By Harry Vandervlist
Vermilion Bay pine-panelled dusky motel room. Sun-dimmed print over bed Lake Louise you step up feet sink press into bedspread. Unhook lake replace with your family farm photo. Sun-faded also brown wooden frame also step down sit by front window semis roar past on TransCanada. Admire perfect fit future guests if they notice will see just motel art for you says its piece all the same. A marker. Red wine with leftovers from lunch then you cross the wide roadway dark now still hot still blacktop trembles from trucks you walk down past a tavern then houses the water flat smooth like a sheet of aluminum warm on your ankles you tiptoe in shoeless you stare a long time no sound dark horizon far off islands dark. Walk back to the knapsack you brought. Glass fisherman’s floats red blue green always hung basement wall family rec room West Coast souvenir snapshot Kodachrome days. You strip off in twilight pull floats on their strings backstroke out water warm. When it seems right release them to find their own way to arrive at new shores maybe enter new stories. Now back at beach laughter young voices shouts teasing not flirting sister brother you figure they splash in broad shallows they lather their hair in the dark. You creep through dock’s shadow dress stealthy. Quick photo beach water moonlight. Back to highway mosquitoes motel room quick shower then sleep.
You dream empty house final day then possession. Wake up remember three days ago now and no dream. Shrieking winch dumpster hauled off goodbye to that monster. Drop donations last check back last time here sweep corners walk out unlock hatchback. Your final collection these artifacts how many years since you lived here last fifty almost now parents both gone. New people tomorrow. This salvage this rummage remains. Five days to drive west to drive home. Where it goes when you get there not pondering that. Turn key turn away find motel sleep wake pack coffee drive-through you point the car north.
Dispersal began by surprise that first day. Family home far behind you not thinking feel self-contained hatchback encumbered with all that you kept. North of Kingston roadside grocer wine shelves back corner find something Italian for motel that evening. Shoppers half masked for Covid half not cashier cheerful masked denim it looks like. Walk out sliding door business cards so many colours on cork board mosaic. Old ones just text little photos on new ones. Wine stowed in hatchback fill cooler of road food come back with your father’s card saved for no reason printed phone number seen your whole life. Pin it with others lower left corner near quad dealer’s card. Phone not in service you know this. You picture a stranger who pictures a face they imagine will answer not really your dad someone you’ll never know someone they’ll never meet. Just impulse but then when the hatchback hits fifth engage cruise your mind screens for you more little scenes. Stealthy donations, shoplifting reversed, some would say litter if you do it all wrong. Or maybe dispersal. Dispersal you feel since interment the split between siblings of all that remained took no furniture took only portable things that fit in the car. A scattering. Strewn. That world undone. Have so many old things these you took all the same just because one just does. Now as if from above see yourself moving gnat on a map little car filled with objects 4000k west it’s absurd. Say aloud so absurd to take anything yet nothing else felt quite right. Now this does. Feels good this unbidden idea new project not less absurd anyway different begins. Where next you can’t plan you don’t know where you’ll stop what will seem right feel correct you decide: pay attention watch wait. One green plant travels with you rear seat belted some kind of yucca you think. Mother like grandmother tended so long plain blue pot. New home will present itself. Golf gear books more business cards photos jacket tools boots. Golden trophy from high school no name on the plaque maybe soccer you figure framed pictures fur coat glass floats rec-room decor. Scatter it over the land. Broadcasting sowing you think in slow motion. One handful here one more there little ways down the road. Make these immigrant objects unhomed now like you like your ancestors. Let them go let them find their own ways in new lands. Undocumented mute in the languages spoken around them.
