I stood frozen on the grassy shoulder.
“Just cross!” yelled Dan from across the four-lane highway. Semis rattled by at a rate fit to slaughter any living thing.
Careless pick-ups, hatchbacks, minivans, and even a few convertibles followed suit, not giving a shit about anything other than getting to point B as quickly as their drivers could manage them. A few of these drivers noticed me with amused looks.
“I can't!” I screamed back at him. I had been standing there for the better part of twenty minutes in the glaring August heat.
We had been hitchhiking across Canada eastward from BC to Quebec for three days and were making good time. We had made it as far as Winnipeg, never had to wait much at all, sometimes even got overnight rides with truckers or in the mobile homes of really old couples who had learned how to travel together long ago, learned how to stay together, and keep moving.
We had been on the road for two months, having first hitched west from where we lived in Montreal, all the way to Salt Spring Island, BC. Dan's parents lived there on a quaint little farm, where they sold organic produce to the community of artists, sculptors and carpenters that lived in the vicinity, making a small yet reliable income. From there we'd toured the other Gulf Islands, visited some friends, then to Alberta for our more journalistic, central quest: to visit the tar sands and some of the Native communities dying of cancer downstream on the Athabasca, and write about it in a way that people not dying in this way would be upset by, riding the ever-waning wave of Dan's carpentry money, and my small accrual of funds doing freelance editing work, all the way. Friends had jokingly called us a “power couple.” We were a young, freelance journalist-activist pair that could get by with little and sleep in ditches and clean up real nice when we went to artistic or political events in the city.
We had met three years earlier at a comedy festival. Dan was a friend of a friend, and had gotten a free pass to all the shows he wanted because he had designed a logo for the first-time festival: a remarkably fat, strikingly beautiful woman, laughing very hard, clutching her rippling stomach. I had thought he was boring when I first met him, but was sold when I saw how he laughed with his entire body, uninhibited, head dancing, not seeming to care what people thought. It was fucking refreshing, and I had to laugh just looking at him, quite frankly. Even more refreshing was the fact that he had never once asked me what I was laughing at, and had not even one time assumed that I was laughing at him. Men do that, in my experience, and it annoys the hell out of me, because I laugh at everything, usually, because it's damn funny, all of it, and when, on a date, a guy has asked me what's so funny, it has invariably ended quickly. I liked my men secure in themselves, and capable of seeing the absurdity of life on demand. I'm not saying it's reasonable, but that's how I was, and how I still am, today.
But standing paralyzed on the side of the road, unable to accept death should it be in the cards, I truly hated Dan, and nothing about the situation was funny. I had lost my sense of humour several thousand kilometres back. Who could say where? Everything about his body language from where I was standing, terrified, said, “Hurry the fuck up, wimp. PS: I love you.”
My left leg and lower back were killing me. The doctor had said sciatica, just like my mom always had. Dragging a heavy, ill-fastened backpack around while wearing flimsy flip-flops seemed to seal the deal. Dan had crossed like a flash. His sixty-pound pack seemed not to slow him at all. If it hadn't been for my thirty-pound pack, I might have had the confidence to tackle that whirring asphalt myself, maybe fifteen minutes earlier.
Now, he sat in the dirt, propped up by his pack, waiting, attempting to appear patient, and failing miserably. I knew he was thirsty, and we'd run out of water back in Alberta that morning. We never seemed to take care to carry enough water. One bottle between the two of us, with faith that we'd reach another gas station soon, faucets flowing with the warm, chlorinated fluid we'd been swilling thus far. The rare restaurant with cold pitchers of the stuff was always a treat. This had led to the unpleasant rationing of something I apparently needed, if I was going to make it across.
“Why don't you get a water bottle too?” I had asked, maybe twice.
“It's just more weight,” he'd responded. “Besides, what's the big deal if we just keep refilling yours?”
“Can you fix my pack?” I'd say. And sometimes he'd readjust it for me, but it was never right; the hot fraying thread of tension from my back to my calf always got worse no matter how he adjusted the straps or how much I stretched.
