We drove as far as a town called Sorren and I pulled over at an abandoned gas station just outside of town. I went around back and took a piss among garbage bins and came back to the car and looked out at the highway, the few passing vehicles, the signs listing the upcoming towns and the three digit numbers next to them. I got back in the car and turned to Nick.
“I don’t know if I can do this.”
“So we go as far as we go.”
“You’re awfully reassuring.”
I didn’t need reassurance. At that moment I possessed an all-or-nothing mentality, though not quite sure which way I was leaning. Apropos of nothing, Nick started recounting a “Kids in the Hall” skit, he described it all, imitating the high, nasally voice, reaching the end of it by repeating the word “Sausages” over and over, at which point I was in stitches. That was all it took.
“OK,” I said, starting up the car, “Let’s do this. Rack up the miles.”
We drove all night, through the darkness, spectral fog spreading and changing and morphing abstractly across the highways, the hard yellow line the only constant sight, illuminated by the interrogation flush of the headlights; through tunnels temporarily ricocheting light off the car and then back into the black and forever the line running out ahead, following it out into the open mountains into the predawn hours, gray, fuzzy, the sky blurry with jagged distant shapes forming into peaks. On and on like an insomniac vision, there but not, drifting out of body, out of mind as the car seemed to carry itself of its own volition, then coming back into it, taking over while speeding up into the hard, whipping turns, holding straight on the approach and then—whoosh!—cranking the wheel the second the approaching guardrail appeared, the tenuous white line, the only thing between you and the big drop into naught—
When daybreak hit we where cutting around the curb of a mountain, the peaks across from us suddenly up close and drawing a halo of frayed clouds.
Sometime after seven we reached Golden, driving along the mountain road with the green valley bowl spreading out for miles to our right. I pulled into a service station, completely exhausted and on the verge of collapse. My last act would be to fill up the tank and give over driving duties to Nick.
A felt around in the glovebox, over the mess of stuff that was crammed in it, CD cases, granola bar wrappers, folded papers, notebooks, pocket paperbacks, a Hustler Nick had picked up somewhere, and came out with a cheap jewel case. I opened, found a live Phish CD contained therein, and slid it into the CD player. I laid my head back against the seat and closed my eyes. It didn’t take long, for as the crowd noise swelled up and the band jumped on the first notes of the song, I sunk into sleep.
The next thing I heard were the last notes of their final encore. My eyes came into focus on the twisty mountain roads, and Nick was saying to me, “Hey. Hey. Hey.”
“Can you grab the map out of the glovebox?” He was leaning over to my side, stretching an arm out towards the glovebox.
“That’s what you woke me up for?”
“I want to make sure where we are. In case we’re lost.”
“Makes two of us. But the map’s not going to help that.”
“Listen. So long as you haven’t taken any ill-advised detours”—I looked around at the mountain terrain which hadn’t changed drastically since I had fallen asleep—“this road we’re on will take us straight into Banff.”
A passing road sign confirmed this, and also alerted me to the fact that sometime while I was asleep we had crossed the border into Alberta.
“We’re making good time. This rate we’ll make Banff next half-hour.”
“I saw how you were flying down those roads back there,” said Nick. “Figured I needed to keep up.”
I stretched my neck out, shoulder to shoulder, hung my head back, and closed my eyes, concentrating. Then I noticed it. The rattling around the glovebox had gotten worse. No longer was it a slight trembling, now it was considerably louder, having spread over the entire dashboard. I put my hands on the dash and watched them shake wildly from the vibrations.
“How long’s it been doing that?”
“I don’t know,” said Nick. “Most of the way I guess. Gets worse faster I go.” And to prove this he pushed his speed up and the rattling got louder, more insistent. He eased off the gas.
“Something’s wrong,” I said.