So you decided you carried on north ever north half this journey goes north. That arc west round Superior a summit momentum will build then after glide easy through prairies all downhill to Rockies and home. All in your mind. Still so much ahead. Straight road now for an hour since Minden. Behind you swerves picturesque forests lakes shorelines docks fingers dark water they grasp mirrored pines ancient stone fish hug cold bottom dark you round bend after bend. Rise after descent all those cottages boat-launches trail you now just this straight road to North Bay. Hunger taps at your belly you hanker for coffee next exit. Sundridge rail crossing main street bank beer deli sign sandwiches coffee. Flowers on porch lakefront terrace in back you mask up enter bell rings by itself tables five or six menu chalked in elaborate style. Fresh coffee to go BLT. Smiling couples outside sunny deck lakeside view get your coffee lid napkins spy cutlery gleaming in gray plastic tray ketchup vinegar lined to one side cared-for tidy you think. Back at hatchback you unlock stow sandwich snug coffee in holder pop hatch. Family silver dark wood heavy case one last look velvet lining so blue kept so long paper soft grey brochure sings the quality. Success the nice home the nice silver life-long every visit waits loyally set out last Christmas perhaps the last time. The point was to have it to know it was there. Cafe door jingles open you step back inside wooden case heavy elbow pressed tight to your side nod to washroom sign cook nods turns back to his chopping find sectioned grey plastic tray slip dark wooden case underneath slide it home. Steep bathroom descent now step narrow. Scented soap tea-tree oil. This place may do well through the long rolling crisis feels right for the heavy spoons forks knives the sugar tongs pie server pointed and broad. Almost out you turn back find your phone a quick photo. Wish you had thought to do that from the start. Will someone be puzzled delighted see worth in the solid utensils you think so. Roll back through town to straight highway stone banks blasted passage tall spruce.
Next day leaving Blind River tilt head check mirror on hanger behind you it gleams. Heavy fur coat her sole luxury grandmother’s pride summer-stored in cold lockers she insisted while living since then just in closets still brilliant though how many pelts maybe minks maybe muskrats not sure. This garment an icon from some other time streets of fine ladies handbags crooked elbows hats smiling so warm in their furs but what now couldn’t leave it there junk it in empty house now can’t imagine it hung in your own. “Back to the forest.” You say it you know it’s the only choice simply return these remains long-dead animals so gloriously confected silk-lined big round buttons in ebony probably possibly bone. A thing from another time some other planet now due to return to this earth. As you travel you you watch for a place it continues to shimmer behind you in sunlight it dangles it dances seems almost alive. By Superior ready to stop have some food let the lake fill your eyes you pull over. Old Woman Bay. Short walk to the beach wide from one far green point to green islands the sweep of the long stony beach you drink water flask warm from the car eat last apple hurl core back at trees lined high above beach. Listen long to the voices waves wind stones wind rattle as water slips back draws down into itself rises surges withdraws. An osprey you think high up north kayaks round point long clouds flat light breeze trees waves sound pauses. Let this forest receive it. Quick jog to the car coat balled up around hanger past visitor centre now taped shut for Covid you slip between trees darker now spruce and pine spiky dead lower branches you push your way in. Stand alert wander farther find outcropping rocks easy step over lichen in green copper gray under foot you move carefully think how long it takes to regrow. Find the place lower branch edge of clearing sun angles across strikes the coat half light here half in shadow age-dark wooden hanger Kingston Furriers hooked on this limb. For how long not long surely what fate for a thing so offered to forest suspended like this likely not found by humans by animals yes perhaps line a nest line a den comfort some creature. Will black bears shun this shape see a scarecrow a rival furred effigy scaffolded upright in trees. It will be its own mystery a sacrifice to something you step back through lichen you turn see it brightly it dances light breeze happy here you decide one quick photo. You feel light you come out of the trees lean on hatchback hot metal in sun feel a smile. Shake your head at this folly yet feel it well done.
Covid time sorry how awful they said interment not funeral not really distant masked graveyard oaks maples shade neighbours arrive walkers bump over grass. As you travel you like it like it more every day. Muffled masked held apart quiet time action shared. Death held at bay not your own but for others the actions admit maybe death in the air. Well for some. Ritual grief if you want it to be grief for what for a world for whatever you’ve lost smear of ash garments torn all in black like you wear nearly all the time anyway. Works for you for this travel this weird expedition you make your own ritual your secret game. As if you directed a film extras all stand apart faces covered keep quiet move slowly now over the continent shed your possessions give everything up. Let go of so much see how that feels feels fine so far ok keep going.