“You can do it!” he yelled. But I could barely lift my pack. I stood there, openly suffering.
I hoisted my bag onto my shoulders for the third time, and tried to breathe. I had been in a state of panic since Dan had successfully crossed without me, or maybe since I'd spotted the place we had to cross, the place we'd had no choice but to traverse if we were going to sleep that night. I was probably more angry than panicked, to be fair. I was angry at Dan for his efficient journey across, and I got angrier as I thought of the efficient way that he accomplished everything. I steadied myself for the sprint that would land us both on the other side, where we would collect ourselves, descend the steep embankment, and continue eastward, avoiding the road that entered Winnipeg altogether. Just as I was about to take the plunge, a semi hurtled past, pigs squealing from their metal air-holes. Missing my brief window, I roared, loud and full, not holding back: “Fuckkkkk!”
Across the way, Dan's head had fallen onto his pack, eyes closed.
I wanted to sit down in the dirt, too, on my side of things, without even bothering to cross. Nope, sorry Dan, not gonna happen. We're at an impasse, and I say you come back over to my side and walk back over to that motel we just passed. And then I'm gonna shower, no matter how gross the bath is, and we'll drink tap water, and you'll make me come so I can live to laugh another day. And in the morning we'll even eat food before leaving, and I won't eat as fast as you, even though you think we should get going before the sun gets too high in the sky.
I thought of when we biked together in the city. He always sped ahead, no helmet, through red lights, zigging in between lanes. Horns would honk and people would shoot him looks. I would linger blocks behind. I have never had much respect for traffic rules but I don't trust others to follow them either. Catching up to him, I'd say “What's the point of going so fast? You just lose those few seconds by waiting for me.” He'd just look at me and shrug, with that look. Once he said to me, “You might live longer, but I'll have more fun.” It was joke that I never found funny, thinking of it on and off as I did for the next week or so. I thought of the way our loyal golden retriever used to heel my mother on her morning jogs, and I tried to devise a smart return for him, something about unfair expectations, or treating me like a pet, but it never panned out in my mind.
Once, heading up St. Laurent, full of its bars and restaurants, on a Friday night, I'd been in the lead, and Dan had gotten stuck a couple streets behind, in a rare twist of events. I was, after all, just as fast as him if not faster. I stopped and waited, relishing the moment of breath. Turning back, I watched a woman in an SUV cut him off. He spat on her windshield before reclaiming his place in front of her, narrowly avoiding her bumper smacking his tailbone. Dan was rude on the road, but he wasn't usually a spitter. It was the SUV that put him over the edge this time, I knew. “How?” he would ask. “How, at this point in history, can anybody justify a car like that making sense? How?” In what became an absurd chase, the woman pursued a furiously bicycling Dan up the street, and she, wheels screeching, with her window rolled down, screeching even louder.
“You piece of shit!” And she was crying.
Customers and workers came outside and clustered on the sidewalk to behold the spectacle. There was something of a horse race and something of a soap opera about it. I had stopped and was frozen still, eyes fixed on Dan's maniacal grin, his tensely knotted brows, the way his face was contorting with the acute awareness afforded him by the rush of adrenaline, as he passed me by, literally racing the SUV woman up the street. Other cars had pulled to the side in an effort to avoid the two swerving contestants. Then I could barely see him anymore.
I screamed for him to stop as the people around slowly returned to their pitchers of beer and sangria, shaking their heads and snorting with laughter.
“Dan!” I screamed it so loud, my throat hurt. I stood on the sidewalk with my bike. I imagined stamping my foot down on the pigeon busily pecking fries at my feet until I could hear its bones crunch.
