Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Day 35: The Roads of St. Claude (Or: People Pleasing Since 1983)

“We welcome the cyclists into our home,” Robert explained in his thick accent, his hand squeezing the back of his neck. His eyes landed on what I estimated were my knees. I discovered, over our short stay in St. Claude, Manitoba, that this is as close to prolonged eye contact as Robert gets. We were standing in his driveway, about to wheel our bicycles into his open garage. He returned his hand to his hip. “It’s better if you’re European, but, you know, Canadians are fine too.” I stared at him, sifting this comment through various colanders in my brain. It lingered above the pot containing bitter Quebecois separatists, but when I noticed his bumper sticker - ‘Belgians are Beautiful’ - it fell through the sieve shaped for arrogant expats with Canadian-shaped chips on their shoulders.
        “Well, I’m from Vancouver,” I said . Funny. I’ve told everyone else on this trip that I’m from Nova Scotia. I find my childhood in a rural town garners more respect from the locals than my seven years in a city. But I’m quick to adjust my details based on what I think you want or expect from me. St. Claude is a fully-French community, and Robert and his wife Josiane might be horrified if they knew this east-coaster’s bilingualism doesn’t venture far beyond Bonjour and Au revoir. They had followed Toby and I as we rode to St. Claude’s campground, where they pulled up beside us and asked us if we wanted to sleep at their place for the night.
        “You can stay in our ‘ome!” Josiane insisted, hanging out the passenger window. “You can ‘ave shower, laundry, air-condition, nice bed.” Robert had sat silently in the driver’s seat, nodding.

“And I am from Switzerland,” said Toby. Robert, satisfied at least one of us was European, asked Toby some questions about his country. He responded with a bit of French, and everyone seemed pleased. Josiane quickly resumed into English, but I didn’t hold on too tightly to my relief. I'd yet to charm a grin out of Robert, and I suspected he might pounce on me with French at any moment. Josiane, however, was a little ball of light, with a wide, porcelain face and short red hair. She was quick to smile and laugh, and her thick accent reminded me of an amusement park - full of colours, sounds, twists and turns requiring my close attention lest I get lost.
        Their kitchen faced a large backyard full of bird feeders, gardens and skunk traps. Presently, two black birds with orange chests enjoyed some seed at the window. “Ah! Birds,” exclaimed Robert. “Probably a rare sight for you, hmm?” He raised his eyebrows in my direction.
        “Uh,” I faltered, unwilling to put up any outright arguments. I was, after all, a guest. “Not--”
        “You do know what kinds of birds these are, yes?” he challenged. My eyes darted to their kitchen clock which, in lieu of numbers, had pictures of birds with their names underneath. I squinted at the three o’clock orange and black blur, trying to read.
        “Orioles,” he replied. “They are orioles. Male. It’s important to know what you’re looking at.”
        “That’s true,” I mumbled. As Robert watched the birds, I noticed how far his ears stuck out, and how his grey eyes bulged, creating the illusion that someone was pulling back the sides of his head. His hairstyle, with its pompador-esque curl, matched perfectly his hair in his and Josiane’s thirty-year-old wedding photo that sat on a doily beside the floral sofa. Robert’s voice was nasally, stiff and full of rebuke. Someone, at some point in his childhood, had tormented him, and I imagined I reminded Robert of that someone.

Over lemon chicken and chow mein at the local Chinese restaurant, Robert told us about the different nationalities and religions comprising the tiny community of St. Claude.
        “It used to be entirely French. Now, we have Germans, Pilipinos, Polish, Ukrainians, Hutterites--” he stopped and glanced quickly in my direction. “You do know what Hutterites are, yes?” Luckily, months earlier, my neighbour had educated me on these tiny farming colonies. I still remember the look on Rafael’s face when I had professed my original ignorance. I wasn’t about to disappoint, for the same reason, another grey-haired European.
        “Of course!” I cried, a little too loudly.
        “Good,” he continued. “Anyways, before these immigrants arrived, St. Claude was tiny. Only enough children for one country schoolhouse--” he stopped himself again. “You do know what a country schoolhouse is, yes?”
        “Yes,” I replied.
