Last week, a group of friends took a photo with the “Welcome to Fort Frances” sign to commemorate the end of a trip they had recreated from 50 years ago.
The three pals — Tom Donlan, Mark Swiat, and Jim Ellis — had met in grade school and stayed connected throughout the years. The trip they took 50 years ago was proof of their coming of age. The recreated trip was a testament to their lasting friendship.
“It all started when I was 17 years old. And we had small motorcycles, Kawasaki 125s, and we had done little trips up to Wisconsin and Indiana and stuff like that. And we thought, well, how cool of it instead of going to another state, to go to another country,” said Donlan. “And well, Mexico is way too far. So we figured, well, Canada, is about 700 miles away on the other side of International Falls.”
From their hometown in Illinois, USA, they estimated that the entire trip would take five days in total. The boys packed camping gear and around $100 each, an amount that had to be rationed for seven days when two motorcycles broke down along the way.
“We ended up spending seven days on the road. And one day and one night in Canada, in Fort Frances. It was just a blast,” Donlan said. “Coming back home, two of our bikes broke down because we pushed them so hard.”
“It was pretty easy to take the engine apart. And we had to hone out the cylinder and sand down the piston and everything. So everything was just from so much heat from running them so hard. And so basically we just sanded them down and got everything all cleaned,” Donlan said.
“We just took it easier on the way home and said we’re only going maybe 50 to 55 miles an hour on the way home”
To save money, the boys camped under the stars most nights, only staying in a motel in Canada and splitting a cabin on the way back home for $5. They brought a loaf of bread and a pound of meat with them for food.
“When you’re 17 years old, you’re not really too much afraid of anything. So we just did it,” said Donlan. “Those guys did not know where we were going, what roads we were taking. So back then, the interstate system was just starting but those bikes were not allowed on any kind of interstate system. You had to stay on state roads and all that kind of stuff. So I planned all that how to get there. And the night of the second day. It was probably 11 o’clock at night. We pulled into Fort Frances, Ontario. And we got the motel room. And it’s a good thing we did because I think it rained the whole next day.”
At the time, a passport wasn’t needed to cross the border at International Falls, Donlan said. Unfamiliar with the French language, they thought they were staying at the “Ren-Devious” hotel.
Only one of the three original bikes made it on the trip. Donlan brought his restored motorcycle, which cost him about $550 back in the day.
“It was a lot of money for a 17 year old. We saved up the money, but like I said, we didn’t have a whole lot of money to bring with us and no kid back then had credit cards or anything like that. It was all pay phones, call and collect, every night to tell your mom and dad that you’re still alive,” he said.
Donlan’s wife Eileen, who joined the trip recreation, said it has been a joy listening to stories from her husband’s youth.
“I didn’t know him then, so a lot of the stories I was hearing for the first time,” she said. “And they were telling me that, you know, 17 year old boys for one night, because it was raining, they had nothing else to do. They were wrestling in the motel, jumping on the beds and stuff. They knocked the teepee off the wall. I mean, can you imagine in this day and age that kind of fooling around?”
She added that Ellis did not have permission from his parents to go on the trip until the morning they had planned to leave.
“His parents were fighting back and forth,” she said. “So the story was, if his bedroom shade was open, he could go on the trip. But if he didn’t raise his bedroom shade in the morning, his mom wasn’t going to let him go.”
“It was 6 a.m. and it was open. So we all went,” Donlan said. “It was just an adventure. You know, we’ve never done anything like that, never been away from home that long. Never driven that far before.”
Between July 10 to 12, Donlan and friends returned to La Place Rendez-Vous to reminisce memories from their youth.
In addition to one restored motorcycle, Ellis brought his old canteen and Donlan brought a sleeping bag and army jacket — the same one he wore in the first photo they took by the “Welcome to Canada” sign.
“We said, ‘well, chances are we’re not going to make it to 75 years, so we better go now,’” Donlan said.