Ah, there it comes. That aghast look. This time from a gaggle of my younger, hipper, nieces and nephews. A chuckle finds my lips when they say, looking at me like I was crazy I hadn’t thought of it at the time:
“Why didn’t you just get your dad to drive you?”
The source of their bewilderment: My twelve-year-old self rode my clunky 10-speed sixty miles to my Pop’s humble cabin on the stomach-shaped Sturgeon lake.
That Saturday morning I could hear my lanky Pops roaming about. As he is wont to do each morning. Rising at sun-up to poach his egg, warm his porridge and ready for his busy day at the barbershop. I still cannot comprehend how such a tired farming town could manage to keep one barber so busy each Saturday.
Pops gently woke me, knowing of my eagerness to travel. I jumped up, opened my window and found the best prairie weather: cirrus clouds, warm, windy. A musty odor? Rain? I can’t have rain! But the familiar whirl of the sprinkler relived me of this sudden conundrum.
Not sharing Pop’s love of porridge, I had white toast with butter and stole one of his eggs. Ewwww… that random chalky eggshell!
I dug out my orange backpack. The kind a European backpacker with a hording issue would use. In went a bottle of pop, a peanut butter sandwich, a change of clothes (in case it rains), a Mad magazine, and a jacket.
To the garage and my vehicle, a ram-horned ten-speed. Tire pressure okay, chain and wheel axles lubed from a long-nosed oilcan. Seat at good height. Ready!
Pops waved as he left for work, saying he’d see me at the cabin tonight, adding one last:
I put my foot on the pedal and set off! No, this wasn’t the first, nor last attempt at riding those sixty miles. I first tried it when I was ten on my banana bike. Not exactly made for highway travel let me tell you. Until this attempt Pops always caught up as I’d leave so late in the day.
This time was going to be different. I was leaving early so I could make it before Pops, and thus proving I could do it. Hoping to force chagrin on the face of my much-older, ever-taunting brother.
The graveled back roads would have saved me hours. But the thought of a teeth-jarring, dust choaking ride made it easy to stick to kinder asphalt. Onto highway and the long, low sloping hill leading to the outskirts of town. At a gregarious “Welcome to Grande Prairie” sign, I paused to look back at what I thought a sprawling metropolis (ah, the heady innocence of youth!).
I soon reached a white-on-green sign stating “Edmonton, 435” and signaling a turn due East. Then a wallop of “discouragement” as I looked up and saw this rising ribbon that stretched on, and on, and on up to my first peaked goal, a whitewashed rock with an elevation number written on it.
My morbid count: three crows, a gray gull and two squirrels. The last squirrel was still twitching. There’s something primal in this. Maybe a view into some hidden world, or a triggering link to our own past, when death was a daily occurrence. I was careful not to venture too close to the shoulder’s white line and my personal road kill zone. I considered riding on the other side so to see on-coming traffic, but it didn’t seem right.
I reached the elevation rock and hopped off my bike. There, across the road on a high embankment, a rock imbued in my most distant memories. Usually no more than a flash in the car. Yet on my bike I could stop, feel the thickened paint on its surface, see the brush strokes of its creator. Astride the marker I looked over the quilt of fields that sloped toward town. And there! The mountains! How those vague, white-peaked mountains held a spell over me like a mystical creature that shied away from bad weather.
Off again. Down and up a small valley and I was at another crest, looking down on a falling ribbon of highway, my favourite of those sixty miles. A long slope to the hamlet of Bezanson.
I let gravity do its work, only pedaling if I had to. Aside from jumping out of a perfectly good plane, this was the closest to flying I’d ever get. As the wheels seemed to find their maximum revolutions, a type of joy struck me. Exhilaration? More like a feeling of the freedom only a skyward bird must take for granted.
Soon I passed Bezanson’s general store. Memories of out of reach counters, when all ice cream was either vanilla or chocolate.
The ribbon’s bend and a steep drop into the narrow Smoky River valley. For a flatlander, this slope was steep and curved. Again letting gravity have its way I took to flight, my speedometer hitting it’s maximum, and breaking. I was going nowhere near sixty miles an hour anyway.
At the bottom of the valley was a two-lane truss gauntlet spanning the Smoky. In my entire childhood, to cross that rusting hulk was to pass the gates of hell. The highway narrowed at its entrance and for a good football field or two there was little in the way of room for error. Stories I’d heard of deadly collisions surfaced to my awareness whenever I traveled this way. Not far from the mouth of the beast I stopped and waited. Pensive. Listening. When I was sure no more cars were heading down the hill behind me that I set off across. Peddling furiously in anxious desperation, ghosts chasing me.
