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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part VI: Reaching the Edge

Initially, I was surprised by the road's quality. When we lived in Leaf Rapids, only short sections of Provincial Road 391 were paved - a few kilometres north of Thompson, a few kilometres south of Leaf Rapids; in between, bare gravel. I'd been warned that the road between the two communities had deteriorated significantly in the years since we left Manitoba, so we left Thompson with appropriate caution.

But Sylvia and I drove tens of kilometres on smooth asphalt with no problems, and so I opened up the throttle a little. Evergreens, bedrock and beautiful beach sand surrounded the road on either side, whizzing by to the sounds of the bombastic soundtrack from Pirates of the Carribean.

And then, suddenly, the road was full of gravel patches, potholes and sudden dips and warps. We slowed down, but then suddenly the road would improve, and our speed climbed...only to run into another rough patch, the car shaking and bouncing. Sylvia and I started to laugh hysterically, for the music echoing from the car stereo was perfectly dramatic and overblown for what had become more of a rollercoaster ride than a leisurely drive.

We passed few vehicles. Dragonflies the size of small birds slammed into the grill and the windshield, a couple getting stuck under the window wipers, much to Sylvia's disgust.

The dragonflies, the bare bedrock, the trees, the raspberry bushes in the ditch...every image, smell and sound awakened a memory:

Dragonflies were and are huge in Leaf Rapids. One day when I was small, I stood in front of 8 Churchill Place, our home in Leaf Rapids, while a massive dragonfly circled me, its wings so huge that you could hear them flapping quite clearly - click-click-click-click-click. I wasn't afraid; I loved the way the sunlight caught the glossy wings, reflecting across the segmented surfaces as if they were stained glass.

When I slept, I dreamed of dragonflies - dragonflies and monsters and heroes and princesses and fairies.

Thousands of years ago, as the glaciers retreated, they carved a great furrow in the earth. Leaf Rapids is built almost atop this furrow, and in a few minutes I could walk from our house to this great wound in the earth. Everyone called it the sinkhole, a name I never liked; it was an ugly word to describe a magical place.

Leaf Rapids wasn't like ordinary towns - places where the woods were bulldozed to make way for a spiderweb of roads and housing developments. Instead, destruction of the local environment was kept to a minimum, with just a few roads connecting the Town Centre - the rust-coloured all-in-one school, shopping mall, hotel, bar, theatre, hospital, curling rink and gymnasium - and the various housing developments, or "Bays." As a result, most people got where they were going by walking along heavily wooded trails.

To visit the sinkhole, my friends and I would follow one or another of these trails, boots crunching through thick snow in the winter or sneakers squishing soft moss and pine needles in the summer. The long edges of the sinkhole were extremely steep, cliff-like; if you jumped, you'd sail through the air for quite a distance before meeting the grade and rolling the rest of the way down the hill to the bottom. The short edges were shallower, allowing one to descend more leisurely. Imagine a giant canoe pressed into the earth and then lifted back into the air; that's the shape of the sinkhole.

Descending into the sinkhole was like moving into another world. The trees grew even thicker, so thick that if you looked up you could only see patches of sky. The moss became even deeper, softer. There were bogs to avoid, and strange noises.

In the winter, we would toboggan recklessly into the sinkhole at breakneck speed (indeed, some people did break bones doing this). In the summer, we would play Fantastic Four or Star Trek or cops and robbers or cowboys and indians.

And at night, in my dreams, the sinkhole was even more magical. In reality, you could climb (and as the grade declined, walk) to the bottom of the sinkhole, each wall of the depression several meters away. But in my dreams, the sinkhole became steeper and steeper and narrower and narrower the deeper Iwent, so that eventually the sides of the sinkhole pressed in on me. Soon I'd be using clumps of moss and tree branches as handholds to descend, but instead of reaching the bottom, I would slide through the narrowest possible gap, and then the sinkhole would widen again, and below me was another world.

It was never a long drop from the gap in the world above to the floor of the world below, and so I would let go of the moss and fall a couple of meters, but softly, to the flowery fields of my dream world. I don't remember what adventures I had in that world, but I know I had friends there; a tiny, winged fairy, a man made of rock, a princess whose name began with J. It was a beautiful world, but a troubled one, and they needed me from time to time, and so I went to help, even if I was only a little boy; but a little boy was required.

(Later, in Alberta, I read the Narnia tales of C.S. Lewis, and I was delighted but disturbed, as if I'd seen and experienced something like this before.)

I still dream about that place sometimes. Perhaps it's the whole reason I took Sylvia north with me in 2006. Maybe I thought I could find it again.

Surrounded by the beauty of an untamed wilderness, the architecture in Leaf Rapids, though award-winning (for the Town Centre), lacked a certain je ne sais quois in comparison. I'm not the fashion plate Sylvia is, but the brown and yellow paint scheme used for Churchill Place in the 70s seems pretty garish to me now. But this is where I first watched Star Trek ("A Private Little War" - I remember the Mugato jumping out and scaring me), where I played with Fisher Price Adventure People, where I sleepwalked down the stairs to pee in the garbage can under the sink, much to my parents' amusement.

