Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The mountain pass had given way to a large, open expanse of prairies. Above us, the sun had dipped and was almost touching the surrounding bluffs and lowlands, creating a sprawling orange and red splatter spread across a pale sky that brightened our past and threw shadows on our future. And somewhere in the middle we floated along in that strange undefined space that rolls on endlessly like the Fraser River surging along somewhere in the distance, across from us. By the time we reached Hope the last of the sun was disappearing completely out of sight, leaving us to light our own way.

Hope is a logging town where Highways 1, 3 and 5 all intersect. We had the option of taking the 3 south, straddling the border through the majestic Okanagan valley and on to Nelson and Cranbrook—the point where the Kootenay River runs southbound from the Rocky Mountains into the States. But the twisting mountain terrain makes it slow traveling, so instead we were headed north up the 5 to Kamloops. From there we would hook up with the Trans-Canada and it would carry us east all the way to Calgary and beyond.

I pulled in at a crossroads service station where the highway roads all converged passing through town, a kind of toll booth at that mythical crossroads of Robert Johnson and his ilk, where the price was nothing less than your own damned soul. But I had stopped believing in silly metaphysical conceptions of one sort or another and from here on out was only was concerning myself with that which I could see in front of me, with my own two eyes. Touch, feel, taste, and see. That was my only Truth. The rest was some cosmic punchline to a joke I never got to begin with.

And what lay in front of me now was the dividing line of our journey. Beyond this point there was no turning back. We were going all the way.

I gassed up and Nick went inside to buy some sustenance. When he came out along with the snacks, he also had with him a tire iron he snagged from the auto shop next door. “Eureka!” I said, or didn’t. Regardless, he went to work, loosing and tightening the steel nuts, muscles straining, face grimacing, and just like that we had it checked off. I breathed a sigh of relief and we started off, once again on even footing.

My mind was completely at ease, all focus and mental energy directed at that trusted yellow centerline unravelling forever out ahead of us. But now, next to me, it was Nick who wasn’t feeling good about things. Out the windshield, the rolling fields had been replaced by desolate woods and the highway had narrowed to a tight single lane. “I don’t know about this,” he said.” “Something doesn’t feel right.”

“Nonsense,” I said. “We got nothing more to worry about now. We’re making terrific time. This rate we’ll make Kamloops just past sundown.”

“I think we took the wrong road out of town.”

“Well then, check the map.”

The lonely Spanish notes of “Desolation Row” ringing out of the stereo, we zipped along up the winding path. “Everybody is making love or else expecting rain,” mused Zimms in his croaked croon. Nick was fidgeting around in his seat like he was trying to fight off a mean-ass bee that had snuck in, buzzing about. “I can’t find the map?”

“No map? What do you mean? I was looking at it not long ago. Gotta be there somewhere.”

“Well it’s not here.”

We had been meandering along, tense and fretting, a good twenty minutes when we passed a lonely sign indicating that we were in fact on the 1. Uncertainty mounting—or more like confirmed—I stopped at the first convenience store I spotted and both of us gave the car a search for the map. Bought the night before departing, it had been marked up with all manner of notes and specific routes to follow. It was a good map. But Nick was right, it wasn’t there. Gone. Lost. Discarded. Shit. I was sad to see it go. What could have happened to it?

“It probably fell out when we stopped at Hope,” said Nick. “Let’s turn around, drive back and figure things out from there.” I agreed, reluctantly, and back we went.

But it wasn’t there either. Nick continued to scour the area after I gave up and flopped down on the curb with a tuna sandwich. “Not going to find it,” I said between bites, “thing’s gone for good.”

“I still say we were headed the wrong way,” Nick said. “Tell you what, I’ll go inside, get us another one.”

And he did. Turned out we had been headed due north on the 1 after all and even though the 3 would eventually merge onto it, it would have us on an eastern bent that would save us a good chunk of time.

We had wasted enough, no point wasting anymore. With the day’s light failing us, it was dusk by the time we got onto the Coquihalla. We paid the little toll fee and roared on through, Nick chain-smoking into the open mountain air, while on the stereo the ABB’s Mountain Jam induced a blues-soaked trance that echoed across the meditative gloom of the surrounding foothills. Up, up, up we climbed, cutting through the darkness, the downhill descent, then up again, and on and on, steering through every turn and curve in time with the road’s hypnotic rhythms. And then, just as we started to peek over the last steep hill, the dark sky was suddenly lit up by a thousand shining jewels in the night, a shimmering golden sea, and the city of Kamloops rose to greet us.

Dropping our speed as we came into town, the neon city lights washed over us like an explosion of innumerable falling stars. It was a welcoming sight. I was completely beat, ready to get off the road and find a room to lay my head for a few dream-filled hours before the morning’s song came around and we did it all again.