Nick was unfazed. He had other things on his mind. We drove along and passed a sign, much more decorated compared to the others, for the Radium Hot Springs. Seeing it Nick suggested we take the turn off and go for an early morning soak. “It’d do you some good. Relax those weary bones. Afterwards return to the road refreshed. Come on. What’dya say.”
A tempting offer, but I didn’t feel good about such indulges and besides that we had come this far in so short a time, now past the halfway point; best thing to do was push on.
“All right. Suit yourself.”
Not long after that we crossed a short bridge and suddenly there we were driving through downtown Banff amid the teeming morning traffic. The streets were lined with a tight concentration of old-style shops that stretched for blocks in either direction, and across the street, to our right, there was a little park, with a school house next to it, and next to that a little chapel with a cement walk-up. It was like no place we had passed through thus far. It seemed undisturbed, out of the way, belonging to its own place and time. The sun shone unassumingly and the blue sky seemed to enwrap everything like cosmic cellophane, preserving the scene so it could play on perfectly on an infinite loop. The traffic was packed bumper to bumper, everyone excited to start on the weekend action, and at the next intersection we turned off and down a sidestreet to get away from the bustling hub of the town.
Nick parked at the first spot he found, immediately killed the engine, took out the keys, unbuckled himself and got out—all in a fast deliberate motion. I followed him out of the car. There was nothing else to do. Standing on the sidewalk I was met by crowds of placid-faced tourists, couples paired off in matching t-shirt and shorts outfits. I had the sensation of standing still and moving all at once. The uneasy vibrations of the car were still rattling around in my head, over my whole body. Here we were.
Banff is a town that likes to advertise itself as the tourist Mecca of the country, at least in the west, when in truth it has as much culture as Disneyland.
The people are a weird mix of local drug freaks, out of work musicians, trust fund punk rockers, and rich retirees. To go along with that are the constant influx of wide-eyed tourists whose interest in local handcraft keeps many of the junk shops in business. It’s maybe what you get if you take every Canadian cliché and stereotype that’s proliferated and concentrated them into one space.
I had been there all of three minutes and was already ready to leave.
Nick came around and handed me the keys, and I said lets go.
As soon as I was behind the wheel and started pulling away from the curb I knew something was seriously wrong. It was clear it wouldn’t last another ten minutes on the highway let alone the ten plus hours we still had to drive, not at the speeds we were going. I pulled over at the next available spot, put it in park and slammed my fist against the wheel and shouted, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Then I turned to Nick, composed, and said, “We’re fucked.”
I leaned forward, sunk my teeth into the hot plastic of the steering wheel and clenched my jaw.
Neither of us had any idea what it could be. My first thought was the transmission, that it was shot, in which case we had definitely reached the end of the road. We decided to walk over to a gas station to see if we could get it serviced, or at least looked at, diagnosed, though being that it was the weekend, we knew chances were slim. Fuck it. What choice did we have? So much of life involves finding the precarious balance between long-shots and dumb luck. Plan and organize till the sun expires, at some point you just have to cast all that aside and throw yourself in blind and screaming. Nothing else compares.
At the place around the corner I talked to the guy behind the counter. He was a dark sullen fellow. I explained the situation as best I could, asked if there was anyone in town he knew who could help us. He stared at me without expression, then said simply, with grave finality, “No, sorry. Not in Banff.” Stepping back outside, I thought, What a slogan. That should be on the welcome sign, “Not in Banff.” Looking to get away from the high-pressure work-a-day world and unwind and have some fun? “Not in Banff.”
NOT IN BANFF.
There was one other place for us to try, across the street. The guy working was more helpful, even if our prospects were just as low. A older gravelly voiced biker-type—fading muck green tattoos dissolving on hairy forearms, long thinning grey hair pulled back in a ponytail, the seen-it-all-and-the-hell-with-it curl of the lip, that type—he said there was one mechanic in town but he unavailable for the weekend and, what with it being the long weekend and all, might not be reachable until Tuesday, or even Wednesday.
