One month I was interviewing presidents and prime ministers, and kings, queens and entertainment superstars, and the next I was carrying bags for the rich and famous at a ritzy hotel on the beach in California.
It was all part of the plan. After more than two years working as a reporter on the Daily Mail in London’s Fleet Street I was 25 and knew it was now or never: if I really wanted to fulfill my lifetime ambition to travel around the world I had to leave then before settling down.
A friend who ran a shipping company arranged for me to sail the Atlantic on one of his cargo ships.
It was a marvellous way to unwind from the pressures of working on a daily newspaper in the most competitive news environment in the world, and I arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, relaxed and ready for an adventure. I made my way by train and bus to New York State before flying west to Los Angeles where a friend in Manhattan Beach put me up while I found an apartment and a job.
I had been promised a job on the prestigious LA Times, but that fell through when we had a stand-off over the all important green card which would allow me, as a foreign national, to work legally in the US. They couldn’t help me get one, and without their support I couldn’t work.
But, undefeated, I tried my hand at a raft of small jobs, kind of under the radar. I worked as an overnight accountant in a hotel, a property manager and even a male model for a group of amateur LA artists. But my time in the hotel convinced me where the real money was – working as a bell hop, with generous tips.
I got the job and it was a blast despite having to wear a blue bellman’s jacket. It was a beach front hotel in Santa Monica where all the guests were well-to-do tourists or high flying businessmen happy to be in the sunshine of LA. And my British accent was unusual enough back then to help me get larger tips than most of the other bellmen. And soon I discovered that British Airways crews stayed in the hotel and would provide me with a steady supply of British newspapers which I could read on the beach during the day before the lucrative night shift at the hotel.
The money was so good that in just six months I had saved $5,000 US – and that was back in the mid-70s. Today it would be worth about $25,000. And I packed in a lot in between my bellman’s duties: not only did I freelance for several British papers, but I also travelled all over the Western US: to the Grand Canyon, Palm desert, the coast road up to San Francisco, the beaches all along the coast to San Diego and several trips into Northern Mexico.
I was also in Disneyland for the US bicentennial festivities on July 4, 1976, and watched the quite magical firework celebrations. There were Beach Boys concerts and trips to the Hollywood Bowl and a chance to see the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena. I even visited NASA when they celebrated a Viking spacecraft landing on Mars to look for life.
Eventually, with my tip money in my jeans it was time to take off again: this time to head north to Alaska. After a Greyhound bus trip to Yosemite National Park, I hitched my way up through the mountain states to Yellowstone and then Montana to Banff, Alberta, where I had a rendezvous with my cousin, Pam, and her husband, Tim, and their small two children.
It was a trip we organized over a year earlier before I set out from England. They arrived from the UK having shipped a specially converted Land Rover, which looked like a cross between a tank and a camper. They slept in the van and I attached a tent to the back door and slept in that as we made our way up the 1500 mile long Alaska Highway.
It was an unbelievable journey through Northern British Columbia and the Yukon. In those days it was little more than a twisty, dusty, gravel road, steeply graded which meant on more than one occasion we were in danger of rolling off the highway unless we hit a fast enough speed.
It was rigorous driving, and we barely did more than 125 miles a day – but along the way we saw spectacular scenery and amazing wildlife: moose, grizzly and black bears, elk and even wolves.
And then, of course, there were the giant Alaskan mosquitoes – all 35 species. They were everywhere – and boy, did they bite. It was one of the perils of the trip.
But to compensate for the bugs, the scenery was an ever changing landscape – we drove along fjords, through mountain ranges and past glaciers and right into Mount McKinley National Park, where the weather was clear enough to see the mountain against perfect blue skies. We stayed in a campground just below the mountain, with grizzly bears all around us for company.
When we got to Fairbanks I wore my journalist’s hat again and flew up to the Arctic Circle with BP to see their vast oil operations and write a feature on the massive Alyeska oil pipeline which was just being completed. It snaked its way through the Arctic tundra from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska, in what was described as a monumentally challenging construction project
When we arrived in Haines, Alaska, for the journey back to Canada we had planned to take an Alaskan State ferry: but there was a long-running strike. While Pam and Tim could afford the time to wait it out, I had to get back through the US before my year-long visa ran out. So I hitched a ride, literally, on a floatplane at the local airport.
I stood on the small runway with my finger out and within minutes a perplexed pilot stopped, asked what I was doing and thought it was so cheeky that he agreed to fly me south. We got on so well he even detoured over Glacier Bay – which allowed for some spectacular photographs. You could even hear the ice calving over the sound of the plane’s engines.
He dropped me in Ketchikan, Alaska, where I put my thumb out again and caught a ride on a tug boat heading to Prince Rupert in return for a bottle of Scotch. It was rough accommodation, but I was given a space for my sleeping bag – not that I really slept as we were in the land of almost no darkness at night and we were sailing though the iconic Inside Passage – which thousands of tourists pay to see from the comfort of cruise ships.
I hitched from Prince Rupert 1,000 miles to Prince George and on to Vancouver. That left me just a few days to get down to LA and pick up my bags before heading to South America.
But a funny thing happened along the way. I met my wife-to-be, Carol Ann, on my second day in Vancouver. So instead of heading to South America, I whipped down to LA, picked up my bags, and made my way north again just before my visa expired to take my chances with Carol-Ann after just one brief meeting!
And I also found work on the city’s morning newspaper, The Province, while I was seeing how the relationship worked out. What happened? See my next blog!