Yonge and restless
Saturday, August 4, 2001
Maybe it was the weather. I had dropped off my rental car in preparation for the bus leg of my trip and had several hours to kill, but the morning was damp and overcast, so I decided to stay indoors. Twenty minutes later, it was summer again, so I decided to go for a walk. But by the time I set foot outside the hotel, the drizzle was back. When the Greyhound finally pulled out for Cochrane, more than 700 kilometres away, the sun was shining but dusk was creeping in off Lake Superior.
There were 12 passengers on board, and our driver, a dead ringer for former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, grinned as he announced that he'd be taking us only as far as Hearst. We'd be there by 1 a.m., and "another-bus-will-be-along-at-five-ayem-to-take-you-to-Cochrane," Noriega gargled. I looked around the coach for a response, but news of this sudden change in plans was greeted with stoic silence.
A funny thing happened on the way to Hearst. As the bus turned north and left the shoreline of Lake Superior, it began to get brighter outside. By the time we reached Beardmore - "gateway to Lake Nipigon" - we were down to five pas-sengers but it was 9:15 at night and the sun was still up. In my notebook I recorded "a fox standing by the roadside with prey hanging from its jaws." Finally, at 10:09 p.m., I reported rather somberly: "Darkness falls."
After that, I stared into the darkness, imagining how Canada must have appeared to the first Europeans - a vast unknown, an unimaginable, endless void. No wonder so many roads have been built on top of native trails, the settlers superimposing their structures on the back of the indigenous people's intuitive knowledge of the land. As I fell asleep I had a strange feeling that I was being watched by the ghosts of the past.
The bus suddenly lurched to a halt, its interior lights flashing. I sat up and glanced at my watch: 1:15 a.m. Up ahead a gas station glowed in the darkness like a maximum-security prison. We pulled in and the three of us still on the bus were shooed off. General Noriega mumbled something and then drove away, grinning into the night.
To pass the time, I sipped a cup of anemic coffee in the restaurant. Crazed moths peppered the windows and two truck drivers at another table managed something I'd thought impossible - they made French sound like a barbaric language. Before long, a westbound bus pulled up just long enough for a young girl to bounce out - and I spent the next two hours hearing about what it is like to grow up in a small town in Northern Ontario.
Janice Breton had just come from Mattawa on the Ottawa River, where she had spent two weeks with her francophone father, who apparently lives on a farm but works for a timber company. He is divorced from Janice's mother, who also works for a timber company but lives in Longlac, a town west of Hearst. Janice doesn't live with her mom anymore, for various reasons, but her best friend's parents are her foster parents, so that's fine.
All this and more poured out in a breathless stream-of-confession. Life is about solving problems, Janice sighed. Her ambition is to be a secretary for a record company. I could identify with her need to belong while, at the same time, wanting to escape a place where you have to buy music from a catalogue and the nearest decent clothes store is six hours away in Thunder Bay.
Had she ever, I wondered, been to a big city? "I went to the Calgary Stampede last week. My aunt was getting married, but there were too many people," she replied, frowning. "It was too crowded, we got lost."
But then she added: "I want to be far from here one day."
Janice must have told me everything, the boyfriend who cheated on her, her love-hate relationship with her mother - "I know she loves me," she agreed when I suggested that mothers have a strange way of showing affection. I listened sympathetically as she chain-smoked my cigarettes, spilled her hot chocolate all over my notes, skipped off in mid-sentence to get a mop, and then returned to pick up the sentence where she left off.
She was precocious, savvy and beautiful - and 14 years old.