My immediate future flashed in front of me. Four or five days holed up in some overpriced room sulking about, watching bad cable television, eating over-priced food, throwing back large quantities of the cheapest local brew, just to keep sane. That is, if we could even find a room. More likely we would end up on the streets like back in Kamloops, stumbling and cursing through parks and woods while avoiding elk and deer paddies like they were landmines. But, he said, there was one other option. You could try Canmore. About twenty minutes due east. He wasn’t certain, but there was at least a chance of finding someone there to look at it. That was all we needed. A chance. There it was. I thanked him and stepped back out into the terrible sunlight.
It was still only morning but the temperature was rising fast, many out enjoying it, the streets packed. From down the block a skateboarder came zipping by. Then from the other direction a woman passed walking a fluffy little black dog. It yipped at me, jumping up on its hind legs, excited, and she gave a couple firm tugs on the leash for it to settle. Dumb thing. All I wanted was to get out of there. I needed to think of something fast. The fatigue from the lack of the sleep had my thoughts sufficiently scrambled. I thought and thought. Nothing was coming out straight nor clear, all a muddle, a blank. Next to the building was a payphone. For a minute I thought of calling a friend in Medicine Hat who I had told of the trip during one of many gchats. She had said if I happen to find myself passing through town we should meet up for a drink. Which we would be. But it was still a good five hours away, and I didn’t want to ask her to make the drive all the way to pick us and our stuff up and drive all the way back the same day. I wasn’t that desperate. Yet.
Then I lifted the receiver dumped in some change I got from Nick and dialled a number. It was my mom’s. It rang twice and I hung up. What was the point? She was hundreds and hundreds of miles away. There was nothing she could do, other than to reassure me. “Don’t worry. It’s going to be OK,” those words that every distant son secretly longs to hear, but I knew I would only end up worrying her.
We started off down the street, in no particular direction, moving with the crowd. It was cool under the shade of the long line-up of buildings. Nick was hungry. We ducked into a sub shop to eat and mull things over. We ordered and sat down at tables at the back where the rays of the sun pouring through the big glass entrance couldn’t reach us. I unwrapped my food, looked down at the sauce-drenched sub. I had no appetite. Nick was wolfing his down.
“You ever been here before? The town I mean?”
“Yeah. Bunch a times. Years ago.”
“What’s your impression now? What do you think of it?”
Growing up, the weeklong trips in the spring became a constant. There were the concerts bands my dad threw me into when I was young and shy and nervous and out of place with things and others, then later the school bands and friends and all the strange, interesting girls. I’d never spent any time with any of them outside of school. During the trips they would act a lot different than when they were in class. More open, talkative, flirtatious. It was exhilarating.
Eight hour bus rides up there, with headphone music and movies playing on the little overhead screens, while out the window the flat lifeless prairie landscape with its vast empty skies would suddenly transform, come to life in the form of great snowy peaks, fuzzy, at first, then becoming more defined and immense as we roared along.
Once arrived, we would be set up in either one of the low-cost hostels with shared bathrooms or, later on, on the school’s bill, one of the big fancy hotels, its wood-construction giving it that pseudo-old-timey backwoods, log cabin vibe. There’d be big buffet breakfasts every morning before being sent off to music clinics all morning at the downtown music academy. Afternoon came, and we’d be given a few hours to go off and roam around, explore. At first I found the place fascinating, the newness, how different it was from home—all the little shops with the sounds of folksy music wafting out of their open doors, the bistros with the sweet scents and smells. But after a few years of this it started to loose its charm. I started to notice some of favourite places, like the magic and occult store run by a dark-haired gypsy woman, had been closed down or just disappeared altogether.
When I was older me and a couple friends would try our luck at procuring a bottle (provincial drinking age being 18, even if we weren’t), then sneak off into the woods to take hits off it and get high on the stuff we brought. At night, feeling good and fresh with a giddy sort of recklessness—nobody knowing what we had been up to—we’d meet up back at the hotel, with everyone now dressed in their formal attire, to either go off to give a performance to a hall full of appreciative onlookers or take in one.
