A Three Hundred Mile Driving Lesson
Our van chugged along the graded highway offering up a funnel of dust into the blotchy sky behind us. I had just had my first driving lesson, given to me by my girlfriend, all hands and innuendo, reaching across to show me things she thought I should know, lingering on my thigh. I was exhilarated. We pulled out from the empty campgrounds without paying and tore out across the prairies. I was only supposed to take it as far as the overpass, but I didn’t stop. I couldn’t.
I had never sat behind a wheel on a road before and was drawn forward into the depths of the flat yellow earth by the most overwhelming sense of release, offering myself into a world that was suddenly at my feet. I continued over the overpass, barrelled on past a Machinery Store and towering rows of harvesters like giant hulking green beetles, damp in the morning sun. Twenty-Five years of weight seemed to slide off my shoulders and crumble behind us in dusty clumps either side of the long white line, dissipating in the same buffeting air that tousled my long hair through the tiny triangular window by my dash.
We passed Ranch gates with bleached skulls and tumbling hollow and empty grain elevators, still emblazoned with logos of the day. You could watch them for miles rise slowly from the grass, shocking in their height when you pulled right alongside in the otherwise unbroken flatland. Eternal cotton-ball clouds shot off and away in all directions, like that mirror infinity effect you see in a restroom or a lift, chasing away and beyond the horizon, completely unaware of this tiny blue creature scuttling from town to town. Unaware that what I was doing was completely illegal. I had no license. And I didn’t care.
I drove three hundred miles that day. I passed Giant log trucks on single-lanes and they passed me countless more times, wracked by the air they displaced, pushed aside and then sucked in behind. A rush to hold steady and counteract the forces and allow for the old vehicles’ idiosyncrasies, and then cruising once again. We climbed down into and then rose again out of the Badlands of Alberta, coasting between the hoodoos, tall pillars of ancient mud capped with heavy stones, standing like calcified mushrooms, playing with my eyes and transporting me to new dimensions in my nascent mind. Chips of stone would poke out through the exposed strata and they could be teeth or toes of long dead beasts. Elaine would reach back for snacks in the storage behind us, placing them between her knees to where I would gladly reach. There were no traffic lights or reasons to stop, slowing only to avoid the sheep that licked the salt from the roadside.
We skipped along behind the Rocky Mountains, keeping them always to our left, the plains stretching impossibly eastwards unbroken until Quebec, almost three thousand miles away. Elaine had fearlessly driven us through round and over the Rockies several times before, now we were trying to keep off the main thoroughfares to avoid people, traffic and Mounties. We wanted the road. We wanted the sky. We wanted everything and we took it all with our hands at ten and two.
As the hungry sun devoured the road behind us we trundled further into nowhere and before long were the only vehicle on the road. Trees swarmed towards us from the foothills and the roads began to meander slightly, snaking between the buttes, following the valleys. The fuel needle dipped low as though to gauge the sun as it bottomed out beyond the sawtooth ridges. We watched for a copse or a hill to open up or fall away and offer us a gas station. We drove on.
The needle bottomed out as the sun had and we feathered the throttle, coasting downhill when we could, pushing the unerring thirty-year-old 318 engine to the very limit of what it could run on. We laboured to the brink of a shallow valley and saw, nestled between a colony of youthful pines and with the plains seemingly spilling out the back door, a station, the first for hours. Our van began to splutter and chortle and I had little choice but to slip it out of gear and freewheel the final mile or so, until we came to a dead stop alongside the pumps, without ever once tapping the brakes.
The place was closed, but the blue bug lights were on inside. We didn’t mind. We had everything we needed. We camped right there, feeling the cool air cascading gently down from the mountain-tops like a river rushing to meet the warm air rising from the plains, whistling gently through our bug spattered grill.
We watched the clouds materialise above us, as though they formed from the very vapour of the person I had been all this time, all these years, in all those places, right up until the moment I sat behind the wheel, in this van, all those miles ago.