Wordcarpenter Books
Road Sailors 

25

"Heaven is author of the virtue that is in me.' - Confucius

Just east of Craven, Saskatchewan

Here, in the fluid anonymity of time somewhere in Saskatchewan, rolling tumbleweeds race by faster than a man can run. For a while we drive parallel to some train tracks that takes me back to something I read in Pierre Burton's The Last Spike. What was cool about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway was the ‘end of track:' that community of workers that stirred like a beehive full tracklayers, carpenters and blacksmiths that laid the tracks all the way across the country. In our road buggies Remy and I are constantly at the end of track except we move several hundred kilometres a day instead of a few. By removing the persistent need of a motel each night, the road sailor can push the boundaries of exploration to new limits compared to the early settlers, especially if the road buggy is stocked with a substantial supply of fuel, water and food. You have control over what route you take because you are your own captain in charge of navigation. Like the road sailor exploring, the end of track has everything to do with becoming, but it's a life fraught with risk and is not a life for everyone. Instead of drinking whiskey brewed with rye, red ink and tobacco juice that the scallywag tracklayers drank 120 years ago, we smoke tea and drink beer. Only those with the requisite mettle can forage so far into the unknown. There is an element of extremism that's required for such an existence and the capacity, endurance and willingness to undergo privation, cold, hunger and isolation.

Mile after mile we cross the golden plains of the prairies that pioneers harnessed with their hands to turn into the wheat basket of the world. Wherever I look I see knee-high buffalo grass, purple sage and yellow daisies surrounding the roadside that stretch into the horizon. Prairie foxes dart across the road like cats on a city street. In the middle of a passing field is a large church beside the tracks but there aren't any homes around for miles. Freshly painted, the hundred-year old chapel bespeaks victory over a history of a thousand blizzards. We pass a sign that reads:

BIBLE CAMP

NEXT EXIT

Signs for Bible camps soon dot the highway and the radio is full of Christian music. I guess this is as far as many of the pioneering padres made it. Few seemed to have reached the oil fields of northern Alberta. The southern prairies is the Canadian Bible belt that was a massive land grab for farmers last century after the failure of the Métis rebellion of 1885.

A fuel stop brings us to rest just across the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border near the Louis Riel Trail in the Métis homeland of Manitoba. Standing there I can smell the scent of willow and balsam.

"You know James Dean grew up right across the US border just south of here?" says Remy. "Jimmy Dean's mother was part Indian. A lot of good people come from the prairie table. It's that Métis stock. People forget that Manitoba and Saskatchewan were created as the homeland of the Metis. They say up to 80 percent of the population here are Metis. Hemingway was part Ojibway. I believe he's an Illinois boy. And you know who else was Métis?"

"Charlton Heston."

"Yes. And so is Winston Churchill. His mother was from New York State. She had a tattoo of a snake on her wrist. Look it up." I'm pensive today with a hangover so I'm not the best company for Remy but he's energized from the surroundings. Soon I am feeding off his energy that causes me to ask the question foremost in my mind.

"I can't stop thinking about what the waitress said to us last night about Cain." I say. "Are we cast out and destined to lead a wanderer's life because we create?"

"Do we have the mark of Cain, you mean?" Remy rubs his chin for a moment. "Those of us who create are like God; we are God's Messengers, His Angels, because we honour our divine gift given to us by the Creator. And because we know what it is to create, we are not like Abel. We are not keepers of cattle; we are the growers of crops and producers of bounty. Cain's flock has given mankind fields of wheat and the sustenance of bread, and has enabled man to move from a hunter-gatherer state of existence to a stable homestead where arts and crafts and literature can flourish." Standing there I get a mouthful of dust from the wind off the roadside. He says self-knowledge is being aware of the divine ability to create and that he believes all peoples have a drop of the divine in each of them. One can see who they are through their creations and that the act of creating something - anything - is a higher form of self growth. Feeling weak I follow the tumbleweeds rolling by in front of the pencil-thin shrubs beside us.

"C'mon, let's go. I want to hit Seven Sister's by tonight." We get in our road buggies and drive for Seven Sister's Falls to see Remy's friends. By nightfall we are nearing the roundabout for Winnipeg when Remy suddenly pops a tire and swerves to the shoulder. He stops his rig high up on the bend where 18-wheelers whiz by within a few feet. I park behind him on the shoulder.