Kamloops is the kind of city you imagine the Egyptians designing if they had survived into the Industrial Age. The city seemed to be constructed in layers, with the commercial district, coming in off the highway, on the first, bottommost level, the restaurants and hotels and gas stations and parks up another level from that, and, finally above that, on a kind of crest, residential homes and school districts overlooked it all. It was a strange city, very easy to get lost in even more than most, and I can’t think of another one quite like it, with the closest exception being where I live now—which, after a few years, doesn’t feel as strange as it once did.

Once we hit the city, first thing was to gas up. Nick and I had earlier agreed to split all costs on the road, to minimize confusion and avoid needless squabbling over dollars and cents. Or something. I had gotten the last gas bill so he was to get this one. But then there was a problem at the pumps. Nick wasn’t able to get his card to work. He tried it a couple times and then, having no luck with it, went up to the building to pay there. The guy working was set up behind a reinforced glass barricade. He was giving Nick a hard time, not accepting payment directly and wouldn’t come out from the safety of his register to help. Nick couldn’t get anywhere with him. The only advice he had was to try again. I was told all this by Nick when he came stomping back over, having had it with the absurdity of the situation.

“Guy must think we’re trying to pull one over on him so we can rob him or something.”

“Jesus,” I said. “So this is what things have come to.”

Sure enough when he tried his card again it no more worked than the other times, and suddenly a warbling voice came on over a loudspeaker asking us if we were still having problems.

“How’s he expect us to respond?” said Nick. “There’s no intercom to talk into.”

Nick spit out a spiteful laugh, turned back to the building, and threw up his arms in a big animated gesture.

We stood there dumbly in the warm summer night stillness of the big empty lot, a million flies buzzing overhead under the floodlight glow, and were about to drive off and try somewhere else when I said, Fuckit, I’ll pay the thing with my own card. See if I can get the thing to work. I was tired, done with driving anymore that night. I was ready to surrender the whole damn cause.

My card worked fine. Nick said he would pay for the room to square it, and we gassed up and started for the nearest, cheapest motel.

The hotels and motels in Kamloops are all squashed together in the same little district located on a kind of ledge that, with everything else, was up on its own level, and could only be reached by taking a series of sharp little ramp-ups. It was obvious right away that the most expense ones were the bigger places found the higher up you went, so we stayed to the lower part and pulled in at the first place without a brightly lit NO VANCY sign.

Once inside, however, standing in the spacious, air-conditioned marble lobby, the guy at the desk informed us there was a wedding reception going on and that they were all booked up. He was just a young guy, not much older then us, fresh-faced, dark hair greased and perfectly parted. He sympathized with our situation and tried to help. He called a couple of the other places in the area to see if anything was available. He hung up the phone after trying the last place and looked up at us with a face full of generous professional concern.

“Sorry, guys. Said they’re all booked up as well. There are a few other places you could try, if you don’t mind paying more, or else drive up the road to Pritchard or Chase and see if you can get in somewhere there. To be honest, with it being the long weekend, you’re probably not going to have much luck getting in anywhere. My suggestion: your best bet would be to find a quiet spot in an empty parking lot somewhere and camp out there for the night.”

It was an obvious detail we failed to consider. In all the excitement and haste to get going, Nick’s arranging to get off work when he had, we had managed to let slip the most practical of considerations. Where were we going to sleep at night? Might not have seemed like a necessity then but now it was. We thanked him for his help and asked where there was a washroom.

Down a flight of stairs the air became humid and there was a large marble fountain that towered over two stories high, with thickly frayed green vines drooping all over and about it. I thought to toss in a coin but had nothing on me, just pocket lint and a cracked compass. The area was dimly lit and across the hall, behind a metal door, you could hear the muffled sounds of the reception going on.

In the bathroom I splashed cold water over my face and wetly patted the back of my head and neck, then looked up at myself in the mirror. Well, what next? Nick was off behind me, around by the shower stalls, jumping around energetically and joking about this and that, blissfully unconcerned with any of it. He wanted to have some fun. Suggested we crash the party next door, see if we couldn’t score some free drinks—friends of the groom after all, drove in from out of town, got in late, but, you know how it goes, better than not at all, we’ll take those off your hands, thanks, Shakey—and then flirt with some bridesmaids. Or if not that—go find an open liquor store—how late is it?—or bar or somewhere, get a bottle, go explore the town. This is freedom, man! The night is ours!

But I wasn’t having it. Fun was not my objective at present.

“Goddamnit man! This is important!”

I was adamant. I desperately needed sleep. Sanctuary. That was all I had in mind. He came stalking up behind me, his dark, smirking reflection growing larger in the mirror, and, before I could react or turn or anything—whack!—on the back of my stubbly plate. Momentarily dazed from the blow, I quickly shook it off, and, still leaning over the sink, filled my cupped hands with water from the running tap and let it fly it in his direction. Splat! It got him good, but Nick laughed and shrugged it off and said, So what are we going to do next then? I rubbed the back of my head, which was still smarting, and sighed.