Terrace Bay you remember lake views broasted chicken place now must be closed. Last room at motel ranks of Harleys big pick ups from road crews one BC plate wonder what they’re doing here canoe trailer sole tourists in northern Ontario. Food choices pizza Chinese food not tempting remember a beach see a sign take a walk. Tennis ball spins past shouts waves game of parking lot cricket south Asian boys some kind of dorm more glad faces at once than you’ve seen for a week. Laughing then waving run down the ball grab it wind up in a movie you saw cricket bowler did something like that. Laughter applause game resumes stranded here summer workers you wonder without any work just like everywhere how do they live. Mosquitoes zoom in step more rapidly downhill find golf course bright clubhouse all welcome announces a sign. Climb curious steps to veranda glass doors warning sign all not native to northwest Ontario keep yourself out. Wave at ladies inside mask up they wave you in say ignore all that government makes us we’re happy to see someone what will you have. Chicken salad wrap Coke salt-and-vinegar chips perfect picnic food ask about beach. They say too far to walk now getting dark. Excuse yourself trot back uphill get the hatchback roll past cricketeers arrive just as food’s done. Directions for washrooms one level down meeting room place is deserted glass case full of trophies calm here rack for coats by the door. Forlorn few caps jackets hung tired on hooks. Back upstairs for your food thank the ladies delighted with smiles all around. Back at hatchback with food dig in backseat shift books box with trophy find father’s golf jacket ball cap worn for decades too grubby to donate too known too familiar to trash. Slip though side door to coat rack you carefully hang jacket shake rolled-up sleeve hook ball cap just above. Slip phone out for photo glass cases in background wood-panelled room empty stacked tables stacked chairs. Stand there a minute. Settle cap on its hook again walk out to car smells like picnic in there roll a couple of k down the road find the beach. Fog not far out waterfall barely visible sounds though so clear so distinct. Dog walkers pass you’re alone now wood tables here spread out your bounty your wrap in white clamshell your pop and your chips. Fog settles quieter now view of beach shrinks and dims.
Thunder Bay stop for groceries not much here to Dryden. Find coffee place walk to the hatchback hot paper cup muffin balled-up slippery film of some kind. Open car door sit sidesaddle. Fresh coffee in right hand cold car mug in left set both down open steel cup rinse shake splatter pantlegs oh well. Lift paper cup pour shift grip momentarily fumble too hot drop it damn dark hot coffee spills pools flows along tiny cracks in grey asphalt spreads dark steaming delta. Sit there hunched elbows braced splayed thighs smell exhaust gasoline roar of trucks sigh of brakes you stare into puddle breathe differently. A tear maybe two maybe sobs coming halt in your throat ragged breaths. Sigh a long sigh nothing further. Cheerful chap tall white hair windblown all angles fiddling with mask passes bright shirt bright crocs shrugs and grins sees your posture the puddle says hey it’s just coffee no good to cry over it eh you wave back shrug make gesture hands open means what can you do eh you’d welcome some tears if they came that’s past now. Grab both mugs straighten stare into hatchback the boxes the plant what a comedy get some more coffee get back on the road.
Red light now “stop” sign redundant flag woman still points it at you. Other-way traffic rolls past machines tower smudged yellow behind her. Blast mats from tires that rolled past here once decades earlier maybe. Dynamite tons of it tear this route wider through rock faces made with more dynamite lifetimes ago. Space to pass space to roll faster across this shield landscape. In long time-lapse you see chained explosions like Flanders trees fall like those soldiers fill craters fill marshes fill beaver-ponds smooth ridges make way for trucks packed with barbecues China Canadian Tire. Explosions ahead bombs that open your route. In your engine just smaller explosions burn forward vibration brake pedal leashed violence this movement years forests torn wildlife torn all strewn behind. A long abattoir nightmare. If you let yourself see it. Blow it up crush the land scrape the fragments the aggregate tamp it down seal it with tar. Green light now “slow” sign points to you clutch out move forward shake head clear your view. Reframe what you need to see forest unfurls alongside look at that look at that not the violence that brought you to see it. Through green roadside spruce fringe you notice more clear-cut.
Upsala. Burnt motels blackened windows graffiti-tattooed all day long now no tourists no work in these woods. Billboard you passed: pregnant? hungry? Call 1-800 something something. Your mind froze for a time. Stories too sad to imagine you do though your own grief a stone in your belly just lives there just waits a new thing you will carry long after this voyage this long expedition can’t pluck it out leave it for others set down in a forest a church at the altar coat-rack in a restaurant donate in a box let it float down the river sink into a lake. This will stay. Neither presence nor absence of something a change in the world new alignment of planets new weight in your skeleton ballast you bear. Generations your mother’s your father’s place empty now just you your brother your sister your own generation face into the dark. Roadside movement hitchhiker smiles snaggletoothed dreadlocks huge dust-covered backpack eyes meet sorry no room you mouth it he waves you pass by in one second. Who hitchhikes in Covid-time? Who will pick up such a figure a bundle of cloth snarled-up rope on top smiling and waving spruce misery every direction starved mothers. This country. Can’t wait to get past it it settles in lives in you too closed roads dead ends dust clouds gravel dormant pandemic time stalled quiet empty. Patient trees sunlit green when your eyes readjust.
