This is the truth as best I can remember.
Elisia and I left at 2:00 PM on Friday the 8th of November. Our ride was a black Taurus, which we christened Eddie Murphy, the voice of our generation’s famous donkey. Travelling with a donkey (or, at least, a donkey-named vehicle) became a kind of travel literature staple in our minds after reading Robert Louis Stevenson in Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes and John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America, and we wanted a donkey of our own. We worked with what we had.
At the beginning of the travel literature course that would inspire us to go on our journey, someone joked about the school making a field trip to Red Deer to go to the Donut Mill as our own travel adventure. It’s hard to go very far in the middle of the semester, and there are only so many things to see near Edmonton, Alberta. But Elisia and I wanted more than that. We only had a weekend, but we wanted to find more than doughnuts. We wanted to find Canada. So we decided to do a circle around Saskatchewan and Alberta—a doughnut, if you will—from west to east, north to south, east to west, and back north. Maybe Canada was somewhere in that doughnut—you never know.
Most travel writers have some predecessor that they follow in the footsteps of, whether by literally following the same path or by simply being inspired to travel and observe and write about it. A lot of literature has been written about exotic locations, and the American road trip story is by now a familiar trope. Unfortunately for us, however, little of such literature exists about Canada. For us, the inspiration to go on this journey is less literal and more spiritual. Okay, we were doing it for a university assignment, but the reason we chose to do a road trip was because of Steinbeck. His Travels With Charley took him all across the United States in search of an America he felt he had lost touch with. Speaking personally, and not for my travel companion, Elisia, I felt like I had lost touch with Canada. I had never gone on a significant road trip in years, and then only with parents. Was Canada in Edmonton? Or was it out there? Maybe it’s not as far as I might think. So even though we didn’t follow anyone’s footsteps in a pre-planned Canadian journey, I think we spiritually followed Steinbeck, even if he wasn’t Canadian.
After climbing aboard Eddie Murphy, we made a beeline for the Toys R’ Us with the intention of obtaining some animal companions for our journey. After all, readers sympathize with animals, from Modestine in Travels With a Donkey to Charley in Travels With Charley, and numerous other examples. Since neither of us had any charming pets to bring along, nor had a big enough vehicle to comfortably house them, we (read: Elisia) decided on sea monkeys.
I’m going to clear this up right now. I don’t know what a sea monkey is. I’m still half-convinced they’re not real animals, but rather pretend pets for kids. Considering we found sea monkey boxes (yes, they come in boxes, not fish bowls) across from dolls and action figures, I had a hard time believing they could be living fish. The package we bought had a plastic quasi-aquarium and a few packets for sea monkey eggs and growth food.
“All we have to do is add water and in 24 hours we’ll have created life,” said Elisia. I wasn’t sure I was ready for that responsibility. But if they weren’t real, what was the harm?
We filled up Eddie Murphy’s tank and bought some snacks and drinks for the road, including a water bottle we used to fill up the plastic sea monkey home. Sadly, it had no way of being properly sealed, and nowhere to sit in the car that would not result in spilling sea monkeys all over the seats and ourselves—as I had discovered simply trying to fill up the container. We put the life-creating on hold until we could get our hands on an empty jar.
Elisia and I settled in by chatting for a time about writing and future plans and our perceived problems with the world (overpopulation was one, but we had a difficult time coming up with a humane solution for that). Elisia revealed that she would like to one day travel the world and visit all the places humanity has committed horrible acts against itself, such as Rawanda, Canadian residential schools, the Vatican, McDonalds, Auschwitz (of course), and many others. Her intent would be to write a book called “Humanity Has Failed” (the title was my suggestion), a particularly bitter and depressing sort of travel literature.
I found myself thinking about this potential book throughout the trip. When an idea I like gets buried in my mind it slowly grows and reaches its roots to every corner of my imagination, and road trips serve to speed the process. I have no intention of stealing Elisia’s idea, but I hope she acquires the funding to take such a trip some day.
Our first stop after leaving Edmonton was Lloydminster. We wanted something quick to eat, and what’s quicker than McDonalds? We were already adding a chapter to Humanity Has Failed. Obesity is a hot-button topic these days, and McDonalds is often epitomized as one of the foremost aggressors of that struggle—that, and Coca Cola. I’m not a slim person. I have eaten McDonalds and drunk Coke and I did the same right there in Lloydminster. In my defense, it was delicious.
We had bought a Polaroid-like camera for the trip, and we set it up there in the McDonalds while large men and women in sweatpants clicked their cups against the fountain pop dispenser next to us and grumbled as more and more options drooled out syrupless water. Water! Can you imagine? I myself struggled with attempting to obtain Coke Zero and had to settle for Coke Classic instead. I wondered if I could make a case for McDonalds forcing customers to consume calories before remembering that I willingly dumped out a cupful of water so that I could refill it with Coke.