“Fine,” said Nick. “How ‘bout, how about what we do, we try a couple more places, and if we can’t get in anywhere I’ll take over driving. That way we can pick up a few more hours while you get some of your precious rest.”

“Fuck you.”

That seemed to settle it. We went back to the car and drove over to the biggest, fanciest of all the hotels. They were all filled up and it was just as well. Driving down the block over to the last place—perhaps a Best Western but then again all the signs, as closely positioned to each other as they were, and as drowsy as I was feeling, seemed to mash together, making it hard to tell—I first noticed the car was handling funny. I couldn’t quite pinpoint it exactly, but I was having to work harder to keep the car on a straight path. There was a kind of barely perceptible, strange sort of trembling coming from the wheel as I gripped it, and when I took my hands off it for a second the car abruptly veered off too the right.

“That’s weird,” said Nick.

“Yeah,” I said.

I parked and went inside. I popped my head, discovering a crowd in the lobby engaged in what appeared a cordial, but verging on the uncivil, squabble over the last room available. I took in the scene and quickly ducked back out. No room at the inn. Back at the car, Nick was standing around having another smoke. “No go,” I said. “Guess that means we go.” And tossing him the keys, I added, “Godspeed, young grasshopper.”

But without so much as a word or a look, Nick handed back the keys and got in passenger side. I stood there, my mouth hanging open, looking down at the keys in my open palm. Confused, I did the only thing I could do which was get in driver side, shut the door and turn to my driving cohort, and with exceeding composure and a total sense of objective reasoning, say, “Dude—what the fuck?”

We argued it out a few minutes there in the car in the parking lot until we both realized there was nothing to be won and whatever had been lost was lost a long time ago. Nick got out of the car and walked over to a patch of grass to lie down and smoke. I starred at the keys in my hand like they were the keys to a golden palace I had never tried to enter before and probably never ever would, then tossed them up on the dash. I tilted my seat back as far as it would go until it came up against the boxes in back, crossed my arms over my chest, and closed my eyes and waited for sleep.

I waited and I waited.

Heart still beating rapidly, I tried my best to calm myself, ignore all other sounds around me, clear my head, allow everything else to disappear completely, vanish from my consciousness. After a few minutes of silent struggle I fell into a kind of half-sleep. I still had a sense of myself but not of where I was. Then suddenly it all slipped away and I found myself in some kind of enclosed space. I tried to move around in it, adjust myself, but whatever it was it was only big enough to fit my body, barely even that. All was dark, I couldn’t see anything.

Then all at once it hit me. It was a coffin. But I was still very much alive. I raised my arms as far off my chest as was allowed and started banging against the invisible, concealed obstruction. Becoming increasingly frantic and unable to so much as turn to one side, I groped in the dark to find an outing. But I was locked in place, my own weight working against me, my air running out rapidly. Then, at the height of my frenzy, my eyes suddenly shot open and I found myself back in the parking lot, gazing out on the bright midnight streets. The stream of city lights streaked together so everything was a blurry whiteness, until my eyes refocused, and I could once again make out individual objects. I rubbed my eyes and blinked over and over and looked out at the city spread out for miles in front of me. It all seemed so distant and removed and not quite real. Nick was back in the car and I told him the dream.

“Do you think it means anything?” I said.

“Everything means something,” he said, staring straight ahead out the windshield. “That doesn’t make it meaningful.”

“I need sleep.”

We had been parked there not even an hour. It was going to be a long night. It was a muggy, windless night, and we decided we’d drive around until we found a park to spend the night in. A couple wandering bums camped out in the western night. The nap had been a short and anxiety-filled but it was also in its way a little refreshing and anyway my mood was up. I had all but forgotten about the early argument and was happy to be driving again, in control. And the car seemed to be handling fine as I manoeuvred her through the heaving, narrow streets, past other roaming cars filled with people searching madly in the night for a place to rest weary heads.

Nothing was familiar but I thought I could find the way. Where is the way? Which way? Who knows? Where we were in relation to the highway was the only thing I had to go on. I started in toward the center of the city thinking that our best bet. I tried to direct us to where there was least light—the reverse instinct of a moth. I felt alert to everything, every sign, face, car, street. My mind was a psychic conductor filling up on the energy of the night until it expired with satisfaction or exploded in shafts of moonbeam light. I didn’t know which would come first but had an eagerness to find out.

But there was no park. The closest we came was an open field that had sprinklers going, launching great blasts of water over the wet lawns. As much as I tried to keep to the heart of the city the roads had a way of spiralling out, pushing us farther and farther to the underskirts, gradually being nudged out like guests who had overstayed their welcome. We drove on. The streets became more deserted, the area more sparse. I made another uncertain turn, and all at once we were thrust back onto the highway. I pushed my speed up appropriately and watched the lights of that strange city dissolve in my rear view mirror like the after mist of a neon rain. And like that we had set out on our night journey along the Trans-Canada, destination unlimited.

“How far we going to go?” said Nick.

“Far as it takes.”

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