From a deep sleep we awoke in the sand and Melissa was twenty. In quiet yawns and a bay under the sun we celebrated and enjoyed the shade and breeze that the tent with windows open offered. Through the back window I could see, scrawled on the tree which supported our clothesline and cast shade upon our tent, large spray-painted letters. They read, No Camping, but ran around the far side of the trunk of the tree closest to the tent. I could only guess at first that the message on the tree was not to be one of welcome.
“What does that say?” I turned to Melissa. She rolled the opposite wall of the tent and pulled her sleeping bag over her shoulder.
I opened the tent door to an incoming flock of mosquitoes and found that, indeed, we seemed to be trespassing. Camp was dismantled quickly – though we wouldn’t have tolerated the ferocity of the mosquitoes in the cool morning for long anyway – and we were on the lam and the road in a few minutes.
The blue sky grew above us as we coasted along the north edge of the lake, finding a perch for breakfast in a roadside lookout that was elevated and displayed the curve of the horizon. We spread our blanket in a paved rise above the freeway and boiled water for coffee – as Melissa had come around by now and we were beginning to refer to our instant coffee as power juice – and oatmeal and watched the lake take the full affront of the high ten am sun. RVs and retirees offered us good mornings and made us feel rugged as they stared at our homeless efficiency.
Melissa was at the wheel through much of the middle of the day and Beck was full in the speakers as she drove us through the alien landscape of the Canadian Shield. Lakes cropped in volcanic puddles between sharp monoliths of ancient earth. So far from everything, this stretch of highway was one of the best drives on our trip.
The sun shone on us and we passed through Wawa and White River, where we sprinted to take vigilante-tourist photos of ourselves with the statue commemorating the birthplace of Winnie the Pooh.
In a section of deep green forest, the sky clouded and we broke up the afternoon with a short step into a park area advertising waterfalls. We took a short stop to walk around the narrow, angular gorge and took a few pictures. Our film had already begun to flow like the falls and water we were chasing.
In exchange for our lectures on the use of Eh, and the regional pronunciation of all things aboot, Melissa and I were privileged to participate in a grade practice that has been noted in certain academic papers to be a fine tie between the Boy Scouts of America and the Hitler Youth. Whenever I describe the finer aspects of my work in Arkansas, the daily flag ceremonies in camp are inevitably the ones which arouse the most suspicion in my foreign listeners.
Each morning, as well as each evening, the staff was charged with raising and lowering the camp’s three flags – the American, the Arkansas, and a rotation of the International Scouting Flag or the camp’s flag. And of course, these flags were never raised casually – barring thundershowers – as one might hoist the stars and bars outside of a gas station, but in the rigid military homage of salutes, attentions and stiff postures.
During both of my stints at Boy Scout Camp, I have had to defend my willful support of this very American idea to my friends from countless other countries, but I continue to defend the respect and patriotism that I was able to glean from it. (It should also be noted that by the end of my fifth year in Arkansas, I had spent the best time of my youth and countless thousands of American tax dollars on my very selfish self-improvement and entertainment. Whether or not it was my prerogative to support the actions of the US government, it would be ignorant to not respect the opportunity the United States so willingly gave to me.)
The ceremonies were not beyond infuriating my sister and I both at times, as a certain piece of ourselves was beginning to grow with each turn our maple leaf took alongside the American stars and stripes.
One particular Wednesday – which had been our usual day of the week to fly the Canadian colours – an especially zealous troop was to both raise and lower the flags (their very special tribute involved a poem and a mime trumpet being played alongside a ratty tape recording of Taps). As this was not an unusual request, we handed the American and Canadian flags to the boys with the instructions to raise them at the same speed and to the same height.
Each troop is of course allowed an overbearing father and at this juncture, said character, standing atop thick calves pulling the threads of his knee socks, entered our morning staff meeting with a decree:
“I was in the Marines, and we never, ever raised the flag of another nation to the same height as ours,” the man announced, bending to adjust his socks. The mesh in the back of his Scouting trucker cap showed a patch of bald between his crowns. “The American flag always flies at the top.”
Never the types to offend military men, my boss and I took the Canadian flag back and said we’d find out definitively what the flag code read. We gave the scouts the International Scouting flag and the Arkansan, and by lunchtime had the proper literature in front of us.
When flags of two or more nations are displayed, the Position and Manner of Display section of the United States Flag Code reads, they are to be flown from separate staffs of the same height. The flags should be of approximately equal size. International usage forbids the display of the flag of one nation above that of another in time of peace.
The next morning, Melissa and I stood under the Canadian flag as she rolled its line to the top of the pole and tied off the knot. We stepped back at attention and saluted our flag, wind catching its colours and pulling them horizontal against the trees, and a different pride swelled in us, having defended them in a foreign land.
