Ah, there it comes. That aghast look. This time from a gaggle of my younger, hipper, nieces and nephews. A chuckle finds my lips when they say, looking at me like I was crazy I hadn’t thought of it at the time:

“Why didn’t you just get your dad to drive you?”

The source of their bewilderment: My twelve-year-old self rode my clunky 10-speed sixty miles to my Pop’s humble cabin on the stomach-shaped Sturgeon lake.

That Saturday morning I could hear my lanky Pops roaming about. As he is wont to do each morning. Rising at sun-up to poach his egg, warm his porridge and ready for his busy day at the barbershop. I still cannot comprehend how such a tired farming town could manage to keep one barber so busy each Saturday.

Pops gently woke me, knowing of my eagerness to travel. I jumped up, opened my window and found the best prairie weather: cirrus clouds, warm, windy. A musty odor? Rain? I can’t have rain! But the familiar whirl of the sprinkler relived me of this sudden conundrum.

Not sharing Pop’s love of porridge, I had white toast with butter and stole one of his eggs. Ewwww… that random chalky eggshell!

I dug out my orange backpack. The kind a European backpacker with a hording issue would use. In went a bottle of pop, a peanut butter sandwich, a change of clothes (in case it rains), a Mad magazine, and a jacket.

To the garage and my vehicle, a ram-horned ten-speed. Tire pressure okay, chain and wheel axles lubed from a long-nosed oilcan. Seat at good height. Ready!

Pops waved as he left for work, saying he’d see me at the cabin tonight, adding one last:

“Be careful.”

I put my foot on the pedal and set off! No, this wasn’t the first, nor last attempt at riding those sixty miles. I first tried it when I was ten on my banana bike. Not exactly made for highway travel let me tell you. Until this attempt Pops always caught up as I’d leave so late in the day.

This time was going to be different. I was leaving early so I could make it before Pops, and thus proving I could do it. Hoping to force chagrin on the face of my much-older, ever-taunting brother.

The graveled back roads would have saved me hours. But the thought of a teeth-jarring, dust choaking ride made it easy to stick to kinder asphalt. Onto highway and the long, low sloping hill leading to the outskirts of town. At a gregarious “Welcome to Grande Prairie” sign, I paused to look back at what I thought a sprawling metropolis (ah, the heady innocence of youth!).

I soon reached a white-on-green sign stating “Edmonton, 435” and signaling a turn due East. Then a wallop of “discouragement” as I looked up and saw this rising ribbon that stretched on, and on, and on up to my first peaked goal, a whitewashed rock with an elevation number written on it.

My morbid count: three crows, a gray gull and two squirrels. The last squirrel was still twitching. There’s something primal in this. Maybe a view into some hidden world, or a triggering link to our own past, when death was a daily occurrence. I was careful not to venture too close to the shoulder’s white line and my personal road kill zone. I considered riding on the other side so to see on-coming traffic, but it didn’t seem right.

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 10.16.25 AM

I reached the elevation rock and hopped off my bike. There, across the road on a high embankment, a rock imbued in my most distant memories. Usually no more than a flash in the car. Yet on my bike I could stop, feel the thickened paint on its surface, see the brush strokes of its creator. Astride the marker I looked over the quilt of fields that sloped toward town. And there! The mountains! How those vague, white-peaked mountains held a spell over me like a mystical creature that shied away from bad weather.

Off again. Down and up a small valley and I was at another crest, looking down on a falling ribbon of highway, my favourite of those sixty miles. A long slope to the hamlet of Bezanson.

I let gravity do its work, only pedaling if I had to. Aside from jumping out of a perfectly good plane, this was the closest to flying I’d ever get. As the wheels seemed to find their maximum revolutions, a type of joy struck me. Exhilaration? More like a feeling of the freedom only a skyward bird must take for granted.

Soon I passed Bezanson’s general store. Memories of out of reach counters, when all ice cream was either vanilla or chocolate.

The ribbon’s bend and a steep drop into the narrow Smoky River valley. For a flatlander, this slope was steep and curved. Again letting gravity have its way I took to flight, my speedometer hitting it’s maximum, and breaking. I was going nowhere near sixty miles an hour anyway.

At the bottom of the valley was a two-lane truss gauntlet spanning the Smoky. In my entire childhood, to cross that rusting hulk was to pass the gates of hell. The highway narrowed at its entrance and for a good football field or two there was little in the way of room for error. Stories I’d heard of deadly collisions surfaced to my awareness whenever I traveled this way. Not far from the mouth of the beast I stopped and waited. Pensive. Listening. When I was sure no more cars were heading down the hill behind me that I set off across. Peddling furiously in anxious desperation, ghosts chasing me.

How the vision narrowed, how the whizz of my tires sounded like a hornets nest. Made it! The spirits lose the race as my anxiety washes into the Smoky’s muddy flow.

