Sunday, April 3, 2011

My First Time, and My Last

I've been lucky in my travels so far, having been to such places as South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Austria, Russia, Sweden and England. But before I had set out to tramp through distant lands, I also had the opportunity to explore my own backyard. I've been up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States as well as Washinton and Oregon states, and I can say with some authority that South Carolina is the friendliest place in North America.

I've also been able, by sheer good fortune, to travel from coast to coast in my own country, Canada.

In 2002, one year before I first set out to South Korea, I took it upon myself to make my way from my college town of Hamilton, Ontario to the Pacific Ocean. My fourth year was coming to an end and my girlfriend of two years had broken up with me. She claimed that our lives were heading in different directions, but really I knew it was because I was doing copious amounts of drugs by that point. I took stock of my life, not knowing what to do after college, having no money and a sudden largess of personal freedom. I decided to head to Banff, Alberta.

Banff is a National Park nestled in the Rocky Mountains. There are a couple of resort towns and the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1!) that make up this otherwise unspoiled rugged landscape, and the town of Banff is where I was heading. Searching online, I found a job as a fine-dining waiter at Johnston Canyon Resort and applied. Within a few days I had the job. It only paid $8 an hour, and a chunk of that pay was taken off for accomodations and food, but I didn't care. It wasn't about the money for me.

Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

In May of 2002 I landed in Calgary and caught a greyhound to Banff, a few hours to the west. It was the first time I had really travelled, and even though it was within the borders of my own country, for me it was an exhilarating and exotic adventure. The Rocky Mountains towered above me on either side of the road as the bus wound its way along the Trans-Canada and deposited me at the Banff bus depot. I was the only person getting off at this stop, and as the bus pulled out I stood on the platform with my single suitcase and took in the awesome beauty of Canada's untouched wild west. From that moment on, my travelling fate was sealed.

I met in girl in Banff; a blonde co-worker who did roomkeeping at Johnston Canyon Resort, and we fooleded around from time to time but unless it was night and she was feeling frisky we ignored each other. There were about 20 staff there, and on weekends we would all car-pool into town and hit up the local pubs, of which there are three or four. On one occasion the girls declared a "girls night" and so the guys retaliated with a "guys night". I was against this line of thought, arguing in favour of hanging out with girls rather than having a sausage fest, but I was alone. We guys went to a basement pub and proceeded to drink away our measly earnings. After a few hours I managed to convince my male coworkers, now drunk, to crash the girls night. Our female colleagues were drinking in a much fancier bar across the street.

We grabbed our pitchers of beer and set out across the street. Unfortunately the bouncer at the bar across the street saw me with my pitcher trying to get in and yelled "Hey! You can't bring that in here!" I don't know why, but I turned and bolted. Like a dog, the bouncer ran after me. I ran and ran across a parking lot, laughing like an idiot the whole time while beer from my pitcher sloshed across my chest. Finally, out of breath and laughing, I stopped. Then I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. It was the bouncer. "Give me that!" He ordered, trying to get the pitcher from me. "Fuck you! Go get your own!" I defied. He seemed confused and said "You're banned from [***] Bar. And he walked back to his position at the front door.

That was fine with me. I saw the kitchen door to the bar was open and went in that way, emerging from behind the bar in the busy establishment. Nobody seemed to notice me, even the bartender had his back to me, so I casually walked over to the long table where all my co-workers, girls and guys, now sat. I still had my pitcher.

It was that night that I met the young woman who would later become the catalyst for my travels to Asia and Europe, first to Asia because we both wanted adventure and later to Europe because she broke my heart. Another blonde, from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, she was funny and pretty and personable and smart and very, very drunk. She had just arrived to work at Johnston Canyon and we got to know each other over the next few days, specifically because we worked together as servers in the restaurant. On many nights it was just the two of us, wearing white shirts and black pants, serving customers sitting at tables in candlelight, with views of the night time mountains all around while the same damned CD of Ella Fitzgerald played, night after night. Needless to say it was romantic in the extreme, and it wasn't very long before we were fucking.

We hooked up fast. X (because she's my ex), and her girlfriends she shared a room with, bought 1987 Honda Civic from a man with no hands who they nicknamed "Stumpy" for $600. This car had a great body for being over 20 years old, the result of using sand on the roads in the winter and not salt. There was no radio in the dashboard, only a big black hole. It was a manual transmission, and X was the only one among her friends who could drive manual. She began to teach me on those mountain roads in our time off. We also used the backseat of that car for other things...

Needless to say that I was hopelessly in love with X. We would spend every waking moment together, mostly making love but also driving around and talking and drinking wine by campfires in the mountain nights.

I had signed a contract with Johnston Canyon Resort to stay on until the tourist season ended in October, but by August working there was grinding on me. Management had a tip pool policy, which is great, except that the owners of the resort were included in the tip pool. All the hard-earned tips that the low-paid staff made was also pooled to the owners and their children! One of the owner's sons was a University professor in Calgary. He would stop in every weekend and collect his little envelope of tip money that the staff had earned. This was extremely unfair and everyone was bitching about it, but X and I bitched the loudest because, as the only two servers in the fine-dining restaurant, we were pulling in the most tips (people would order $200 meals, and Americans, who made up the bulk of our guests, are wonderful tippers).

