Five thousand miles for the eye and the mind to grasp and the memory to hold on to

AL PURDY April 1 1972


Five thousand miles for the eye and the mind to grasp and the memory to hold on to

AL PURDY April 1 1972




Five thousand miles for the eye and the mind to grasp and the memory to hold on to

On the road again. Sometimes it seems I’ve been wandering most of my life. Come to think of it, maybe wandering is my life. The last days at home in a fever to get away. The mind seeing places you want to go superimposed on your own backyard. Of course, traveling is as much fun anticipating as actually being under way, watching the distance shorten under blurred car wheels, or finally getting there and matching what you have in your head with the real thing. And when inward imaginings and outward reality rush together at 60 miles an hour, you gain something that can’t be bought — except with the time of your life.

My wife and I hitched a five-year-old trailer to our car late last summer and drove through western Canada, hopping from one province to another whenever something interested us. Riding around a Saskatchewan farm on a red roaring combine. Fantasizing over dinosaur fossils in Alberta. By the time we got back to Ontario it was getting cold, so I continued across the country alone by train and plane. Eating breaded cods’ tongues in a fisherman’s house on Cape Breton Island. Getting stared down by big orange lobsters in the Farmer’s Market in Saint John . . .

Thinking about the whole trip after I returned was like watching one of those jumpy old movies with the mind’s eye. You know the kind: the picture jerks unexpectedly from scene to scene and place to place. For it was a journey of the mind as well as one of miles, a kind of feast of provinces. And feasts should be shared. Join me.


Maybe it’s a flaw in my character but I love Vancouver. I’ve been broke there, worked in a factory there, picked blackberries on False Creek there, and been desperate there. The whole city is an adventure — the lush lotusland of the Fraser delta, where drunks pass out on evergreen lawns in winter and don’t freeze; they just lie there until spring and peacefully mildew. And I have friends in Vancouver, some of them more or less level-headed despite the Jaycee euphoria of the place. Reluctantly they manage to forgive me for living somewhere else. So we park the trailer at a friend’s house in suburban Burnaby for a few days.

A week later we’re cutting across the waist of Vancouver Island, heading west toward Tofino and Ucluelet on a road so steep the mountain goats all have psychiatrists. Mist hangs in upper reaches of stone; underlying trees visibly change color to pale pea green or dark grass green as mist thins or thickens. It is, of course, magnificent. We stop at an unlevel place beside the road for lunch. A narrow mile-a-minute river has carved solid rock into a tortuous honeycombed maze. We eat sandwiches with

bananas for dessert. I say, “Let’s buy some land here and build a house!” (I have visions of merging my lesser nature into a larger Nature and being creative as hell.)

The island west coast between Ucluelet and Tofino is a marvelous 30 miles of level golden sand. Whales lollop spouting a few miles out from our parking spot. I say, “Let’s buy some land!”

Anything good you always want to own yourself, to be able to have it and see it again and again. That is, until you really think about it. It’s taken me a long time to learn that anything marvelous, all those things that produce an emotion in your throat — why, I own those things already. The eyes take title and the mind possesses. This is not just writer’s rhetoric. The act of appreciation isn’t legal ownership, but nevertheless constitutes real knowledge that a human being is composed of all the things he has seen and known and loved.

Just the same, driving east through high and wide Glacier National Park, I say, “Let’s buy a goddam mountain!”


From Brooks, Alberta, about 140 miles east of Calgary, we drive 40 miles north to the dinosaur park. The fertile plains of wheat country give way to a moon landscape of grey skull-like hills in somehow ghostly sunshine. Here, where ancient volcanoes splattered sky and earth with ashes long ago, the Red Deer River pushes its green wedge through a nearly dead earth. Soon we’re standing with other sightseers outside a large glass case containing a fossilized dinosaur skeleton, listening to the park warden’s spiel.

All of this is enough to transport any tourist back into that other geologic era, if he has any imagination at all. My own reaction is the following fairy tale, based on reality.

Eighty million years ago a body of water 500 miles wide, called the Bearpaw Sea by geologists, split our whole continent from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic oceans. That was in the late afternoon of the day of the dinosaurs. Those overgrown lizards lived on the edge of the ancient sea when Alberta was semitropical. The carnivores —reptiles from five to 40 feet long with fearsome arsenals of tooth and claw — roamed the land masses before the Rocky Mountains were born. The vegetarians, generally smaller in Alberta, were semiaquatic beasts, feeding on plants and prehistoric green salad in the marshlands.