But that was years ago. The choir girls had since grown up, some with degrees, entering into careers, some engaged, others already married, and others still with kids of their own. Like Marissa.
What were we doing here? Why did I suddenly abandon everything, well, what there was, to take off like I did? It all happened so fast, the plans falling into place, decisions made on the fly, until now I hadn’t stopped to so much as give it a second thought—something I rarely did. And now, right now, brought before some unseen jury, I was being told to answer for it. It was like the world was calling out for an explanation for my acts, my very existence. The lure of the open road and the freedom and possibility it contains, there at the outset of the trip, had spurned us on this far, but now it was breaking up, falling apart in front of me, coming to pieces, just like that fucking car that had pushed us through the mountains and decided on this moment to crap out on us, leaving us scrambling. The fucker. The bitch.
But fuck it. We were headed back out on the road. I would push her for all she was worth, until her damned dying breath. We made it this far. We had to test our luck. We had to keep going. It was all we could do. Nick agreed, follow the road. Follow the road.
Our only hope was to make it to Canmore. We eased away from the curb and started off at a lurching pace. The wheel shook uneasily in my grip, and the whole car had the unsteady, explosively erratic feel of a wild bull. Easy, big fella. I tried to find a less heavily-trafficked route to get us out of town but this plan came to naught, as first we hit a dead end next to a visitor center crowded with gaping tourists, and then a short time later, got caught in a looping road circled into a cul-de-sac that delivered us right up close to a great old Victorian building, a brightened up Gothic mansion still no less strangely forbidding in its size and grandeur—the Banff Springs Hotel.
“Go for a soak?” said Nick.
“No time,” I said, and swung us around, staggering back towards the downtown.
On the highway out of town I locked in at around 60 and kept to the shoulder as close as possible to keep those behind me off my ass, allow them to pass more easily, and keep to a minimum their annoyed, persistent honking. All those cars, trucks, van, motor homes, SUVs whizzing by—it was a strange position to be in now, but I did didn’t dare chance it by speeding up any.
The car clattered and banged and heaved worse than ever. The earlier crash visions of fire and destruction were coming back to me. Less dire but no less unsettling, I was convinced that it was only a matter of time that, in addition to tires, doors and panels and everything else would come flying off leaving us only an axle, wheels, seats, and engine, the skeletal remains, as we continued down the road like a bad Easy Rider recreation. My anxious nerves urged me to push it to Canmore fast as I could, get off this damned road, and in one piece, while the horrible reaction I was getting to every slight fluctuation in speed, every minor alteration in positioning, said no, not a chance.
Not a chance. Yet it wasn’t all bad. Our creeping speed gave me the chance to finally take in the view around me. It was incredible, overwhelming. The snow-capped mountains sailed up and pierced the sky, with the melt pouring down through rocky clefts. And then as the forest receded, to our left, a crystal blue lake appeared, twinkling invitingly, surrounded by lines of firs, and directly back of it a mountain that stood tall and momentous against the empty sky.
Observing the glorious sight out my window, over my shoulder, my concern seemed to fade to nil. I was possessed of a strange urge. I wanted to abandon the car right then and there, in the middle of the road, strip down bare-ass naked in front of all the backed up traffic, under the exposed morning sun, make a break for it and dive straight to the bottom of that glistening lake, and only coming up when I had suffocated ever bad, scratching thought out of me, until there was nothing left—blank and pure as the day’s sky. But it was a fleeting feeling, and mercifully the turnoff to Canmore soon appeared. We drove along a serve road and pulled in at the first serve station.