I admit that I attempted to forment a mutiny at Johnston Canyon Resort, but some so-called friends had different loyalties, and one day, while sitting in my room between a split shift, the owner's son came up and said "Come outside. We need to talk." Those are words people never want to hear. I followed him outside, with the big pines and towering mountains enjoying the August sun. He turned on me. "You have 2o minutes to get your things and get the fuck off my property. You're lucky I don't beat you!"
I stammered back. "What? Why? You have to tell me why you're firing me!"
"I don't have to tell you shit! Get off my property!" He shouted.
Then, before I could recover with any type of clever comeback, he stormed off. I did as he said and a friend drove me into town with my suitcase.

I deposited myself at a restaurant and ordered coffee and tried to figure out what to do next. I had left a note with a friend before I left, slipping it into her hand, that read "Tell X I've been fired and will be at [*****] Restaurant (I forget the name)". I waited and waited. Finally, after two hours of sitting at the restaurant, X walked through the door. "Hi." I said. "Hi." she replied. "I got fired too!"

All she had with her was her suitcase and the Honda Civic we had bought for six-hundred bucks. As it turns out, it was all we needed.

We decided that it was time to head home. We didn't have very much money; just enough for gas and food to get us from the Rocky Mountains to her home in Cape Breton. We set out on the Trans-Canada heading east. We made sure to pick up a little batter-powered radio for the journey, and set it on the dashboard with it's antenna fully extended to pick up what stations it could (mostly CBC).

As the mountains receded in the rear-view mirror, we took in the landscape of Albert. East of Calgary the land is mostly desert, part of the great desert that stretches through America from Texas and Mexico. Most of the land in Alberta has been irrigated for agriculture but the odd cactus and desert brush gives away the secret. The Trans-Canada took us across this great desert to the prairies of Saskatchewan, where fields of wheat in high-bloom swayed in the wind. It's a unique phenomenon but some people actually get sea-sick on the prairies. We were lucky as neither of us get seasick.
The Canadian prairies

Saskatchewan and Manitoba are part of the great plains of North America, and the Trans-Canada took us all the way through towns with names like Medicine Hat, Swift Current and Brandon. As dusk set on the first day we made our way through Saskatchewan's capital, Regina, a small tree-lined city that pokes up from the otherwise unchanging prairie. We found a side-road in some trees east of Regina and parked the car for the night. We didn't have any money, so we were forced to sleep in the car. It was late-August and the temperatures were still warm, but the mosquitoes in the prairies tormented us all night with the windows down. We rolled up the windows and wrapped ourselves like sausages in what clothing and small blankets we could find (X had been smart enough to snag a couple of small blankets from Johnston Canyon).

Mosquitoes continued to buzz around us all night. Even with the windows up and the vents closed, they found their way in. As I was sleeping I would hear the high-pitched buzzing get closer and closer to my ear, until it was a deafening treble and then, just as suddenly, it would stop. That's when I knew I was being feasted upon. Every couple of hours I would wake up and go on a mad mosquito-killing rampage in the car.

It was a fitful and uncomfortable first night in the Bad Boy (as we named the car), but we woke up with the sunrise and set out on the road again. Saskatchewan fell away behind us and Manitoba opened up in front of us. The Trans-Canada through the prairies is a big 3-lane highway and flat as a board, so you can see it stretch over the horizon in either direction. Neat fields of wheat and barley stretched out for eternity to our left and right (a local saying is that in the prairies you can watch your dog run away for two days). We roared through Manitoba in the Bad Boy, doing in excess of 130 km/hour, until, when evening set in, we reached Winnipeg. The "Paris of the Prairies" is a large city with a bustling population that pops suddenly out of the sparsely populated prairies like the Emerald City. We splurged and took the exit into the city, just to check out one of Canada's famous landmarks, and sat down in a swanky bar for a beer.

We went over our maps and realized that, at the current rate, we would make Ottawa the following night, so I found a telephone and placed a collect call to my mother. My sister answered. "Hi!" I declared. "It's Paint!"
"Hi!" she answered, chipper as ever.
"I'm in Winnipeg!" I informed her.
"That's random." she replied.

We made arrangements to crash for a couple of nights at my family's place in Ottawa, and then set out in the Bad Boy again. It was late, maybe after 1 am, when we crossed the border into Ontario, and we pulled the car over in a parking lot behind a warehouse in some northern-Ontario hick town (the kind where the general store and hockey rink are the two biggest buildings in town). Some kids with mullets and baseball caps in a pickup truck followed us around for a bit, but we shook them and parked. Again, on our second night in the car, the mosquitoes tormented us to no end and at dawn, having barely slept, we set out.
A portion of the Trans-Canada Highway, Highway 1

Northern Ontario is part of the Canadian Shield, a solid-rock formation filled with nickel and other raw materials, covered in massive forests that stretch to the Arctic (part of the great Taiga that wraps around the northern hemisphere of the world) and the Trans-Canada was blasted through it. As a result the wide-open highway of the prairies turns, quite literally at the Manitoba-Ontario border, into a winding single-lane highway that snakes through tunnels and between cliff-faces. The Trans-Canada was built during World War Two to bring troops and supplies to the Pacific theatre and, more importantly, to Alaska. It has been modernized in most places but it seems Northern Ontario has been left out of the budget.