Ignace no sign of life info sign. Pull in for bathroom provincial facility should be ok weeds untrimmed all still. Zombie horde maybe passed this way like in some movie not really just Covid. Stands of birch spruce tall windows man-made ponds nice idea neglected though just one car here see no people find toilet quick in quick out try to forget that one. Wander round breathe pine air wring gel-purified hands as if prayer Saint Ignatius his priests named the place maybe now mined for trees fish not souls. Historic display out back old fire lookout read panels graffiti still no one walk round to front windows hands up to block glare. Vacant inside. Find library bookslot smudged stainless steel no yellow tape seems open sign lists curbside pickup hours you get it now. This lifeline how many you ask yourself stuck here in Covid time no work you’d be here each day can’t fish all day long books save your life. Pop hatchback slide books out two boxes. Russian phrasebook your mother’s mother tongue you know you’ll never learn maybe someone here will. Gardening travel some novels. Interleave photos too you have so many. Holidays Mexico Hawaii Arizona even someplace not far from here fish boat that camper trailer you knew. Fold them in let readers wonder spin made-up history walk back a tall armload feed into the slot see them land inside blue plastic bin for collection what they do with them out of your hands maybe keep them or give them to kids now it’s done. Photograph building feel less satisfied less persuaded than in other places still seems good enough. Hatchback only car here never saw other people odd this place somehow haunted past time to go. Vermillion Bay by this evening leave these forests tomorrow change of scene escape from something no escape change at least.
Well past Kenora now broad prairie highway aspens cottonwoods poplars wide fields canola some sunflowers vast maybe 50k view. Lift your eyes world expands scale of planet well maybe a hemisphere. Towering broadening outswept armadas of fast-moving cumulus shadows you race you catch up pass below back to sunlight then do it again. Delirium. Slows everything down land like sea but sky even deeper. Breathe more slowly expand ribs expansion in every sense kind of release. Spruce granite beauty behind now here it’s turned soil sparkling wind-jangled aspen-leaves traffic sparse towns still hours between them. Sadness of forests long clear-cut and mined opens now into parkland gazelle bison waterbird country ahead for two days. Feels like new land needs new name picture Assiniboia streaming with buffalo. Is it more changed or less than lake country you left makes your heart hurt to ponder. You revel in sky in horizon you try not to think. Fruit stand wrong side of the highway you double back cautiously U-turn too easy to lose things small details like oncoming traffic just motes in this vastness you take a long time to be sure. Airy barn plums in crates peaches cider in bottles you fill up with coffee nod smiling you chat with the vendors both masked happy you are for once. They get all kinds here happy to manage at all no Americans not many cars pass but they’re hanging in. You like this place sunlight tall trees behind tables for picnics you walk back to hatchback lean in some tools claw-hammer screwdrivers plane not like you don’t have your own anyway. Leave these here in the sun let them make themselves useful maintaining this place. Can’t have too many tools: father’s voice in your head OK dad let these friendly Manitobans work with your wood-plane your hammer you’re probably fine with that right. Most relaxed you’ve felt so far this journey the prairies must do that the open sky who knows just probably closer to home click seatbelt rejoin slowly carefully broad empty road.
Winnipeg low on horizon bypass keeps you distant skyline modest lonely fragile wrapped in all this space or is that just your own state of mind. Exit ramp curving a figure pack dusty with gravel-dust propped against knees thumb out hair snarled like ropes same guy no can’t believe he made it this far. Same smile same sideways teeth wave shrug all same as before. Roll south city vanishes feel glad roadway seams hatchback bumps over could have stopped could have made room most dispersed by now coat picture books silver hat more free space every day.
