eyes, I was just a virgin in every way imaginable.
Like all properly cool people Steve could roll pretty good joints, he also had a beautiful girlfriend back in England called Dawn who I had a secret crush on.
Watching them together was torture.
I could just imagine him rolling pure grass joints & getting high with Dawn in the long grass, perhaps with a beaten up but beautiful vintage guitar slung over his shoulder.
In jealous retaliation I plotted & practiced to become a better guitarist than him.
That was all I could think of to give myself some much needed self esteem.
My crummy guitar would be my girlfriend.
Of course as we were such good friends Steve never knew any of this but what
a tangled web we weave with our secret ambitions & jealous fantasies....
Hitchhiking can be a bit of a mess too.
Canada is huge & the drivers who would stop to pick up two teenage freaks on the roadside weren't necessarily going far - sometimes we would wait by the side of the highway for hours only to jump in the back of a car that was only going 20 miles up the road.
Then we had the most extraordinary piece of luck.
One day we put our thumbs out in the breeze & were lucky enough to catch a lift from a couple of guys going all the way to Winnipeg, nearly 1000 miles away!
The owner of the car was on his way to get married & he & his buddy were sharing time at the wheel.
Quite why these good people decided to take pity on us I'll never know - perhaps they were hard core Monty Python fans & liked our crazy English sense of humour or perhaps they were hoping that we might be able to drive while they got wasted for the entire journey like a kind of mobile stag party.
In this they were out of luck as neither Steve nor I had a drivers license.
As I said earlier, we were raw.
There then commenced the longest road trip I've ever experienced, driving all through the day & night across the ribbon of shimmering blue tarmac known as Highway 94, until we were finally dropped off in the middle of SOMEWHERE that looked an awful lot like NOWHERE.
We stood in the road with our rucksacks and waved our matrimonially bound buddies out of sight.
It was in this rural part of the country that the atmosphere changed.
We now found ourselves in a region North of Winnipeg where time seemed to have stopped out of sheer boredom.
It was also lonely and a bit eerie.
You could die out here and your body would never be found.
For one thing, there was almost no traffic on the country roads & on the occasion that a car did come into view it was an inevitably an older more beaten - up type driven by people with pale unfriendly eyes.
Steve and I were just considering our options after waiting in the shadows of a very hot afternoon when we heard an engine hum.
A pick up truck appeared on the horizon and slowly but surely started to slow down as it approached us.
With hope in our hearts we grabbed our rucksacks & got ready to meet our new saviours but as the pick up truck came closer the driver seemed to have a change of heart & accelerated, leaving us standing in the roadside dust.
I got a glimpse of the driver & his co pilot as they drew level with me & they struck me as a most memorable but unlikely sight.
At the wheel was a huge Native Canadian man with a humourless mouth & a long jet black pony- tail.
He wore a plaid shirt & seemed to entirely fill the cab of the vehicle.
He was huge & contrasted bizarrely with his runty, skinny friend sitting next to him.
Imagine Shaggy from Scooby Doo and Sitting Bull or, for that matter, Bullwinkle & Rocky out for an afternoon drive.
Without one word of comment of any kind they passed straight on by just like we were ghosts in the dust.
Our immediate sense of disappointment was leavened slightly as we watched the truck drift silently on its way for in the back of the pick-up there sat 4 pretty teenage girls giving us friendly waves & blowing goodbye kisses into the air.
As the pick-up truck receded over the brow of the hill I & blew an innocent air kiss back at the girls.
Not to one girl in particular but to all of them.
Purely in the spirit of international relations you understand, no favourites.
But now at least one thing was clear;
Sitting Bull & Shaggy would surely have liked to have given us a lift along the highway but they had enough passengers on board already.
Even if we had all squeezed in the back of the flat bed together with the girls it would have been a struggle.
Such is life.
Steve & I resigned ourselves to waiting it out in the shadows as the afternoon wore boringly on.
We may have openly discussed the lost potential of bouncing along in the back of a pick up truck with 4 young Canadian girls or we may have just sat alone with our own private thoughts, I can't quite remember, but, about 20 minutes after it had gone by, we were surprised to see the very same pick up truck coming back down the road towards us.
Here the prospect of a lift in the truck was less appealing than before as, unless it was prepared to turn around, it could only offer a lift back the way we had come but we got our things together in readiness anyway.
It might be the only ride going anywhere we could get before darkness fell.
With a crunch of dry gravel under the tyre, the pick- up truck pulled onto the hard shoulder & the two mis matched occupants got out.
Walking immediately up to me & looking me squarely in the eye, the mountain sized Canadian-Indian said meaningfully:
"If you're man enough to do this ( and here he raised his middle finger up to my nose in a crude "Flip the bird" gesture )
then do it my face right now "
To my stammered reply that it was 'All a terrible misunderstanding' he simply stood even closer & repeated his threat.
I could smell his breath & it it smelled of stale whiskey.
Now apart from being punched in the face a few times by the school bully back home.
I had never experienced much violence or been placed in a life threatening situation.
I had been raised by my mother to talk about my feelings, to be non sexist & to cry without fear of judgment.
This may have made me a beautiful non-violent male role model for my mum to feel proud about but it left me horribly exposed in a confrontational one to one.
Particularly when I was holding a big rucksack in the middle of nowhere & the scary man in front of me was the size of a telephone kiosk.
As I would probably done in his situation, Steve stayed in the background, tensely waiting & watching to see what would develop.
