Author Claudia Dey looks back on the long and winding road to summer.
The road to Tumbler Ridge.
Buffalo check jacket, tight jeans, Player’s Extra Light, hair down and snapping in the wind. I was 24 years old and driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck. Early summer 1997. Lady Di would be killed in a crash in two months. I would stay up that night in a roadside motel, sitting cross-legged before the flickering light of the television, staring into her face, my eyes glassing over, shocked by the black depths of sadness I felt about the end of her life.
The size of the rental truck went straight to my head. When I picked it up at the Edmonton airport, I had to vault my body up and into the driver’s seat. I had never felt so invincible. Duffle bag in the back, a list of handwritten directions on the passenger seat. I was to drive to a small town called Tumbler Ridge, B.C., about 120 kilometres south of the Alaska Highway. From there, I would head to a nearby bush camp where I would cook for a crew of 60 tree planters. It looked to be a nine-hour drive. I would do it in one shot. I had a single cassette tape. Beastie Boys. Licensed to Ill. No sleep till B.C.
I had kissed a boy in Montreal the night before. I thought of him now. He had a dark tangle of hair and eyes the colour of stormwater. We were both students at the National Theatre School of Canada. Leaning against a fence that bordered a construction site as cratered as the moon, a block from Leonard Cohen’s apartment, I imagined Leonard walking by, startling the pigeons into flight and writing a love song about us. Eventually, the sky paled. “I have to go,” I explained in broken French. “A plane. Work. North. All summer.”
Eight hours into my drive, when I was to make my final turn onto a mountain road, twilight crept in and I was suddenly tired. Dead tired. When had I last slept? There was a diner at the mouth of the exit. A waitress with a thin gold chain assured me I wasn’t far from my destination. “Twenty minutes, tops,” she said. I turned onto the steep and winding road. Immediately, my eyes began to play tricks. Ghosts of caribou and black bears crossed my high beams. I pressed my body to the steering wheel and slowed to a crawl.
The last car I had driven was an ex-boyfriend’s condemned Chevette. He loaned it to me so I could visit my grandmother in the hospital of a Montreal suburb. I had to leave the Chevette running in the parking lot while I sat with my grandmother and stroked her hands. She listened to classical music on a yellow Sony Sports Walkman. I loved my grandmother with such force it felt like a physical injury. I negotiated with the angels. “Please,” I begged too many times to count.
The mountain road was so narrow I couldn’t pull over. Grizzly bears roamed the steep ditches. Truckers, drifters, murder. I would rather crash. Crashing would be instant. Easy. A relief. Two hours had passed. The waitress was wrong. How much farther? I pictured my grandmother. Her silver hair, her ready laugh, the cartons of cigarettes in her trunk, never without her lipstick, her face aimed at the sun. Just when I was ready to give up and steer into oblivion, I rounded a corner and nearly collided with a small cluster of trucks. Headlights as white as halos. I pulled up alongside and told them my trouble. “Follow us,” they said.
A month into my contract, I got a beautiful letter from the French actor. It had a drawing of two sea creatures. They were entwined. For reasons I still cannot explain to myself, I never wrote him back. I never saw him again.