When I disembarked the Inside Passage ferry in Port Hardy, B.C., recently, I learned to pay attention. I was befuddled by noonday sun and blinking lights, by lane merges and left-turn arrows.
My Toyota Corolla was packed with all my possessions and a long-haired cat. She sat in her carrier case beside a box filled with elderflower wine. I looked in the rearview mirror, trying to see above the totes crammed with clothing and books and items I couldn't bear to leave behind - an antique oil lamp, a yew cutting board, two porcelain tea cups.
It was much more than a ferry I'd disembarked: It was two years and eight months of living in an off-the-grid cabin in the forests of Haida Gwaii. I was driving toward a new life. A life with indoor plumbing and refrigerators and toasters.
For weeks my neighbours had asked me why I was leaving. I'd told them it was to find work, to pay off debts, to be closer to family. None of those answers had satisfied them. "But this is your home," they'd insisted.
As I got my bearings, other vehicles began to pass me. Those stuck behind me revved with impatience. No one seemed to understand that the last road the wheels of my car had touched was a Haida Gwaii road. A road without stoplights or collector lanes.
Soon Campbell River was upon me and I held firm to the steering wheel, navigating my way through the streets like I was crossing a war zone. Then it was Nanaimo. Then the horror of the Trans-Canada Highway.
You would think I had never driven before. But I've been driving for 24 years. By 18, I had driven from the Black Forest to Berlin on German autobahns and throughout the Swiss Alps.
While living in Montreal, I cruised the streets in a 1970s cargo van. In Arizona I navigated the White Mountains in a Ford pickup. I've driven east and west on Southern Ontario's Highway 401 more times than I can count. I've driven from Vancouver to Toronto multiple times.
I used to hop in the car and drive 10 hours to see an ocean or a desert cactus. I used to love to drive. But Haida Gwaii seems to have changed all that. Now, one month after my move, I still dread it.
I dread sitting behind the wheel while vehicles barrel past me on all sides. They go so fast, my car shakes. I dread the neon headlights of a gigantic pickup truck burning into my rearview mirror from behind. I dread the sound of a fully loaded logging truck trying to gear down. I dread seeing the wooden crosses and fresh flowers adorning trees and utility poles. No one slows down to pay their respects. They are all in too much of a hurry.
But what I dread most is becoming like everyone else. Already, my speedometer has risen from 80 kilometres an hour to 90 to 100. The farmer's field, the view of the mountains, the sign for a winery - all these things have become more and more meaningless. Less and less part of some grander journey. As I accelerate, I become just another person trying to get somewhere and get there as quickly as possible.
Haida Gwaii taught me that getting somewhere quickly is a futile pursuit. Mostly because there aren't many places to go. There is one main road. People drive fast on that road, but not without taking time to wave. They wave, almost apologetically, as they pull up alongside you to take the lead. They wave as they're approaching in the oncoming lane. At certain times of year, the deer population causes nearly everyone to slow down. Even hardened drivers of big trucks don't want to hit fawns and their doting mothers.
Perhaps when you drive up and down the same road all the time and you see the same view, you realize that it's never the same road or the same view. It's always different. The sea, the sky, the trees. Everything is always changing, if you slow down enough to notice. There's no need to rush from A to B because you realize that your life actually exists between those two letters.
No one on the Trans-Canada Highway will let you live between the letters. I fear for my life. I listen to soothing cello suites and piano sonatas. I adorn the Corolla with hanging crystals and Hindu gods. I breathe deeply, pretending I'm driving down Tow Hill Road, on my favourite stretch, the unpaved part, where the cedar boughs drape over the road creating a tunnel of green.
But it's difficult to ignore the strip malls and parking lots, the headlights boring into you like the eyes of a creature possessed. It's difficult not to drive faster, to want to get out of this hell, quick. I accelerate past 100 kilometres an hour without realizing my speed. It's a heady feeling, once the car stops shaking. For a few moments, I cruise alongside everyone else. No one seems to notice. There are no waves of camaraderie.
I slow down, mostly because I'm going uphill. Then I see the mountains tinged with snow. I see a river below. I realize that wherever this life is taking me, I want to get there below the speed limit.
So rev your engine. Flash your high beams. Pass me on the solid line. Give me the finger if it makes you feel any better. Some day we may wave hello to one another. Some day we may realize we're on this journey together.
Angela Long lives in Lake Cowichan, B.C.
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