When I finally managed to transport myself from that spot a good twenty seconds later, I walked up the street to find that the woman had parked in the middle of the street and leapt out of her vehicle, leaving the door wide open, and traffic unable to pass on either side. She had apparently had the wherewithal to realize that pursuing Dan was more expedient on foot, and the unhappy woman was actually running for him, fists swinging for whatever she could hit. But he quickly escaped, unscathed, as is his way, leaving her howling, melting down in front of oh-so-many people, in front of me. Our eyes met for half a second between her arms pointing and flailing and her head falling into the crook of her arms, as she leaned, steadying herself, sobbing, on the hood of her big shiny car.
Dan knew when I was pissed, but often didn't know to what extent because I didn't want to give him any justification for offering solutions to my agitation— something he loved to do. The only rage I ever expressed was the sort aimed at systems of power larger than both of us, violators of justice that left our personal contests, our rigged elections, in the dust.
Oil, and the way it made people behave was worth our anger. Lisa, the Cree elder we had stayed with in Fort McMurray, Alberta, had seen to it that neither one of us would ever forget it. She and her husband, Harold, don't have enough food to live anymore because the trap lines they set are of no use when the animals are as poisoned as the people. And the fish. When Dan wasn't around asking pointed questions about the companies, and getting me to hold the camera straight, and teaching me what types of questions would be appropriate to jump in with, she opened up in a woman way, folding towels, stirring the stew, telling me the kinds of berries they used to have: raspberries, high bush cranberries, Saskatoon berries. She listed them off in circles, repeating the names, once, twice, three times, drawing attention to the abundance that she had no pictures to prove. She paused after each name, breaking in remembrance to taste each one. Very slowly, I imagined I tasted them too. Later I wrote an article where all details about the megaproject revolved around the presence and absence of berries. Dan had smiled at my phrase “when berries tickled the land,” wondering if such a thing were even possible.
My pack fixed securely on my shoulders, I took a deep breath, steadying myself again to cross the highway. On the other side, he had pulled out a book, Essence, about an oil pipeline vandal-vigilante.
I tried to imagine his reaction if he looked up to find I had vanished.
Suddenly, there were fewer cars, my ten-second window appeared to have doubled—so I did it. I rushed across that hard, tar surface with all of the intent I could muster to focus on my destination straight ahead. Dan flipped a page to finish the paragraph before raising his head to deliver a congratulatory smile. I knew he meant well. I knew that he loved me.
Wordless, we began to walk. I didn't even get why we had had to cross the road to begin with. But Dan had argued for making it as far as Kenora that night, where he had a friend who could put us up for free. So there we were, on the outskirts of Winnipeg, making the most of the remaining two hours of daylight to get three hours further down the road. Once we had walked a ways and stationed ourselves in a good spot, one with a wide shoulder for pulling over, and decent visibility—we dropped our packs, huddling them together to make our baggage appear less than it was, and I took my routine position, several feet in front of him, leading the thumb display with my female allure of non-threat. Also, Dan had suggested that due to the heightened intuition that I clearly possessed thanks to my being a woman, (and in part because of the greater risk I was taking), I had the decisive say about whether or not we would accept the ride or not. This meant that in spite of my being slower with my pack on, I was the one who ran ahead when a car stopped, was the first to say hi, and thank you, and look the driver in the eyes, assessing the situation. I had only ever refused a ride twice. Sometimes the eyes are just a little too bloodshot, the glint a little off-kilter, the smell of the vehicle a little too mysterious, and you tell him, the driver, that you're gonna wait for someone who's going a little further, so you can make the most of the remaining daylight.
I had to pee and the thought of getting a ride while having to pee scared me so I let my thumb drop and, without informing Dan, just walked into the bushes beside the shoulder and pulled down my pants.
“I have to pee!” I yelled in explanation from where I squatted.