        “Good,” he continued. And so it went. He offered us a lot of information, but always as if he was defending its validity. He asked us a lot of questions, but always as if he hoped we wouldn’t know the answer. Josiane presented the complete opposite: she sat quietly, a small smile fleeting across her face. Every so often, she buffered Robert’s tirades with light-hearted observations, but she always stopped there. She never asked any questions, didn’t open up any conversation path Robert hadn’t already trampled firmly down.
        After dinner, Robert paid for everything and I thanked him, warmly, a couple times, but still failed to melt his tough exterior. He drove us back to their house and headed inside to wait for a plumber who was coming by for an estimate. Josiane switched into the driver seat and we headed to the nursing home where she works. She wanted to give us a tour.
        “Here is the X-ray machine, here is the janitor’s closet, here is the administration office, here is the toilet.” I ran out of responses. I’d reached my annual quota of “Oh, nice!” about four rooms ago, so I continued in silence. Josiane didn’t seem to notice. She walked the halls with purpose and happy authority. At the sound of her voice, the residents stopped watching the television and put down their forks and turned in her direction. She spoke to them in a high-speed, energetic French, and each one was left giggling and beaming. After the tour of the nursing home, she drove up and down every street of Saint-Claude - there are about twelve - and made sure we could locate the post office, the grocery store, the insurance broker, and the French school where Robert taught history. Finally, it was time to return home. Robert was waiting at the kitchen table, and Josiane whipped up some ice cream sundaes.
        “You do know what kind of berries these are, yes?” Robert asked me. I pushed my spoon through the thick blue syrup.
        “Um, blueberries?”
        “No,” he scoffed. “Saskatoon berries. They grow in our backyard.”
        “Nice!” I said. “We have a lot of raspberry--”
        “We have so many we don’t know what to do with them,” Robert continued. “Lots of wild berries here in Saint-Claude. It’s nice to live so close to nature.” He paused and tilted his head, his eyes landing on my ice cream bowl. “So what exactly is a Masters in Creative Writing?” he asked. The dreaded question, followed by the dreaded-er question, ‘What do you expect to do with your degree?’ At the best of times, with the best of people, I still feel I have to defend my educational choice. This is probably because I’ve yet to actually commit to pursuing writing as a career, so I always feel like I'm lying, or acting poorly. In the face of Robert’s multi-faceted disapproval, my mind short-circuited. I stammered.
        “Well, it’s a fine arts program--”
        “But there’s no skill you’re learning,” he insisted. He pushed his chair farther away from the table and crossed his legs.
        “We learn--”
        “I mean, there’s no material you’re studying, no area of expertise, no specific knowledge,” he raised his hand higher and higher, as though spatially measuring the exact amount of student loan money I was wasting. “It’s not applicable, like history, or math.”
        “It’s a workshop-based--”
        “So I suppose there wouldn’t be any thesis, because what would your thesis be on, the history of creative writing?” He laughed.
        “The thesis is your book, or your screenplay, or your stage play, that will hopefully go on to be published, or produced.” I stopped short, unprepared for such long airtime.
        “Hmm,” Robert frowned, his eyes buried deep in his own ice cream. “I just…I just never found anything interesting at all, at all, at all about the language arts.” His eyes met mine, then fell again. “At all.”
        “Really?” I asked.
        “No. Not at all. Nothing.”
        “You don’t read?” I asked, and recognized the sadness in my voice as the first authentic emotion I’d demonstrated all evening.
        Josiane spoke up. “Robert reads history books. And science books.”
        “Facts,” Robert stated. “I like facts. Fiction and make-believe? I have no time for it at all.” His spoon clattered against his empty bowl.
        I heard My Dear Friend’s voice in my ear, the advice she gave me last year throughout my struggles in our Creative Nonfiction class. Everything is fiction, Chelsea. There’s no such thing as nonfiction. It’s all interpretation, it’s all spin, it’s all motive. Everything is a story someone told someone once. I considered going down this road with Robert, but what was the point? I cannot briefly and succinctly summarize what a story is. What it means to tell a story. How our lives are intersections of thousands of stories, criss-crossing and overlapping like the roads of old cities. The next morning, the sun would rise over the driveway where we would stand, silent. I would open my arms to hug Robert goodbye, and he would lift, automatically, his right hand, thinking I meant to shake it. His arm would hang in the air, awkward, like a street sign with a broken hinge, and I would leave my arms stretched wide, waiting. He would hesitate, then sort of jump towards me and wrap his arm around my back and pull me too quickly into his chest, which would be hard and smell of soap. He would say, “Yep. Yep. Yep,” though I would say nothing, and I would think, in that moment: This is a story, Robert. What just happened, right here. Where are the facts? But that night, at the kitchen table, I remained silent. And the bird clock ticked.