The place was packed with vehicles filling up at a dozen or so pumps; others idling behind or off to the side, waiting there turn. People milled around, back-and-forth from their vehicles and the adjoining store. I circled around the periphery, parked off to one side, near a natural gas tank, and when I got out that’s when I saw it. The front driver side tire. The thing looked like it had had a bite taken out of it, so sunken in was it, a section about a foot long, horribly drawn in like a botched lipo-job. A whole series of questions flashed in my mind at that moment. How long had it been like this? How had we missed it for so long? And moreover, how did it come to this, get so bad?? I had no answers. The only conclusion I could make was that all the pressure and strain put on it by all that rattling and throbbing—which by the time we were out of Banff had spread from a point around the dash to almost the entire car—had, over time and hundreds of miles, caused it to warp into the shape it was in now. I gnashed my teeth and cursed my neglect. Now not only was our engine fucked but because of our lack of attention so too was one of our tires. That was it. The trip was through. Done with. A failure. A premature end to what had all along been nothing more than a flaccid fantasy of life on the road. Bollocks.
What were we left with? It was time to cut our losses. I knew there was no taking it back out on the road in the state it was in, not even the short jaunt back to Banff—no, definitely not Banff. We had left that daydream town behind for good. I popped the hood and Nick went inside. When he came out he was with a young shaggy-haired guy, one of the attendants. His name was Fraser. He had soft dough features and the mop of unruly hair fell over his face and almost concealed his glazed, red eyes. And instead of gas jockey overalls he had on striped shorts a vintage Who t-shirt. He was fresh off his break, blazing up. But he knew a hell of a lot more about cars than either Nick or I. He craned his head under the hood and poked around. Fiddled with the sparkplugs. Unplugged and re-plugged wires. At least I thought knew what he was doing. No—he knew. We showed him the tire. I started it up and the engine coughed sickly.
No point inventing, after that I don’t remember much. After that things were a bit of a blur. There was mention of a guy who owned a tire place. Fraser thought if he explained things he might open it for us. A chance. If he was around. Fraser went back inside.
Realizing we would still need to do something about the tire to get it over there, Nick and I went to work getting on the spare. We had it jacked up but then discovered there was no tool for loosing the tire. Nick checked to see if they had one inside. They didn’t. Across from us, down a slightly sloping path and another fifty yards on, was another service station, and Nick ran over to see if they had anything. Meanwhile I checked back in with Fraser to see about the getting a replacement. He said the place was called Ben’s Tires and he had just spoken with Ben and, low and behold, Ben was on his way over for his morning pick-me-up. Well, late morning, here it was getting on to noon.
Back out in the blazing sun I saw Nick come loping excitedly back up the dirt path, holding over his head what looked like a black sceptre. But then when he went to fit it on the nut it turned out to be the wrong size. We stood around thinking of what to do next. All those vehicles passing in and out of the lot, one of them should have what we were looking for. But I couldn’t bring myself to go up to any of them and ask. I was so drained by this point I could barely form a sentence and had been relying exclusively on Nick to handle most of the communication.
I could see the scene play out. People out enjoying the start of their holiday weekend, only to be suddenly confronted with sunken-eyed skin-head, sweating profusely, jabbering on about needing this to get to there and maybe you could help a person out being so far from home but not to trouble you any and enjoy your weekend sir I mean Madame I mean...
No, there would be none of that. I was whipped, beaten, used-up, sent adrift, and ready for surrender. I felt a hundred years older and not a day wiser. I decided to save the hassle, take it in the wallet and call for a tow. They said they would be there within the hour, and I went and had a sit on the curb, under the broil of the afternoon’s desert-like heat, while Nick and Fraser bullshitted about, well, whatever it was, I had no more language and could only listen on.
“Thanks for helping us out.”
“Hey, no worries, man. You guys caught me while I was getting my toke on. If you’re interested, I still got a bit left.”
“Thanks, but I’m all good.”
“That’s cool, man. Hey, I got some other shit if that’s your thing. You guys dig the fungi? Me and a couple buddies were up at the quarry last night trippin’ on this new shit we just got. Fucking primo.”
