I’m a little satired out today. So I’m going to change things up a bit, and tell a non-satirical, true story. It’s about heartbreak in Edmonton, a blizzard in the Rockies, and a friend when I needed one most, in the city of Vancouver.
The captain of the boat I was working on at the time this all happened was called Butch. He’d grown up on the water – the mate once told me he’d worked on tugs out of New Orleans from the age of 10 (Butch himself said nothing of this during my time crewing for him, probably because it would have involved admitting that he had once been a child). The man rode a Harley Davidson, had a horseshoe moustache that was eerily similar to Hulk Hogan’s, if such things can be eery (I am here to tell you they can). And there was an understanding onboard that if you wanted to quit you needed to have your bags packed and a taxi already on the way over to the boat. Butch didn’t like quitters.
So when Cressida told me over the phone that she didn’t think it was going to work out between us, and I said that I understood but needed to see her before we parted ways, to hear it in person so it could be finished properly, I knew that this meant Butch and I were done too.
She was in Edmonton, and I was in Florida, working on a motor yacht that was getting undergoing a refit period in a shipyard in Dania Beach, down a long straight canal that you used to see manatees in with some regularity, but now the odd, gentle beasts, are few and far between.
An interesting, and probably not unrelated side note to me telling you this story now, is that I am right this moment sitting on a different yacht a little over fifteen years later, staring directly at the exact spot I was in those years ago when I went to go see about a girl. And was kindly, gently, but firmly dumped. Sometimes life really does feel like a reunion tour of a band no one remembers but you.
First thing the morning, after the upending call from Edmonton, I told the mate I was going to quit. He immediately asked if I’d called a taxi. I had. He said that was good, and he’d probably wait until I was gone to tell Butch. I was grateful for that.
I landed at YEG the night before the first ever Heritage Classic hockey game was played, between the Oilers and the Canadiens. It was bitterly cold. I had two large bags full of board shorts and t-shirts, a foolishly dark tan, and a surfboard that looked ridiculous but could not be left behind, as I had no idea what I was going to do with myself once the weekend was over, and so had to carry everything that mattered to me, turtle-like, through the long airport corridors of YEG and out into a dark, windswept parking lot to collect a rental car. A Chevy Malibu, with all-season tires, that I would come to now very well in the coming days.
It was a fun, if frigid weekend, at the end of which Cressida kindly, gently, but firmly, said it was indeed over. After which I reviewed my (not great) options.
I had no gumption left for yachting right then. After a few years of living outside of Canada I wanted to be home for awhile, and with my heart broken I just didn’t have a whole lot of fight left in me right then. So I made for Vancouver. I had a friend there, and hoped that I might be able to use my recent boat experience to get work in a marina, or yacht club, or chandlery of some sort. Also, my dad is from Victoria, and he has a look that he only gets when he talks about the west coast; one that has lasted, undiminished, through over forty years of living in Toronto. I like to think that I knew then that I needed some of what had made that look, and my pop’s fondness for the land west of the Rockies, last all those inland years.
But more than any of that I was effectively broke. After the hotel was paid for, I had about $150 left in credit on my TD Visa, and about three fast-food meals’ worth of cash in the pocket of my only pair of jeans. Flights were out of the question, but I caught a lucky break when I called the car rental agency at Edmonton Airport, and was told there’d be no additional charge to change the return location to Vancouver. Which is how I came to set out for the mountains into a gathering blizzard, in a Chevy Malibu with all-season tires, at a little after 9:00 on a Monday morning, still waiting to hear back from my the friend in Vancouver that I was counting on to take me in.
It was immediately apparent that this was going to be a long, white-knuckle ride. Visibility dropped to near-zero just outside of the Edmonton city limits, and the first accident I saw came just a few kilometres after that. A mid-sized SUV lying in the middle lane, facing with the flow of traffic, but neatly and tidily flipped on its roof. I have no idea how.
Over the next sixteen hours I would see at least two dozen cars in the ditch, and 10 jack-knifed tractor trailers, folded into the sloping shoulders and centre divides of the Trans Canada highway like so many discarded toys in a giant’s backyard, left to be covered by the first major snowfall of the season.
My Malibu was a skatey, slidey, twitchy little ride. But I drove her lightly and took it slowly, knowing as I did that if I skidded off the road I couldn’t afford a tow, and I would have to call the nearest town home for a bit while I paid back whoever came to my assistance. The whole thing was all sorts of reckless, I saw that then, and see it ever more so now. I don’t know if I would do it again. But I’d like to think so.
I passed through Rogers Pass with a sigh of relief, though the forecast called for the snow to thicken even more up ahead. Stopping in Revelstoke for gas and a coffee, I plied the Petro Canada worker at the till for information. He answered my questions with questions, and seemed like someone used to having to talk people unaccustomed to the mountains out of making terrible driving decisions.
“The forecast up ahead doesn’t sound very good,” I said as an opener, trying to get him to tell me everything was going to be alright. “Do you think it will be much worse than what I’ve just come through?”
“Which way are you going?” He asked carefully.
“Towards Vancouver. From Edmonton.” I left the rest out, though if he’d asked why I probably would still be there telling him.
“What are you driving?”
“Does it have winter tires?”
The man – who couldn’t have been more than a couple of years older than me, but looked a lot savvier – raised one eyebrow slightly, paused for a moment, and then told me, “If you’ve come through what you’ll have just come through, you’ll be fine up ahead.” And though he had to be referring to the driving conditions, I dare say I’ve never forgotten those words.
In Kamloops I plugged a bunch of quarters into a freezing pay phone and managed to get my friend Mark, up ahead in Vancouver, on the line. By that point it was well past dark, and I told him I’d try to be there by about 11:00 PM. Mark said I was welcome any time, to just make myself at home. And I haven’t forgotten that either.
Coming down out of the mountains towards the almost too-neatly named town of Hope, was perhaps the hairiest part of the trip. It was just me and the large trucks left on the highway by that hour, and they took the long, steeply dropping road with full head’s of steam, confident that their inertia would keep them on the roadway, and maybe smelling the warm, moist air of the Okanagan up ahead, where we would all finally be out of this mess. Having made it this far, and possessing neither the same confidence nor inertia of these larger vehicles, I stuck to the right-most lane and white-knuckled it the rest of the way to town, my windshield wipers set to high, battling the waves of slush that rolled off the sides of the trucks as they sped by.
And then, seemingly without warning, the snow stopped falling, and turned into a light drizzle. On the sides of the highway there were no glowing white drifts, only a heavy darkness receding into black fields. Up ahead lay Vancouver, and a good friend who would take the next day off work to help me get my resume around town, and let me sleep on his couch until I got my own apartment five weeks later, after landing a hail Mary of a job fixing sailboats in the Granville Island Boatyard. With help, and a lot of luck, the man at the Petro Canada in Revelstoke had been right. I had been fine up ahead.
Categories: Saturday Stories