        We moved into the living room where an old-fashioned radio played a drama on low volume. Robert reminisced about the latter days of communication, and mentioned Twitter with disgust. I announced, proudly, that I had managed to avoid discovering exactly what a Twitter was. I knew that, for once, he would be pleased to share my ignorance on a subject. Rambling on, I revealed I was cell phone free in Vancouver, and I did not own a television. (I made sure not to mention my blog.) Hearing myself extolling my alleged virtues, I wondered, for the umpteenth time, “When will I stop worrying about what assholes think of me? Why do I feel the need to endear myself to someone so intent on remaining unimpressed?” But I forged on. I knew my purported disdain for technology could never make up for my status as a creative writer, but I wanted to end the night sharing something, bonding in some way. This is where I feel most comfortable. For whatever reason, I find it easiest to fall asleep on common ground.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Day 32: Redvers Fast Gas (Or: Ignore the Pretty Girls - It's Good For Them)

Two nights ago, Toby and I arrived in Redvers, Saskatchewan after covering 320 kilometres in two days - our biggest leap yet. Riding down the town’s main drag, we scoped out the storefronts, tacitly plotting what has become a pretty solid shopping routine: first the café, followed by the ice cream store (who knew coffee went so well with two scoops? I sure didn’t. Thanks, Toby!) and finally, on days when we cover more than 120 kms, the beer vendor. We bought a six pack of Kokanee, settled into our campsite, and I put on my new sundress. My old one had been rendered useless by fluorescent green grass stains on the bum.
        By my second beer, I’d decided my loose, cotton tunic made me look pregnant (Toby agreed) and I took some scissors to it, fashioning a makeshift drawstring at the waist. The results were mediocre, but, relative to my appearance thirty minutes prior, I looked cute, and halfway through my third beer, I’d made up my mind: I was going to the bar. It was Friday night and surely - SURELY - there would be a handsome local Redvers fellow just waiting to pay me some well-deserved attention. Then I heard that voice - the voice of My Dear Friend - whispering in my ear. Again.
        The day after I broke up with Marco marked the first day of my two-month-long love affair with The Biltmore Cabaret - a choice hangout for Vancouver hipsters. Once in a while, I would stray from my beloved (in reality, I was a moth to any flatteringly lit venue teeming with well-dressed twenty-somethings) but mostly, if the sun had gone down, you could find me skulking The Biltmore’s crushed velvet corners. My friend Christer and I were single - together! And for the first time, ever! What fun there was to be had! I’d need more than two hands to count the number of April mornings I woke up on her couch to her murmuring: “Chels, we were on fire last night.” And I convinced myself she was right: we were on fire. I was on fire. I should be on fire. Off the market for five years? I deserved some innocent flirtation! So we would make plans to go out again that night. And the next night. The night after that, as well.
        And then My Dear Friend goes and tries to ruin all my fun. No, that’s not fair. She simply asked some well-meaning questions. We were on the telephone, playing this sado/masochist/narcissistic game of “What Don’t You Like About ME?” High on her list was that I partied too much. I, shockingly, got defensive, and reminded her that I’d just spent almost eleven months off the bottle, that I was still living with my ex-boyfriend, that my mother was sick, that I was unsure about my Masters program at UBC, that blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. In short, I needed a few good times to balance out the bad. “Okay,” she said, in her quiet, I-know-something-you-don’t voice. “…Okay.”
