They left me on the side of the highway near Cranbrook, BC. I wasn’t ‘abandoned’, as my decision to part ways was self- volitional. But watching the blue Jeep roar off to the North prompted a spinal reflex that tensed the muscles of my sentimental thoracic cavity emotively.
Instantaneous nostalgia for my cramped middle seat blossomed in my breast. I was moments ago couched uncomfortably between two dependable ‘Oaks’ (def: ‘good dudes’ ; plural; colloquial; South African origin;) amidst a bursting sea of bags, books and loose footwear. We hadn’t spoken much on the winding drive from Nelson to Cranbrook, per se. But there was effusive symbolism in the silence. Luke’s temple had rested on my left shoulder, eyes closed, swollen and masked by ovaloid sunglasses. His mouth had hung slightly open amidst a panoply of reddish whiskers. But the reticence of his sleep was superficial. His snores were conversational – their rhythmic heaving droned a panegyric to humanity. Undulating upwards, a proud fortissimo, they told the bawdy tale of our last week in Nelson, a tale of inebriated flirtations with giggly women, Mother Nature, and the municipal police force. His somnolent rumblings would then de-crescendo to a silence – the smiling mask of the Muse morphed into a horrified frown – that spoke of the converse shame of partying hard enough to capitulate control of one’s bodily functions.
A rich, human-all-too-human story. A proud lump form in my throat as the car disappeared around a rocky curve.
Shirtless, Billy had set to my left. A scattering of beef samosa flakes adorned the hair of his sunburnt chest while his shoulders slumped with the weight of his fatigue. His silence had told its own version of our story – a crystalline sedition shone from the tireless blue of his eyes. His eyes reminded me of just how awake, how alive we had felt during the last few epicurean nights. Especially when the three of us had sung with unrestrained passion well into the dawn.
But the feeling of ‘togetherness’, along with the ‘happiness’ and ‘ecstasy’ and even perhaps the elusive sensation of our own humanity, are things experienced with the brevity of lightning. They exist as momentary electric, brilliant white light, bursting out of the grey, overcast rain of the everyday.
Jumping ship was an attempt to capture this energy in the sparks of memory, before the stimulating potential dispersed. Plus, they were going North, whereas my home lay to the East. And I had decided to hitchhike the lonely stretch of Canadian highway between Cranbrook and my home in Medicine Hat.
Deserted – not left in a figurative desert void of intimacy, but rather trudging through a literal one. My parched throat and growing sweat coefficient definitely drew me to this word choice.
Motorbikes and Recreational Vehicles roared across the Highway 3A overpass above me. I crawled up the embankment and twenty minutes later I was zipping along towards Sparwood, BC with my first hitching-hiking host, Clint. I accompanied him on his triumphant and tipsy return from his Mother’s birthday in Cranbrook. He regaled me with anecdotes of his pestering but adored ‘woman’, flowery descriptions (seesawing from guilt to pride) of his ostentatious and recently purchased RV, and a philosophical backstory of his choice to settle in the mountains. Every once in a while, a gap toothed smile would interrupt his storytelling, perforating his pinkish lips.
Clint lived a life of comfort and steady employment. The fact that his mother was a lottery winner may have contributed to the ease with which he lived.
Of more pertitent interest, Clint was not your everyday coal miner. He was an albino coal. Now, if the juxtapositional image of his pinkish-white pallor covered with a patina of anthracitic dust doesn’t tickle the rods and cones of your mind’s eye, pinch your neuro-brachial equivalent.
Clint surprised me when he started waxing mythological. He spun a socio-historical yarn of the town of Fernie. Pointing to a nearby penumbra draped over a mountain slope, he pointed out the shape of a horse-backed Indian looming ominously above the town. The founder of the town had spurned an ancient Indian chief, strategically married one of his daughters and perpetuated a period of audacious expansion into native territory. The town was subsequently (and predictably) cursed by the chief. With biblical ease, the town was razed again and again by floods and fire. And, fear being the mother of all superstition, the townspeople turned apologetically to the peace pipe to help lift the curse.
Apparently the shadowy horsemen has lost his wahoo. I find it hard to believe he wouldn’t be troubled by the unfettered expansion of skiing condos and strip malls currently sweeping the town. Or perhaps the curse of capitalism is more devastating…
A 100 pages of sporadic novel reading and thumb waving passed before I caught my first ride with a trucker. Eric was younger than I, with short blond hair and an intelligent smile. He preferred to discuss the agonies and ecstasies of raising a young family, how it balanced this with life on the road, and how the ball-n-chain of alimony from his first child continued to pester him.
