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Friday, July 17, 2009

Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part VII: The Land that Never Was

The sign was the first thing that had changed.

When we first moved from Thompson to Leaf Rapids, the "Winter Survival Equipment Essential" sign caught our family's eye. It was the most striking indication that this was a new frontier, a brand new model community on the edge of nowhere, an experiment, a townscape designed by government and corporate needs and yet integrated with the extent a town fuelled by a strip mine could accomplish that. To my delight, the warning was still there when Sylvia and I arrived, in its original spot next to the town, though the physical sign itself had been replaced with a newer model. Perhaps I could go home again, homilies notwithstanding.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived, so we had time for only a quick tour of the little town before we needed to find lodging. So I showed Sylvia the Town Centre, a faux-Brutalist, rust-coloured edifice that crammed all the town’s most vital businesses and public services into one compact mall.

This is where I attended kindergarten and grades 1-3, plus half of four. This is where I played the coveted part of the Wizard of Garbage, thanks to drawing the lead role from a hat. It’s where I played the second shepherd in the school Christmas play and shouted my one and only line, “I am sore afraid!” It’s where Sean was born. It's where my one dollar a week allowance bought three thirty-five cent comics at the Town Centre drug store (Mom or Dad always gave me the extra nickel).

With no real idea of where we were going to sleep, and with the one and only hotel in Leaf Rapids long closed, we drove slightly north of the town, across the Churchill River bridge, where we found a tiny clutch of cabins. At first it looked as though the place was abandoned, but then a fiftyish man appeared and asked if we needed a place to stay.

“How much for one night?” we asked.

“A hundred bucks,” he said. I had exactly one hundred dollars in my wallet – a fortunate coincidence, since the nearest ATM was three hours away and cash was the only payment option here. Strangely enough, when we got to talking we discovered that the man remembered Dad, and had in fact bought the Acklands building; he was using it for storage now.

The cabin turned out to be quite nice – very roomy, with a fireplace, comfy beds, and a terrific view of the lake.

We started a fire to get us through the night, and as Sylvia slid onto the couch before it, I went down on one knee and asked her to marry me. I’d brought her here so she could understand who I am and what she was getting herself into – and yet, despite all that, she said yes. We talked, enjoyed the fire and the view, and played some Scrabble, honouring that game’s place in the flowering of our relationship. Sylvia kicks my butt more often than not in Scrabble, and I’ve always respected her for it.

We looked up at the stars. Northern Manitoba must be one of the best places on Earth to view the universe; it was spectacular. The pitch-black sky was thick with stars and a heavy moon, all of it reflecting off the lake, Northern Lights dancing overhead occasionally – not as strongly as they would in the winter, but having lived through many winters there, I was willing to accept the tradeoff.
And then the day broke. We packed up our things and drove back across the bridge and into town. It was July 20, 2006, thirty-eight years since men walked on the moon, an event I watched on my mother’s lap some distance south of here.

I showed Sylvia the town’s industrial park, the northern half of the town, which included a half-dozen or so businesses and the Manitoba Hydro building. Most were boarded up, including Dad’s old workplace, the Acklands branch he’d set up and managed, the job that brought us (further) north in the first place.
Acklands was a hardware/supply store. It had a Telex machine, which fascinated me. Telex machines were a kind of combination typewriter/fax machine, an outgrowth of telegraph technology. I loved the cacophony it generated when a new message came through, a chattering of keys hammering ink into paper, typing without anyone touching the keys – it seemed like magic. When I was bored, Mom or Dad would set me up at the Telex and I’d type out stories or just play with the keys.

I also enjoyed playing in the bins of Zorbal at the back of the store, although I remember the stuff itched an awful lot. And I cut out the middle pages – that is, the colour inserts – of my Star Wars novelization and photocopied them in Dad’s office. I was disappointed with the quality of the reproduction, and mad that I’d ruined my book for nothing. (Incidentally, I only just recycled that book, finding one in far better condition, and from an earlier print run, than the one my parents bought me at the Town Centre’s drug store.)

Next door I found the abandoned remains of the Midi Mart, land of Pink Elephant popcorn and Wigwag bars.

We looped around the town a couple of times, past house after house that was boarded up and long abandoned. We saw perhaps twenty-five different people, even though the town still officially boasted a population of 500; I’m not sure where everyone was that day. I was hoping to find the empty lot where Churchill Place had once stood; I knew that if I could find that lot, I could navigate my way to the sinkhole.
That plan failed until we circled around and wound up at the Town Centre again, and I found that wooded path I’d followed to school and back. I was excited – this was it! We left the car and made our way down the path.

Sylvia was immediately swarmed by sandflies and blackflies, great black clouds of them surrounding her. They left me alone, perhaps recognizing a native son, perhaps simply attracted by the scent of Sylvia’s makeup.

But Sylvia suppressed her natural fear and loathing of insects and followed me into the forest as best she could, snapping the occasional photo, then handing off the camera to me as the bush thickened.

I knew that the sinkhole, my gateway to not only yesterday but to my child-self’s dreamworld, was very close.

But with every step I took, the brush grew thicker, more impenetrable. I knew I was heading in the right direction, but the paths I took as a child had grown over, and all I could see of the sinkhole was the effect of its depths on the treetops in the distance, lower than the ones over my head. I could tell that those trees were growing out of the depths of the sinkhole, and that I was close, very close, to to precipice...

But the woods held me back, and I could hear Sylvia calling my name from a great distance. Frustrated and bitterly disappointed, I turned back. I felt as though some force had found me wanting, as if I weren't yet ready to return.

The woods denied me, and so I turned back. The other world my childhood self had explored was closed to the man, and now there was nothing left but the formalities.