        We left it at that. I continued my navigation through the congested booths of The Biltmore, and she continued her silent observation. And it wasn’t until I was in Redvers, Saskatchewan, overcome with the need to throw my face around some mystery pub, that I reconsidered her question. “Why are you going out so much, Chels?” In Vancouver, the answer had been obvious. I was avoiding life. Duh. Is there ever any other reason for a good-natured binge? But in Redvers, I wasn’t avoiding life. At the moment, I loved my life. I had just knocked down 160 kilometres in less than five hours and I had a new dress - what’s to avoid? And I realized: her question wasn’t what was I running from, her question was what was I running to. At the end of my third beer, when the answer hit me, I literally blushed. The attention. From the men. Male attention. How embarrassing. How obvious.
        It’s like how after 9/11, the suffering sitcom Friends experienced a skyrocket in ratings. During scary times, times of the unknown, people fall back on what is safe, on what soothes. And let me tell you, the plush walls of The Biltmore provided a nice comfy cushion for this drunken stumbler. Up until now, I’ve done a good job pretending I don’t get off on attracting the interest of guys. I’ve gone so far as to pity/scorn girls who are so obviously addicted to this sad game of catch-me-if-you-can. Of course, there is nothing wrong with flirtation; quite the opposite: I think an energetic connection between two individuals is a perfect little microcosm of all that is right in the world. But it wasn’t connection I was looking for at The Biltmore. It was attention. If the men looked at me, chatted me up, and promised to add me on Facebook, I was elated and appeased. If they ignored me, I was dejected and fiendish, moseying from crowdlet to crowdlet, scouting out my next hit.
        I feel like one of those women who decides to let her natural hair colour fade in, only to discover she’s gone completely grey: I’ve been using attention to fill some inherent void I didn’t even know I had. Like any drug, the high produced is empty, meaningless - it doesn’t have any relevant connection to who I am as a person. The temporary rush is gone the next morning, as I lay on Christer’s couch, planning which of her outfits to wear to the bar that evening. I had to keep going back, going back, because something was missing. Something, I’d been sure two nights ago, I could find at the pub in Redvers.
        So, I didn’t go. Instead, I changed into my grass-stained sundress and walked to the gas station to buy a bag of Bits and Bites and a jug of water. There, a husky woman with a spiky grey mullet sat behind the counter doing a crossword puzzle. Somehow, our conversation strayed to the number of days in each month.
        “Did you know,” she said, excitedly, “that you can figure out which months have thirty-one days on your hands?!?” I didn’t want to let her down, so I shook my head. “I’ll show you!” She held up her fists and pointed at her pinkie knuckle. “See? January has thirty-one. Dip down into February - NOT thirty-one. Up to the next knuckle, March - thirty-one! Dip into April - thirty. Up to May - thirty-one!” And so on.
        “Wow,” I marvelled. “Good to know!”
        “AND-” she kept me there, “did you know you can do your nine times-tables with your hands too?” She held up her ten fingers. “Ask me any nine times-tables question. ANY.”
        “Okay…nine times six.”
        “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,” she counted, holding down the sixth finger - her right thumb. “What do you see?”
        “Five fingers up here, four fingers up there. Fifty-four!” I exclaimed.
        “That’s right. Ask me another!”
        “Okay. Nine times three.”
        This went on for a bit longer than I care to admit. By the end, the gas station had grown uncomfortably hot and stuffy, and I longed for fresh air. I let her return to her crossword.
        “Don’t forget,” she called after me, “all the clever things you can do with your hands!”
        “I certainly won’t!” I called back. At the campground, I crawled into my tent, ate my Bits and Bites and, shortly after, fell into a deep, satiated sleep. Who needs boys when there are friendly women out there eager to teach you such useful finger games?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Day 20: Excuses Pub

Recently, a dear friend told me I am emotionally immature. This was very hard for me to hear. I’ve always imagined myself as wise, or, at the very least, more aware than the majority of my generational counterparts. I’ve taken care to surround myself with similarly advanced young adults - I realize now I equate ‘advanced’ with ‘artist’ - whom I relished in giving advice to on matters of life and love. Maintaining a steady relationship with Marco since I was twenty helped prove that I had something - some elusive and complicated concept - completely figured out. I’m twenty-five now, newly single, and I realize: keeping a kid in kindergarten for five years doesn’t make her any smarter; it just makes her really good at colouring, and nap time. Fresh out of the vacuum of a familiar routine, all my dormant interpersonal handicaps are activating, sweeping in like unpredictable weather systems. Like snow in June.
