Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hitchhiking Part III: Jack and the lowing truck

Ben: Twelve hours into our adventure and we're stuck in a Sicamous truck stop. Who can say that? It's two in the morning, and Sylvia alternates between sitting at a concrete picnic table, warmed by an oversized Russian hat, and standing next to a rack of truckers' porn mags inside the doors of the convenience store. Meanwhile, I spend my time hunting that most elusive species of trucker: those who want company more than they're afraid of being stabbed. My abject pleading does not move the three most common types of trucker: "insurance won't allow me to take you", "get away from my truck", and "going west". Finally, just as we are considering pitching our tent amongst the rats and low-rumbling trucks, Jack pulls up in his beast of a truck, cattle trailer lowing and shuddering in tow. Like the virgin birth, or the feeding of the five thousand, a miracle happens: Jack agrees to take us to Calgary.

Jack is a titan of a man: 6'8", red, broad shoulders, broad belly. "Why would I go on a diet?" he quips as we roll along the moonlit Trans Canada Highway, warm at last. "I paid good money for this belly! It's taken me years to get this fat!" His truck is a boxy Kenworth—not aerodynamic like the assembly-line Volvo and Freightliner torpedoes that fly through the gun-barrel of the Canadian prairies and over the broken spines of the Rocky Mountains. Jack is proud that his truck was put together by hand in Iowa. He moves cows, bulls, calves and heifers back and forth across Western Canada. He sits like a king on a miniature throne, his low-slung seat lacking air suspension, marking him as a favoured son of the night highway—a cattle trucker. "Don't like air seats. Want to feel the road. Got to feel the cows." As if on cue, the truck shifts slightly to the right, and then back. It reminds me of a fish biting a line. "There you go," he says. “This truck goes straight. I don’t steer out of the way of nothing in this truck. Can’t while I’m hauling these cows. I ran over three deer a while back, just, bang! You betcha.”

Sylvia: Every time we hop into a new vehicle, it seems a miracle has taken place. Particularly so when Jack picks us up in his monstrous, living truck in the early hours of Friday night. I don't know why, but I feel Jack is safe right away, more so than the first trucker, though he was nice enough. Maybe Jack reminds me of someone. His accent is a bit like my friend Jay's. That and the accumulated tiredness means I'm out like a light on Jack's bed, a comfortable, warm, almost luxurious space at the back of the cab. I put my music on to help me sleep and leave poor Ben to take care of the expected conversation.

Waking up the next morning is something I will remember forever. Although the forecast was for rain, it was gloriously sunny outside as the morning fell over the Rockies. Jack and Ben were talking like old pals: we could have been three friends out on a roadtrip. And the landscape was breathtaking, green and imposing and alive. Crystalline lakes followed the road and the mountain tops were covered in light snow, as if I had stepped right into an idyllic piece of art hanging on someone's downtown living room. It was Ben's turn to sleep so I took the front seat next to Jack and tried to feel the happiness while it was still happening. So many times we realise that we were happy only retrospectively, when we look back wistfully from a different place.

Jack was as easygoing as I had somehow intuited in the two minute walk from the store to his truck, before I crashed exhausted on his bed. We stopped for coffee and chatted about his kids and his life of duality, with the road and his home of many thousands of acres as the two axes. I don't know what struck me most: the way he seemed so similar to us in some ways, or his 'differentness'. Jack raises cows, helps them give birth, shoots them when it's time. Ben and I write in coffeeshops, we print out leaflets and discuss Dawkins, plan writer workshops and sometimes host Martini parties. Still, that morning, as we rode towards a cowpen somewhere in Alberta, we all laughed together and talked about the minutiae of artificially inseminating cows, about 'lot lizards' and about being estranged from one's children for long periods as if we had known each other forever.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hitchhiking Part II: Through the Night

Ben: It all begins on the drive from Vancouver to Langley, crawling through rush hour traffic, happy to be on the road. We argue about which is more likely: being mauled by a bear or murdered by an evil insane person. Sylvia has dog spray in her purse in case either situation presents itself. We drop the car in Langley and hit the highway, clad in rain gear as the sky looks mean. We pass two other hitchhikers in prime spots; one sits on the shoulder, long stringy hair falling over his beer can.

