The spring my daughter finished high school, I packed up the car with everything I’d need to live outdoors for three months, everything I could think of for travel by car, kayak, bicycle and ferry, glanced one more time around my yard, which would go unplanted that year, and backed out of the driveway.
My first night I got as far as Georgian Bay, turning in at a provincial park–empty this early in the season–and setting up camp beside a bog with a huge dome of granite in the middle. I was too miserable to eat, the prospect of the journey closing my throat. I sat cross-legged in my tent, a nylon clam open to the white twilight, relieved to be out of the car, with its summers’ worth of paraphernalia: camping gear and groceries, feather pillows and books, backpack and rainwear. We stress ourselves in order to change, and this time I’d chosen solitude and wild land as the forge.
After three days of driving I was still in Ontario. We think of the province as a pan of paved-over ground along the shore of Lake Ontario, a stretch of a hundred kilometres where most of us live, but the real Ontario is the Precambrian Shield–the great wastes of rock overarching tiny southern Ontario in an endless tract of elemental granite and pointed black spruce. The land up here is ponderous, orchestral, especially where the road follows Lake Superior, giving tremendous views of the hills standing up to their mighty shoulders in the sea. Once you leave Superior, though, and plunge into boreal forest–the dark, acid, interminable land west of Thunder Bay–the project of getting out of Ontario becomes daunting. This rock carapace is nothing less than the bulge of the earth’s raw core, scarred, disordered, primordial. The density and weight of the rock have an emotional quality that penetrates the mind. Time seems to clog in the runty trees and gravity tugs in a bold, unbounded way like nowhere else.
When the prairie comes at last, it’s like emerging from a spelunking expedition, rescued by the sky, hauled up and out into the light. On the prairie there is no rock at all, no jagged angles, no glittering lakes, no lowering skies stabbed with evergreens. The morphology of prairie is round.
Past Kenora, the heavy sky and cut rock of the Shield quickly give way to open Manitoba prairie, the road straightening and stretching till it looks like a drawn wire slicing into the horizon. I ducked south of Winnipeg and drove into the setting sun, the evening sky a violet shawl around me.
West of Winnipeg the horizon was dead flat, the only feature the occasional picket of willows barricading a farm. Secondary roads ran along beside the highway with pinprick vehicles, miles off, raising plumes of dust. Farmers, still on their machines in the spring twilight, turned the black ground. Bugs loaded up and baked on the car grille, and any time I slowed, the cool fields filled with birdsong. I turned off the highway and, in the last mauve light of day, found a campground on Lake Winnipeg in a willow grove full of singing birds and shadflies.
* * * * *
Those first days, driving queasily through the Precambrian scenery, unreeling the tender thread between me and home, I had doubts about my expedition, alone in a car on a three-month excursion to the Yukon.
We all have spells of high suggestibility, and I was in one the previous September when I heard a radio interview with a painter, Doris McCarthy. She would have been close to eighty at the time, her voice cheerful and nicotine-cracked, her breathtaking Arctic canvases floating in my memory. At nine-thirty in the morning, while I drove to work from my home near Uxbridge, she and Peter Gzowski were reminiscing about Pangnirtung, a village on Baffin Island they both know. One of them recalled being there in July and, from a window, watching the freed ice move up the bay on the tide and out again on the ebb. Eyeing the approaching Scarborough skyline from my car, a fortress of upended concrete shoe-boxes under a bloom of smog, I was gripped by this image, by the elegance of this event, and I set my mind to go there.
Ideas that lay hold like this have to turn immutable in the mind if they’re going to amount to anything. When I discovered that Pangnirtung is not reachable by car, I could not let myself be deterred. I gave notice at my job and started telling people I was going to drive up to the Arctic the coming summer.
It was not so whimsical a resolve as it may seem. I’d managed a show of equanimity through my daughter’s adolescence and through a long renegotiation of terms with the man I’d been living with. I’d been seven years at a counselling agency fifty miles from home, where I spent my time listening to other harried families. I was watching for a harbinger of change. I believe in the accuracy of ideas that come in this way. After long suspense, long inertia, everything rushes together at once in a notion that has great force. This northern image had such vitality that I would go north even if I couldn’t get to the ice floes.June 17, 1990
The shrubs around the picnic table where I sit writing this morning are shaking with birds. I see kinds I thought had vanished–those darting ones that never seem to land–and a Baltimore oriole, his breast the colour of marigolds. Walking in the fields the other side of the thicket this morning, I saw a wedge of pelicans pass overhead, shining white birds rowing the sky without making a sound. They flew exactly in sync, their huge wings closing the air in slow unison. Beat . . . beat . . . beat . . . glide.
I pack up finally, whisking shadflies off my tent fly, and retrace the route out to the highway. In spite of the heat it’s barely spring, last year’s fields still white and razed. Only the rims of ditches show a rind of green. The houses, in clouds of muzzy willow, are built tall with narrow, tree-blocked windows, and have a secretive, forestalling look. Pickup trucks tilt in the front yards as though the drivers had to get out fast. I conjure secret strife going on behind the walls in rooms of filtered light. There’s a dogged atmosphere to these places, as if people living here are pitched against an enemy.
As the landscape empties, road signs get more frequent as though to keep up contact with motorists as we drive beyond the pale.
Check Your Odometer.
Start Check Now. 0––1––2––
Put Your Garbage Into Orbit. 5 kms.
Orbit. 10 secs.
I begin to look forward to Saskatchewan, which can’t afford road commentary and garbage cans resembling spaceships.
Excerpted from Starting Out In the Afternoon by Jill Frayne. Copyright © 2003 by Jill Frayne. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.