        It hailed, rained, and snowed our entire weekend in Calgary. On Monday, the first day of sun, Toby and I decided to go east. We took McKnight Boulevard, which is a lot busier than its width on our road map had led us to assume. Six lanes carry transport trucks, SUVs and motorcycles in and out of this sprawling city. Marco once said he loved cycling with me because it was the only time I wasn’t afraid of anything. I wasn’t afraid on McKnight Boulevard, but I did have my eyes glued to my review mirror as I juggled the narrow space between my loaded bike and the vehicles whizzing past on my left. So I didn’t notice the motorcycle pass us, weave in front of us, and then hop up onto the curb. The voice, however, I recognized in an instant. Before I swung my head back to glimpse its source, I knew it was Eric.
        Five days earlier, Eric’s rusty scour-pad voice made me swing my head his way the first time. Outside a café in the Rockies, I was at my bicycle retrieving some butter packets I’d swiped from Radium Hot Springs - they’d enhance the apple-crumb muffin I had just purchased to dream-like status. I heard Toby shouting and clapping his hands. I looked up, and the fattest crow I’ve ever seen was flapping clumsily away. His stupid wings were weighed down by the weight of my muffin, which was clamped firmly in his stupid little beak. “No!” I shouted. “He has my muffin!” I looked at Toby.
        “These birds are so intelligent, you know,” he said. “The most intelligent.” Toby has a Swiss accent and speaks with slow, thoughtful concentration. We met in Switzerland last summer when Marco’s band toured the area. We shouted at each other over loud punk music and, after an hour of halted conversation, he agreed to cycle across the country with me. Having spent the past month and a half together, I wonder if he regrets his impulse. We are extremely different. He is logical, attentive, and interested in the brain span of birds. I am hungry and temperamental. From behind Toby and me, I heard laughter bubbling up, rough and black and deep as crude oil.
        “Smart little fuckers, ain’t they?” shouted Eric from across the parking lot. He was as big as his Harley Davidson, with shoulder-length silver hair to match the chrome, sparkling blue eyes to match the paint, and a handlebar mustache to match the handlebars. He stuck his cigarette in his mouth and shrugged. Exhaled. “You gotta watch the wildlife here in the Rockies!” He hooted again. I scowled and stormed back inside the café. My new muffin stayed safe against my chest, hidden by both my hands, and then, quickly, my mouth. The fat crow sat on the roof, watching.
        Belly full, I started a conversation with Eric and his wife Carol. I sense sometimes Toby looks down on the rougher Canadians we meet - he becomes quieter, observant. Though he’s probably just trying to pick coherent words from their barks and twangs, I still feel the need to flaunt their charisma in front of him. Eric and Carol were nothing if not charismatic. Whenever he gets some time off of operating forklifts, he and his wife, clad in matching leather suits, hit the open road. She didn’t always like motorcycles. When their first child was born twenty-one years ago, she made Eric trade his bike in for a mini-van.
        “And I told her,” Eric grunted, “as soon as that kid has its own kid, I’m getting my bike back.” Sure enough, shortly after Eric’s grandson Lucas arrived, so did his beautiful Harley Davidson. And Carol, who’s experiencing what she calls her “second childhood”, bought her own helmet and hopped on the back. She is a petite, cheerful Metis woman who was genuinely captivated by mine and Toby’s travels. She oohed and ahhed and giggled, delighted by our anecdotes. Eric lit another smoke and - mostly for the reaction I knew this animated roughian would give me - I asked to bum one.
        “Well holy shit, little girl!” he rasped, emptying out his pack - three cigarettes - into my hands. “You’re pedaling your ass across the country and smoking? You and me are gonna die the same way, kid!” They rode west and we rode east, and I thought of them exactly three times since our lunch together.

And there he was, five days later, sitting on the side of McKnight Boulevard. Toby and I swung our bikes up onto the curb and Eric rolled over.