One particular dinosaur of that early era was a duckbill vegetarian, some 25 feet long. I call him Albert, giving him a human handle to make the huge reptile less alien. Consider Albert. There he is, body half submerged in water, eating greens and being completely at home in the sunlit

landscape of ancient earth. Albert probably had a personality — gentle, I think, and perhaps patient. Under blue sky and bright white sun, chewing, chewing, chewing. No hint of danger from earth or water.

Then death appeared in the form of carnivorous Tyrannosaurus Rex, 35 feet long, who grabbed Albert’s tail with teeth like ivory traps. Albert struggled, of course, escaped eventually into deep water, mooing plaintively.

From that time on Albert’s good disposition was ruined. His broken tail took a long time to heal, but it did, though aching continually. When he died much later that tail was a primary reason. For Albert couldn’t swim as well, had to be cautious about shallow water, thus the more tender plants remained out of reach. His digestion and nervous system were probably ruined. And when he died, moon tides swept his body back to the edge of the Bearpaw Sea. It rotted there, and earth, a slow brown-green blanket, formed itself around Albert’s skeleton.

I stand outside a glass case near Brooks, in 1971, and there’s Albert’s skeleton. His bones are now completely fossilized, organic matter replaced with elements of earth. Only shape and form remain. But there’s Albert still.


Wilf McKenzie is a wheat farmer ("I’d rather go broke than do anything else”) near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan — red-faced, forthright, a free enterpriser to end free enterprisers (“Don’t like government handouts, never did!”). A man who thinks the farmer’s biggest problem is marketing.

“Look,” he says, as the red roaring combine grumbles around his home 1,000 acres and I hold onto the railing, “we grow wheat for the world, food for the hungry, and there’s something wrong when that food can’t be sold.”

For miles and miles in all directions the only thing you can see is bright yellow wheat. I bawl hoarsely into Wilf McKenzie’s ear, “Okay, it’s the good life for you, but why?” Spinning the big Massey-Ferguson around, he says, “Well, freedom for instance, close to nature and all that. My father homesteaded this section and a half, and now it’s me. I’ve got no sons, but my daughter’s husband will run the place after I’m gone.”

“You mean tradition . . .”

“Yes, there’s that. And what it says in the Bible, that man was made from dust, and from this same dust we take food for the world.”

I look around at the sunlit miles of “dust,” heavy clay soil laid down here on the edge of the Regina Plain when the last glaciers scrunched past nearly 20,000 years ago.

“But you’re lucky,” I say. “You inherited this place. So will your son-in-law. What about the kids who grow up today and in the future? They tell me it takes $100,000 worth of land and machinery to start a kingdom like this one. Say a young guy gets married and he and his wife want to be wheat farmers. How can they raise all that cash?”

Wilf replies so softly over the machine roar that I have to bend close to his sunburned sixtyish face. “There isn’t any way that kid can ever be a farmer,” he says. “It’s a kinda closed shop. If you’re not born rich or a farmer’s son, then farming a section of land is a great pipe dream.

“But I’m here now,” Wilf says. “Selling is the problem now. I don’t care if the price is down, this year’s crop oughta be sold. You know, I get 30 to 35 bushels of number two wheat here for every acre of God’s dust. I take it to the elevator and the man says he’s got bins for only number four wheat. What do I do? Take that wheat home? No, I give it to him for the same price he pays for number four.”

“Aren’t you getting cheated?”

“Sometimes maybe, mostly not. But the thing is, that wheat is sold. I can go back home and grow some more.” The combine roars steadily, sliding mile-long swathes of yellow down its busy gut. You can see almost forever in any direction except down. Nothing small about anything here. Nothing defeatist. Sell the wheat and to hell with the price. Grow more, more, keep it coming, feed the world . . .


When I was making some travel arrangements in Winnipeg, the agent told me a survivor of the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, now a very old man, was still living there. Duncan McLean was only eight years old when he was captured by Big Bear and Wandering Spirit. So I went to see old Duncan at Gray’s Travel Service where he was working at that time. The man at the travel agency desk told me McLean wasn’t in just then. I went back again later and got the same answer. The third time I went back I had a flash of insight. I said to the man at the travel agency, “You’re Duncan McLean, aren’t you?”

He gave me an odd look and kind of bristled. Then he said, “If you think I'm going to admit that I was a prisoner of Big Bear during the Northwest Rebellion when I’m here selling jet air travel tickets to Rome, you’re much mistaken.” He had a point there.