“Where’s the quarry?”
“Oh, it’s this place we always go. Around those mountains back behind us, a couple miles in. Lots of woods. Isolated. Quiet. No cops. Great spot. Hey, if you guys are going to be sticking around I could take you over there, eat some shit. Be a wild time.”
“I could get behind that.”
Nick looked over at me, expecting some sort of response. But I wasn’t with him. Suddenly something clicked, started to all gel in my mind. In the swirl of action it hadn’t been made clear to me. It just hadn’t sunk in, as if put aside until such time when the boost was most needed. Who’s to say? But now was that time. Sitting there in a kind of heat-maddened stupor, I finally pieced it together. I stood up and addressed Fraser.
“So the deal with the tire, it getting all warped and like that, it is what caused the engine problems? Not the other way around?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Pretty much. When the tire started to warp the engine had to overcompensate for the imbalance it caused. It was being overworked.”
“And so there shouldn’t be anything wrong with the engine, or the transmission, or the sparkplugs, or anything else mechanically related?”
“Not that I can tell. Just get the bum tire replaced, it should drive fine.”
And like that as quickly as it descended, cast a pall, the shadow of uncertainty withdrew. We were back on track. Sanity restored. I felt a great lightness, like a kite taken by the breeze, I wanted to go around and hug every person in the lot and tell them all the great news, I wanted take everyone and everything into my embrace. But instead I only stood there grinning with a mad wonder, my hands bobbing freely at my sides. And just then, through the swirl of excitement, like a prophet of flame descending on a dark land, a shabby looking figure came upon us.
It was Ben.
Ben from Ben’s Tire.
In my delirious, sleep-deprived state, just now given its manic boost, he seemed to take on a certain, almost tangible biblical aspect, hard to put into words but there all the same. Lean and ragged, he had the permanently greasy soiled look of the mechanic carrying the shop with him at all times. He ambled over, bedraggled and unshaven, dressed in sweats and slippers, coffee in hand and an unlit smoke dangling from his lips, with that day-after stoner’s glow. He surveyed the car, lazily massaging some stumble, and in a low laconic drawl made his pronouncement.
“Yeah, I can help you out.”
That was it. The magic words spoken, it was all coming together. He went off to his shop to dig around, while we waited for the tow truck.
Once it arrived, we thanked Fraser profusely for all his help, told him if his offer still stood we might take him up on it on our way back through. For now our course was set.
Seated in the air-conditioned cab, we were taken through the outlying area of Canmore, then into a plush neighbourhood with lines of new looking two-storey, two-car garaged milky white homes, and by the signs of all the constructions, the cement foundations laid down, many more on the way.
“Yeah, we’re doing all right here,” said the man behind the wheel. “There’s been a big influx of people last little while. There’d probably be a lot more too if they didn’t put in the growth cap.”
I looked around at everything, so perfect, peaceful, calm.
“Yeah, it is, but it gives you a good sense of the people. People who move here are serious about it. About community. About good surroundings. The people.”
“Yeah. Sure. Of course.” I didn’t know what I was agreeing with.
He turned into a crescent block that spiralled out into a long row of houses that extended out a couple blocks until coming to the dead end, with nothing but fields beyond and mountains beyond that, turned around and parked across from a residential house with an oversized garage. He lowered the car down off the lift I eased it into the garage.
Ben sized it up. Then rendered his verdict. “Know what,” said Ben. “We don’t have a tire the right size.”
“But…what we do have are two one size down. So what we could do is stick them two on the back, rotate the one’s there to the front. That way your front end’s not sinking too low. And you’d be good to go.”
“Whatever,” I said. “Sounds good to me. Long as it has four wheels under it I’m set.”
There was another guy there with black bushy sideburns wearing stained overalls and he and Ben went to work while I joined Nick to sweat it up on a picnic bench in the front yard. The afternoon sun was burning hot as ever but it no longer felt oppressive but a relief, and I lay back on the tabletop and bath in the heat.