        “Holy fuck!” he yelled over the traffic. “I can’t believe it’s you two crazy fuckers! I saw your goddamn yellow bags and I thought: holy fuck! It’s those two crazy fuckers!” He stamped out his cigarette, pulled out his cell phone, and called Carol. “Carol!” he shouted. “You won’t believe who I just fuckin’ ran into on the side of the road. Those two crazy fuckin’ foot pedlars we met in BC. Yeah! They’re spending the night at our place! Put some spaghetti on!” He hung and looked at us, blue eyes starry. “She can’t fuckin’ believe it.” We were to meet him at a pub around the corner from his house. We figured a coincidence as incredible as this one deserved some ritualistic beer drinking at the local bar, aptly titled Excuses.
        On the way to Excuses, Toby and I had our first fight. Eric’s directions included turning left onto 52nd street. But 52nd street came up with only a right lane exit. The left exit would put us on a street whose name I didn’t recognize. “We’re supposed to turn left on to 52nd,” I reminded Toby. “What should we do?” An innocent question, I thought.
        “Yeah, you have the directions!” he snapped angrily. “Not I!” I looked back at him. He had the same look on his face I used to give Marco when he farted at the dinner table.
        “I was just asking a question!” I yelled over my shoulder.
        “And how am I supposed to know this answer?”
        I swerved left onto the unknown street. “You know, you can be a real asshole, sometimes,” I called back to Toby. A truck roared by us, and I missed the first half of his response. The last half was “Thank you for this.” In silence, we navigated our way through Calgary’s suburban streets and somehow wound up at Excuses where Eric had two cold Kokanees waiting for us. There, we were distracted from our tiff by Taz, an ancient Vietnam veteran one table over. He had black, watery eyes and mottled skin, and made various physical advances toward me which I deterred only by shrinking a bit into my chair. I infuriate myself in these situations - all my common sense and feminist theory disappear, overwhelmed by a pathological need to not upset this asshole copping cheap feels. In the past, Marco dealt with out-of-line men. Though I wanted to slap Taz’s disgusting hands away, all I did was look at Eric.
        “Why don’t you kick the fucker in the balls?” Eric asked.
        “Isn’t he your friend?”
        “Hell no, honey. In fact, let’s go.”
        We all hopped on out bikes and rode the short distance to Eric’s house. Toby and I still didn’t speak, and my passivity with Taz embarrassed me - I can call Toby an asshole, but I can’t tell an old pervert to fuck off? We parked in Eric’s backyard, which was a playground of discarded but well-loved toys. A broken hot tub, a defunct fish pond, a portable laundry machine, three rusted bicycles, torn window screens, kitchen chairs with ripped upholstery. Carol leaned out the back door.
        “Don’t mind the mess,” she said. “We’re packrats.” The inside of their home confirmed the same - they are packrats, and their main collection item is people. They have a habit of adopting strangers. Since Eric moved to Calgary twenty-seven years ago, he has taken in seven ‘brothers’ - young men he found struggling whom he let live in his house until they found jobs. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, they go downtown and invite a dozen homeless people over for a meal, a shower, and a change of clothes. Toby and I were just two additions to a long list of recipients of their unadulterated kindness.
        Over wine, spaghetti and garlic bread, Carol chatted away. She works as a personal care attendant, and told a story about a favourite client of hers, Jane. Jane lived with her son, who was supposed to care for her in the evenings. When Carol would arrive in the morning, she often found Jane soiled and hungry, victim to her son’s cocaine habit. Carol worked hard to get Jane into a nursing home. Her main obstacle was the son’s protest.
        “He loved her so much,” she told me. “When he finally admitted he couldn’t care for her anymore, he cried and cried. I hugged him. I cried. It was very sad.” Carol teared up at the memory. I found myself scowling. A drug addict who lets his own mother shit her pants? This is love? But Carol’s earnestness pushed me to find the curve in the road that could lead to her conclusion. I encountered obstacles: suspicion. Not only of the son, but of Carol. And even Eric. Their selflessness and generosity. Can these traits, so pure in intention, be real? Another obstacle was my pride. I could never do something so horrible to a loved one. Or could I? Have I?
        Sure I have. I’ve abandoned friends and family without notice, simply because the relationship wasn’t easy or convenient for me anymore. The dear friend who discovered my emotional immaturity before I did, did so the hard way. I hurt her, but she was kind enough, and determined enough, to stick around and make me see how my self-absorption affects the people I love, the people who love me. Of course Carol could feel compassion for a man in turmoil; she leaves herself - her hang-ups, her judgments - out of the equation, and cares only for the person in need.