Duncan McLean seemed only about 75 when I went to see him, but he was 94. And seemed to sense how I felt about him — living history and that sort of thing — perhaps with slight resentment. I thought of him in connection with the French and English fur traders of those early days, wandering the prairie of Rupert’s Land. But old Duncan fitted no stereotype. He was a snappy dresser, grey pinstripe suit and stylish satin tie making him an ancient man-about-town. Something inside me chortled about this, but I was half-reverent at the same time. It’s silly, but 1 thought: touch the hand that touched the hand of Wandering Spirit and Louis Riel, even if this guy never did touch them. We drank some coffee and McLean loosened up a little, not much. What about fear? I said. But even as an eight-year-old, his mother pregnant, his whole family prisoners of hostile Indians who had already murdered several whites, the small boy who became this formidable old man said he was never afraid.

“There was no time for that. You have to remember that the Indians were trying to keep ahead of white men who were chasing them. And we had to keep up with the Indians, even apart from being prisoners. If we hadn’t it would have meant starvation in that wild bush country.” He stopped to think back 86 years, then said reflectively, “Once I saw an old woman hanging from a tree by a rope. She'd killed herself.”


“Couldn’t keep up with her people, just too fat and old.” McLean didn’t say any more about that and didn’t need to. But the story turned time around for me, a swift picture of the dead Indian woman forming in my mind, swaying slightly in the wind as she hung on a cottonwood tree. Old Duncan was still silent when I left.


Rural Ontario is a nice place to visit. It’s also a nice place to live. My wife and I built a house on Roblin Lake near Ameliasburg 15 years ago, and the “natives” still regard us as outsiders. People around there have voted Conservative since the last shot was fired in the American Revolution, which was when the United Empire Loyalists first

started to arrive. And I have no doubt that those first arrivals looked snootily down their noses at the last johnny-come-latelies.

We built the house with a pile of used lumber we bought in nearby Belleville, then went inside to wait out the winter. We had no electricity or plumbing. Three oil lamps were needed to read a book, and I chopped through threeand four-foot-thick ice for water come February and March. An ancient iron cookstove was the only heat source. In really cold weather, I set the alarm clock for every two hours so I could climb out of bed and stoke the stove. The neighbors, of course, thought I was plumb crazy and my wife even crazier to stay with me.

But living there — being trapped, if you like — I was forced to explore my own immediate surroundings. In 1957 the old Roblin gristmill was still standing — an enormous ruined hulk four stories high with three-footthick stone walls. I poked into every corner of that mill, stepping gingerly over black holes in the floor that dropped 40 feet straight down, marveling at the 24-inch-wide boards from vanished green forests. Old Owen Roblin built that gristmill in 1842. Around 1960 they tore out its liver and lights, installing them in Black Creek Pioneer Village just outside Toronto for the edification of tourists.

Wandering the roads on foot or driving when we had money for gas, I got interested in the old styles of architecture. Not as any kind of expert, but with the idea that houses express the character of long-dead owners and builders. Gingerbread woodwork on a white frame house, for instance. The exact spot where a 19th-century man worked an hour longer than he had to because he got interested and forgot about money. That lost 19th-century hour is still visible at one corner of the house.

I keep finding roads I never noticed before, even after 15 years of being an outsider. As if some celestial roads department built them last night in the dark of the moon. Leafy and overgrown some of them, fading to a green dead end at run-down farmhouses, abandoned long since but still containing the map of people’s lives. Roads like tunnels under trees so thick the sun shatters into splinters among black branches. Country roads have this endearing quality of never going anywhere important, certainly not to a city; of being an end of themselves, as if any place you might care to stop the car you have already arrived.


Montreal always seems to me a huge metropolitan centre. But Quebec City is a step back in time; everything already happened and then stopped so you can see the result. Even the tourists here are not quite so hell-bent for heaven.

In bright metallic fall sunshine, an elevator connecting the Lower Town and Upper grumbles and clanks between the two worlds. Above it’s touristy; below it’s still touristy — but with a difference. Around the Chateau Frontenac hotel, visitors are in their element; in the Lower Town they are on the outside of things, essentially sightseers on the lookout for something picturesque to remember when they get back home.

I am also a tourist, looking for handles of things for my own memory to hold on to. Probably I do that most of the time anyway, but here on the waterfront — ships loading and unloading, lovers holding hands with their eyes, old stone buildings protruding from past to present, the quintessentially French feel of the place — dates ticktock through my mind like little tricolor flags.