The ninth child from a Mormon family (I guessed it!), he had eschewed the Latter Day Saint’s values one by one. But despite being sympathetic to cigarettes and beer, he had obviously struggled to break free from the Mormon tradition of rabbit-like reproduction. After three kids by the age of 21, he took drastic measure.
Eric is the youngest man I have ever met to be vasectomized.
As the calm of night settled on the sparkling waters and the craggy magnificence of the Rocky Mountains settled into prairie, Eric revealed his conspiratorial and socialist political leanings to me.
Funny that even an uneducated Mormon trucker from the backwoods can grow convinced that 9/11 was a government plot. I guess it’s not so much of a belief as a foil for a deep distrust concerning the Powers that Be. His reflections evolved into rants about the horrific, pointless logging of BC forests which grew to a vociferous, proclamational climax that condemned Obama as merely another corrupt stoolie for corporate hegemony.
Driven to appreciative silence as much for his generosity as for his vehemence, I climbed down the metal grate stairs of his truck, I waved in thanks, and I found myself on the shoulder of an Albertan highway. The iodine of night diffused into the last few pockets of sunlight. I strode on.
Perhaps this is a premature conclusion, but it seems that hitch hiking is easier in the afternoon and evening. The mundanities of their days behind them, their moods reflective and receptive, quite a few vehicles were willing to pull over despite the disappearing day. A shy but warm native couple drove me part of the way. They picked me up despite the necessity of me sharing the back seat with their toddler daughter, a gorgeous, hair-braided sleeping beauty.
Still buoyant in mood despite the hours sinking past midnight, three teenagers picked me up. Their expressions were initially apprehensive but compassionate. Two brown haired twins and their muscly chauffeur friend slowly opened up to me as it became apparent I wasn’t as sketchy as I appeared crouched and hooded on the side of the road. Apparently, my languid presentation of a thick novel under the streetlamp had played in my favor. With the open, innocent thoughtfulness of youth, they had actually circled back to pick me up. I congratulated them for allowing youthful sympathy to trump the imagined protestations of their mothers.
Recent high school graduates, they were on the intimidating but exhilarating cusp of real life. One of the twins was heading off to India, while the other longed for New York and Broadway musicals. At the ripe age of 18, the two of them had only spent 7 days apart in their entire lives.
My twin sister was venturing off towards Vancouver, which gave me the expertise to reflect on the pros and cons of ‘cutting the cord’ or whatever the operative (Punny?) word is for severing the Siamese sentiments of twins.
All of these faces came back to me as I lay down in the long, sparse grass of a South Albertan ditch. A short distance away, the rhythmic clunking of an oil well accompanied my reflections. My first sensation was essentially a humbling of my pretensions about being fully human. About being more human than others. In such a short time, I had exposure to such a menagerie of world views that it rained a cats and dogs of comparisons and contrasts that flooded the poor infrastructure of my mental streets.
There was Clint’s blue collar comfort (although the sun was never so kind to his complexion) that seemed to rival the nirvana of the world’s most committed ascetics. Eric’s anti-establishmentarianism was couched in such visceral, real-world experience, that his words rang truer than the empty, tin voices of pompous intellectuals. The quiet words of Desmond and Gene seemed to close some of the sterile space that seems to separate Canadians from their indigenous country-men.
And the innocence of youthful smiles was a reminder that, despite my adventurous and rebelliously intellectual approach to life, I still have a ‘boatload’ (one of my favorite Billy-isms) of cynicism to grow out of.
The second great impression, amplified as the sun rose and a steady stream of big Alberta truckers with big Alberta guts roared past me the following morning was the contrived, incredible distance that separates modern individuals. Only three feet plus inches of glass and metal separates us from the bedraggled souls on the side of the road. Our mothers urge us to fear them. Society plants fear in the hearts of drivers and hitchers alike, with its archetypal horror stories.
To hitchhike is to transcend this taboo. There is tragic beauty in it, breath-caught-in-your-lungs epiphany. It is a simple revelation, a necessary reminder that most people are disposed to goodness, or at least decency. And small acts of compassion are the glue that keeps the cracked mirror of our own humanity intact.
10 hours outside Taber was enough to make me hate everyone again, especially the fat, private property obsessed, ignorant, gluttonous truckers that smiled with sickly arrogance while passing me on the side of road. Perhaps with a little sleep, I will regain my composure. Perhaps I will even learn to embrace even them. Deep down, I bet they care about hugs more than their shiny trucks. Well, maybe not hugs from dudes, but we can always hope.