        The next day, on the way out of Calgary, Toby pulled his bike off the road and said we needed to talk before continuing our travels. As usual, I was relieved he had taken the reigns. “I think you are a young soul,” he said. Aw, shit. It wasn’t any easier to hear the second time around. I started to protest, but my reasoning rang false. The main problem Toby was having - why he had snapped at me a few times in the past week - is that I often won’t make my own decisions. When it’s a tough call, I shift the onus to him. “This is your dream,” he said, “to cycle across your country. It’s not mine. I’m here as a sort of mental exercise, and because I told you I would come. But you have to take charge.”
        Later, on the telephone with my dear friend, she asked me why I was undertaking this bike tour. “This is something crazy people do, Chelsea!” she laughed. “You need to think about what you want to get out of this, what this means in terms of who you are.” And she’s right. Though I don’t know the answer yet, for the first time I can hear the question.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Day 4-5: Keremeos to The Lawless Place

Dozens of fruit stands line the road into Keremeos. Their awnings boast cheerful paintings of peaches, plums, pears, and apricots. As Toby and I rolled through, I supposed produce-lovers must die and go to heaven here - twenty pounds of nectarines for twenty dollars! Acres and acres of vineyards yielding the best organic wine this side of the Similkameen. Orchards as far as the eye can see. My mouth watered. The fruit stands are long, low, sprawling warehouses and, at this time in late May, they are all boarded up. When the first cherries ripen in June, the doors will open, and fruit will spill into the hands of the valley. But for now, it’s a ghostly lane foreshadowing summer. Here, Toby and I enjoyed our last downhill ride of the day.
        After a lunch of peanut butter, bread and cheese in the park, we climbed out of the valley and over the Cascade Mountains. Out of fecund farmland into the northen tip of the Sonoran Desert. This area of the province receives the least rain and the hottest weather in Canada, and on Saturday, the sun burned down at 31 degrees. We climbed for about three hours before rolling into Osoyoos, drained, sweaty, and smelly. It was our fourth day of biking, and we’d yet to shower. Suddenly, the thought of water coursing over my body flared up as more than a craving; it was a physical need, akin to hunger, or satisfying sex.“I’m going to find a gym," I told Toby as we reached the town centre, "and I’m going to use their shower.”
        “A gym?”
        “Yeah. A place where people run on treadmills.”
        “A ha!…But you don’t run on the treadmill.”
        “No. I shower.”
        It was 5:00 pm, and the hours sign at Vengeance Fitness claimed this to be their closing time. I tentatively pushed on the door - it opened. A sporty woman with short blonde hair had her hand to the light switch, about to turn it off. She raised an eyebrow at me.
        “We just biked here from Vancouver,” I spewed, “and we saw your gym and imagined a shower and we were going to beg you to let us in, but I see you’re closing, so--” I lifted my arm up into the air, hoping she’d catch a whiff and understand.
        “Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “From Vancouver? That’s great. Get in here. You need towels? Soap?” I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. When a perfect stranger becomes, in a moment, a saviour, my deep-running sentimentality rears its mushy head. I accepted a towel and let the tears of gratitude run.
        Freshly showered and loaded up with advice on good camping and good food in the area, Toby and I sprawled out in the middle of Vengeance’s empty parking lot and contemplated the idea of getting back on our bicycles. I heard a yelping meow from the backyard of the house to our left. I wandered over. The lawn was shady and soft - a perfect place for two tents, I thought. A scrawny, dusty cat paced back and forth next to an old, tired dog. The cat wailed, and wagged its small stump of a missing tail. The dog flared his nostrils. The house’s back porch was lined with wine bottles and overflowing ashtrays. I knocked on the door. When George opened it, he looked at me, he looked at the cat, and having never seen either of us before, invited us both to set up camp for the night.
        George is a slight, delicate-looking man; his jeans hung loose at his hips and his over-sized T-shirt draped across his shoulders. Under a dusty ball cap his rust-coloured hair matched his skin. I figured he must work outside, and couldn’t discern his age through the weathering. He could have been anywhere between 25 to 45. Toby and I began to set up our tents and George, in an attempt to quiet the cat’s howls, offered it a bowl of wet dog food, borrowed from the gentle Sadie. The queer stump of the cat’s tail hid its sex. I thought it was a kitten at first, but the keen eyes and a wiry body betrayed a long, tough life. The dog food disappeared in seconds.
