Last week, I found myself in Alberta’s Rockies, crawling through narrow underground passages and hauling scuba tanks on toboggans through the remote woods of Kananaskis while researching a story on the world of Canadian caving. After wrapping up the last day, I joined a crew of British and Canadian cavers at a popular Canmore pub. My plan was to leave quickly and make the three-hour drive home before dark, but with each passing hour the tales grew taller and I couldn’t pull myself away. By the time we had paid our bill, it was nearing midnight. Now what? I had checked out of my hotel that morning. I could go back, but with a sleeping bag and pad in my truck, why not just crawl in?
Parking in a quiet spot near the Bow River, I put the rear seats down, pushed my duffel bags aside and spread out. When I opened the windows a crack, cool air and the smell of pine needles filled the vehicle. Occasional trains rumbled by in the night, and once passing headlights caused me to stir, but otherwise the slumber was deep. When I woke to the muted light of dawn, a centimetre of slushy April snow covered the windows.
I stopped for a coffee before hitting the road and texted a note to a friend. She wrote back instantly, horrified. I had slept in my truck? Was my back sore? Did I have sleeping-bag-size bags under my eyes?
I thought about her comments as I drove. The truth was – apart from my hair, which was standing straight up – I felt good. Really good. Unusually good.
I’m not saying I don’t enjoy fresh linen and a comfy bed as much as the next person, but sleeping in my truck had stirred something inside. The elation was unexpected. Was I really so pleased over saving a few dollars? Was it the apparent lawlessness of parking stealthily on the river bank? Or had I touched a primal nerve? In a way, the rawness of the act harked back to a lost, yet natural, human impulse: I’m tired so I’ll flop down and sleep where I am, wherever that is.
More than anything else, though, I felt independent and free. I felt bloody alive.
I have slept in many trucks over many years, as well as under trucks, beside cars, on top of vans, on gravel roadsides, and in ferry terminals, parking lots and farmer’s fields. Such experiences are nearly always associated with the thrill of being on the road; of heading toward or coming home from something terrifically exciting.
Many readers will relate: Think of that first long road trip, measured by gas stations and provincial boundaries instead of by hours passed. When sunglasses and good tunes were all that mattered. With windows down, your hand floated in the breeze outside; your feet tanned on the dash. Suddenly the sun was setting, and by the time you had decided to sleep in your vehicle, it was too dark to see. You pulled over and wondered: Is this okay, stopping right here, on this quiet road? By this lake? In the back corner of this parking lot? Will someone come and tell us to move on? Dawn seemed torturously slow in coming, but when it did, it arrived with a sense of relief and satisfaction: We made it!
You may scoff, and say this is just for the young and foolish, but not so fast. I’ll never forget the 70-year-old professor of mathematics and philosophy who joined me on a sea-kayaking journey almost two decades ago. While Verena Huber-Dyson may have seemed creakily ancient to me at the time, she leapt nimbly into my boat, cheerily insisting I call her “Yiayia” (which means grandmother in Greek). When I innocently asked where she had stayed the previous night, Yiayia turned and looked at me like I was crazy. Beside the dock, in the back of her Land Cruiser, of course! She had spent several nights happily curled up there, exploring Vancouver Island in the days before our journey. The girlish twinkle in her eye spoke of pride and liberty.
These days, there can be a relentless focus on comfort while travelling – on thread count, mood lighting and the softness of bath robes. Nothing wrong with that. But one night in the back of a truck beside the whispering Bow River reminded me that there are some things – like freedom – that money can never buy.
Special to The Globe and Mail