A little Volkswagen Beetle, them up front, me cramped in the back.
At first it wasn’t too bad. Watching the country go through its changes. First time on the prairies and I was surprised by the rolling kinda hills with all these wildflowers. I expected one big, wide shelf of wheat you could look flat across to the Rocky Mountains.
“Some of it’s like that but not all,” Wesley said. He was taking us the northern route instead of the Trans-Canada Highway, which woulda been faster, cause he liked the rougher country. “The real prairies. My prairies.”
Guy was weird. Looked weird. Longest, skinniest head I’d ever seen. If his hair didn’t bush out you wouldn’t be able to tell where his neck ended and his head began. Goofy big moustache that cut his skinny face in half. He was wearing a sports jacket and trousers pressed neat then, like some kinda freaked-out salesman. And, man, he could talk, like a free association kind of thing.
When Gus told him about me coming too, the guy wasn’t put out. “We’ll do the west together then. I dig it. So you’re Mark. Marcus Aurelius, my consolations. Marcus and Augustus. Emperors of the western highway. You’re on Wesley’s highway now. My very high way. Take the high road we can make Vancouver in three days and two nights driving by express. Straight through. Though what fun is straight?”
I know that sounds like he was stoned or a speed freak or something, but when you were there you knew he wasn’t. Maybe crazy or maybe super smart but I never saw him do drugs. I didn’t get half the things he said and didn’t believe the other half but he was entertaining to listen to. Some.
On the way out of Winnipeg, I sat in the back watching for police cars. I wasn’t gonna tell Wesley anything myself but Gus in the front said to him, “You realize you’re aiding the escape of a coupla criminals?”
The car slowed a little. “How’s that?”
“We were just chased by cops all over Winnipeg. For dope.”
The skinny head bobbed. “You holding now?” he asked.
Gus looked back at me and I said, “Nope.”
“What was it?”
“I had a joint.”
“A joint? That’s nothing. They’re not going to be searching for you for any stinking joint,” he said. Actually he said it in a fake Mexican accent. “…annee steenkin joeent.” He stepped on the gas and started singing a Spanish-sounding thing, “Los paranoias….”
But we drove another half hour before I relaxed and stopped watching for cops. Then I sat back and let myself drift toward sleep as Wesley and Gus talked up front.
Their voices rose every now and then above the car engine and the wind whipping the windows. They seemed to go on about nothing in particular, like people do at first, finding ways to agree on everything. Wesley’s head nodded in time to his own words. The long cords popped in and out of his skinny neck above his suit collar.
I woke up sometime later with my legs sore from being bunched up. I shoved our packs to the floor and stretched as much as I could across the packs and the seat. My hand was throbbing where I’d bashed it on the fence. I hadn’t noticed the throbbing before. Maybe I’d broken something.
Wesley’s head was bobbing more and Gus’ head was held straight ahead now. I think Gus was talked out now.
Next time I woke up was at a gas station. Wesley was folding his sports coat into a suitcase in the trunk of the car, which in a Beetle is at the front. He came back from the washroom wearing these faded blue jeans, a denim jacket over a tie-dyed shirt, and shades.
Gus asked if I wanted to switch seats but I said I didn’t mind being in the back so I could sleep. Of course I stayed wide awake after that. And my legs were starting to feel like they’d never straighten out. You know how small a Beetle is and I swear it was shrinking.
The conversation from upfront was heavier now and almost all from Wesley, the snatches I heard. It had a kinda rhythm. I could almost bang out a beat to it on my knees.
Wesley saying, “But they’re looking for the answers in the wrong places. They’re looking to others, they’re looking to systems. You dig it? ... external solutions....” Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum-dum-dum. “Instead of looking inside....” Da-dum, da-dum. “This run-in with the cops, for instance. Now why should I allow it to affect me here and now? Why should I? I know you as the folks with me at this instant, this instant in time....” Da-dum-diddy-dum.
Gus saying something like everyone’s got their own way of looking at things. And Wesley going on, “I’ve had my own confrontations with the state ... makes you think ... makes you think maybe, just maybe we ought to forget this whole balled-up world and start over ... too big, impersonal ... only individuals can....”
