“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”
-Rafael Sabatini from the novel ‘Scaramouche’
“All you’ll hear is a few seconds of a CBC radio station when you’re at the top of a hill and then it disappears quickly as you go down,” Liz’s brother-in-law Chris informed us as he blew cigarette smoke in my general direction. It was 1979 and Chris was an aging hippie, wanderer and electrician, in that order. He’d been out to Alberta once, which made him a self-proclaimed expert. That was the first bit of cross-Canada travel advice that we received. The second was to carry a bell with us while we were sleeping outside. The bell was supposed to scare away bears. I can’t remember where we heard that one. We’d probably be sleeping outside some of the time because we had just finished the school year and had no money. We were planning on striking it rich in Calgary.
Liz’s friend Cindy astonished me outside of North Bay when her bill of $5.50 came in for the hamburger and fries that she had devoured. She promptly informed the waitress that it was only worth $3.50 and that was all she would be paying. I left my payment on the table and as we said in Trois-Rivieres “fiche le camp.” (That means “got the hell out of there” to you anglophones.) Liz had also paid up and joined me outside the car in the cold spring North Bay air. She seemed nonplussed by the situation, as if it was nothing new.
“What the hell is going on with your friend,” I demanded. “Is she insane?”
Liz found the whole situation amusing. “Cindy spent a year-and-a-half in Africa before going to Trois-Rivieres and got used to the whole haggling thing. So now she tries it whenever she can. You’d be surprised how often it works.”
It didn’t work for me. “Jeezus Murphy. Tell her this isn’t Nigeria. I don’t want to spend the summer in a jail cell in Wawa.”
They say that you really don’t know someone until you travel with them. By the time we rolled under the railway trestle approaching Sault Ste. Marie that had been decorated with the claim that “This is Indian land” I was ready to scrap this whole trip nonsense and take my chances on the local reserve. We did find a hole-in-the-wall motel and I decided that I needed some freshening up at the bar across the street. I hoped that Cindy didn’t join me. I didn’t want to be there when she informed the bar owner and bouncer that the beer they had just served her was only worth fifty cents.
To this day I have never come across a better bar band. The lead singer could belt out The Rolling Stones and Billy Idol as well as the real McCoy even though the guitar he wore around his neck was just for decoration. I was joined at my table by a couple of young drug dealers who when I informed them I didn’t partake turned out to be better company than what I had spent the past couple of days with. One of the young fellows was in an especially upbeat mood. Turns out he had just been in court because of a misunderstanding about his livelihood of choice and all that he had received was a $50.00 fine in exchange for a promise that he wouldn’t do it again.
Wawa, Thunder Bay, Dryden. I had never been to Europe but what still stays with me to this day is the vast emptiness of our land. All those pages I had suffered through in my Canadian Lit courses in Cegep now made some sense, even if it didn’t make the reading any more interesting. By the time we reached Winnipeg I was ready to look at something other than trees, rocks and lakes and eat something other than greasy fries and burgers. Even if I was loath to admit it my system needed a salad. We decided to treat ourselves at The Keg.
I’ve run into some interesting characters down through the years and lost track of almost all of them. We were finishing up our coffee and I was eavesdropping into the conversation at the table beside us. The two guys finishing up their meal knew what was going on and didn’t take offence because like Rod Stewart with Maggie May I laughed at all of their jokes. They appreciated my good taste and invited me to pull up my chair alongside theirs’. One was a Metis and the other was an American businessman from Calgary who was in town to sell ultra-light planes. They had met when they both lived in the Manitoba town with the interesting name of The Pas. When they realized what a charming fellow I was and one look at me confirmed the fact that I was not as well-heeled as they were, they provided me with a steady supply of Grand Marniers, and the American summed up his life story in one succinct paragraph.
“I was an American Vietnam War draft- dodger from the state of Maine who found a job teaching the British heritage to Canadian Indians in northern Manitoba. It’s then that I realized life is absurd.”
Damned if I still don’t often wonder what the guy is doing now !