Oh Canada: Exploring America's Majestic, Pointless Neighbor
O Canada! Even your anthem begins with a sigh of pity. Over the past two weeks I have watched your Olympic athletes wave from podiums, winning medals in moguls and speed skating but never in attractiveness. It is not your fault. Like our primitive ancestors of the ice age, you have abandoned any semblance of aesthetic for the sake of survival. Even today, walking across your barren wastelands is to travel through time; your lawless country of drifters is reminiscent of the Wild West except colder and with more wolves. Still, despite all this, I hear your romantic call: the call of the wild.
For three days I gave up my father's ski mountain in Colorado to tread your void, both to chronicle your lumbering stabs at manifest destiny, and to capitalize on some of the Olympic frenzy. "This is your shot at a fifth consecutive Cabot Prize" my publicist pointed out. I reminded her that accolades for journalism excellence were not the reason I write. Also, this would be my sixth.
The plane touched down in British Columbia at dawn and I noted the immediate absence of dogsleds. My guide was waiting for me in the baggage claim, a beast of a man named Gene. He greeted me in French and in English while crushing my hand in his. "I am at your disposal during your entire stay. First, how about some lunch?"
"Lunch?" I chortled, "But it's dawn."
"It's eleven. The sun rises late here and sets early."Touche, Canada. Touche.
Gene wanted to take me through downtown Vancouver, and to the Olympic stadium but I declined. A city center filled with tourists from other nations would only dilute the true spirit I was here to capture.
"Take us to the woods," I said.
"Some snow capped village of trappers."
"I don't know aboot any of those, also my car is only 2-wheel drive. They're doing pairs ice-skating today, you have a guest pass. "
"I'm not here for ice-skating, Gene. I am here to give your savage country the voice it has been sorely missing."
"Alright," Gene said, and pressed the OnStar button for directions. Three and a half hours later we were driving through pristine wilderness. I pressed my face against the glass and stared at the unadulterated wilderness.
"Look, totem poles!" I shouted.
"Trees," Gene corrected me.
"Yes. Spiritual trees.""Ok."
We stood on the icy roadside together, breathing in the silence. Moisture hung in the air like fog. I suggested that we start walking, perhaps we would stumble across the frozen body of a Yukon miner and I could write about the aspiration and loneliness in his eyes. Gene was less eager. He was concerned by the approaching storm clouds and the setting sun, and also my flip-flops. It took fifteen minutes of convincing and eight hundred Canadian dollars which has no real world value anyway. Gene found an extra pair of boots in his trunk and as he tied them to my feet I already I felt closer to this feral country.
We walked less than a mile before I fell in a stream.
"I told you not to walk on the ice," my guide said. He told me we would have to build a fire to stave off the hypothermia.
"Nonsense, let's go back to the car."
"The heater's broke."
"Snow!" I sang, because it was snowing now. Gene shook his head. We got a fire going under a lodgepole pine and Gene instructed me to strip down. My efforts were clumsy and I drifted in and out of consciousness. By the time I was completely naked, snow melted of the branches above us and extinguished the fire. Gene cursed and said something about London.
I woke up later to the sound of duct tape coming off a roll. My guide was tearing off squares with his teeth and pasting them to my chest. He explained in his outdoorsman way that the wind was coming and this would help prevent frostbite on my nipples. "That's insane," I told him and Gene lifted his own shirt to show me two identical silver squares. In that moment, alone in the woods together I had several epiphanies: 1. Simple souls like Gene had learned to carve out an existence in this harsh, unforgiving environment and had even grown to love it. 2. Their love was like the arctic wind itself; invisible and only recognized by the force it bears on objects. 3. My guide was a woman, presumably the entire time.
"Your name is Jean," I managed.
"Nothing, it will make more sense to my readers."
We spent the night pressed against one other out in the wild. One man, one enormous woman, shivering and naked in a frozen Eden. Jean had wrapped her dry clothes around the two of us and I buried myself in her pie wagon frame like a husky in a snow cave. I could not have come any closer to loving a piece of Canada than I did in that storm.
At daybreak we rose to the sound of rain in the pines. Jean shrugged and explained that temperatures change quickly here. We hiked back to the car through slush, thrilled to be alive and to have an adventure to document. I told Jean that I would make her famous, but in the United States where it would count for something. She suggested I don't come back to Canada. I smiled, knowing she was right; I had seen all I needed to see.
I burned the next two days in a hotel hot-tub decompressing. I got drunk and watched basketball with the volume all the way up to drowned out the cries from the stadium nearby. I saw Jean one last time when she came to pick me up for my flight.
"I adore your world," I told her. "And your cities' blatant plagiarism of urban America."
"Merci," she said.
"What is the French Canadian word for 'ambiance'?"
I smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. "You'll get your own someday."
I flew home on wings of passion and Alaska Airlines. With a cocktail napkin and an airline crayon, I regaled every harrowing moment and every triumph from my visit. My in-depth research and general gift with words allowed me to craft a beautifully articulated thesis regarding our neighbors to the north: Like it or not that country is up there, and if it were to blink out of existence this moment, we would all wake up tomorrow to a different world. One much like this one, except without Canada.