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.