One Christmas Eve, my parents told me that Santa Claus was coming to our house. The doorbell rang, but it wasn't Santa. While I watched in goggle-eyed shock, a seriously drunk man crashed through the front door and slid down the hallway, too inebriated to stand. Mom and Dad phoned the RCMP, who gave him a nice place to sleep for the night, and a good thing, too - the man would have frozen to death, otherwise. Santa arrived some time later without incident.


My brother Sean was born in Leaf Rapids, and was quick to misadventure. Once, while I was lying on the couch reading, he clambered onto the backrest and leapt down onto my chest, his little feet smashing into my ribs with incredible force. Later, he leapt from above through one of Mom and Dad's glass-topped coffee tables. Sean survived without a scratch, playing with the shards of glass that surrounded him. The unbroken tables were gone the next day.

Sean liked to jump. It made him jolly.

Sean had a more serious accident a short time later, while we were camping at the Suwannee River campsite a short distance away from Leaf Rapids. While we were preparing dinner (or perhaps lunch) in the camper, Sean grabbed a cup of boiling hot coffee, went to take a drink, recoiled from the heat and spilled the coffee all over his chest. Dad immediately grabbed my screaming brother and dunked him in the camper's sink, hoping the cold water would help. That obviously wasn't enough, so seconds later we were tearing down the road at the truck's top speed, heading for the hospital. This was a three-quarter ton Ford crew cab, and Dad must have pushed that truck somewhere north of a hundred miles an hour as Mom cradled my wailing brother in her lap. I stood in the back seat, terrified for him, wishing we could go even faster.

We made it to Leaf Rapids' small hospital without driving over a cliff or crashing into another car - it was an amazing feat of driving, for the roads in northern Manitoba are pretty unforgiving. The doctors in Leaf Rapids did the best they could, but Sean had second degree burns and so he and Mom had to be flown to Winnipeg while Dad took care of me. Fortunately, Sean escaped without any lasting damage thanks to my parents' rapid response and the amazing work of the Manitoba doctors. I still remember how relieved I was when Sean and Mom returned, their hair all curled from the incredible humidity in the plane.

Sean ate a stinkbug in the backyard and a cigarette in the living room (and apparently he also tried to eat a toy helicopter). I should have intervened, but instead watched in wide-eyed fascination. I like to think that Sean's experience with tobacco prevented him from taking up the habit in later life. At least, that's how I rationalize my inaction today.

Once, Sean was fussing in his high chair. In high dudgeon, he flung a bowl of cereal to the kitchen floor, and Mom, frustrated, tied him to the chair with a teatowel, an inventive and effective solution.

I saw Star Wars in Leaf Rapids. It was an event. Months earlier, I saw the first trailer on CBC - the early trailer with the ominous classical music, not the later one with John Williams' iconic score. I went nuts. I remember jumping up and screaming something like "I HAVE TO SEE THIS!" When the movie finally arrived, everyone in town lined up inside the Town Centre to see it. Hundreds of people filled the place, the line extending all the way through the mall and out into the schoolyard. People were dressed up as Leia, Luke, Han and the robots. 75 cents purchased a ticket, a pop and popcorn.

Sean reacted to Darth Vader by peeking over the top of his upraised blanket, crying "Ooooo!" I was sitting closer to the front, with my friend Kelly Bear.

The Kenner action figures eventually made their way to Leaf Rapids. I wanted Luke Skywalker, but had to settle for R2D2 first - he was the only semi-cool figure left in stock. And later he became my favourite character anyway. Kelly and I amassed quite a collection of figures, and we'd create our own adventures with them, usually out behind the Acklands store, which Dad managed. It was a great location, because just behind the store there was a sandy hill, a great substitute for Tatooine. I remember playing with my Corgi Batman cars here, too - the Batmobile, the Batboat, the Batcopter. I lost the tiny Batman and Robin figures in the sand, unfortunately, but I still have at least one of my two Batmobiles.

Not all my memories of Leaf Rapids are pleasant. I was a very small child, and I was targeted by bullies. In kindergarten, there was an indoor sandbox mounted on legs. One day, while playing underneath the sandbox, two bullies kicked out the legs and I was squashed underneath. Sand is heavy.

Walking home from school could be a nightmare. I was beaten up a number of times, until one day I was thrown down on my back. The bully who'd pushed me came down at me to pummel me with his fists, but I reflexively raised my booted foot and kicked him in the chin as hard as I could. He ran away and the bullying, at least in Leaf Rapids, stopped. I hate what that implies, that violence is the only way to end violence. I hope that's not true, because as much as I hated coming home crying to my parents, I hate myself for striking back that way. A kick like that could have broken teeth or maybe even a neck. Probably not, small and weak as I was, but the image still haunts me.

Of course my tormentors weren't just bullies, they were kids, like me. Troubled kids who needed a release for their pent-up emotions.

I hope they got better.

I didn't tell Sylvia any of this, but I did point excitedly when we crossed this yellow bridge, which I remembered well from many childhood trips between Thompson and Leaf Rapids.

And I was even more excited when we drove over the dam. The past was so close I could taste it.

And then...there it was. You can't even see Leaf Rapids from the road; it's hidden by the forest. Just a quick right between the trees, an eyeblink, and you disappear into the green. We'd arrived. This is where I would come to terms with my past, and, with my planned proposal to Sylvia, I'd set the course of our future.

NEXT: All My Yesterdays

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