Now the steep valley side without having to get off my bike and walk! To this point I’d gotten to within a few hundred yards of the top. Slow was my progress. As I reached my best mark, my lungs were aching. Then I looked down and saw I’ve two lower gears to go! I click into the easier gears and rocket to the top! Another triumphant battle!

I soon passed the turn off to the farm where Pops often picked up fresh eggs, honey, sometimes beef. Between home and the cabin Pops would make all kinds of barters or purchases. Usually in exchange for fish or money. I think. I never witnessed any actual transactions. I’d always stay in the truck to read or sleep, depending on the visit’s time of day. I always thought Pops possessed a far greater set of smarts than the surface of his profession typified. Maybe, but far more likely a result of culture and circumstance. Born on the edge of Russia during the time of a blood-gorged revolution. His parents barely escaping with three children. Ending their travels by growing dirt on the Canadian prairies. Was he cheap? No. Thrifty? Yes.

The Ribbon was now mostly flat and the progress good. I reached the village of Debolt and the roadside schoolyard I knew so well but never been in. Never saw a child on those swings. More than half way now!

Rounding a long bend the ribbon straightened in the distance to meet another set of challenging hills. A way off yet. Then Crooked Creek. It’s only sign of existence a lonely store at the side of the road. So many fireworks bought there before the government tightened their sale.

Not far on and there, a few hundred yards ahead, a black bear lumbered across the road. I slowed to keep my distance. Few were my encounters with them.

Yet one time sticks in my mind.

On our way home on Sunday nights we’d stop at the lake’s landfill to dump the weekend bones. On one particular rainy visit, Pops had just thrown the garbage into the pit when a small black bear comes over a dirt pile on the other side of the pit. My gooseflesh rose as Pops shouted:

“Go on! Get! Bugger off!”

The bear seemed to pause. Sizing up the loud human? Some form of curiosity? Maybe. The beast gave an audible snort, turned tail and was gone. My gooseflesh, on the other hand, took longer to subside.

Then I saw the bolt.

As we turned off the lake’s rutted road and onto the highway, a monsoon, of such I’d never seen before, struck out of the darkening skies. We drove a few hundred yards when Pops pulled over, unable to see. I, still agitated from the bear encounter, tried to focus on my comic. But nothing was permeating my worry so I turned my focus to the streaks of rain cleansing my side window. Then it happened.

A bone-white knife of light appeared and was gone. Flash-fried onto my cortex! It daggered between the tree-lined forest and my startled eyes, not more than a few yards away.

For the first time in my life I felt a kind of surreal eternity. The kind when you witness your first accident or death. The leisurely formation of my breath on the glass, a sour taste in my drying mouth, the frayed fabric on the door rest, with a rising odor of stale fish. The little hairs on the back of my neck stood and the voice of god spoke in a monstrous monosyllable! As the truck swayed a bee entered the truck.

I looked to Pops and he was lost in his own world out his window. Oblivious to the second coming or not, he showed no emotion. But, that was Pops. He’d seen much in his years, sixty-four at that point. Likely this flash of power from above registered far lower on his scale of life-changing moments.

Back to my ride, I had reached the bottom of a hill that even Pops truck found some issue with. Taking a run at it, the pedals a-blur, I made it past halfway and had to jump off. It was okay; I knew this would be a bit much, but again, a new climbing milestone for me.

At the top I arrive at the furthest point I’d ever gone! In only four and a half hours! It was down the other side to another, smaller hill climb and then a choice: turn onto the graveled, if not muddy, rutted road, or over another hill to the paved entrance of Williams Provincial Park.

I chose the smoother route and arrived at the park that was busy with campers, trucks and tents. I stopped at the payphone to call Pops, to boast, let him know I’d made it. But lacked enough change. Then this strange giddiness came over me that I’d later understand as a sense of accomplishment. Something infrequently suffered in my adolescence. I rode on to the cabin. Arriving there the journey’s thrill melted away. While I would strike out a few more times before hitting my age of motor vehicles, it was a time before I’d feel such a profound sense of accomplishment.

story by DC Lessoway (photo via Google Maps)

I took this picture today on my walk.  How it brought back an intense memory.

