Sunday, 29 September 2013


A Navigator’s Notes

PARKSVILLE, B.C. – Looking across the Strait of Georgia toward the foggy mainland. The distant clouds and mountains are distinct muddy layers of colour that shift shades in the expanding angle of the rising sun. In the immediate vicinity the tide is slowly reclaiming the grey sand flats, wapping closer to the green seaweed boundary on the beach. The shorebirds are noisy, maybe not completely indifferent to the cycles of the sea. It’s a little too chilly for just a faded, old and threadbare t-shirt. The black coffee in the plain white cup cools quickly. Its steam merges with the morning’s mist. The beige plastic Adirondack chair is deep and a bit of a bastard to clamber out from as morning stiffness now seems to be mostly confined to my knees and other previously broken parts more often than not. Anyway, there’s the weight of a paperback on my lap too.

The novel is Robert Penn Warren’s ‘All The King’s Men,’ a saga of southern American politics during The Great Depression. You can smell the characters’ sweat and their cigarette and booze breaths while they stump under oppressive purple skies. The edition I’m engrossed in is a Bantam book and the Pulitzer Prize winner’s 42nd printing. I know my nephew bought it in a shop in Charlottetown, P.E.I. last August for four more dollars than the 1978 cover price. I know the book printed and shipped from somewhere in the United States. I know the book has traversed Canada and is now on another island off another coast. I know the book has come a long way from many places. As all of us have.

I was reminded of this simple observation exactly one week before in a Husky gas station in Edson, AB. On the counter, front and centre in a two-tiered Bic display, a Montreal Expos lighter. I must have it. Even as I reach for it I remember going to the ballpark in my hometown with my friends. I remember our noble goal of guzzling nine beers through nine innings of baseball. I remember the legend of my old friend Jacques who went 14 innings against the San Diego Padres before he ran out of money. Probably not a bad thing as that particular game went some 19 or 20 innings.

The Expos of course decamped to Washington, D.C. a decade ago. But during their last dying gasps in Montreal they became the major league real life equivalent of Philip Roth’s fictional Port Ruppert Mundys: homeless; a Canadian team playing out of San Juan, PR with last ups so far off the continent they needed a map of the National League East.

There’s nothing quite like a map to remind you that you’ve come from afar and are a long way from many other places. There’s an open tin of pilsener placed discreetly in the lee of the front wheel. A Canadian Motor Association roadmap is spread out across the hood of the silver sports car. You can’t help but feel a little like Rommel, not the sixties-era Coronation Street cat but the German General; an objective has been achieved and the next one further up the Yellowhead is Blue River, B.C.

Well, you roll into that next map dot circle in your kubelwagon, white silk scarf flapping and goggles up on your field grey forage cap, leading a mechanized column of troops and there’s… nothing. You march into the Sandman Inn to dictate the terms of surrender but no one’s at the desk. You strut next door to The Grill brandishing your swagger stick but the waitress is doing double duty as the cook. She’s too busy although only two tables are occupied by four people (one of whom is trimming her nails, alternating biting and clipping as her husband seeks the wisdom of the saints from underneath the dress of a Marilyn Monroe picture hanging by the toilets) but the fountain Pepsi needs some CO2. The vinyl menu sleeve’s a bit sticky and you wonder in a place like this, that’s not really a place at all, why there are donairs and gyros to be had at a reasonable price. Greek salad too.

At this juncture you don’t need a map to tell you that you’re miles from nowhere. Time has come to follow another highway that leads somewhere else after you twist out the kinks from your back. Stretch and feel the pain of a life lived ‘til now. No glamour, no glory here, just scrubby grass and gravel and a disconcerting sense of isolation and distance, of being a long way from anywhere with miles to go.

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