How the vision narrowed, how the whizz of my tires sounded like a hornets nest. Made it! The spirits lose the race as my anxiety washes into the Smoky’s muddy flow.
Now the steep valley side without having to get off my bike and walk! To this point I’d gotten to within a few hundred yards of the top. Slow was my progress. As I reached my best mark, my lungs were aching. Then I looked down and saw I’ve two lower gears to go! I click into the easier gears and rocket to the top! Another triumphant battle!
I soon passed the turn off to the farm where Pops often picked up fresh eggs, honey, sometimes beef. Between home and the cabin Pops would make all kinds of barters or purchases. Usually in exchange for fish or money. I think. I never witnessed any actual transactions. I’d always stay in the truck to read or sleep, depending on the visit’s time of day. I always thought Pops possessed a far greater set of smarts than the surface of his profession typified. Maybe, but far more likely a result of culture and circumstance. Born on the edge of Russia during the time of a blood-gorged revolution. His parents barely escaping with three children. Ending their travels by growing dirt on the Canadian prairies. Was he cheap? No. Thrifty? Yes.
The Ribbon was now mostly flat and the progress good. I reached the village of Debolt and the roadside schoolyard I knew so well but never been in. Never saw a child on those swings. More than half way now!
Rounding a long bend the ribbon straightened in the distance to meet another set of challenging hills. A way off yet. Then Crooked Creek. It’s only sign of existence a lonely store at the side of the road. So many fireworks bought there before the government tightened their sale.
Not far on and there, a few hundred yards ahead, a black bear lumbered across the road. I slowed to keep my distance. Few were my encounters with them.
Yet one time sticks in my mind.
On our way home on Sunday nights we’d stop at the lake’s landfill to dump the weekend bones. On one particular rainy visit, Pops had just thrown the garbage into the pit when a small black bear comes over a dirt pile on the other side of the pit. My gooseflesh rose as Pops shouted:
“Go on! Get! Bugger off!”
The bear seemed to pause. Sizing up the loud human? Some form of curiosity? Maybe. The beast gave an audible snort, turned tail and was gone. My gooseflesh, on the other hand, took longer to subside.
Then I saw the bolt.
As we turned off the lake’s rutted road and onto the highway, a monsoon, of such I’d never seen before, struck out of the darkening skies. We drove a few hundred yards when Pops pulled over, unable to see. I, still agitated from the bear encounter, tried to focus on my comic. But nothing was permeating my worry so I turned my focus to the streaks of rain cleansing my side window. Then it happened.
A bone-white knife of light appeared and was gone. Flash-fried onto my cortex! It daggered between the tree-lined forest and my startled eyes, not more than a few yards away.
For the first time in my life I felt a kind of surreal eternity. The kind when you witness your first accident or death. The leisurely formation of my breath on the glass, a sour taste in my drying mouth, the frayed fabric on the door rest, with a rising odor of stale fish. The little hairs on the back of my neck stood and the voice of god spoke in a monstrous monosyllable! As the truck swayed a bee entered the truck.
I looked to Pops and he was lost in his own world out his window. Oblivious to the second coming or not, he showed no emotion. But, that was Pops. He’d seen much in his years, sixty-four at that point. Likely this flash of power from above registered far lower on his scale of life-changing moments.
Back to my ride, I had reached the bottom of a hill that even Pops truck found some issue with. Taking a run at it, the pedals a-blur, I made it past halfway and had to jump off. It was okay; I knew this would be a bit much, but again, a new climbing milestone for me.
At the top I arrive at the furthest point I’d ever gone! In only four and a half hours! It was down the other side to another, smaller hill climb and then a choice: turn onto the graveled, if not muddy, rutted road, or over another hill to the paved entrance of Williams Provincial Park.
I chose the smoother route and arrived at the park that was busy with campers, trucks and tents. I stopped at the payphone to call Pops, to boast, let him know I’d made it. But lacked enough change. Then this strange giddiness came over me that I’d later understand as a sense of accomplishment. Something infrequently suffered in my adolescence. I rode on to the cabin. Arriving there the journey’s thrill melted away. While I would strike out a few more times before hitting my age of motor vehicles, it was a time before I’d feel such a profound sense of accomplishment.