As I was pulling my pants up, I noticed a blackberry bush right in front of me. I was starving and hoped they were the good-tasting kind. I carefully chose a few of the juiciest looking ones and plopped them into my mouth, tasting them one at a time. But some weren't yet ripe enough to be anything but sour, and a couple of others were sweet but with a strange chemical aftertaste ruining it for me. Lisa had said that berries were medicine, that they were really good for almost any physical ailment, but that once they tasted like they'd been “infiltrated,” —that was the word she used—then you could just forget it, because all of their good properties had been compromised. Lisa talked the same way about the tar sands operation: their lands had been “infiltrated,” their water, their air. Those doing the infiltrating were also stealing information on their traditional medicines, she said.
“Don’t know how they’re gonna copy our secrets once they kill everything around here, though,” she said.
It was sad because I knew if the berries had been good they would have made me feel much better. I probably wouldn't have even felt hungry again till the morning. I dropped the fistful of berries I had picked for Dan and rushed back up to the road.
Manitoba rides were a tough sell. Many drivers gestured apologetically, incomprehensibly. The traffic progressed uninterrupted, like families out shopping on a Saturday quickly pass the homeless while whispering “sorry” under their breath. “Friendly Manitoba my ass,” I muttered for the fifth time at a passing license plate and another good-natured gesturer close to two hours later, the light dying a slow death all around us.
“Dan, we need to just stop. We've still got a bit of light. I can't stand any more.” I stretched to reach my toes, certain that I was doing all
the wrong stretches to deal with my particular tensions. I winced as a sharp pain shot up the whole left side of my body, causing me to visualize what damage and swelling was occurring in places I couldn't see, making me question my priorities in life. Ten more minutes passed and the light really had gone. Mosquitoes, shielded by the darkness, feasted on our ankles.
“Dan, can we just set up the fucking tent? We've agreed it's not good to get a ride when we're in a bad space. Also, there's a great tent spot right over there where I peed. There's even a blackberry bush.”
He looked at me. “Wouldn't you rather sleep on a couch tonight and eat something more than berries?”
“There's a good, flat spot of soft grass over there,” I responded. I ran down to the blackberry bush again and picked a single, plump berry, and then returned and handed it to Dan. “Tell me, does this taste okay to you?”
“Yeah, tastes fine to me,” he said, gulping it down. “Really?” I wasn't sure if he was telling the truth. He looked at me. “Alright, let's camp,” and just as he was saying it, a car pulled over, a good fifty-foot jaunt ahead of us.
“Holy shit.” My stomach swerved. I hated getting into strange cars when it was dark. Half-limping, I ran on up ahead, as was our custom. Two teenage boys had already opened their trunk for our bags. I leaned down to say “Hi, where you heading?” through the passenger side window and the acne-faced driver with a Slurpy in his lap simply shot back, “You getting in?”
“Where you heading?” I repeated, determined, as usual, to get an answer first. Dan, behind me, had already thrown his bag in the open trunk. He grabbed mine off my back, and threw it in after his, which was not our custom. I shot him a look. The car smelled of beer, and I couldn't seem to get a direct line on eye contact. Cigarette butt lined the dashboard like dead fish hug a shoreline.
“That way, 'bout twenty minutes,” said the boy in the passenger seat, pointing ahead. “You want a ride, or not?” His knees jerked up and down nervously as he spoke.
“Actually,” I said, “we're gonna wait it out for someone going a little further. We've got a lot of distance to cover tomorrow. Thanks anyway.”
“Suit yourselves,” said the driver, and before I could turn around to nudge Dan, who was out of earshot, to grab our backpacks, the car screeched away, trunk still open wide, our bags, our wallets, our tent, and all of our possessions within them still inside. I could hear both boys hooting and laughing as they made the next sharp turn, freshly painted yellow lines guiding their bald tires as they disappeared into silence.
I turned slowly, to look at him. He was standing at ease, his head in his hands. He stroked his hair back with both hands, jumping into the air, punching an imaginary foe. “Fuckkkkk!”
I walked down to the flat spot by the berries and lay down. I let the mosquitoes have at me. I pretended they were tickling me. I let my body's pain slowly conform to the soft grass, which also tickled. It felt ok, to let go like that. And then I started to laugh.
“What are you laughing at?” he said.