In the summer of 1972 my mother and her sister hitchhiked from Ontario to British Columbia and back. They took knapsacks and enough money for a month’s worth of travel. They promised to write. They were 18 and 16, respectively. They knew everything. They were completely unafraid.
My father almost went with them, but a little while before they left his parents had surprised him with a car, and so my mother wrote him letters under the flickering light of hostel dorms instead. Somehow the money lasted them right through to the end. Or maybe they waited tables for a week when they were in Vancouver; I don’t know. Everyone seems to have forgotten the smaller details now.
When I turned 18, I went to BC too. I took the bus. I mapped out my itinerary very carefully — bus out to Calgary, a journey down to Okotoks to see a friend from school, another bus to Banff, and a few days later another bus to Vancouver, and a ferry to Vancouver Island. A few nights in Tofino. On the way back, a day or two on Saltspring Island. I memorized the times for every bus we had to catch.
These years later, I have two memories that will not go away. The first memory is the darkness of the sky in Banff — how vast it was, how terrible and far away the stars. How exciting, to be there, and 18, and beginning.
The second memory I have is of the motorcycle crash on Saltspring Island. My friend and I had rented bikes to tour round the island, and on our way home, I took a corner too sharp. The bike slid out from beneath me and I went headfirst into the road. It didn’t hurt. I heard the bike stutter and die, and all I could think about was the fact that I didn’t have money to pay for repairs.
At the hospital, the nurse who cleaned me up made me talk about my university plans. So you want to be a writer, she said. My friend’s a writer. Lorna Crozier. Have you heard of her? As she talked, she froze my face and used steel wool to scrub away the gravel in my chin. I couldn’t feel anything. It sounded like a brush scraping old ash from the grill.
I ended up with five stitches. I see the scar every time I look in the mirror. The woman who took me to the hospital — her name was Mary. Someone stole her purse while she sat in the waiting room. I remember that too.
A Canadian Pacific Railway train. Photo by Flickr user Barry LewisMy mother and my aunt jumped trains once they got past Alberta. I didn’t think anyone jumped trains except in movies. One time, my aunt’s knapsack got tangled in the railing of the car; she lurched backwards, mid-jump, and blacked out. My mum had to reach for her, pull her onto the car.
Another time, they hitched a ride with a man driving down to the States. My mum sat in back and my aunt sat up front. There was something wrong with that man, my mum says now. I could tell. Just something about the way he looked at Ginny.
After they’d been driving a few hours, the man pulled off to the side of the road and said he had to use the washroom. My mother and my aunt waited in the car. He came out from the cornfields — again, like something from a movie — not wearing any clothes. My mother screamed, and fumbled with the door, and by the time he reached the truck they were running.
We should have taken the keys, she says now. We should have taken the keys, and thrown them in the cornfield as hard as we could.
Other than the motorcycle accident, the worst thing that ever happened to me while traveling was having to wait four hours overnight for the morning train in Pisa. I’ve never had anything stolen, I’ve never been really truly lost, and I’ve never been assaulted. I’ve never hopped a train.
I’ve never been frightened, not really. I’ve been grumpy. I’ve been uncomfortable. I’ve been bored. Once, while sitting in a café in Paris, waiting for my friend who had money to go through the Louvre, I started crying. I still don’t know why.
Another time, while taking the train from northern Scotland down to Edinburgh, an Indian physics professor tried to convince me to leave my boyfriend, just for a night, and join him in Glasgow. He couldn’t stop touching my knee. Just one night, he said. And then you go back to your life in the morning.
But I didn’t have a boyfriend — he was fake. Entirely made up. His name was Brody, and he was an Australian chef, and I told the physics professor that we’d met in St. Andrews, just like Will and Kate. I pulled the story from the air as we sat on the train. After a while the professor stopped talking, and by the time we reached Edinburgh his hands were hard around his newspaper.
Good luck to you, he said as we both disembarked. Good luck to you, and your lover.
I don’t get the big-sky feeling of Banff that much anymore. Is the world smaller now? Is that what it is? Nothing seems insurmountable. Even hitchhiking turned out to be a disappointment.
I still can’t get over the train-jumping. When we’re together at Christmastime, I watch my mother and my aunt and wonder how many things they’ve remembered about that trip. Did the sky speak to them like it did to me? Did the world grow and shrink for them all at once? Why did they come back?
These are only my questions, though. Not theirs.
A few days after my mother and my aunt left for the coast, my grandmother heard a voice say, Marion, they’ll be all right. She was folding laundry in the bedroom when it happened. She was alone.
I would have worried, she tells me now, but then that happened, and I knew they’d be okay. She has other stories like this, but this is the one I remember the most. I think of those nights afterward, when she crawled into bed beside my grandfather and thought about her two oldest girls, far away. There was no e-mail then. Phone calls were expensive. Maybe there weren’t even letters. I’ve been away now — I know what it’s like to get wrapped up in another life and forget everyone back home. But my grandmother knew, somehow, that things would turn out fine. She knew it when they were late coming home, and she knew it when the truck driver from Buffalo picked up my mother and my aunt in London and drove them right to their front door. My mother fell asleep on the last stretch of highway — she woke up when he stopped. He’d been heading to Toronto. It was only an hour or so out of his way.
I got kids too, he said. Maybe he hugged them before they left the truck. Maybe not. I think my grandmother, watching from the window as her daughters trotted up the drive, would have hugged him if she could.