He made no move to wade in & stand up for me at any point.
Perhaps he had found out about my secret designs on his girlfriend?
Maybe this whole turn of events was a convoluted set up & Sitting Bull was a professional hit man....
Whatever misunderstanding had brought about these bizarre circumstances, I was properly terrified.
Unless something happened immediately,
I was going to be roadkill in the Canadian backwoods for merely waving at a passing car whist my best school friend & Shaggy from Scooby Doo looked on.
Then, just as my weak excuses & parched pleadings were proving to be 100% ineffectual in deterring my imminent annihilation, a second car appeared as if dropped down by a passing spaceship.
This car was an old copper coloured 1970s Lincoln Continental with low suspension that made it look very out place amongst the trees & rocks that surrounded us.
It would have looked far more at home driven by James Garner in an episode of 'The Rockford Files'
There were 4 men in the Lincoln Continental.
100 years previously I guess you have had to describe them as a posse or round up gang.
Randy Newman would have called them 'Good ol' boys'
They looked like the cavalry to me right now.
The nearest dude in the passenger seat jerked his thumb towards Sitting Bull & Shaggy & drawled to me "Are these boys giving you any trouble son? Do you want us to send them on their way ..?"
It was the sweetest sound I'd ever heard.
The Canadian- Indian guy who up to that point had been in such terrifying control of the situation, now looked a bit shame faced & awkward and for the first time he stood back from me at a slight distance.
Two of the good ol' boys got out of the Lincoln and came over to see what was going on like a pair of groovy traffic cops.
They wore cheesecloth shirts & flared denim jeans, unkempt long hair & had scruffy beards.
We had finally found our people.
By now our would- be assailants had started slinking back towards the pick up truck & it didn't need much more than a few well chosen insults from the hippy Dukes of Hazard to see them on their way back up the road.
As the immediate danger passed, I found my legs were shaking and it finally sunk in that we had had a truly narrow escape.
Obviously I don't know how a fight between a 17 year old vegetarian virgin from Hertfordshire and a possibly drunk 20 stone Manitoba mountain man would have ended out in the woods but I'm sure it wouldn't have been very pretty to watch.
Our heroic rescuers then helpfully explained that for local entertainment "The Indians" like to get fucked up on a Friday night & drive around looking to see if there was anyone to beat up.
Purely by ignorance Steve & I had wandered into bandit country totally unprepared, just as green as grass.
We explained to the Lincoln boys that we were originally on our way up the road to visit family in Thunder Bay and they immediately offered us a ride to a safer place towards our destination.
They all seemed to think there was a good chance that the pick up boys would come back to complete the job they had so rudely been discouraged from completing.
Steve & I threw our rucksacks in the trunk of the Lincoln & slid across the huge rear cream coloured leather bench seat.
The doors slammed shut, the driver slipped the gear into first & we rolled away up the road away and out of trouble.
The car was now pretty full.
With Steve & I, we were now six up on board & we introduced ourselves to each other in close proximity as the car started to pick up speed driving away through the gloomy forest.
Without asking or raising the subject of refreshments I was simultaneously offered a powerful joint of strong grass & a half bottle of rum.
I guess my shoulder length hair & patched jeans probably said everything that they needed to know about my recreational interests even if I was just a kid at heart.
Not for the first or last time in my life would long hair prove to be the international freak flag for like minded stoners everywhere...
As my head swooned & I tried to remain reasonably together at the height of my sudden intoxication, I became aware of a warm yet dirty sound blasting from the car stereo.
It was playing a kind of greasy, beautiful R'n'B rock & roll shuffle boogie with a male lead vocal that sounded cool, stoned & righteous:
" You didn't have to love me like you did
But you did, but you did.
And I thank you.
You didn't have to love me like you did
But you did, but you did.
And I thank you.
But you took your love to someone else
I wouldn't know what it meant to be loved to death
You made me feel like I've never felt
Kisses so good I had to holler for help.."
Somehow this music, with the motion of the car, the revelatory deliverance from harm, the drink & drugs & the sheer exhilaration of experience away from home, added a much needed rite of passage notch in my man- belt.
The liberal sensibilities of a middle class wannabe feminist life back home was fine in itself & you would have to be offering something pretty special to rival political correctness in general, but out in the dark woods there was a whole other side to life going on...
The cassette tape playing on the stereo turned out to be an album called "Deguello" by a band of bearded freaks from Texas called ZZ Top.
At that moment they became the sound of everything I wanted to achieve as a man.
It was man's music.
They looked like men and, until the drummer Frank Beard shaved his beard off they looked like they were in a near religious brotherhood of men.
The singer & bass player was called Dusty Hill, the other singer & guitarist was called Billy Gibbons.
They were my new hairy role models.
They sounded like men and they didn't seem to feel the need to apologise for it.
And while I thought about it , the men who had saved my skinny white ass from getting beaten to a pulp that day ... that was a manly thing to do too;
Saving a couple of scared kids in the wrong part of town & delivering them dry and very high to a place of safety.
Manliness suddenly appeared to me to be a cool thing to aspire to.
I wasn't sure about how women fitted into this whole new world of manliness ( let alone where the girls in the pick up were going ) but there would be loads of time to figure all that out later ....
All I knew at that moment was that I had gone into the dark woods a boy and come out the other side something you might almost describe as a man.
And for that reason I say;
ZZ Top- I want to thank you.