"Leave your lights on," he says to me. "I have a jack. No problem. Let me handle it." I stay in my rig with my headlights on, watching Remy unscrew the flat tire. Just as he is about to screw the spare tire on, a truck roars past him that shakes his rig. Remy's camper slips off the jack and is going to fall on top of him but is stopped only by the spare tire that is pinned between the falling camper and the pavement. It's screwed in just enough to stop the camper from falling on him. In fact the camper would have fallen onto the Trans-Canada Highway after crushing Remy if it weren't for the spare tire being partially attached with one screw.

The red bandana is slightly askew but Remy slowly moves away from the camper and stands up untouched by the leaning camper above him. He shakes his head and begins examining the jack, cool as a cucumber. Unruffled, the 18-wheelers keep passing close to the shoulder but with grace under pressure Remy begins jacking up his rig again in a new spot along the bumper. Once he raises his truck he removes the spare tire, checks it and then puts it on again when for no apparent reason the rig crashes down for a second time. For a moment Remy stops moving and faces the camper falling onto him calmly, as if he's saying: ‘C'mon, take me.' I witness this for a second time within the span of a few minutes. I get out of my truck in disbelief.

"Are you crazy?"

"It keeps slipping."

"I can see that!"

"You saw that?"

"Yeah, I saw that - both times."

"Well, what am I supposed to do? It's not my fault. The trucks are pushing my rig over."

"Do you want to die?"

"You mean graduate. We all have an inheritance to collect some day." Remy shines his flashlight on the wallet he's removed from a pocket. I see it and his Canadian Automobile Association card.

"I'll find a payphone and call CAA," I say, taking the card from him. "I'll be back soon." I find a store five minutes away and then return.

"They told me they will be by in the next ten or fifteen minutes."

"Thanks Trapp."

"I saw you surrender there when your camper was falling on you."

"I didn't think you were watching."

 "You were almost killed," I say shaking my head.

"You mean graduate. I wouldn't mind spending my time in the spirit world." Remy is composed as the cars speed by on the road in the dark.

"Are you serious?" Remy's brush with death has brought something to the fore.

"Don't you see? The Lost Generation that Tom Cardinal spoke of is now coming to age so I can't die yet. Métis like us will lead a new revolution in the footsteps of our leader Louis Riel. The Sons of Riel are now coming together under the prophesied leadership of the Pahana. The Messiah of the Twelve Tribes of Israel appeared in Jerusalem and worked his ministry of turn the other cheek. Our revolution will not be one of violence but of the heart. The Red Man came from the lost tribes of Israel in 680BC. They're known as the Lammanites and the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. That's what the Mormon founder Joseph Smith Senior preached. The Red Man sailed over from the old land in boats and settled Turtle Island. Read the Book of Mormon and you'll see. Dougie Bell and Tattoo Jimmy believe me. They think I'm the Pahana." I let out a deep sigh.

"Everything's jiggie, man" he says. We stand together smoking a cigarette, protected from the passing traffic by the half-fallen rig. When the CAA mechanic arrives. Remy offers him a cigarette and explains what happened. The mechanic promptly begins securing the jack and replacing the flat tire. The cigarette dangles from below his clipped moustache. I can see that he's good at his job.

"How much do I owe you?" Remy asks when he's done.

"I don't like paperwork," he answers. "But I do take tips." Remy glances at me and then hesitates. I know he doesn't have much money so I hand him a twenty-dollar bill.

"We really appreciate you helping us out," I say. We both shake his hand and he departs. When there's a break in traffic, we pull out onto the Trans-Canada Highway and continue east towards Remy's Manitoba stomping grounds.

 



26

"Make it your guiding principle to do your best for others and
to be trustworthy in what you say. Do not accept as friend
anyone who is not as good as you." - Confucius
Beausejour, Manitoba

Long willow branches brush the tops of our campers as we quietly shuffle through the sleepy town of Beausejour on our way towards Seven Sister's Falls. Placid, benign and charming, we pass by the Brokenhead River Campground where Remy lived years before, once spending an entire winter in his trailer with only a small electric heater.

