97. Highway 16, 1961: Pepper and Partings
I think it must have been a warm sunny September that year on the Skeena. On our second day on the road continuing on from Tyee, I remember the heat of the pavement creating illusions of water ahead of us as we walked. We were as kids impressed by that. I imagine that my father had already seen something like it before. Travel was slow and rides were few. I have a vague notion that it took us all day to reach Terrace, but that’s only an impression. In the ample spaces between rides we walked in a desultory fashion along the highway passing the time in conversation.
Four hitchhikers traveling together are always going to have difficulty finding rides. Many subsequent months and miles on the road in the late 60s and early 70s taught me that there are people who pick up hitchhikers and people who do not. Those who do (while admittedly leaning towards being a better class of people in general) don’t necessarily pull over beside the road out of purely charitable feelings. They give you rides because it suits their mood, because they want to talk, because they need someone to keep them awake, because you look like you might have a story to tell or because you brought your girlfriend with you.
But nothing is a guarantee that anyone in particular will stop. A car is a cocoon that can muffle even the most generous of souls, a private place where people are their private selves, and hitchhikers beside the road are truly anonymous, passed by at 60 miles an hour, too far away and briefly known to awaken any but hair-trigger consciences.
Still, there is more than one car on the road. The odds eventually favour the rider, if the rider has a chance at all. Even four riders, if enough of them are children. And ride by ride—I don’t know how long it took us; I have no sense of it at all—we were able to climb the Skeena past Terrace, past various totemed villages of the Gitxan, past the Seven Sisters Mountains, arriving presently at the junction of the Skeena and the Bulkley and Hazelton, and there we stopped overnight.
I remember spaghetti for supper that night, spaghetti with too much pepper in it according to the delicate backwoods palates of Irene, Marylou and myself. We had reason to suppose the pepper was a culinary accident because our hostess was a little tipsy that night, something that I don’t remember happening in the entire ten months that I had lived in her house. The pepper slightly slowed the three of us clearing our plates, but I don’t remember any complaints actually spoken aloud, or anything left on any of our plates afterwards, for that matter. Maybe travel boosted our appetites, but I don’t think our appetites would have needed the assistance anyways.
The next morning as we were all standing outside the cabin ready to leave, one of the boys of the house made a sort of boast in reference to when I stayed in that cabin before, to when I departed 15 months before.
Teddy liked it here so much that he cried when he left, he said.
Oh, dear, there it was. The old joke I made the day I left. Pretending to cry to add sarcastic bathos to the occasion. The sort of weak and tasteless joke that a ten-year-old will think of. Which I had thought of, and put into action, presuming at the time that my weeping was sufficiently insincere (with actual chuckles in there, as I remember) my performance sufficiently and sarcastically histrionic to let everyone in on the joke.
Everybody except one boy, I guess.
So what was I to say? I had truly liked living in Gitanmaax. That was no lie. It was an excellent place. But for me to actually cry upon returning to my father was absurd. Whatever I thought of living in that cabin with that family with all that community and place had to offer a boy growing up, my father was air and gravity. He was a principle of my existence. It was not possible for me to cry on returning to him.
You could found a theatrical movement on the absurdity of that thought.
But I couldn’t explain that without hurting someone’s feelings, maybe. I didn’t want that. And I didn’t want to explain my joke which was becoming weaker and weaker the older it was and the more it came into focus. I’m not sure I could’ve. So I let the story sit. I didn’t explain. I just said nothing.
But if my father had come to me homeless 15 months before with an offer to go out on the road with him, I would have tied up my worldly goods in a polka-dotted handkerchief, tied the handkerchief to the end of a stick, tossed the stick over my shoulder and gone whistling down the road with him.
As soon as I learned to whistle.
And I would have tied up my handkerchief double-quick if I knew I could travel with my sisters too.
No offence to Gitanmaax. That’s just the way it was.