        “Would you like a glass of white wine?” George asked us.
        “Well, sure, if you have some on hand. We were going to make a beer run in a minute,” I replied.
        “No need. I’ve got more bottles here than I can count.” He went back into the house.George is the assistant vineyard manager at Desert Hills Winery, and on Saturdays he moves a field sprinkler in the afternoon and drinks the fruits of his labour in the evening. He emerged with a chilled Gewurtztraminer, BBQ skewers packed with lamb and tomatoes, a pot of Basmati rice and three plates. Four plates - a small one for the cat who, at the smell of lamb, continued yelping hungrily.
        “Now you’ll never be rid of this cat,“ I warned.
        “Aw, that’s alright,“ George said. “As long as she's nice to Sadie.”
        We finished eating, and George’s neighbours Kurtis and Ryan arrived home from work. The three men lit up a joint and enjoyed a backyard game of ladder golf. Toby and I lay down on the grass and welcomed tender snuggles from the cat, now satiated. I lifted its small body into the air - female. A mother, too. With her funny, pointy ears and stump of a tail, the boys concurred she must be a descendant of the desert lynx cat found in northern Washington, kilometres from where we were. After wiping all the dust off her fur, she remained the same greyish brown and, when perched on a tree stump or in the gravel, she disappeared completely.
        After the bonfire was lit and more wine was poured, George pulled out his bright orange Flamenco guitar and played a couple haunting melodies. He used to play for dance studios in Vancouver before taking up the family tradition of winemaking. As he strummed, I noticed his tattoos - armbands depicting battles from The Iliad and The Odyssey. The lamb, the wine, the guitar, the Homer - this man was a Mediterranean melange. I asked him about his family history.
George Phiniotis’s mother came from Hungary and his father came from Greece. For the first year of George’s life they lived in Cyprus where his father, a Doctor of Oenology, managed an international award-winning winery. In 1974, when the Turks invaded the northern part of their island, George’s family fled the country along with 5000 Greek-Cypriots. The Phiniotis family stayed in Hungary until George was six, then settled in BC in 1979.
        “Wow,” I said as George poured me another glass. “What a great family story.”
        “That’s not even the half of it,” he said, rising from his lawn chair and heading back inside. He returned with his laptop and loaded up a CTV news broadcast. Peppy reporters raved over a magnificent find, valued as ‘priceless’, at a BC Antique Roadshow: an Olympic gold medal from the 1936 Games in Berlin - the Nazi Olympics. The video cut to grainy, black and white footage of Hitler; those squinty eyes and that hard, whining voice, rousing crowds of thousands in Berlin’s Olympic stadium. The recipient of this gold medal? A wrestler from Hungary, Karoly Karpoti: George’s maternal grandfather. Karpoti, a Jew, took the title from defending champion Wolfgang Erhl - a German.
        “Well, that must have pissed Hitler off,” I said. George laughed.
        “Yeah, who knows. Maybe Grandpa’s victory tipped the camel’s back.”

The next morning, after a breakfast of Gatorade and Corn Pops, Toby and I said our thank-yous and our goodbyes. As we hugged and exchanged contact information, the desert cat lapped up our leftover cereal milk. I pressed my palm into her small body.
        “We both showed up at your door at the same time,” I said to George, “hungry for food and shelter.”
        “That’s why I’m naming her Chelsea,” he told me. “Gotta keep the legacies alive, you know?”
        With their coffee in hand and a hot Sunday ahead of them, George, Kurtis and Ryan sparked up another joint - the breakfast of champions, they said. In an attempt to have Toby and me stay another day, they spouted terrible tales of what lay ahead for us: the twenty-five kilometre climb out of town in the 35 degree weather. Tempted though we were, we rolled along, armed with Gatorade and a Desert Hills Gamay Noir. And, after a gruelling four hours up that hill, we reached the Anarchist Summit. The locals call this area The Lawless Place. We waited around a bit, but nobody showed up with our medals. So we just biked back down the other side.