Dinner on August thirteenth was donated by mom and dad into out meager savings account, and our goal was to survey the selection of restaurants hopefully available in Thunder Bay. We had driven the length of Lake Superior and made it to the edge of town after five o’clock, where we stopped at the Terry Fox Memorial perched above the harbour and the end of the lake.
The marble statue frozen with Terry’s gait and guts strained across his face is an imposing monument, and one that struck us particularly as we stood on the spot. Thunder Bay was as far as Terry Fox was able to run on his Marathon of Hope after leaving St. Johns, Newfoundland some eighteen months and five thousand kilometers earlier. His dream is one of a better man that exemplifies hope in this world, and to be struck with our heritage, and to be finally living out and discovering the ideals of our country so continually and proudly is an experience I did not expect to resound so powerfully, but which I am left only wishing to pursue.
I am not a dreamer, but I believe in miracles.
The southern summer is an entity that I am glad to have been subjected to, as I no longer carry the fear of hell’s incessant heat with me. Should the time come, I know that I will be able to do battle with the most absurd heat available. Temperatures during the weeks of summer that I experienced are often – with the aid of an all-engulfing humidity – in the triple digits, and can occasionally crest a hundred or a hundred and fifteen Fahrenheit (when dealing with heat, it is always easier to use the benchmark of one hundred degrees Fahrenheit as the barrier between manageable and ridiculous). One glorious day in September of my sophomore year, Little Rock garnered the hottest temperature on planet earth, at fifty-three Celsius.
These feats of nature’s strength would have been intolerable kicks to our health and well-being, no doubt, had it not been for the location of our office during our time at summer camp, situated in the pool house next to a few million gallons of unheated, chlorinated water. But even with the aid of this creature comfort, we did find ourselves adjusting to the heat and the constant feeling out of outdoors was a part of us very early into our Scouting tenure.
To return from the woods, and to be exposed to the icy levels of air conditioning that everyone else across the state enjoyed, soon became an annoyance to be avoided. We were afforded from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday away from our work in the woods, and these forays back into civilization mostly served to prove to ourselves that we would rather be at camp.
We would arrive at my house in the sixty-year-old south end of the city with dirty laundry and a sense of the world that seemed out of step with the people we would encounter. The air conditioner would freeze our skin in grocery stores, and we would spend Saturday afternoon between the laundry room and the back yard, catching up on emails and sleep. At some point, we would gather supplies for the one grand meal of the week we could prepare on our own, and begin cooking early.
Dinner at Applebee’s was an interesting outing that was like visiting a foreign planet where everything was easy. Beverages were drawn from fridges, and the pile of nachos we devoured was greasy and full in a way we had forgotten food to be.
We sat beside a raucous crowd of hockey drunks and could feel the blue collar of the city just as we could see the steam billowing out of the port. We were many hours from the outpost of another outpost, and could only watch the no man’s land of the town from behind the glass of the restaurant.
Night was coming and we took to the highway again with vigor as the summer sun fell and we crossed into a land that was flat and harsh, lacking the vacancy we required and showing only plains and groves of twine and thin trees. I was driving and we sped along the open roads near Sunshine – a creepy, dirt-road town that in its way begotten feel hung a certain, daunting fear that felt like erased murders and unmarked graves. It wasn’t long before an officer passed us going in the opposite direction and had us on the shoulder of the road with her lights up, cutting into the deepening dusk.
A hundred and twenty five in a ninety was the charge, and our plea of being in desperate need of a place to spend the night – being the kind of responsible drivers who were trying to avoid navigating a woodsy highway after dark – was enough to downgrade our offense to an expensive warning: a hundred and fifteen bucks.
With our mood downed some and our speed now inhibited, we pushed on toward Lac des Mille Lacs (Lake of a thousand Lakes), and passed depressing stables of RV parks next to the highway. We hoped our fortune would not place us in such a spot for the night, and drove into the darkening night.
A series of signs did eventually lead us to a winding dirt road that stopped at the shore of one of the thousand lakes – which we assumed would grant our finest combat yet with the prairie’s mosquitoes. The proprietor of the Thunderbird Campground, from behind her improvised plywood desk in an under-construction particle board shed needed only to look at our demeanor of fatigue to offer us a reduced rate.
“How long will you be staying?”
A young father with a good many days’ stubble on his cheeks turned and theflanks of his camo-leggings rubbed loudly against his son’s NRA-orange vest.
“Just to sleep,” we told the woman.
“How does five bucks sound?” She smiled, and we filled out the requisite registration before heading to scout for a site.
The ground was all but bare and we scorched the twigs of the area quickly in a fire helped along by lighter fluid. A retired gentleman returning from the shower recognized our troubles, and shuffled past in flip flops and a robe with a towel around his shoulders.
“I’ve got a cord of wood down at my trailer,” he offered kindly. “Help yourselves if you like.”
And we did, raising our fire in the small pit high enough to ward off the light pall of the bugs. We read and congratulated ourselves on a disaster that was not only averted, but which had come to such an inspiring conclusion.