I missed most of it. I didn’t know back then if this guy was crazy but as I listened to snatches of it I kinda wanted to hear more. It was wasted on Gus. So a coupla hours later I switched to the front seat. We were still on the northern route across the prairies, the sun high ahead of us. We had to squint even with the visors keeping our faces out of direct sunlight.
But now, for the first time, Wesley wasn’t talking.
“So where are you from?” I said.
He just laughed. I didn’t know if he’d heard me right, so I said, “You from Winnipeg?”
He laughed again. In his throat without opening his mouth.
Then when I didn’t try again, he spoke. “Man, the wrong question.”
“Asking where you’re from is the wrong thing?”
“Where are we?” He turned his face full to mine, sunglasses hiding his eyes.
“Better watch the road,” I said.
“I’m watching.” He faced front again but his head stayed cocked towards me, his impossible neck stretched out. “But I’m asking you. Where are we?”
“I thought you knew the way.”
“Where are we, Marcus?” Again the laugh and his sunglasses looking straight ahead.
I had a strange moment. Like when you meet an insane person. For just a moment you’re not sure it’s you or them who’s out of synch. For just a second the countryside seemed to slow down in passing us and the car seemed to lift up and away from the road and I felt how far I was from home and parents and things you count on for proving that you’re sane from day to day. For just a second.
But Wesley didn’t go on to say anything completely nuts and prove he was crazy for real. Just that chuckle in the throat and “You don’t get it.” Like he was just playing a crazy guy, like part part of an act, when he was really some kinda giggling maharishi or something who had an inside track on things, like this was all scripted to teach us who knows what. And we were all playing our parts in it whether we knew it or not.
WESLEY: You don’t get it.
GUS: What’s to get? Mark only asked where you’re from.
WESLEY: Hey, hey. Why so uptight, people. I have a purpose here. Just try and answer my simple question first.
MARK: You mean where are we? Okay. We’re in Manitoba. Unless we crossed into Saskatchewan. Not sure. Somewhere west of Winnipeg. Slightly north.
WESLEY: And where’s that?
MARK: Winnipeg? In Manitoba. Canada.
WESLEY: Where’s that?
MARK: You mean like in school when you put your name and street on a notebook and write under it Toronto, Ontario, Canada, North America, The World, The Solar System, The Galaxy, The Universe. That what you want?
WESLEY: So where are we?
MARK: You wanna see it on the map? [Pulls a map out of the glove compartment.] Right around here. [Jabs a finger at it.]
WESLEY: We’re on that piece of paper? [That laugh again.]
MARK: Okay, I give up. I dunno where we are. That what you want me to say?
WESLEY: I don’t want anything. I’m asking where you think we are.
MARK: We’re here. We’re just here.
WESLEY: Thank you. [Big smile, full on.]. We are here. That’s the fullest, best, most accurate answer any of us have. GUS: Oh, brother.
WESLEY: So about your question to me. Where I’m from.
GUS: We know. You’re from there.
WESLEY: This isn’t some word game.
GUS: Where are you from is all Mark asked. Like could you could narrow it down to a planet?
WESLEY: I’m sorry you’re getting hung up. Try it from this perspective. Here we are, ghostly galleons tossed down this highway. This narrow ribbon. Not knowing what experience lies ahead over that next hump in the highway. See up ahead there? You think you know. But you don’t. Not really. And what’s back there, in the rear-view mirror? You think you know that too. Because you’ve been there. But ask the three of us and you’ll get three different stories. And you go back there to check it out, you’ll find you’ll have changed, you’re always changing, and so what you perceive back there will be different too. Like the man says, you can’t dig in the same river twice. You dig that?
MARK: Think so. So?
WESLEY: So here we are in the here and now, changing and affecting our reality, the only reality that we are ever really part of. And you’re all wrapped up in something way back there. Questions about the past. Know why it’s called the past? Because it’s passed. And we’re the ones passing over it. Any more answers you’re seeking?”
MARK: Just making conversation. [Laughing. Really did find it funny.]
WESLEY: Say you’re from Toronto. Right? So how be if people went around thinking of you as a Torontonian?
WESLEY [in deep radio-announcer voice}: The Torontonian. From the big eastern city of Bay Street. Tall buildings. Cold-eyed hustling people working the concrete canyons where the clocks always say twelve-thirty.
