May 22, 2004

Big Thumb Wisdom

By Richard Bulkeley © 2004

It had been raining forever. Or at least since about 6pm last night. We huddle around the fax machine, waiting nervously. There are seven of us, ready to spring into action, when the word comes down. The a sudden screech from the fax machine silences our incessant mumbling that maybe the slopes had received snow. The hostel manager rips the fax from the machine and reads from it like a medieval herald proclaiming a death sentence.

“Overnight rain at all levels of the mountain. Snow conditions are variable at best. Sorry guys.”

A couple of diehards decide they’ll go up anyway, after all, even crap boarding is still boarding. I consider it, but decide I prefer to end my stay on the high note of yesterday. Besides, it is Tuesday. There are 25-cent beers and scantily clad waitresses back home. Four hours driving time, if I get lucky, I’ll be door to door in six. Time enough to catch up with Natalie before getting drunk. Not that I’m sure that’s a good thing. I mean, she is tall, blonde, good-looking, laughs at my jokes, bakes an amazing chocolate chip cookie, enjoys travel and the outdoors, understands that I’m far less than perfect, and ins generally everything I ever wanted in a woman. Until I got it.

Now, I seem hell bent on ruining it. I always manage to ruin relationships, it’s part of being immature, insecure, and generally a severely flawed human being. This time, the pressure of being in one I care about is getting to me and I’ve got a whole new set of reasons to screw up. Even a near-perfect week of snowboarding and solitude couldn’t fix my head.

Ten minutes later, I am on the road, trudging towards the edge of town. It’s still raining. I look around, and the raindrops are like a curtain of glass beads around me, obscuring the assorted fast food places and tyre shops that are the highway face of Fernie. I’ve got my thumb out, but I’m not looking. There’s a metaphor in there, but I’m not bored enough yet to indulge my own cleverness. Besides, until I get to the end of this straight, I don’t like my chances of getting anyone to stop. Thankfully, I’m still in the bumpy part of Canada, and not the prairies, with their ribbons of tarmac stretching all the way to the horizon – an uplifting sight for speed freaks, but the curse of Tantalus for a hitchhiker.

Still, I didn’t regret the time I spent stranded two hours west of Winnipeg. The sky seemed almost infinite and I was stunned to remember that only the week before I thought that skyscrapers could imprison it into a tiny rectangle, barely visible from a busy street. But then, as much as I claim to love my freedom, I lack the courage to exploit it, or really believe in it. I’m a little grey man, put into a brightly coloured gore-tex shell, and I can’t fill the role I’ve chosen for myself.

I reach the promised corner, and it’s a giant puddle. Excellent. I can just see myself being subjected to a series of comic drenchings from asshole drivers. But if I stand out of range, it’s not going to be clear I want a ride, and am not just the local retard, watching the pretty broom-brooms.

A car drives past, taking the corner dangerously fast. When you hitchhike enough, you gain a pretty good appreciation of corners, and bad drivers. I wait, singing softly to myself and generally trying to have fun while warding off hypothermia. It’s not accepted hitchhiking best practise – in general you should try and look respectable. But on days like today, anything that persuades me not to give up and get the bus, is a good idea.

A car goes past, and another car. Normally, I love rain. I love the light, ethereal dustings of liquid sunshine that seem to spontaneously assemble themselves on a sunny day and seem to make the very air sparkle. I love the big fat wet raindrops that tumble out of the sky like bumblebees that have finally discovered the laws of aerodynamics. I even love the sharp bitter razor blades of rain that the wind drives into your face on days the mountain doesn’t want to be climbed. I’m a difficult, cranky bastard, and I love having something that I can hate when I feel like it.

Today, I’m going nowhere fast. There’s a little too much traffic to count for me to be going nowhere slowly, but the net result is the same. But it’s raining, and I’m free. It’s all a man can ask for. Well, that and a warm place sleep at the end of the day. There’s a tall Canadian blonde with cold fingers and hair that smells like apple shampoo who thinks she should be added to the list, but it’s my list, and it’s been fine without her for now. I’m not sure that it’s still fine without her though, but a lonely sort of freedom might be uncomfortable, but it’s at least familiar.

Finally, a car stops. I’m zoning out, and I have no idea how long I’ve been waiting, but it’s been a while. The driver saw me on his way into town and decided he’d pick me up on the way out, if I hadn’t lucked my way into a ride before then.

He offers me a beer, and I accept. If you’re going to break one of the cardinal safety rules of hitchhiking, you may as well break it in style. It’s Budweiser, which sets me back a moment or two. American beer is like making love in a canoe so I will limit myself to one. Being able to make love in a canoe on the other hand is what makes you a true Canadian, according to Pierre Trudeau. It’s a test that I failed, back when the lakes were still liquid. I’d probably have better luck now.

It’s a shit of a day. I don’t correct him. By many standards it is a shit of a day. Even 25 cent beers, and the pneumatic breasts of the waitresses, will not numb the ache that I get whenever I leave a place I love. It’s not what he means, but he’ll understand. He works mine rescue. It’s not a place he willingly goes anymore either, which explains the drinking at 9am.

It’s dark down there. The kind of dark that nightmares are made of. The kind of dark that has a physical presence at least as great as that of the tonnes of rock that surround you. The pathetic artificial light, even with all our twenty-first century technology, only serves to emphasise the darkness that lurks in the corners. A coal mine isn’t a place I’d willingly go, even in full working order, let alone when it collapses. Compared to a coal mine, especially one that has collapsed, crushing or trapping friends, my cage is definitely gilded.

Where all the trucks join the highway, we spilt company. Two of his brothers played in the NHL, but he’s got the job worth being proud of. On some level, he understands that. Or at least I hope he does. It’s not the kind of thing you can explain though. A man’s got to know it for himself though. I’m left alone with the realisation that I’m glad I’m not him. But I’m also sad that I probably could never be. Will it make me a better person? I doubt it, I’m too wedded to bogus images, and macho bullshit.

Big thumb wisdom. It’s almost never what you want. But if you try, you might be able to make it what you need. I surprise myself by getting back to university, and not fucking things up. At least not for a while.

Richard Bulkeley is a genlteman scholar from Auckland, New Zealand.

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