When they were through Ben brought old, bum tire, which was thoroughly thrashed. Flaunting the flabby piece of rubber, held up in one arm, it looked even more sad, shriveled and pathetic than the one from the day before. Like the rejected runt of the litter given its final viewing. He showed me where the tread came undone causing it to warp all to hell. I told him about the recent patch job and if he thought there any connection.
“Nah, man, I don’t think so,” he said. “Total fluke, this one. It’s rare, really rare, but it happens.”
The new tire from the day before almost got left behind, but amazingly there was enough room in the hatch for it to rest on top of the luggage, with an old piece of carpet laid overtop, and still get the top down and locked in. I was ready to use either credit card or cheque but he preferred that I pay him in cash—easier for him to write it up. This meant that we would have to drive back into town to an ATM to get the money. I offered to leave a suitcase or something behind as insurance, but he just shrugged his shoulders and turned his head to one side with a casual slouch and said, “Don’t worry about it. I trust you guys.”
He gave us instructions to the nearest convenience store and we drove into town. The transformation was uncanny. The car drove like a dream, the rumble and clatter from earlier nothing but a distant memory, with only the dim psychic reverberations left to account for its once-upon-a-time reality. Nothing more. Downtown Canmore amounted to a mile long strip of road set adjacent to the highway with only grassy fields laying between. The whole atmosphere gave off something of an updated version of an old western settler’s town and we were riding into town not to shifty glances and sizing up stares but breezy, tanned faces. The vibe was infectious. In the parking lot, after I got the money out, Nick and I set things straight from the previous night. I felt reenergized, ready to make the drive the rest of the way to Medicine Hat. But there was one more thing before we left town.
Back at Ben’s, payment made, we chatted lazily for a few minutes in the heat and just before we took off, Nick asked about a place to cool off.
“Yeah, sure. Place called the quarry.”
It was the same place Fraser had mentioned earlier, and it was where we were headed now. The directions he gave us got us part of the way, and the rest were supplied by a woman we passed out walking her dog down a residential street of rubble. A winding gravel road brought us into a parking lot packed with cars and half-dressed people coming and going. We snuck into the first small opening we spotted. It was snug but we were parked, and we got out and looked around. From the parking lot a dirt trail led past an open field and into a grove where it disappeared. To our right, down another path and behind a dense wall of shrubs, was where most of the people were making their way to and from. I figured to do the same. We stripped down in the car and started off in that direction.
Follow the flesh. Follow the flesh. Behind the thicket of lanky trees, the valley opened up and, like a curtain pulled back to announce a new day, revealed the sparkling, placid surface of the water—a dug out pool about the size of a football field all around. We were met with the sounds of hyper, screaming kids, the sight of half-naked people of all ages and all shapes and types. On the far side, next to the water, there was a small pocket of beach littered with bodies—young kids mostly, their parents on nearby blankets, lying out. Along the path to our right, on a low-sloping hill, groups of giggly girls were congregated on the lawn, sunning, showing off, sipping drinks and gossiping. His svelte white chest prominently on display, Nick gave them a gawky smile and a nod of interest as we passed. I didn’t even bother with that much. He slapped my equally white and svelte chest and said, “Race you across.”
We both took to the water like men set afire, both of us burningly aware of the girls behind us, watching from the hill, and waded in through the muck and reeds. The refreshing sting of the cold felt good the way, say, that first a first shot of whiskey does, and I quickly embraced it and submerged my whole body. In another second I surfaced and launched off toward the far shore. Through the splashing water, my head turned to the right between strokes, grabbing a shot of air, I could make out Nick’s dark head and arms, moving out farther and farther ahead of me, lashing through the water with concentrated effort.