Sweaty and dirty from my futile attempt to breach the forest guarding the sinkhole, I decided to visit one of my favourite places in town the old library, which backed onto the school. And lo and behold, there was Lois Hole's Favorite Bulbs, one of the gardening books I'd co-authored at Hole's. Something of me had made it back to Leaf Rapids even before I did, and this simple thing relieved a good deal of my frustration.

After taking a quick look around the mall and paying for some gas at the Co-Op, we left, as simply as that. A journey of many hours - and in a sense, many years - ended in the space of an afternoon, an evening, a morning. Only this and nothing more; an exploration I'd anticipated for years, dwindling in the rear view mirror as we started down the long road home.

It’s been almost exactly three years since Sylvia and I travelled to the edge of nowhere. We’re married now, and since coming home from the edge of nowhere we’ve had a few adventures: our big fat geek wedding, coming face to face with Barack Obama in Hawaii, running for office in the last provincial election. These are the pursuits of adulthood, and if I couldn’t recapture the dreams of my childhood, perhaps Leaf Rapids was sending me a message, after all. I left my childhood behind in the fairy world beneath Leaf Rapids, but I came away with something more valuable still: a partner, a fiancee, my wife to be.

But I’m compelled to try one last time. Just a few hours from now, Sean and I will journey together to Manitoba. First we’ll join our parents in Virden, to participate in a ceremony honouring our grandparents’ donation of Salt Lake to the surrounding community. Then we’ll head north, following a different path than the one Sylvia and I took in 2006. Sean will see a birthplace he no longer remembers, and I, armed with my new insight, will search for the sinkhole one last time.

It will almost certainly be the very last time I return to Leaf Rapids. Not long from now, I’ll let you know what we find there.

For those of you who started reading this story wayyyyyy back in 2006, I apologize it's taken this long to finish what should have been a simple travelogue. I'll try to be more timely when Sean and I Return from the Edge of Nowhere.


Anonymous said...

Great closing chapter. I look forward to you reading about your latest trip back to Leaf Rapids.

L, your wife

28 Jeffs Later said...

Yes, Earl, that was a masterful travelogue. I would not have figured that you would have been unable to find your childhood playground. That was a moving ending, but sombre. Maybe it is for the best, though. And you and Sylvia did get engaged! That's the best of the best right there.

You mention the telex. My dad would fairly frequently work Saturdays at his desk job. He worked with the Ford tractor division, so when I tagged along, I played on a lot of agricultural equipment as a child. I never got any keys, though, so nothing had power. Otherwise, I imagine there would be an item in the news about how several buildings in Regina recieved holes in their walls in the exact shape of a Ford 5000.

But I did play with the office telex a lot. It had punch key cards and paper ribbon ticker tape. I actually learned how to read that tape by eye, I remember that. These days, I couldn't tell you what the green light means on my router.

Dad showed me toll-free 1-800 numbers that I could call to contact telexes for CN and CP railways, in Toronto I think. The remote telexes didn't have any human operator, but rather they were controlled by computer. The railway telexes were programmed to provide the locations of individual engines and train cars on demand, and that's all they ever did.

So I could call the CN telex, ask it for the status of car XYZ, and the computer would call back and tell me the car was off-loading grain in Halifax, or shipping tractor parts to Regina, or the car was empty and sitting on siding ABC somewhere in the British Columbia interior.

I collected a large assortment of car numbers. I could keep track of them by punching out the key cards. Then I would call the telex and put the stack of cards in the reader hopper. The cards would get read, the numbers sent automatically to the railway, and then the remote telex would send me back a print-out via the ticker tape.

This was the early 1970's, and I thought this was incredibly futuristic. I saved the tapes and tried to keep track of "my" cars as best as I could.

Eventually, Ford replaced the telex with a computer network. You can't readmagnetic tapes by eye, and the operating system syntax became a lot more complicated for me. I remember in the 1980's, Dad brought home a gigantic shiny record album called a laser data disc. We didn't have anything to play it, and it did not fit into our toploader VCR.

Oh, yeah, I nearly forgot: what is Zorbal? My internet search turns up a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, and the name of a desert rogue Captain Archer faces off against in a Star Trek episode.

Earl J. Woods said...

Sorry for taking so long to answer this question - Zorbal was a gritty pink compound that absorbed (or "zorbed") spills - grease spills, oil spills, etc.

And thanks for the train story! Old technology and the impact it had on curious children is pretty fascinating stuff.

Erin Houser said...

Hey Earl! You don't know me, but I came across your writings by googling Thompson. I live in Northwestern Wisconsin, USA and have always been intrigued by Churchill, and Thompson, Manitoba (as well as surrounding areas, and well, most of the Northern parts of Canada). I knew a guy from Thompson once. His name is Phil (must be around age 28 or so by now) and he went to school at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and played hockey there for the Blugolds. Anyway, your story is very interesting. I can't wait to read more and I hope hope HOPE you safely reach the Sinkhole!!! :-) Erin

Earl J. Woods said...

Thanks very much Erin! I hope to post the story of my final trip to Leaf Rapids sometime later this summer. If you ever have the leisure, I heartily recommend a road trip to northern Manitoba - it has a surreal beauty that's hard to capture in words or even photographs. Spoiler alert - I did reach the sinkhole on that 2009 trip with my brother, but getting there had its share of hazards!

Anonymous said...

Hi Earl, Hey Do you remember the old zip line they had by the school? Kind of long from the top of the hill 2 the bottom? It was sometime in the late 70's. Was it still there?
Just came across your story, read it & think it's awesome. Will there be another trip?
If so try snapping more cool pictures. Oh congrats, so did you two tie the knot?