Statues of Wolfe and Montcalm on Grande Allée, the Plains of Abraham surrounded by churches and hotels, French-Canadian history which joins and becomes my own

history in 1759 — you have to think of Quebec that way, with a whole net of capillaries and nerves stretching back to the past, woven into the body of Canada as well as our own bodies, countless invisible threads binding us together in ways we don’t even know about. Which is a point I think the séparatistes pass over in silence — the point that the French-Canadian past and English-Canadian past converge and join to exactly the degree that the spinal cord and pelvic arch of this country’s creation belong to both of us.


In Saint John I intend to just wander the streets, being a ghostly observer of things. But a gale blows in from the sea at 40 mph, and even keeping to the sidewalk gets difficult. In the Loyalist Burying Ground I feel transient as thistledown in this wind. The dead are anchored and permanent in the 19th century by comparison. Full summer brings office and factory workers here to eat their lunch in the green shade, for this is a cemetery without walls right in the downtown area.

I remember Alden Nowlan, the Maritime poet, talking about the kind of vitality people down here have: “I grew up in Hartland, in midwestern New Brunswick, where they have that long covered bridge that’s in tourist folders. The kind of place where everyone knows everything about everybody else. The basic kind of life. Farmers and fishermen and working in the woods. Most of them did a little of everything to scratch out a living. And never a very good living. Fights breaking out at dances. What the new schoolteacher was like. The kind of life stuff I try to get into my poems. That wild vitality you see here.”

I wander through the Farmer’s Market on Charlotte Street, where big orange lobsters stare menacingly at me from white porcelain, beside mobs of periwinkles and clams. I watch the people, trying to see them as Alden Nowlan does. Alas, their insides are invisible to me. But I seem to know them just the same.

In the harbor a few blocks away freighters are loading and unloading. The sun sneaks out of shredded clouds, a bit afraid it may be blown away by the gusting wind. I walk and walk, with a kind of pleasant feeling of everyone being in the streets for some good reason, everyone predictable, to shop and do business.

The Reversing Falls on the St. John River, Martello Tower, the 1810 Loyalist House and Saint John dry dock — I’ve visited all these before and don’t feel like retracing my steps. Instead, just by walking and looking at people, I get a feeling of this city by the sea, as if using tracing paper over something I wanted to remember. Thousands and thousands of impressions, from the city itself and from books and people I’ve met. Of a slightly poorer area than central Canada, but one with its own vitality, its own sturdiness of character instilled by sea and land.


You can see all of PEI from an airplane. Not a huge continent or a world, but something the eye and mind can grasp and hold on to. Potato counties and townships at the sea’s edge. Dark red soil laid out in squares. Summer crops harvested now and the land nearly naked.

Since I’m Island-born home’s as precise as if a mumbly old carpenter, shoulder-straps crossed wrong, laid it out,

refigured to the last three-eighths of a shingle.

That’s what the poet Milton Acorn wrote about his

home island and, looking down from an airplane, it’s like a big backyard, an outdoor living room, a calm place where nobody hurries.

Among PEI’s various national and provincial cultural festivals — whose names I can never remember — the Charlottetown one is memorable for me. In 1966 Earle Birney’s novel, Turvey, debuted there as a stage play. Jack McAndrew, the publicity guy then, is in charge of the whole bit now. He’s large and barrel-chested, a citizen of the Maritimes preeminently. He tells me Anne Of Green Gables, the perennial stage hit of Charlottetown, is being taken to New York City Centre for a two-week run. Orpheus In The Underworld replaces it here, which seems only right. About Anne in New York, Jack says: “It’s like taking a virgin into the middle of a motorcycle gang.” (Maybe so, but Anne escaped with her innocence intact. She was so “fiercely wholesome” that the critics more or less said “aw shucks” and let her go.)

I wander the streets of Charlottetown, past white frame mansions that potatoes built in the 19th century; the parliament buildings where a war was raging about local schools being turned over to the provincial government and people are afraid their taxes will go up. It’s like a miniature of the country as a whole. But things are slower here and not ashamed to be quaint. Jack McAndrew says: “A man is not depersonalized here; he can be involved and make his personality felt still.” I think the whole Island feels much the same way about the rest of Canada as the PEI voter does about the political candidate he doesn’t intend to vote for come election day: “Good luck to you anyway.”