cabin-road-jul-16-2017

The fading light through the trees was soft owing to the smoke issuing from the line of lake-side cabins and adding to the vigorous smell of cooked pickerel. Sunday suppertime on Sturgeon Lake in North Western Alberta, 1973. My dad and I readied his red and white 1968 Chevrolet truck and headed home. It was Sunday and he had to get home (an hour West in Grande Prairie) to get ready for the week’s work.
My dad, by then 61, bone thin, just starting to stoop; yet, still towering over me. How after the truck was packed he’d take a moment, remove his cap, scratch his balding pate, then get in and off we’d go. Perhaps he was going over a mental checklist to ensure the cabin was locked up for the week.
It was always a quiet ride home, excepting for the radio. He wasn’t a conversationalist and thus, perhaps, is why I have an over-active imagination in having to keep myself occupied.
First stop, always, the garbage dump.
We are approaching the turn-off and suddenly it was like we were dive-bombed by a flying… something. Like an explosion of crazy in front of me. My heart was in my throat as it was on my side, by the tall steel radio antenna.
Dad laughed, “it’s a bat, caught on the aerial.”
My eyes were like saucers! A bat, mere feet from my head! Just waiting to get its chance to taste my blood!
We pulled into the dump and dad got out, gabbed a blanket from behind the truck seat, went around to my side, threw the blanket on the gyrating bat, pulled it up and off the antenna and snapped the blanket, like he was flicking off dust, and the bat, though hard to see in the twilight, screamed and flew off.
Dad folded up the blanket and put it behind the chair. He then threw out the garbage and again, we were on our way.
“The thing you should remember, never panic. Remember, early in the summer and that bear was in the dump? Keep your distance, yell and shout and he’ll go on his way. Never panic, you can’t think straight when you panic.”
He’d always give these, gems of wisdom to me. His favourite, “experience is the best teacher.” Loved that one.
Well, the excitement over, on the way again. We’d just turned off the dusty, noisy gravel and onto the soothing highway as it began to rain. Not much at first, but quickly grew into a monsoon with lightening and thunder.
“We’ll have to pull over, it’s too hard to see.” So we pulled off to the side of the highway.
That musty smell created by hard rain after a few, dusty, and hot days. I’ve never forgotten it; always cherish it as it instantly transports me to my youth.
Then more lightening, “one-thousand and one, one-thousand and…” boom!
That was close. Then. Oh but then.
This, imbued on my memory. I was looking out my window at the thick forest of birch and pine at the side of the road. A jagged bolt of pure white flashed in my vision. Like nothing I’d seen, but just like a kid drew a lightening bolt: sharp angles to a point. It seemed to linger there, a few feet above the ground; and then, it seemed like an eternity after the image, this, voice-of-god-like crash physically shook the truck.
I jumped over the side and grabbed dad. He laughed, “just lightening, we’ll be okay, we have rubber tires, we’re isolated from it.”
Immediately the rain subsided and we were off again. It was a few miles before I was back on my side of the truck.
Never forgot that moment and, I never looked at that blanket the same way again.

Photo and story © by DC Lessoway

 

to speak of her, in this time
salts my eyes, with pride
sea to mountain, her
nature, her strength
her diverse peoples too

yet we must face vile truths
darkness of humanity
those who first walked
this magnificent land
First People’s tormented by:
John A Macdonald’s “extinguishing”
stripping their sacred land
their languages outlawed
sent to brutal, residential schools

my eyes salted more to see
finally, finally, finally
reconciliation, not yet perfect
bringing people’s together to
say this, all of our Canada
our home, on native land

photos and poem © DC Lessoway

So in Eagle Ridge Emergency, fell off my bike, may be my ribs, not my point.

So went through the routine: check in, blood pressure check, answer questions, etc.  Anyway, busy, no chairs, so I found a place to stand.  The staff are patient and kind and everyone is also waiting patiently.

But then I found myself within earshot of this older man, clearly in pain, swearing loudly and complaining about having to wait so long to his clearly, if not overly patient wife.  

I tried to ignore for a while, but started to get angry at his rude comments about the staff.  I felt like saying: ‘you whinny little…’ but thought better of it. 

He then started to complain about the Canadian health system.  I heard myself, somewhat audiably, say, ‘it’s free asshole.’  

Thankfully he didn’t hear, but the wife did, I wanted to glare back but could only feel compassion for her.  

Yeah, we got lineups, but really I’d take our system not bankrupting me just for a sliver any day.  

Yeah, I love Canada

Why do we have to go down this narrow minded, hate-filled, route of murky, divisive politics of us vs them, right vs left, Canadian vs Canadian? And how it’s always politicians (of all shades), who cause these silly divisions?

Yes, we have differing opinions and beliefs (Is this not what it means to be human?), but it doesn’t give anyone the right to be hateful and put their interest above others.

For so long Canada was a beacon in the world because of our acceptance of multiculturalism and the rainbows of humanity. But the politicians came along and tore this to shreds, believing it was the right thing to do.

My Canada is not perfect, but she is a place of enchantment and beauty and acceptance and inclusion. Let us, together, keep her that way.

18767754_10155086365416418_3096458993984412425_n

75861_467664716400_3573895_n

find within the anger, humor
find within the despondency, hope
find within the grief, joy
find within the distraction, focus
find within the disgust, belief
find within the fear, assurance
find within the disapproval, agreement

only because they choose to go
give their life for us
all of us!