WESLEY: You want to say, hey, that’s not me. Am I right? I’m right. So suppose I’m from Vancouver, went to university, became an accountant in Montreal, married, divorced, tuned in, dropped out and now I’m returning to B.C. to build a cabin on the coast. You dig all that?
MARK: That’s all true?
WESLEY: Could be. See what a mess of labels you’d have to stick all over me? West Coast-type. College man. Bean counter. Divorcee. Social drop-out. I could have said I’m an ex-con, missionary, anything. Point is, how would any of those words change one iota about what I am now? To you. As you sit here with me, driving, this very instant?
MARK: I dunno. [And then just to bug him:] So where are you from, really?
WESLEY: You want to worry that bone, don’t you?
He gave up on me for the time being and hummed to himself.
Later Petra told me that bit about never stepping in the same river twice was supposed to be from some old Greek guy who’d really said you could step into the same river twice but the waters would be different. He was misquoted by some other Greek, she said. The media, eh? But I didn’t know that then and I guess it wouldn’t have made a difference if I did.
We went up and over a small hill in the road, Wesley’s next hump in the highway, and down a long slope on the other side.
At the bottom, without warning, the car wrenched off the highway. I fell into the gear shift, then back against the door. I heard Gus sliding over in the back and swearing.
We were on a narrow dirt road. Wesley was still humming.
“What the hell?” said Gus.
“I wanna show you something, people,” Wesley said. The dirt road led towards two round, stubbly hills. From a distance the road seemed to end there. But it twisted between the hills and opened into an area of smaller hills and kept going. We bounced along the dry road. Behind us two clouds of dust folded high in the air.
The road finally died out in an open space the size of a high school stadium, ringed by hills no bigger than bleachers. We slowed to a stop beside a wooden tower. The tower was caved in near the top. A line of weeds went past it, marking an old railway track. On the other side of the clearing were two fallen-down shacks.
Wesley got out. He stretched, closed his eyes and breathed in deep.
I didn’t smell anything unusual.
“I thought you might find this interesting,” Wesley said.
“What is it, like a ghost town?
“I discovered it a few years ago. I never come through without stopping here.”
Gus bent out of the car, all stiff. “A grain depot, looks like. Abandoned ages ago. Those shacks over there were probably a store or records office.”
“How do you know that?” “You’re talking to a country boy,” Gus said. Then, “Not really.”
He put his head back and breathed deep, all dramatic like, rising on his toes, like Wesley had done. “Ah, fresh country air. Takes muh ba-yack,” he said like a TV hillbilly.
Ignoring us, Wesley walked towards one of the slopes. The dust we’d raised hung in the air. Maybe cause it was so still and quiet here.
Gus went over to take a leak by the tracks. I walked around the busted grain elevator, then strolled across to poke around the other buildings. I could see Wesley kneeling in yellow grass on a knoll. He mighta been praying.
There was some broken beer bottles behind the shacks. Part of one shack was scorched like someone had started a fire and then put it out before the whole building caught.
Beyond the shack was the highest hill around, though it took me only a few seconds to reach the top. From there I saw another, smaller depression on the other side. No road or buildings. I couldn’t see past the next hill.
I sat in the dry grass on the hill and looked back over our little stadium valley, like I was a spectator in the stands. Watched Gus kicking along the tracks and around the busted grain elevator. Wesley across from him doing something in the grass. Car in the middle, dirty now the dust had settled. Sun, falling faster, playing a trick with the air, making it heavy and speckled, kind of orangey.
I was wide awake but I felt myself relaxing all over like I was gonna fall asleep again. It was all too much. This morning I’d been playing cops and robbers in the alleys of Winnipeg. Now I was here. Same day. Different scenes, like they didn’t belong in the same world. I had this feeling that the country we were going across had thousands of these different scenes. Little worlds hidden from each other. Thousands of little pockets to lose yourself in.
Gus climbed the rise behind the tracks and grain elevator. I watched as he stood at the top and looked out in that direction just as I had done from my hill the other way. He sat down too as I had and played with a stick in the dirt beside him. He looked across our little valley, saw me and waved. I waved back, from my hilltop to his. Then our heads both turned to Wesley.