Once outside Beausejour the countryside is full of 100-acre farms neatly placed side-by-side. Birds fly in the full moon sky as we drive down the main street in Seven Sister's Falls nestled on the boundary of Whiteshell Provincial Park. Twenty minutes from Beausejour, there's only one store in town and a dozen homes. It's also where Tom Cardinal's sweat lodge is located.

Inside a small tavern beside the general store, the bartender thinks she recognizes Remy when she sees me walk in first.

"Look what the cat dragged in," she says. I tell her I'm Remy's twin. She puts her hands to her face.

"His twin! Oh I always believed him but they never did." Her ringed fingers point to three or four patrons that are drinking at a table, hunched-over fixtures, part of the beer-stained wood.

"Well Molly, looks like you've met my twin brother!" Remy says behind me.

"That is so strange! You do have a twin brother Remy!" A ripple of interest causing upheaval. She follows him past the bar to the table and introduces me to the group, nameless names to featureless faces. My eyes twitch from fatigue and my stomach screams for hot food.

"I thought you were pulling my wire all these years," says a skinny man with a trimmed moustache sitting in front of a slot machine in the corner, his words slurred, wet and almost without form.

"So where you been to now Remy?" asks Jerry, who whispers through a microphone that has a wire coming out of his neck. Part electronic, part flesh.

"The Yukon." When he has garnered the collective ‘oohs' and ‘aahs,' he's encouraged to continue. "And we went to Atlin - the original location of Atlantis. Beautiful and remote - too remote actually when push came to shove. But it was good. We were touched by a golden eagle that swooped down on my brother's shoulder." They study me, eyes expecting me to dance or pull a rabbit from behind my ear.

"Atlantis? You get all over the place don't you?" says Molly.

"And then we went to Whitehorse and clear on across the old Yellowhead Indian Trail and down the Red River Valley to right here. We saw the wild buffalo Grandfather always said existed around the northern BC-Alberta border." Ronnie gets up out of his stool in front of the slot machine like oozing plasma thinking it had a backbone.

"Wild buffalo? You're shitt'n me."

"Remember me telling you about how Grandfather always said the Cree believed the wild buffalo being extinct was a white man's myth? And that there were large herds still roaming in northern Alberta in some valley only accessible through a waterfall? Well, we found a couple of herds living wild in the bush. A couple of them stood there on the road and wouldn't let me pass. The Cree legend is true. There are still wild buffalo roaming in the north-west."

"How you travel so much, Remy," says Molly, all eyelashes and gushing like a proud mother.

"We've done more than five thousand kilometres so far without so much as a scratch until tonight. Got a flat tire, no problem though. Got it fixed and made it here. Trapp and I have the same rigs, see out there." We can all see my rig through the front window of the tavern. Ronnie nods.

"Let's go for a smoke," he says so we go out to the front of the pub. Still not used to smoke-free pubs, they are something new to me since I left the Far East.

"It's been a good camper this one but tonight..."

"His camper almost crushed him to death," I say, completing Remy's sentence. Remy waves off the hyperbole. He's too excited at me meeting his friends, so I drop it.

"You know I used to work for Ronnie."

"Yeah, I work at the dam down the street - at Seven Sisters Falls. That's where I hired Remy to drive around the lawnmower for a summer."

"The best job I ever had. All I did was ride around on that lawn mower like a dirt bike! And got paid for it! A little plan W. Perfect." But I notice Ronnie looking as if there was some unfinished business. Residue best left unsaid.

An old man walks up to us from the sidewalk, surveying the new faces. His blue eyes show tragedy and a soul that has seen life, the hooded eyes stopping on Remy. His hand goes up to his white stubble and then he looks at me and then back on Remy.

"Remy, you back?"

"Neil, how are you my friend?" Remy shakes his hand in a proud-to-know-you manner. Eyes sad and watery, an old man's story visible for all to see, inviting and unabashed.

"I'm still around so life can't be that bad." Neil ignores Ronnie who ignores Neil.

"This is my identical twin brother, Trapp." He studies my tired face.

"I can see the resemblance but when your beard comes in fuller, then you'll be twins." Neil laughs from his gut, pure as the albumin of an unopened egg. Ronnie stumbles over to his pick-up truck.

"You're not driving, are you?" I say. He slams his door closed.

