It’s October 29, 2009. I’m up early, having tossed and turned all night in the guest bed at my dad and his partner’s lake house. I get out of bed, take a shower, and try to find room in my stomach for food — it’s hard what with the giant knot in it.
Dad has filled up my station wagon with gas. He’s also helped fill it up with most of my worldly possessions. My keys are on a lanyard so I don’t accidentally lock myself out of the car. I have a map of Ontario in the glove box, even though I’m planning on sticking to Highway 17 for the next 2,000 kilometres or so.
The three of us hug goodbye. It’s no later than 7:30 AM and we’re all supposed to be getting on the road; Dad and Patsy back to Ottawa and me continuing on all the way to a little Northern Ontario town I’ve vowed to call home for the next year. I get in the front seat of the car and realize I can’t see out of the windows and the rearview mirror is useless. I will learn how to back up a station wagon using only my side mirrors very quickly.
Patsy bought me an iPod dock for the car before I left. I plug it in and pull out onto the road behind Dad’s van. Imogen Heap starts playing and I start to cry.
There there baby
it’s just textbook stuff
it’s in the ABC of growing up
We reach the intersection where Dad is turning one way and I’m turning the other. He waves out the window and I honk back, with a heavy heart. I’ve left home many times before, but this time feels… permanent.
It takes all the way to North Bay for me to stop crying. I get out and fill up the gas tank, hit Wendy’s for some food, and realize I’m committed, now. I’ve gone this far and I’m not turning back. I start to feel a bit giddy as I take the Sudbury bypass. The road is open, the sky is clear, and my music is playing. Life isn’t really that bad, I decide. I drive and drive and drive some more. I nearly get lost in Sault St. Marie and the lady at the gas station has to explain how to turn the gas pump on because I’m standing there slack-jawed and confused. I feel like maybe I’m not cut out for road tripping by myself.
I don’t notice any of the Lake Superior scenery. It’s getting dark and I’m sore and exhausted. This is the longest I’ve ever driven a vehicle. This is the longest I’ve ever been in a vehicle alone. I think I see northern lights and get excited but it turns out to be the glow from a paper mill. The Wawa goose is the most glorious site I’ve seen because it means I can finally get out of the car and go pee. I promised my father I would under no circumstances attempt to drive further than Marathon in one day. I consider stopping in Wawa but the hotels all look sketchy and I still have lots of energy. I grab a coffee and get back in the car.
The drive to Marathon is treacherous. It takes longer than it should because fog rolls in that was not there before. If I had known this was going to happen I would have stayed put with the goose, but I’m already on the road, sandwiched between transport trucks, and the winding hills are not getting any less winding. I’m willing to pay any price the man at the Travelodge asks when I finally arrive. Nothing is open. I eat leftover Wendy’s chili and swallow a few painkillers.
I’m up a bit too late in the morning, checking the oil in the car. I was exhausted the night before and accidentally slept in and now I probably won’t get to my destination until dark. The fog from the night before is still hanging around, clinging to the road, and it’s drizzling and cold outside. I drive into Marathon to buy a pair of sweatpants and a coffee. Tim Horton’s has been replaced by Robin’s Donuts and that’s when I know I’m really, really far away from home.
Driving. Driving. Thunder Bay is busy and it’s almost nice to see traffic again. I stop in Kakabeka Falls for gas but I can’t be bothered to get out and look at the falls. More driving. Slow down in Upsala because that’s where the cops will get you — my dad’s warnings echo in my head as I take my foot off of the gas pedal. In Ignace I buy a sandwich and the cashier compliments my tattoo. I know I’m nearing my destination. When I see the sign for Highway 72… I keep driving. I can’t go yet. I’m too nervous.
I drive to Dryden and hit up Walmart for more comfortable clothes. I didn’t pack in a logical way and I have nothing to wear for pajamas. I drive all the way to Minnitaki and buy a pair of sheepskin slippers. I have to get to where I’m going eventually, so I turn around and head down the road. I’m terrified of moose. I’m terrified of this town. It takes forever to get there and the hotel room is even more expensive than it was in Marathon. I don’t have anything to eat but I don’t want to venture out to town to buy anything and besides, it’s pouring rain.
The next day I check out and go to my new apartment to move in. Turns out the landlady forgot when I was coming and it isn’t ready yet. I’m supposed to come back later that day. I drive to Dryden again, in my pajamas, buy magazines at Walmart and read all day in the parking lot in my car. When I return, I’m told I still can’t move in and I’ll have to find somewhere else to stay for the night.
I try to call my Dad but my cell phone stopped working somewhere around Nipigon. I can receive calls but I can’t make them, so I text him to call me. I get about three words in and burst into tears, homeless, homesick, and broke. I check into a different hotel and Dad tells me where he hid the champagne in my car. I drink it from the bottle while lounging in the discoloured bathwater in my hotel room, reading the book of Mormon because there isn’t anything else in the room.
Halloween. I wake up dejected and spend the day eating chocolate covered banana chips that I bought in Ottawa and a few green apples I had stashed in the car. I watch scary movies and wonder what, exactly, I’ve got myself into. I finally get to move into my apartment later that day. It doesn’t have a stove and there are random frozen fish stockpiled in the freezer, but I can finally hang my pictures on the wall and unpack my car.
I go to work the next day. From my driver’s seat window, I see a guy bounding down the stairs and think, “Yay! I get to work with a boy!”
The rest, as it’s said, is history. I settle into work. I move four more times. I go on a date with the boy from work. I fly in a few bush planes. I get stuck in lots of blizzards. I travel, in all directions, even further north. Even further north than highways exist.
I witness real northern lights, not tricky paper mills. I witness the most glorious sunsets I’ve ever seen.
I fish. I snowshoe. I lose track of all the animals I’ve seen — moose, bears, a few beavers, a lynx, a handful of wolves, deer… I cook Thanksgiving dinner in a former Mennonite school on a gas stove. By myself.
I celebrate birthdays, Christmases, and life. I make friends. People say hi to me in the grocery store. I survive not just one winter, but two. Two summers, two springs and two falls. I trade the station wagon for something a little more rugged, with an actual block heater and four-wheel drive.
I fall more in love than I ever thought I could. I stop running away from life and embrace it instead. I stay. I don’t leave. I’m here.
Happy anniversary to me.