The Trans-Canada in Northern Ontario

As we wound our way through forest and over rivers and past lakes, I made an error in calculation. I saw that the highway splits at Thunder Bay, with one part heading south through Sudbury and Sault-St-Marie and on to Ottawa, while another, seemingly shorter route, curved up just south of Hudson's Bay and then stuck down directly to Ottawa. What I didn't notice was that on the page for the northern route, the scale of the map changed. My bad. We took the "shortcut" north, and ended up driving through desolate, poverty-stricken First Nation's reserves and slept in some tiny town with a name that completely escapes me. The good thing was that this far north, only a few hundred kilometers from the perma-frost line, the mosquitoes didn't bother us.

It took us two days to cross the prairies, and it took another two days to cross northern Ontario, but on the night of our fourth day since we had left Banff, we arrived at my mother's place in Ottawa. We were dirty and tired (although we had managed to shower at a truck stop), and we slept like the dead that night. We spent a few more days resting up, and eating, in Ottawa before getting back into the Bad Boy and making for Nova Scotia.

Ottawa is on the Ontario-Quebec border, so immediately upon leaving we were in "la belle province" on the big divided highway to Montreal (Autoroute 20). Montreal is a crazy city to drive in, as the 20 is almost always under construction (in Canada we say we have two seasons: winter and construction) and French-Canadian drivers are notoriously reckless. After Montreal we drove along the 20 for a few more hours and then came to historic Quebec City, where we crossed the St. Laurence and ended up in a suburb, Levis, which was actually quite nice. After Quebec City there isn't much civilization until Moncton, but the geography of eastern Quebec is stunningly beautiful.

With the St. Laurence to our left and very small and narrow farm plots to our right (Quebec follows the civic code of law, whereby fathers divy up their property to their sons, and over 400 years, as subsequent generations were given property, those plots have become very, very narrow but very long).

We reached the Gaspe Peninsula in the early evening and turned south at Riviere-de-Loups, into New Brunswick. We were in the Maritimes!

Here we made another mistake in calculation, and chose to go through a provincial park rather than stay on the main highway to Fredericton. The park went on and on and on, travelling on a single-lane road surrounded by a dark forest as the sun set in our rear view mirror. The gas gauge crept lower and lower. For some reason, on our little dashboard radio, Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" started to play, a fitting soundtrack to our dilemna. We both couldn't help but roar with laughter. As the needle hovered over the "E" on the gauge, we finally emerged from that damned park and a gas station was the first thing we saw.

After filling up with our last $30, we made our way on to Moncton and St. John and finally crossed the border into Nova Scotia. A gigantic Atlantic fog bank rolled in as we passed through Truro, rendering visibility to almost nothing, but we continued to drive. It was late now, but we were only 3 hours from Cape Breton so we pushed on, and around 3 in the morning we pulled in to X's home, a beautiful old house set on 100 acres of seaside property. We had travelled from Ottawa to Cape Breton in about 15 hours!

It had taken us 5 days to cross Canada, from the Rockies to the Atlantic, with little food and no money for hotels, but somehow we had pulled it off. We stayed in Nova Scotia for about a month and then drove back to Ottawa and found work, apartment, etc...

The next year we set out to South Korea, and after a few years there we landed back in Ontario, but then, this time in a much newer car and loaded with a lot more money, we drove from southern Ontario to Victoria, British Columbia in a little over 4 days (staying in hotels and eating at wasn't nearly as fun). Two years later she left me for another guy and I began to make plans for more travel, which brought me to Russia.

That one summer, in 2002, was my first taste of travel, and, like a drug, all it takes is one to get hooked. Now, as I attempt to settle in Halifax, I greet the end of my youthful travelling days with a mix of sadness and relief. It's not easy living such a life, and while I look back upon my adventures with fondness, I am glad that I can begin to live a much more settled life. I'm sure that I'll have more travel, but from here on in I'm looking for the all-inclusive resort variety. I've had my time living out of a suitcase, and as I reach my mid-30s I feel the need to plant roots somewhere.

That is why, as I'm no longer in Moscow and I'm working on getting settled here in Halifax, I've decided to end Mission to Moscow with this story of how it all began. I hope everyone has enjoyed the blog I started three years ago. I appreciate all the emails and comments and online friends I've made, and everyone who followed along, through good times and bad, fun stories and boring.

The good news is that my writing is not all finished. I'd like to announce that I've successfully signed a book deal (with only 1% royalties) and my book, a semi-fictional account of my life, will be on sale in 2013. Look for Moscow Cowboy by N. A. Drescher in Canada in two years, if you remember, or online at Amazon.

With that, I end Mission to Moscow. As they say in Russian, paka!