"He's just down the road. He'll be OK," says Neil, as we go back inside the bar. Molly stands up when she sees Neil, who waits at the bar as we sit at the table with Remy's friends.

"What are you doing back?" asks Neil loudly from the bar.

"We're looking for property to buy."

"Lots of it around here," he says.

"This bar's for sale," says Molly. "You two would be perfect to get this place." She smiles as she ponders the idea. "There's plenty of space upstairs in the master quarters and in the corner room. You could run the bar - that would be easy for you Remy."

"Great idea. I'd be drinking everyday, which may not be wise." The idea intrigues me for a moment but the practicality of it would be that no writing would ever get done. Neil motions to leave so Remy stands up.

"Leaving so soon? You just got here Neil."

"Why don't you and your brother come back to my house and we can drink beer." And he adds in a whisper: "It's too stuffy in here." Looking at me without saying anything, I can tell he wants to leave because Tattoo Jimmy and Dougie Bell are still at large. We finish our beer in one gulp.

"We'll be back later," he says to Molly. Her face is sad for a moment until he waves. Remy and I go out to our trucks and wait for Neil to buy a case of beer in the lobby.

"Neil is a bit of an outcast here," Remy says to me beside our rigs. "People don't like him but I think he's got a good heart. Lonely, seen life." Neil comes out of the lobby and puts the case of beer in my camper and shows me the way to his place, one minute from the pub. We both park in Neil's driveway and enter a two-room wooden shack no bigger than 300 square feet. Inside my eyes are drawn to the dirt floor, worn and dry almost like rock. I stumble on an uneven part when I sit on the small couch against the wall in the kitchen. Remy hands me a beer and Neil sits in the rocking chair beside the kitchen table. Paint peels on the windowless wall behind him stained with nicotine that drips in slow motion.

"Cool pad," says Remy. "See? This is what we're after. Something modest: a bedroom and a kitchen." Remy and I look at each other for a moment, his eyes are serious as they look down to the floor. A frayed calendar hangs askew and outdated. 

"A writer's cabin should be modest. Keeps the distractions away," I say.

"This is good country," says Remy. "There's a place down the street: 30 acres and a broken-down old home. Twenty-nine grand they want. I looked at it last summer. What's that? A thousand an acre? That's what we're looking for."

"Is the home liveable?" He shakes his head.

"We can build something or get a trailer." I shake my head in disagreement.

"We want some acreage but we need a cabin or cottage on the property. Building will be too expensive and complicated. And it'll take too long."

"I could get a trailer, or live in my camper with a generator." An ache descends on me from nowhere, my beer still unsipped in my hand. When I lift it a shard of jagged pain pierces the core of my shoulder.

"We're living in our campers right now and it's already too cold at night," I say. "Only candles are keeping me warm."

"It gets cold here in the winter months. Remy knows that," says Neil. When he asks me if I'm in pain I tell him about the pin in my shoulder.

"Ever try Oxy Contin?" Both of us look at Neil.

"No," we both say at the same time.

"I have some." He pulls out a small plastic bottle. "You're welcome to try some if you like. It's good for pain." He pours out some pills.

"It's unnatural. Manmade. I will smoke weed because it's from the Creator but I won't take a pill that's made from man." We both look at Remy. "You go ahead though. Take them and be merry." Remy waves his hand dismissively as if speaking to two kids who want to take an unnecessary risk by eating a poisonous berry of the nightshade family. Neil holds three pills in the palm of his hand.

"I could use some pain relief." They are tiny pills so I pop them into my mouth, still used to taking more than what is recommended because of my size while living amongst smaller people in greater China.

"Three, good?" I ask after I ingest the pills. All I know about it the drug is that it's given to patients after surgery for pain. I think I might as well give it a test spin with my shoulder since the opportunity may never come again. A torn tendon bordering a stainless steel pin in the heart of the socket is not like a blister or hangnail.

"Three's enough the first time - more than enough." Neil turns on a small radio on top of his fridge.

"Trapp," Remy says, shaking his head. "Reckless with unfamiliar tech. Bad combo." Extremism never far away when the opportunity presents itself.

"So you two brothers going to live together in the same place?" The question stops both of us.

