The trip to this point had been a rush. The endless arc of the Lakes threatened to absorb much of our time (and money) if we let it, and we still had the bulk of the country to content with. Our mornings were rushed toward the road, and whole days fell forward through a few hundred kilometers, always with our eyes on the clock and the long wind up Highway One between ourselves and home.
It was Saturday, the morning after Melissa’s birthday, and nearly midway through August. We opened the tent doors and sun fell across the grass around us. The marsh behind us that had droned so loudly the night before hadn’t yielded the expected mosquitoes, and the morning was bright and slow-moving early.
Melissa got up first and read near our eternally soggy line of clothes, still bearing the rain of Niagara, and I stayed in the tent until near-twelve reading Love in the Time of Cholera. The campground boasted flush toilets and hot shower and we reveled in the thought of each, hitting the road, late, for the first time with morale high and Manitoba just beyond the horizon.
Evidence of the Shield’s lakes and timeless bluffs of prehistoric shale and granite faded quickly as the prairie began, coming to life under our wheels as the highway straightened and flattened. The new monotony was interrupted before lunch by a lumbering black bear and a stop for Dairy Queen Blizzards just before the border.
We came into Manitoba as the evening dawned and found our night’s vacancy on the crowded beaches of Brereton Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park. Sites were roped off and full in the fashion of long-weekend public camping, and we set our small fire and read our modest books while the party in our rustic neighborhood soared into the night.
Melissa talked to mom and dad, their birthday conversation delayed by terrible cellular reception along the lakes, and I cooked and read, listening to the fading signal of Canada’s failing Olympic effort on the CBC between fuzzy stints of jazz.
Morgan Hetrick took me flying the year before all of this transpired, late in a summer afternoon at the Heiffer-Creek Ranch in a small, single-engine that lifted us improbably from the grass strip and into the ether of the Ozark Foothills. We ran at a few hundred feet above the hedged meadows and riverbeds around the property for twenty minutes, and in the small space I laid my hands on the controls in front of me.
The front of the cockpit pressed into me from every direction, and Morgan nodded to me in the din of the engine and wind.
“Go ahead,” his voice told me in our head sets.
And I may never get to fly a plane again in my life. I hadn’t, after all, even planned to fly one that day in the first place. But I took the small bird then, a Dodge Omni seemingly able to fly, and led us on in the four-dimensional highway of air.
The gifts that some are capable of giving us in our one and only encounters with them are sometimes the greatest evidence we have of a human spirit, and meeting Morgan Hetrick on the one of two occasions I was able to before he passed away and left a grand spade of friends and family who felt touched in the same way that I did are experiences and memories I often cherish.
Another friend from those days wrote eloquently of Morgan in his eulogy, bringing new light to me for just how far Morgan’s influence reached, and that maybe there was something of an exceptional lure to those Ozark hills where we all settled:
Morgan flew for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. He was Richard Nixon’s private pilot before Nixon became president. Glen Campbell was best man at Morgan’s wedding. He imported exotic animals from Africa and South America. He was a test pilot for Bill Lear, and holds multiple STCs (the aircraft equivalent of a patent) including one for an anti-skid braking system for aircraft. He was qualified to instruct students on any civilian aircraft, commercial or experimental or homebuilt. He restored and rebuilt, with the utmost love and respect for the machine, many antique aircraft. One was a 1928 Travel Air 4000.
Much of our trip was run against the backdrop of the increasingly depressing Athens Olympics, a fitting spectacle of national pride – we thought – to accompany our return to the north. But the Canadian effort broadcast to us throughout the trip was often a disastrous one punctuated by fleeting moments of consolation glory. Journalists were left to debate the meaning of such a dismal performance: did this send a message about the lack of funding our athletes are forced to deal with? Does Canada need to invest in a program whose intention is to instill pride across the swath of our nation?
With the Olympics slated for Vancouver only eight years in the future, the question of whether or not Canada should even continue with its current paltry state of government-funded athletics or resign ourselves to the disappointment or Olympics like those of 2004 was on the lips of nearly every Ceeb pundit who took the air after the first few days of competition.
Part of us – the part, perhaps, that was forced to view our own athletic careers through the purely recreational light of the BC system – saw the summer as an affront to that which is possible in the dreams of a nation’s athletes. The rational side of us, though, the side which had been defending our healthcare system and educational prowess to conservative Americans, argued against the seemingly gratuitous expenditures of fielding such a team as the United States manages.
Win or lose – and there was much of the latter – the presence of unity cast between the coasts of our country during those two weeks, even to debate the existence of our team, and the reports of our athletes’ effort halfway around the world stirred our patriotic blood.