Going West

A number of you may want to know more about the first time I went West. I was known, at that time, to have dropped everything I had here, and everyone. There ended up being a lot of hitchhiking involved, and I spent significant time in towns and on roads from Saskatchewan to California. I started out on a ranch, however, and that was neat too. Let’s start in Ontario, though.

I only told a half a dozen people where I was going, and that didn’t include my parents. I was seventeen and angry about being a kid, about being a son, about any number of other angsty problems. I was also a lover of adventure, and felt I needed to find some peace by getting out there, somewhere. It was summer.

The whole exit was meant to be a big secret from my family, but at the last minute Dad caught wind and drove me to the terminal. The first leg of my trip was pretty unromantic, you see; I rode for three days and two nights from Peterborough to Calgary in a Greyhound bus. The whole time I was nuzzled gently by the unwashed snouts of various sleepy old men, and felt stickier and stickier in my own sweat. My adventure was shaping up to be both dirty and monotonous.

A friend of mine had set me up with her uncle, a rancher in the foothills south of Calgary, to work once I arrived. I intended to achieve financial independance from the get go. When I did get off that reeking, claustrophobic transport, I had my eyes peeled for a six foot lumberjack type, maybe with a cigar hanging from his thin lips. The man who spotted me, though, was five and half feet with a black cowboy hat twice as large as his head. He wore it on special occasions and church, as I later observed, wearing his regular cowboy hat when at work. This was Jim, and he was to become a good friend and advisor.

I spent several months on Jim’s ranch. He and his wife, Basia, took good care of their new runaway teen. I worked five days a week, six to six, putting together the components of what would become a new barn, house and workshop. The labor was harder than anything I knew, but I found tremendous physical and emotional satisfaction in that job. As I side note, I thought it was hysterical that we were building Jim’s mother’s new apartment into the side of the barn.

With winter’s approach, I left Jim and Basia and arrived in Calgary with a healthy bank account and the offer of a sublet from my friends Ian and Kathleen. Actually I only knew Ian at the time, but they were a package deal. Actually they were married one inconspicuous night during the course of my residency with them. I lived in a tiny room near the front door, just big enough for me, my bed and a shelf. I had great housemates, though.

I got a job at Bluenotes, a clothing retailer, and for several more months worked there. During this time I also developed an intimate relationship with booze. This has affected me ever since, although in recent years it has been relegated largely to memory. My bank account dwindled- I found pleasure in going to movies, on my own, and buying music. I bought a lot of music- something like fifty CDs in those few months. I was expanding my interest in and knowledge of genres, artists, traditions. But it cost me more than I had, coupled as it was with drink.

Stasis soon got to me. Broke again, and hungry for change, I left Calgary and went East with twenty dollars in my pocket. I hitchhiked as far as Moose Jaw, SK, and stayed at a school there for a week or so. I met up with my friend Leanne there, and made an important connection: my key to the United States. After being hounded out of my storage room hideout by bloodthirsty dons, I hit the now frigid Saskatchewan road to head West once more.

Note that I had some very interesting rides throughout this part of my trip. Because they could fill a post of their own- and they might, sometime later on- I’ll leave them aside. You should know, however, that virtually every inch of road I passed over was either very pleasant or mildly disturbing. The ex-boxing ex-convict, the detailer for the Hell’s Angels, the truck driver whose small dog sat on my lap for three or four hundred kilometers: all these you’ll get to know, I promise.

Dragging my cold feet through Calgary again, I arrived a few days later in Vancouver. I slept in a bus stop the first night- an upturned container of yogurt at one end of the bench, my head at the other. The next morning I explored the network of Go-Trains and managed to connect with an older lady, April, my grandmother’s longtime penpal.

For this next part, I apologise. It is not, in fact, meant as slander: I spent an emotionally demanding five days or so in the grip of a closeted old nut. April was so friendly at first, and was good to me in a very practical way during the whole visit- and this was Grandma’s penpal, so I was also eager to provide a good impression. This lady settled me into her basement, where I found myself housed with half a dozen cats and their vast deposit of hair and droppings. I was surrounded by milady’s father’s possessions, the fruit of his lifetime. Stacks of John Wayne movies caressed family photos in gilt frames.

April started showing me off to her friends the day after my arrival. She took me to restaurants, a piano concert, and a Chinese New Year celebration. She began bragging to her friends about the young man who was staying with her. I was getting uneasy with all the attention- never really my thing. It came to pass that I became tired of the busyness and the fond care, and so one night I told April that I was going to continue on my way.

She was angry. As she spoke, chiding me at first for leaving so soon, she became still angrier. Her voice rose. I was ungrateful, presumptious and hurtful. She asked me how I dared abuse her hospitality in this way? I was quiet. I went to bed after watching her stalk away. The next day I left poor April, feeling bad about the whole situation, but definitely going my way. April warned me one more time about the roaming gangs that endangered us all, and shut her door.

I proceeded south on foot, crossing the US border- still on foot- around dusk. I walked up between two long lines of cars, some of them honking at me. Dogs started barking up ahead, and oh- I had lost my glasses in Calgary! Well, that sure didn’t help. I couldn’t see a blessed thing. As I approached the border itself, I saw that the dogs were barking at me, straining at the ends of their leashes, withheld by an irate guard. It took me two long hours of sweet, sugary conversation to get myself through that tangle of bureaucracy- I didn’t have a passport or money. But I did it!

I walked four hours more that night. It was raining, and I had fashioned a coat from a black garbage bag. It was inadequate. I slept in the computer lab at the University of Western Washington that evening, and explored the campus next morning. It was really very pretty, as I remember. Nice school, snotty kids.

The next few weeks were beautiful. My connection was a great guy in Seattle named Chris, who sheltered me a while and showed me around. I renovated part of his bathroom, and he paid me a generous hundred bucks. We ate gourmet burgers one night. I saw the Google headquarters.

My ride out of Seattle, to Portland, became a friend that I kept in touch with for years afterward: Mitchell. This guy was a talented guitar player, fantastic singer, and a warm companion. I smoked a lot back then, and we went through pack after pack together, talking about whatever it was we talked about for hours. We hitchhiked together when he had to return his parents’ vehicle to them. We parted ways amicably in North California, and I still wish him the best.

I got as far south as San Jose. I enjoyed the Wharf, seeing Alcatraz, and the warm weather. This would’ve been late February, and it was twenty degrees. Amazing, for an Ontario boy having endured the Canadian elements to get here. I met a lot of neat people here, and was given a free plane ride as far as Buffalo when my welcome finally ran out with the highway patrol. Too much hitchhiking, they said, will land you in jail; and they caught me a few too many times, and I was on my last warning. So some family friends funded my escape, and my adventure came to a close.

That was a long one. The post, I mean. The trip was surprisingly short, looked at from this wide-angle view, but eventful and important to my internal process. I came home surer of myself, full of stories and ready to find excitement in my own town. I’ve also been conscientious about giving rides to hitchers, since then. How lonely a long road can be, and how wonderful the inside of a lousy car.

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