I was no match. I pulled up, treading water and breathing heavily. I looked back to see how far I’d gone. I turned back and Nick was now a mile ahead, not having noticed my surrender. I didn’t care. I let myself fall backwards so my ears were underwater and all noise was muted by a bubbling mantric hum, my eyes fixed upward at the low glowing sun radiating a blinding white-yellow. Then I held my breath, pulled my legs in close to my body, and heaved myself face forward into the water, letting myself sink like a until, with a bit of willing it on my part, I touched murky bottom. I stayed under until the survival mechanism kicked in and demanded I resurface. By this time, Nick had realized my retreat and was swimming back towards me.
“And I’m the smoker,” he said between breaths.
“Yeah. And I’m no Tewksbury.”
We swam short laps back and forth until we were both good and exhausted and got out and sat on a patch of grass at the water’s edge, our feet dangling over into the cool wetness. A topless guy with shades and a cap that had a flaming C on it came sauntering down the path behind us. He was carrying a two-four. His very attractive girlfriend was with him, dark hair, pale, wearing a string bikini. I let my eyes linger on her maybe a beat longer than was kosher, just short of creepy truthfully, and when he passed by he addressed us with a formal, “Boys.” Nick nodded up at him, offered a greeting. Now past us, he turned and shouted back, “Git ‘er dun!” and continued on.
I looked down the path to the other end of the pool, where he was headed, where there was a bunch of people around our age hanging out, drinking. They had a mini barbecue going and were roasting up wieners and burgers, the delectable smells wafting over to us.
“Should we join them?” said Nick.
“Like to,” I said.
“So best be moving on,” I said. “No time for celebrations yet.”
“Whatever you say boss.”
We put our shoes back on and traipsed down the path in the oppose direction of the revellers. Back at the parking lot, to give us time to dry off, we decided to go investigate the second path that led into the woods. The shafts of sunlight that beamed in gave the deep green meadow we strolled through an almost unnatural lustre. Thick, massive evergreens, tall, swishy wild grass, everything was huge and jungle-like, dwarfing us in its aspect. And all untouched, pristine. A gurgling brook ran off to our right, flowing out of sight behind a tall growth of hedge. There was a trace of sweet, pungent wild flowers in the air. Somewhere above an unseen chorus of birds were singing an endless, unresolved melody.
“So what’s your rush to get to Medicine Hat?”
“Nothing. I just want get some rest.”
“It’s that girl isn’t it? What’s her name?”
“Alyssa, right. And, tell me, does Alisha have any cute friends?”
“I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out when we get there.”
“She know we’re coming? Or is this a drop in on her deal?”
“I told her we’d be passing through sometime Saturday.”
Nick bent down, picked up a flat rock off the path. He massaged its smooth surface in his hand and then pulled back and flung it with a grunt in the direction of the stream, some distance off from us, downhill. It sailed high in the air and hit the water with a soft, tight plop.
“Well what are we waiting for?” he said.
Back behind the wheel, stripped down to only the small pair of black shorts I was swimming in, I felt good, I felt invigorated. I felt like someone had hit the reset button and I was ready to begin again. No longer was I besieged by the lingering sense that I was running from something. We set out on the road, out of Canmore and now driving down the Trans-Canada, straight and true, surrounded by the wide-open, limitless plains, toward something, something I swear was within reach.
We passed through an area taken over by construction, machines of ever size and model, extended crane arms breaking the skyline, sand piles, lumber piles, piles of unidentified metal tubing. All signs of nature removed, the whole landscape had been flattened out into a fine smooth surface, like that of the moon and other uninhabitable planets.
“Way things are going, in a couple years time we won’t be able to make this trip. Not feasible,” said Nick, and I didn’t say anything because I knew he was probably right.
We made Calgary in less than two hours and stuttered along with the rush hour traffic through every light and crossing. Beyond the city, we stopped to gas up, change, snack. We sat in the sweltering car and observed the low-lying sun housed in an expanse of sky, that now extended down to meet the flatness of the amber plains. We continued on.