If someone asked me to write my coming-of-age screenplay, I’d write a movie about a road trip I took, or rather tagged along for, in the summer of 1996. I say “coming-of-age” as it marked the beginning of a change in me that would ultimately lead me to where I am today… On the couch, eight months pregnant, listening to Ella Fitzgerald and editing a column, ten minutes before its deadline.
My cousin was getting married, so the whole family flew out to Saskatoon for a weekend of sun, raucous good times, white lace and boot-scootin’. Following the party, I met up with my best friend and her parents and we headed west in the minivan, complete with 1960s trailer in tow.
We made our way across Alberta and eventually pulled into a campsite in Japser National Park. On the way in, one of the rangers warned us of a black bear that had been spotted in the area, “but don’t be alarmed, he’s more interested in chowing down on clover than any of you.” And he chuckled an I’ll-be-safe-in-my-cabin-while-you-await-your-violent-mawling-in-that-puny-tent kind of chuckle as we drove away. As a novice camper, I recall spending most my the nights in our flimsy tent bolt awake, slowly saying goodbye to my friends and family as I heard a chipmunk scurry by, certain it was Smokey coming to collect his dues for Satan.
As it turned out, Smokey was indeed more interested in the clover, as we finally spotted the bear upon leaving the site, happily grazing like a fleecy cow in the ditch while German tourists threw marshmallows at him.
Funnily enough, the Smokey I should have been more threatened by wasn’t a bear at all, but one of two massive hairy bikers we encountered at the next site (we figured “Smokey” was his name as that’s what was emblazoned on his t-shirt in fuzzy, stretched-out letters across his expansive chest.)
As my summer family and I sat down to a beautiful dinner of local fruit and vegetables foraged from friendly roadside produce stands, our modest picnic table was suddenly eclipsed by a huge RV (naturally towing two monster Harleys) that rolled into the site next to us. Just after the luxury-hotel-on-wheels came to a squeaking halt and nestled into its tightly-fitted allotment, on came the whirring, coughing hum of the beast’s generator, fogging our dinner with its inner-city smog.
Well, that was the last straw. Up stood my bestie’s dad – all five-foot-six of him – and over he strolled to the bikers’ den. He knocked on the door and out came Smokey, rocking the RV as he lumbered down the steps. He glared expectantly at my friend’s dad.
“Yeah. What?” he growled.
“Well… Smokey,” my friend’s dad said, “it would be nice if you’d turn your generator off while I had dinner over here with my family. The exhaust is spewing into our lot.”
By the end of his sentence, the other hairy biker had appeared as well as their two rotund wives like a wall of disapproving grizzlies.
“No.” he stated angrily and turned to climb back into the RV.
“Well. Okay,” said my friend’s dad with a casual yet ballsy tone. “I hope your Harleys are alright tonight. G’night.” Moments later, after this strange sleuth of bear-people slunk back into their happy hideaway, the generator sheepishly turned off.
Over the Rockies and into BC we made our way to Salt Spring Island via a network of ferries and winding mountain roads. On the Island my friend and I were left happily to our own devices for a couple of weeks on the grounds of a local karma yoga centre while her parents cruised the BC coast with their in-laws. That’s right, we were two teens, and a 1960s camper, alone with the hippies for a seemingly indefinite amount of time. What ensued were many fantastic adventures including skinny dipping in a private lake (with boys!); trundling up the mountain at dusk, sitting on rocks still warm from the daytime sun, watching the lights come on in the bay down below (with boys!); laying in the grass (with a boy!) looking at the stars while earwigs crawled up my back and down my butt crack (when he drove me home later, we got pulled over by the local cops, who let him off with a warning for a brake-light violation… dreeeeamy); playing guitar and singing in front of a group of strangers (which included… a boy I had a massive crush on - you’ll note the “boys” trend here… gimme a break… I was almost 16); getting into late-night trouble in a local yurt, watching the room spin and listening to old records til the sun came up; kicking off my shoes and running through the glorious rainforest, free as a bird and happy as a clam until I stepped on a BC banana slug in my bare feet (it’s a sensation like a kind of squish-crunch… like stepping on someone’s lung… gag-inducing to say the least); and finally, leaving said ‘kicked-off” shoes on the island and having to go barefoot for the next few days (strangely, lots of BC roadside diners don’t really look down on barefoot customers.)
After my glorious couple of weeks of freedom on Salt Spring Island, my friend’s folks picked us up and we headed back home, via the northern United States. A sleepy journey of deserted campsites and roadside souvenir shops hocking everything from driftwood Jesus clocks, to velvet Elvises, to the Mighty Montana Turd Bird - a taxidermied horse apple mounted on a block with pipe cleaner legs and a toothpick beak.
I think it was just after the grass fire in South Dakota (no, we didn’t start it) and about three weeks in close quarters with each other that my best friend and I finally had it out.
Throughout our trip, I had been unknowingly gaining confidence and developing a strength or individuality of character. You see, since my arrival in Uxbridge from Edmonton at the blissfully awkward age of eight (yeah, I had a rat tail and lived in stirrup pants), my best friend and I had been attached at the hip. She had been my mentor and role model for everything. I dressed like her, I liked the music she liked, I laughed at the jokes she laughed at, I watched the movies she watched; wherever she went, so did I. In finally expressing to her this independent new side of myself, a strange tension began to grow. This makes her sound like a controlling freak, but she wasn’t. It was a big change in the dynamic between us and we both had to adjust to that change and in effect, we were still just kids. Keep in mind, we were also tackling this fairly massive issue confined in a minivan trundling down the endlessly bumpy roads of the American prairies.
When we finally got home at the end of that summer, life did begin to shift. The following year, I switched high schools. I started singing jazz and acting and I consequently made a bunch of new friends. My best friend grew too, but on a different path than my own. We still spent many days and nights together and still do though we live in different cities and lead fairly different lives.
In the end, I’m not sure if my friend and her family know how grateful I am for having been part of that trip. I’m so glad – and somewhat surprised - that I remember it. I suppose it’s like a capsule not unlike that old trailer, sealed off with silver tape in my memory, bumping along behind me throughout the years, preserving all those precious days and nights of total freedom like carefully-wrapped gifts.
The stunning and delectable Montana Turd Bird... as far as the eye can see.