Moosoomin Saskatchewan somebody’s mother a friend of a friend lived here reason enough to turn left pass the gas bar colossal Tim Horton’s. Dust clouds rumbling trucks why not visit the town. You bump over tracks elevators still standing just east main street banks rooflines low a small theatre some kind of college branch campus a coffee shop slow to the curb get your mask. Sweet caramel smell inside butter tarts customers elderly no masks but stand at a distance staff young all masked glass counter fruit pies under glass. You order. They’ll brew a fresh pot they say step to the washrooms no hand gel seems pretty relaxed you agree if you lived here you’d feel that way too covid talk only headlines apart from the truckers who don’t visit town just gas up and move on. Step back out claim your coffee your butter tarts street feels alive more than any since Kingston smiles nods from strangers as you open the hatchback. Roll slowly through town find a park a memorial benches the long list of war dead a shady spot elm trees they look like. Butter tarts coffee like medicine heart racing breathe deep Saskatchewan always a mystery never spent time here you finish dispose of your wrappings your coffee cup. Wander streets pleasant bungalows some places older big porches big trees raised beds vegetables carrots kale chard beets bean-frames beside sprawling zucchini. Next corner tall church weekly services cancelled feel curious step to the door. It swings open. Like tourists in Europe you tiptoe inside you came for the relics the paintings not that kind of place. Kids’ drawings donation box hung by the door pews sweep forward tall windows stained glass cut stone arch by the altar some flowers in pots perfect spot you decide look around you see no one no sound. Back outside drive the car one block closer lean in for the plant blue pot heavy stand up embrace pot with both arms back inside. Pretend a delivery look like you work here step confident bend your knees lower the plant into place looks at home. Tread softly pause furniture-polish smell dust motes in sunbeams everything still. Snap photograph now seems important but why figure that all out later slip phone in your pocket you make your donation you exit you settle the latch. Look around in the sun on the step with a smile for anyone watching.
Fort Qu’Appelle roll down steep to the valley feel cupped in a hand a warm palm still familiar the trees streets a family vacation age ten same feeling persisted recalled in your body you feel it again. No plan no reservation trust accidents here by a fruit truck this lineup pull over ask them. Minutes later you carry fresh sourdough cherries smoked salmon motel advice steer your way there. No Vacancy might as well ask since you’re here knock at office. Oh never mind that sign owner says lazy should change it of course we have room.
Final motel this trip everything glistens meticulous signs give directions for Covid procedures more thoughtful than any you’ve seen. Relax with it sit by room door sip of beer salmon soaks into sourdough bunches of cherries sun-warm. Near home now with near-empty hatchback so much more behind than ahead. Tall spruces in wind grassy hill rows of kale tall in gardens around the motel. Let the light let the wind move around you exist here just sitting. Earth tips away from sun light angles lower. You want to walk best do it now.
Gravel slides under shoes climb steep empty road knapsack not heavy but hot on your back low sun warms the grass smell of dust sage smell from bank on your left. Ditches dry no mosquitoes one dragonfly hovers it arrows away. Distant pickups big motors they floor it to climb out of valley so proud of their power their noise. Steepness relaxes road swings left to graveyard so high now so quiet at last open gate you walk in far below now the lake. Must be Starblanket rodeo ground trucks arena tipi apart from the town. Look left shadowed coulees their banks drape like blankets on hips over shoulders of something asleep. Walk to edge sun low shadows long. Wind stirs tall grasses sage lip of a bowl hidden deep in the prairie. Place it here kneel extract from your knapsack the mystery trophy gold statue arms up no name simply Most Valuable 1981. Placed on this stone amid grass by the sage flame of evening light glances off gold take your photo. No laughter no tears you feel neutral feel tired you stare at this fairy this tiny bright person arms up in surrender. Or victory no way to know. Just a thing to do long exhalation a shedding regretful of something of distance of time things that pass things abandoned things found on the way serendipity something like that letting go as you go lay down arms make a sacrifice homecoming nearly at least ancient Greeks on a beach golden tripods or goats they would barbecue likely remember that wrong anyway little figure glints here by this graveyard looks over a valley a lake hear the wind. What better where better your cargo all gone now strewn pebbles for somebody stories sparked maybe old stories new stories imagine remember.
Harry Vandervlist has published lots of journalism in places like Swerve and AlbertaViews magazines. He writes in two places where local languages persist despite everything: in Calgary, on Treaty 7 territory, and in Occitania in present-day France.