"I might live on the property in my trailer," Remy replies. "But far from my brother! I'm hoping Trapp finds a place that has lots of space so I can surround myself with trees and feel like I'm living in the bush - like Gabriel Dumont."

"Who?"

"A Métis hunter. Louis Riel's right-hand man."

"He needs his own space," I say.

"Brothers living together under the same roof ain't always a good idea," says the old man, rocking a bit in his chair. Calm. Grounded.

"So we need land," says Remy.

"And the cheapest land is in BC and yet now we're going to Ontario."

"Cheap land and farms in Ontario my boy. More of ‘em, that's why. Early settlers. Pioneers. Many of them are falling apart now." The hardened look of a wise man transforms Neil from a skinny pauper to profound sage.

"Good point."

"Damn cold here during January but it depends on what you want. Your family from here?"

"No, Toronto mainly," says Remy. "And our mother hasn't seen this guy in years." The thought of going to Toronto makes me anxious and impatient, wafer-thin fluff unready for re-introduction - an unfinished piece of pottery, leaky and oblong. Maybe I'm still freaked out from Remy's brush with death on the shoulder of the highway and his inexplicable faith in his destiny.

"What does that have to do with our house hunt?" I ask.

"It has a lot to do with it. Mom and Dad are starting to get old, Trapp." Remy's voice becomes softer. "You've been away a long time. Dad's all white now. And Mom isn't moving as well as she was even last year."

"That's not my problem," I say. I'm surprised at the coldness in my voice.

"Her life can only be empty without her youngest son in her life. Sure, it has a lot to do with it." Remy is looking at me curiously. I sigh and feel the throbbing of the tissue tear sharper but ebbing.

"Living close to Mommy and Daddy? Holy catfish! You must be joking," says Neil, slapping his bony hand on his bony thigh. "You don't have to live close to your folks. They can handle themselves." I rub my eyes and try to focus but my eyeglasses put everything out of focus.

There's something about Neil I like, an honesty and his down-to-earth acceptance of the grit. Remy has always had a knack for befriending the lonely, those islands without the lumber to complete the bridge to the other side. I can tell he doesn't want to be alone. He gets up after looking at my hiking shoes.

"You need some cowboy boots? I gotta pair here that don't fit me no more. Still good mind you." From the small closet he hands me a pair scuffed and cracked and worn, a life story pressed into the leather. I take off my wet hiking shoes and slip them on and I walk around the dirt floor no more than three strides to the door. Like a glove, the toes have the benefit of space from the mileage etched in the sinew.

"Very solid foundation. The heel is firm." I take out my tobacco pouch and hand the old man a cigarette, thanking him for his boots. I lean back on the couch and feel half a foot longer. The pills are making my eyelids heavy, leaden shades slipping to gravity.

"The pain in my shoulder is gone." But I can't see my brother.

"Want some coffee?" I sigh and my chin falls on my chest.

 

"You want some coffee?" Neil's voice is now stripped raw from talking and smoking, ripped sandpaper dry throat. There is light through the open door. He sits at the kitchen table sipping coffee and wearing a different flannel shirt, cigarettes in the pocket.

"Your brother just left."

"These boots are great," I say remembering where I am and then briefly close my eyes again.

 

"Yes, I'll have some coffee," I reply. "Please, thanks." Neil stands by the sink washing dishes. Refreshed, I stand up from the couch. "Best way to work-in the leather is to walk in ‘em eh?" Walking on the dirt floor, my foot and boot are one.

"I'll make some," he says. I think it's strange that he needs to brew another pot. I look at my watch but the numbers mean nothing to me. It's clear I've lost track of time so I open the door and I smell the freshness of morning, rich prairie air unsullied and pure.

"Inge!" I find the door to my camper open and there is no sign of my dog anywhere on the property. And Remy's truck is gone.

"I think Remy may have picked up your dog."

"Remy? Didn't he just leave?"

"He came back. He was here looking for Tattoo Jimmy."

"Where is he?"

"He was going to Doug Bell's. You know where it is?"

"I think I do. He pointed it out on the way into town yesterday." A flood of ideas racing in my head.

"You mean two days ago." I smile at him in good humour. Thinking it was a joke, I thank him again for the boots and leave for Doug Bell's place. I can't lose Remy, and I need to find Inge.

 
 
 
 
 
 

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