“Should we try it?” said Elisia, camera in hand.
I looked around. McDonalds is perhaps too depressing a place to break in a new camera purchased specifically for a road trip. I said, “Let’s wait until we get to Meadow.”
Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. Longtime hometown of my road companion. Often she would perk up in the middle of conversations and say, “Oh, man! I can’t wait to get to Meadow!” which was endearing, especially since she made no plans to visit friends or family. She just wanted to show me the place she grew up. I understood her excitement. I learned recently that writers often visit memories of childhood when searching for a setting for a story. There’s just something magical about the memories of youth that people want to bring out for the world.
By the time we got to the town I had a decent idea of what to expect. Small, but not as small as many of the gas station towns we passed. The streets and avenues did not count past 10. The buildings were low and flat, much like the streets (and Saskatchewan in general). I only wish I could have seen it in daylight. Elisia whirled Eddie Murphy around to all the locations of interest, from the school where she knew her principal well enough to put a fake snake on his desk, to the football field with “the second largest score board in Saskatchewan” (the pride in her voice was perhaps meant to be ironic but it didn’t sound that way to me), to Snob Hill (where the wealthier residents lived in their huge houses), and finally, “the light.”
I heard a lot about this light well before reaching the town. Meadow Lake was the proud owner of a single crossway light. The rest of the town had four-way stops, and given the size of the place, that was all that was needed. Even the light was left to blink yellow on Sundays (the reason being, as Warren Cariou jokes in his Meadow Lake novel Lake of the Prairies, is so the little man working inside the light could go to church). When a common sight becomes suddenly rare, you learn to appreciate such sights as a whole. Green, yellow, red. It was really something.
Down the street from the light the road forked in two, and between the two roads stood a copper statue of a cowboy riding a bucking horse, a testament to the town’s rodeo days. According to Cariou, there used to be a fairly prestigious rodeo in Meadow Lake (at least, as prestigious as rodeos can get), but it was ultimately overshadowed by the Calgary rodeo and more or less shut down. Elisia and I took this opportunity to snap a photo with our new camera, parking Eddie Murphy nearby and climbing out into the cold to run across the empty street to get close to the statue. Elisia took a snap and we ran back to Eddie Murphy’s warm embrace. We sat there for a few minutes waiting for the photo to develop, but the black picture remained black. We sifted through the instructions to learn how to take a night picture, and ran out to try again. The second picture did not fare any better. Sheepishly, we pulled out our cellphones and snapped what we came for.
We did not spend much time in Meadow. We stopped at a couple places and walked around, but the biting chill and the blackness of night did little to make us feel welcome. We lost an hour to the time zone shift between Alberta and Saskatchewan and we had planned to stay at a friend’s place in Saskatoon for the night. We still had a few hours to go before we would reach the city and it was already late, so we decided to take off in hopes of getting there without needing to wake up our friend in the middle of the night.
As it happened, our friend, Keighlagh, was trying to get ahold of us for the past couple hours, but the cell service in the middle of the Saskatchewan plains kept us from receiving her texts until about eleven at night when I texted her for her address.
“Just glad you’re okay,” she said. It was an odd comment, since we didn’t think she had any reason to worry about us. Then, all at once, two more messages popped onto my phone. “How’s the trip going, buds?” and “I’m starting to worry. I hope you two are okay!” Apparently these two messages had been sent hours ago and only decided to appear after my brief correspondence with Keighlagh. We learned later that she started asking around to see if anyone had heard from us, but since we hadn’t been liveblogging our trip or anything of the sort, no one knew what our fate might have been.
How pampered cellphones have made us. Instant communication has made travel much safer, but has it made it less exciting? Oh, we could have left our phones at home, but Hollywood has taught us that that would be a good way to get serial murdered. Besides that, I am embarrassed to admit just how much we relied on GPS for our trip. Steinbeck cursed maps as tyrants, but even his didn’t speak in a pleasant voice whenever he had to turn left.
We reached Keighlagh’s house in Saskatoon at one in the morning. She had fallen asleep, but luckily our texts woke her up. And here comes the break in our narrative. When Steinbeck reached Chicago in the middle of Travels With Charley, he spent time with his wife in a comfort much like home, which would have resulted in an incongruent lull in the road trip narrative. As such, he decided to omit the chapter for the sake of the story. Our time with Keighlagh was pleasant and familiar, and she and her boyfriend were gracious hosts, but I would do a disservice to this narrative (and to my word count) if I were to go on about them any further.