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Bliss, at age 75, is a solo road-trip. Book the flight, reserve the car, then take off, relying only on contingency and chance, synchronicity and serendipity.
Freedom. The thrill of the road. The long long vistas of the Canadian North, a narrow two-lane road, thick forest on either side, mountains behind mountains in the long view. Eventually, one enters a dream state at 120 kilometres per hour, broken only when some creature great or small runs or ambles across the highway. Pray that it’s not a moose at point-blank range. Overtaking a big truck in rain, so exciting, like passing a waterfall. Or driving the mountainous southeast of British Columbia, where for hundreds of klicks there’s neither a straight bit nor a level bit. A world of long ribbon lakes, mountain passes both east-west and north-south, a world of curves, bends, switchbacks and hairpins, the body swaying as the curves are mastered at anything from 120 to 20 km/h, depending on what the road alignment will take. A tall cliff on the inside, an abyss or a deep lake bottom on the outside. Two eyes, two hands, two feet in constant motion. The sheer thrill of swooping. A pass where a quick upward climb is rewarded by over 100 kilometres of curvaceous downward swoop. Good stress.
On my own, there is nobody to demand a tea or lunch break. If I want a pee, I pull to the side of the road. In the North especially, there’s often no other traffic. In the south, I find plenty of farms and fields. I take little account of eating, carrying water and protein bars until I see a likely place to refuel with gas and a homemade rural sandwich.
I often take a paved side road and run it to where the pavement gives way to gravel or dirt (there’s no insurance for off-the-pavement driving in rental cars). Sometimes there’s a free cable ferry across the lake to an otherwise cut-off hamlet on the other side. The smell of hot horses or a sweet cow byre might greet me or a corral of ponky goats. I may encounter locals, Indigenous, Mennonites, Doukhobors, a gold prospector, a trapper, a buyer of wild mushrooms: people on the edge, they are always interesting. Sometimes I’ll meet the odd person who will utter a single far-sighted observation that makes the whole trip worthwhile.
After five or six hours of driving, I find the other bliss: rest. I look for a middling hotel at some road-junction small town. In the North, where the next place or gas station might be 250 kilometres away, I may be lucky to get just a little cabin, with a small bed, a single pillow and a gauzy curtain through which the sun shines relentlessly for 22 hours a day. For the same price, in the South, I want a big room with two queen beds, one to sleep in and one to spread maps and other impedimenta upon. Three or four pillows are necessary, a large bathroom and the usual TV, fridge, microwave and coffee machine. I like thick drapes to keep out the morning light and I don’t need a business centre, a fitness centre, a pool, a Jacuzzi, or even Wi-Fi, whatever that is.
I have chosen the hotel at random, on the fly. No one in the world knows where I am. What a blessing. No bad stress. No desk. No mail. No distractions to distract me from my distractions. No phone calls with scams, surveys, political or personal appeals. No neighbours. No conversation, period, once off the road; I have neither cellphone nor smartphone. There’s no-one I can help. There’s no one to help me. No deeds to do, no promises to keep. A blessed time, this, and I know it’s temporary, but still.
I lie back on the many pillows and read, or do a difficult Sudoku or watch trash TV news via satellite or write up notes or plan all the alternatives for next day on the map or just think. I find thinking such a pleasure, especially as in old age it has no reference to a career but is simply thinking for the pleasure of thinking, with tolerance and detachment abounding. Usually the topics are huge: What are the significantly different ways that Americans, Brits and Canadians categorize and judge their fellow citizens? Why do I prefer Canada to any of the 146 countries I’ve seen? Why has Canada, compared with Russia and the United States, signally abstained from occupying its North? Which species will become extinct before Homo sapiens? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Do I believe the climate crisis is God’s plan? (Well, yes.) Why does the rain in Spain fall mainly in the plain? Nowadays, does any rain fall in Spain at all?
There is another pleasure, too. Rest after mountain driving, with all its leaning, flexing and body-curving, induces, in my body at least, the kind of feeling one gets when stepping onto dry land after a day at sea. It’s like a long-amplitude ocean swell, where it seems the bed is gently moving but actually it’s the otoliths in my earholes gradually adjusting to being still at last. It’s not an unpleasant feeling. Indeed, it’s a good background to the enormous pleasures of thinking.
So here we are, quiet, on a big bed in a pleasant hotel, no-one knowing where I am, with the recent freedom to do, the driving and observing, now being followed by the freedom to be, the resting, swaying and thinking. I have enjoyed the goingness of going, and now I’m enjoying the beingness of being. And tomorrow, if I’m spared, I shall have them both again.
Doug Porteous lives in Victoria.