From Sydney on Cape Breton Island, I drove 30 miles south to the fishing village of Gabarouse. It’s a scattered settlement of white frame houses strung out along the edge of a bay open directly to the sea and more or less typical of the small villages on this stretch of Nova Scotia coast. When I got there, 30-foot waves were leaping right out of the water like white animals and a gale of wind was blowing. Landing stages were empty and the village seemed deserted. But it turned out everyone was at the general store waiting for the mail from Sydney.

I spent the whole day talking to fishermen and drinking coffee. Any stereotyped idea I ever had of what fishermen were like disappeared as quickly as the coffee. You know the idea: identical fishermen dressed in oilskins selling cod-liver oil on a bottle label.

The fishermen of Gabarouse are mixed fishermen, like mixed farmers, after lobster, cod, mackerel or whatever there is. One thing they do have in common: all are over 60, some well over 70. Young men of the village all move away to cities to make a better living and these aging men I talked to are probably the last of their kind.

So here’s Trueman: dark brown face with deep lines carved in it and something in his manner that says he’ll always take a chance. In fact, Trueman is the only man left with nets still out. When the wind cuts down five miles an hour, he’ll be driving his Cape Island boat to sea again.

Albert is another 60-year-old. But all these men look 10 or 15 years younger than their age. Albert fares fairly well with his life. He has a modern house, new boat that cost some $5,000, and a walkie-talkie over which he talks to his wife ashore whenever they feel companionable. Once, when he ran out of gas, the walkie-talkie may have saved his life. Such gadgets are not. luxuries among the men who fish the ice-cold Atlantic — merely necessities not all of them are able to afford.

No, fishermen are not stereotypes in oilskins, but there is something about all of them. I cudgel my brain to figure out what it is. Maybe a calm and quiet around them. Maybe a similarity to the sea itself. They are not animated and excitable men and do not gesture much with their hands. Maybe you can say about fishermen that the flutter and excitement of verbal fireworks are for children. They are not children and there is a dark constancy about them. It is for the long haul and has to do with an essential quiet, as if life is more important than the words attempting to describe it.

Before driving back to Sydney, I had to sit down for a meal of breaded cods’ tongues. They wouldn’t allow me to leave the village without having eaten. Now those cods’ tongues imbued me with a certain amount of suspicion. Breaded, they look like any other food that’s breaded, but an overactive imagination pictured myself talking to other codfish beneath the sea. I might burst out at table with a fishy remark and never know it except for the surprised laughter all around me. I ate them anyway, and they were tender and delicious. I had two helpings.


On the ferry slip at Sydney I watched the big ships leave for Port aux Basques in Newfoundland. No question of my going there this trip: I haven’t time. But five years ago my wife and I had driven a truck camper to Newfoundland. We had gone up the Great Northern Peninsula, stopping overnight in gravel quarries and clearings beside the road, buying cod for ZVi cents a pound and halibut for 10 cents from fishermen, eating raspberries from scarlet bushes, myself having an occasional libation of Newfie Screech to aid navigation. Screech, by the way, is the local brand of rum; it tastes so bad you can’t feel any bumps on the road, not paved on that particular route.

The reason for our Newfoundland trip was Vikings. Ten centuries ago they landed at a point near L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of the island, driving west through storm and ice from Greenland in oared longships to the Labrador coast. Maybe it was Leif the Lucky who landed in Newfoundland. Nobody really knows now. A thousand years of silence have intervened. But driving up the wooded sea-lined coastal road, my thoughts were full of horned helmets and Vikings drinking mead and yelling skoal at Beothuk Indians and cutting down the local timber and generally making a helluva racket.

Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian archaeologist-explorer, had just finished excavating the site of what might have been Leif the Lucky’s settlement. I had wanted to meet Ingstad. And now the trip remains in my mind as a mixture of raspberries and codfish, Ingstad (we had coffee with him) and Screech; Vikings and the dark shadowy faces of Beothuk Indians vanished from earth in the 19th century.

In Newfoundland, there are lakes surrounded by trees surrounded by water surrounded by clouds, places that seem to have been taken out of a peaceful territory of your own mind. But Sydney is the end of the line for me this time. Remains only the hippety-hop flight back to Montreal by Air Canada and the train rumbling west from there with the rhythm of bare bones on steel. At such times I never feel there is a point-of-no-return. There is a kind of joy about both going and coming that stems from making the map of yourself on paper coincide with a 5,000-mile-wide country. Of course it never coincides: all you can do is hint at something much larger than yourself, something green and vast, with cities and provinces and people. But I feel lucky that I’m able to try. ■