Me: You hitchhiking bud?
Him: Tryin' to.
Sylvia: Good luck!
Him: [unintelligible]

Down the road, we find a little pullout and Sylvia sticks out her thumb. She's tentative, as though she fears the angle of her thumb or the bend in her elbow might be all wrong. I stand behind her, working on a subtle male hitchhiker's expression: slight goofy smile says I'm friendly, huge bag with pots and sleeping bags says I'm a traveler, and a half-smile nod when eye contact is achieved says I am neither a murdered nor a car thief.

Finally, a pick-up pulls up and "Walking The Line Walter" picks us up. (Since returning from our odyssey, we've named each of our rides.) Walter's mouth becomes progressively dirty as the ride wears, culminating in an explanation of how Walter's ex-girlfriend, God bless her, was a nymphomaniac who could put her feet behind her head. We are glad to be dropped off half way to Chilliwack. After hustling past a stretch of road with no shoulder, we are picked up by "Flight Controller Hal" who takes us to a truckstop.

There we eat our last hot dinner for a while (me a burger, Sylvia a salad) and then I hit the lots in search of the seemingly impossible: a trucker who wants company more than he's afraid of being stabbed. Truckers of all shapes and sizes, both genders, hirsuit and clean-cut, smoking and non-smoking...say 'no'. Most say their insurance won't allow riders without waivers being signed. A female trucker with two tiny yappy guard dogs says she's staying in Vancouver for the night. A rail-thin trucker in a cowboy scowls at me and rolls up his window. Welcome to the life of a hitchhiker.

Sylvia: After half an hour of begging, we found a trucker ready to break the rules. His name was Ray and he was an angled man with creative facial hear, and an easy humour that made him instantly likeable. His truck was a godsend as the night descended on Hope, an aptly named place near Chilliwack. Up we hopped, one step and into the cab, this strange new territory—part office, part vehicle, part home. For us, it was a pivotal point: the point of no return. He'd be driving us for a few hours, all the way to unfamiliar Sycamous, where we could not rely on local buses to take us back to Vancouver with our tails between our legs.

That ride through the night was our first glimpse of a trucker's existence. Ray's life: a road stretching forever, taking him like the tide, towards and away from his three thousand acre property, a place of scattered children and sad memories and a newly bought herd of buffalo. Ray told us that his wife had died of cancer a while back, leaving him the reluctant owner of much useless time. That's when he took to the road, after many years of working as a truck mechanic.

The ride was patchy as he drove slowly through the night. I lay back on the bed at the back of the truck cabin and let sleep overcome me as Ray told Ben stories of animal breeding, road accidents, and a short stint in prison. So the highway went on, maximum speed one hundred kilometres an hour (a restriction imposed by the company and hardwired into the motor of the truck) until three in the morning, when it was time for Ray to sleep and for us to move on. This time is was tougher. The weather was much colder, and the little nap had made me dozy rather than more alert. I tried to stay in good spirits as Ben roamed around and around the truck stop, accosting drivers, asking (begging?) for rides.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hitchhiking Part I: We Didn't Get Murdered

The morning after: like anthropologists examining evidence of a glorious bygone era, we go through half-unpacked bags and leftover camping food while we listen to hours upon hours of tape, laughing along with our past selves from the safety of my Vancouver apartment. To summarise seems almost sacrilegious, but writing up the dreamlike story we've lived this weekend will take time. We were away for three and a half days and in that time we hitchhiked on random windy highways in Alberta and rode through the night with truckers who told us of their lives as the miles rolled beneath Peterbilts, Freightlinters, and Kenworths. We camped at Writing on Stone Provincial Park, saw a grizzly bear plodding along prairie railway tracks, endured two tense hours with a psychopath, spent a sleepless night at a truckstop diner, and awoke to the hum of our homebound truck and the walls of the still snowy Rocky Mountains, each one like a jagged young planet passing beside us. These experiences defy words and sentences and paragraphs, but we're going to try. Hitch a ride if you want, but we may have to make a few detours.