The thousands of miles I’ve just traversed in my worn out Subaru seem as vast as they are. My drive across Ontario last week, from International Falls to Cornwall, was a whim made up around Bemidji, Minnesota, predicated on my weakness for the allure of lonely, secondary highways going north. The sign said “71” and not only do I like the number seven, but I like going the back way home. The wheel seemed to turn itself to the left, as I left US Route 2 and headed into the Pine Island state forestland. The only requirement for doing so seemed to be to check the gas gauge one more time and pray again that the tires hold up.
I did get lost behind the monolithic paper mill at the borderline, where the border guard asked me “what kind of musician” I was. Perhaps it was his odd question, and my odd response, that of pantomiming a little air-guitar that set me off on the wrong foot. I still know how to smile though and that was perhaps the most useful tool for getting through the barbed wire and concrete barriers, but what came next was baffling. Do the Canadians have a problem with right and left? My relief at entering the sanest country on the planet was immediately off-set by the confusing lack of signage telling me which way to go to get onto the east bound highway. Of course I went west, by mistake, and had to pull over finally as that itchy sense of wrong direction began to form in sweat all over my body. My Rand McNally road atlas was strangely missing a section of Ontario – this section. And in the small town there seemed to be a stop sign at every intersection for about five miles, so making a mistake was a slow, drawn-out affair. Well, was I really in that much of a hurry that I couldn’t just sit back and enjoy scenery until I figured it out?
Only problem being that behind a city-sized paper mill is not really that scenic. In fact the relationship between that industry and the number of abandoned parking lots and non-descript industrial wasteland became quite clear, the more I went in the wrong direction. It was about a half hour before I finally shook off the visual chaos and was able to dig deeper into my sense of the land and the river and the sun’s placement in the sky, to find the landscape calming down, civilization thinning and the scrub pine beginning to stretch and stretch out before me. Yes, I was entering the Ontario wilderness at long last, and just how wild it was, was about to express itself in lack of gas stations.
In my excitement to get off the beaten path, I hadn’t analyzed the potential for this, and the words of my husband uttered upon my departure from home suddenly came to the fore of my consciousness: “You might want to take a can of gas with you”. Of course I had dismissed the idea; after all it’s not like I’m in a pickup truck with an open-air platform for storing toxic materials. I was in the family car with a ice cooler, a guitar, a computer, a portable Pro Tools rig and two extra tires. That about filled it. So here I was maybe running on empty depending on what the road was up too, a rather unpredictable phenomenon sans map. Lucky for me I have studied a lot of pop psychology, enough to know that we are always “in the exactly the place we’re supposed to be” at any given moment, no matter how dire, and I had certainly practiced making everything okay on many occasions. And so, affecting this not unfamiliar blithe disregard for consequences, I drove on.
It was about 200 miles later, the two rusty gas pumps at the Can-Op came into view, the shabby trading post sign touching my heart like a beacon of world peace and all that is good. I pulled in with a sigh of relief, and turned off the key, sitting back for a minute to savor the essence of the concept: “outpost”. How many had arrived here before me in just such a state of bereft disconnection from humanity due to failing provisions?
I opened my door a crack to stick out my leg and let the fresh, Canadian forest air flow over it and into the car. Now I felt smart again or maybe just that I’d gotten away with something. Knocking on the vinyl dashboard, I pushed myself up and out to stand on the terra firma of this real location.
In slow, deliberate motions I disengaged the nozzle from it’s holster and stared at the antiquated device, looking for a simple lever to throw to jumpstart the pumping mechanism. That sound, blessed sound of fuel at the ready, jerked into action by my action, echoed across the still gravel lot to the edge of where the trees started up again. Enough space now to expand my thoughts to something other than “what if?” My eyes instinctively turned upward to search the sky for signs of weather and out of nowhere, the raven appeared. Sometimes time stops for such a creature or maybe it’s the unforeseen joining of our two worlds that makes both worlds come to a halt for a brief moment. The raven’s trajectory seemed slower than it could be, its motion smoother than velvet, its flight, a show of the power of grace. My hand gripped hard onto the handle of sustenance, as round and round the clock of flowing gas progressed, as in a dream my gaze was captivated by something meant to reach me, a flying thing far above. The raven made a slow turn around me and another slow turn towards the east, and then I heard the cry: a pure, round “who” unlike any raven I had every heard. Something sweet ran up my spine. Then the raven was gone. The gas clacked off and I was down again here on the ground with my car. I shook myself and blinked and stood a little taller on my feet. I was going home.
That night in the motel, on a polyester bedspread, I sat in the light of my lap-top tapping code phrases in light, not sure exactly what to say except that I was coming. Sleep-deprivation like a drug keeping me wired so that I could not lay down, I returned to the memory of the endless miles I had just traveled. I flew the curve of the last clean river, riding the glint of its rapids, finally rising beyond its banks and turning for home.