He was coming back down from a knoll. He started to skid on his heels. He still had on the shiny black shoes he’d worn with his suit. His hands were cupped together in front of him and he wouldn’t use them to catch himself. He slid onto one knee, then struggled back to his feet, clumsy-like.
The three of us met at the car. Wesley held out handfuls of dry dirt. He let it sift through his fingers and rubbed his thumbs in the last of it like a wise old farmer.
“Soil’s no good for crops,” he said.
“You can tell?” I asked.
“Top soil’s eroded for miles around. Probably been so for years. Explains why this place is deserted.”
“Could be,” said Gus, pulling the driver’s seat forward to get in the back of the car.
“Look around you, man,” said Wesley. “Feel it.”
“It might be cause the rail line shut down. Wasn’t that a big issue out here? The railways pulling out?”
“That was one of the problems.”
“I could be wrong.” Gus cut off discussion by getting in the car.
As we drove back to the highway, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to live in this place once, with grain or corn or what they planted around here. Rows of it growing over the curved land. But I guess city kids, we didn’t know anything about that kinda stuff.
“I’d go out of my mind if I lived in a place like this all year round,” I said.
“That may not be a bad thing. I just wanted you to experience the calm. Let it all go. Like the past you’re so enamoured with. A past that’s never become a present.”
Neither Gus or I dared comment cause we didn’t wanna get him going again. But after a few more miles he got going again on his own.
“We needed to expel the poisonous city air from our lungs. The tensions from our bodies.” Then he said to me, “You feel better now, don’t you?”
“Sure.” In a way I enjoyed all his talk even if he was showing off. I kept wondering if there was anything behind it. Something he was getting at.
“What’s wrong with your hand?” he said.
I’d been holding it up by the wrist with my other hand without realizing it. It was throbbing again. I told him how I’d hurt it running from the cops and he said I’d better be careful it didn’t get infected. “But I can fix it,” he said. “Next stop we’ll get what we need.”
“So where are we now?” Gus piped up. “On the map, I’m asking. On the map.”
The sun began setting off to the left of us cause the road was slanting north. We stopped at a diner for gas. Time to eat, Gus and I said.
But Wesley said not him. Told us go to ahead, he’d get the tank filled and putter with the engine. He told me to buy myself a tea, save the bag and bring it back to him with some sugar, brown if they had it.
While waiting for our orders at a table in the diner, Gus and I gulped down potato chips and pop from the candy counter.
“Think we should get Wesley some food?” I said.
“Yeah, he’s probably starving and won’t admit it.”
When we got back to the car he was sitting in the driver seat talking into a microphone. A big tape recorder was on his lap. It had the biggest reels I’d ever seen. Some foreign words on the side.
“What’s that?” I said.
“Tape machine,” he said. “Reel to reel.”
“I know that. What for though?”
“My notes. My discoveries. Life. You, me, this trip. What I see, what I know.” He muttered a few more words into the mike and flipped a switch. The reels stopped. He pulled up the lid that was hanging over his knees and snapped it shut over the tape machine.
“It’ll be an amazing book someday. The Book of All.”
“The Book of Awe?”
“That too. All. Everything.”
“That pretty well sums it up,” said Gus.
“It does, doesn’t it?” said Wesley.
“We got you some food,” I said. He carried the tape machine to the trunk of the car, put it away real careful and got back in behind the wheel.
“So you want it?” I held out the plastic food dish, plastic fork and a paper cup of tea with brown sugar which I knew he liked.
He said again he wasn’t hungry but he’d eat it since we’d gone to the trouble of buying it. Then he wolfed it down.
So we found out he was short of cash for food. He had a bit but he had to keep a reserve in case the car broke down and needed repairs. He’d be in a better financial position when we hit Vancouver. He’d be happy to put us both up there. He had a place with friends. They were his people.
From then on we bought Wesley food.
Oh yeah, and after eating he broke open the tea bag I’d brought him and mixed it with the sugar and some soap shavings he got from the gas station restroom. He put it on a strip of cloth and tied it around my sore hand. Said it was a poultice to draw out the demons. Or the bacteria, if I was more comfortable thinking of it that way.