The campground was quiet but for the hum of the cicadas and the cracks of a few fires still burning, and there was a familiar peace in this remote corner of Ontario. Our journey, like many, was a private tour on most accounts, and our interaction with others was limited to a few words here and there as we drove on, always westward. But there was a sense of continuity and friendly recognition as these short meetings revealed increasingly our lost sense of Canada, and Canadians.
For five years I traversed the south en route to and from athletic competitions and binge weekends in New Orleans and Memphis. I ventured north to Iowa and west to Houston, south to Florida and east to North Carolina while jumping back to Vancouver twice a year. I spent two separate weekends in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and grew to know the highways of southern Missouri.
This land, I would moan, is so boring. Checkered fields in every direction told stories of man’s agricultural ambition, and were the living structure upon which slavery was conducted. Driving for a day in any of the countless, indistinguishable directions was an exercise in monotony broken only by the sporadic arrival of Midwestern and south-western towns that each looked the same and all strived to resemble nowhere.
WalMarts and Barnes and Nobles peppered the financial districts of these cities and snatched identity, making travel a rhythmic activity as far as one could venture. To move from Little Rock to Omaha does not require any associating with a new land or even new aisles at the shopping center; it is all the same, from sea to shining sea.
This period of American travel made me lust for the Pacific Coast, and the oceans and mountains of British Columbia that demanded my attention and became photographed idols that climbed the walls of my apartments and rented houses in wooden frames. Each would be primary exhibits in the ongoing promotions I made about my homeland.
In the summers I would spend back in BC, my province would lay siege upon my senses and baffle and astound my eyes so used to watching prairie landscape in the windshield. The sea would never fail to hypnotize me, and I sought mountains every weekend that might be worthy of my frames in Little Rock.
My sweaty August returns to school were undertaken with the grim exhaustion of watching the brown city roll beneath the plane. All the time I spent in Arkansas was tainted in comparison to the mountains of the west coast; but now that I have moved back into the cradle of nature here, my nostalgia for the south grows stronger.
The photographs I have from my university years are now the ones which captivate my eyes and the thought of drops of humidity in July nights, when thunderclaps without rain keeping me awake are what I miss. The Ozarks remain vivid sights of rolls and waves of bluffs on and on into Missouri.
I miss the age hidden in the southern soil, now, and the richness of strife that has plagued American life there. I remember driving through the barren fields of ice south of Ames, Iowa, in a charter bus on a February morning. The sun beat against the smooth chop of the snow and we followed it, unbroken, for some thirty miles.
“There is nothing like a winter morning in the mid-west,” my coach – a Minnesotan by birth – roared at the front of the bus.
Though I likely disagreed at the time, the man was quite right, and just as there is nothing quite like the galaxies of peaks in the Rockies, there is nothing like the land and the highways of the United States. I am grateful now to have seen so many of them.
The best so far, are as follows:
Interstate 20, between Atlanta and Birmingham. On three occasions, I traversed the state of Alabama by car, and on two took this highway which cuts diagonally through the rolling green of Alabama. There is something magical about this southern state, as it seems to live in a different light than the rest of the bible belt. On license plates here, visitors read Stars Fell On Alabama, and there is something supernatural here that one misses in Arkansas, the pitifully Natural State.
Interstate 67, between Little Rock and Jonesboro. Throughout my athletic career, the majority of our early season track meets, indoor and out, were held at Arkansas State University in the northeast corner of the state. It is a flat and two hour drive through some of themost boring country the state has to offer, but because I know it, and I am recognized now in small gas stops along the way, and because I have pictures of the towns of Weiner, Possum Grape, Palestine, and Bald Knob, it is an area of the world that I would never have known, but which I now hold in great fondness.
Interstate 65, between Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee. In the fall of my third year of school, the Sun Belt Conference Cross Country Championships were held at the University of Western Kentucky, in Bowling Green. My roommate and another friend thought it a grand idea, as we were not running, to make the ten or twelve hour drive up to the meet and see what adventures we might find. We stopped in Nashville and tracked down Vanderbilt girls we knew from home, who invited us to a Halloween party on campus. Our team won the meet on both the men and women’s sides, and we sped back through the wild hills of Kentucky and Tennessee paying little attention to the infinite green of the forests around us.
Interstate 10, to New Orleans. This stretch of highway runs for an incredible length suspended above the Gulf of Mexico, and one can watch the roll of the coming bayou from the interstate. The anticipation of approaching New Orleans is also unlike many of the other, less sinful cities of the Union, and deserves special respect as well 1
- Two years later, I came home from another wilderness stretch over Labour Day Weekend to hear of what had transpired in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Those elevated highways, where families and individuals young and old sat stranded in a broiling purgatory while the US government waited to act. The latter image floods my memory of those travels now. ↩