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A 1996 Toyota Corolla sums up my 2016

“Should I buy the car?” Samia asks me.

Mentally, I assess. Pragmatism is not a quality that I possess a lot of, so my mental checklist might seem unreasonable to somebody more practical.

“It stops, it starts. What more do you want out of a car?” I think. Ignore the fact that it is from 1996, there is a hole in the driver’s side floorboard covered with cardboard, safetying it will be nearly impossible and insurance and plates are going to cost a significant amount. Ignore the fact that every mechanically inclined person in camp has said “Don’t buy the car, you fool!” But the car itself is only $350 and a bus ticket back to Toronto is on the verge of $200.

“You should buy the car for sure!”

I am the worst of all enablers. I will never say no. Everything is an adventure. What’s the worst that can happen? I get in and drive the car around the block. I love it. Two months in the Hearst forest has erased my capacity for stress and anxiety. I’ve even coined a phrase for it- ‘Strollin’. As in just strollin’ through life, loose-y goose-y.

She goes to the ATM, withdraws the $350 and pays. We don’t have plates or insurance or even really an inkling of how to get the temporary sticker needed to drive the car, so we leave it sitting in town and drive back to camp with the cook, laughing both at the beauty and the stupidity of the situation.

Our last night in Hearst comes and goes all too quickly. The 4.5 million tree contract is done, the last dastardly black spruce seedlings planted. The last in camp party night comes and goes, long as a lifetime, short as a dream. I wake up  for the last time in my tent, the light blue coming in the fly. It isn’t raining-for once. A sunny day for tear down and clean up.

66,000 trees. I am exhausted. I am triumphant. I have not started packing. I am doing better than some, though, whose tents are still standing, alone, as the rest of us finish filling in shitter holes, tearing down mess tents and scanning the camp for stray cigarette butts and small bits of garbage. I trudge the length of road between our tent city and the waiting gear bus probably 20 times, dragging gear bags, tents, garbage bags full of clothing, dragging trash to the waiting garbage trailer. Our tent city fades into memory. We are all humming snatches of Billy Joel’s ‘For the Longest Time’, a hit from last night’s playlist.

We spend a final night in Hearst, at the Queen’s, instead of the Howard Johnson- an upgrade. We celebrate in the hot tub (an amenity unique to the Queen’s) with McDonald’s cups full of Baby Duck. I wake up at the Howard Johnson, wrapped in a blanket from the Companion, with fuzzy memories of bus parties and 3 a.m shopping at the Esso (Farmer’s Almanac, universal remote, cigarettes, scratch card) and disembark for my own hotel, shedding the Companion blanket outside its appropriate home along the way. It’s 8 a.m and the town is quiet but I’m worried I’ve missed my ride home.

I roll into our hotel room at the Queen’s in the same thrift store dress I’ve been wearing for 3 days, a trickle of blood dried and crusted from my knee down my calf. I’m not even worried anymore. I’ll hitch hike. I’ll buy a bus ticket. I’ll bum a ride from somebody else. I pick up my leftover bottle of Baby Duck, start drinking and crawl into bed with a couple of my friends.

Sure enough, my ride rolled through looking for me hours earlier. Having lost my phone in a swamp early on in the season, there was no way to contact me. They searched the town for me while I was blissfully sleeping in the wrong hotel just across the road. No matter. Samia still has room in her car; we formulate a plan to convoy to Sudbury with the rest of our group in another car (walkie talkies and all) and then split off on our own to spend a night or two on Manitoulin Island with my family.

Reluctantly and after much procrastination, we peel out of Hearst, windows down, shouting out the window at the remaining planters, “Eeeeeh! Tree planter!” and then, sobbing uncontrollably and holding hands, carry on to Mattice.

It is hot, unbelievably hot, and the 20 year old AC doesn’t work. We roll our windows down and the wind rips our conversation away. It rains,torrential downpour, and water splashes up through the hole in the floorboards. We have to beat this sucker almost 2,000 km to Manitoulin and then Toronto and have no idea how it’s going to go. Samia managed to procure a 10 day trip permit for the car, since safetying it would be virtually impossible.

“Do you smell that?”

We both pretend not to.

We listen to Bon Jovi’s ‘Living on a Prayer’ on repeat. It’s our anthem for this roadtrip.

We take a wrong turn around Timmins and turn around, texting our convoy about our mistake. As we turn around and correct our course, we see their red car, blue bundled tarp strapped on top, blithely sail by in the opposite direction- the same wrong turn we just took. Nobody answers their phone for hours. They’ve gone an alternate (although longer) route through North Bay.

9 hours later we roll into Sudbury- a double rainbow stretches across the sky and ends somewhere over The Big Nickel. Dark is approaching quickly. We don’t know what to do with these tall buildings, these busy roads- there are too many people. Months in isolation mean we know only a small group of faces. Every time a tall man walks by, my brain associates it with a tall man from camp, so instead of thinking “Oh, that’s a random tall stranger,” my heart instinctively gives that leap that it does when you see an old friend. But it’s just a stranger.

In a downtown parking lot we separate. We’re too loud, too big to be contained by this city. We peel out of the lot hanging on the horn, leaning out the window, shouting love. Then it is just us and the Trans Canada highway. I’m driving now, hands at 10 and 2, starting dead ahead. I haven’t been behind the wheel of a car in months, let alone on the Trans Canada. I am sleep deprived and emotionally charged and mildly terrified. The night is a deeper dark than you may know in the city- a void of black, a heavy shroud. I drive on auto-pilot, I talk about home.We used to drive into Sudbury to see a movie or go shopping- Manitoulin has no movie theater, no chain restaurants, no clothing stores. A 2 hour drive, each way, just to get Tim Hortons or fried chicken.

The bridge, finally, lies before us and another hour of driving before we roll up to my family home in Gore Bay at 1 in the morning. We are beyond exhausted. Emotionally spent, we climb into bed for one last time before our journey ends for this year. Two in a bed seems empty compared to nights at the HoJo with three or more. My mind is reeling with possibilities. “Let’s just keep driving,” I think at one point. Get back on the Trans Canada and drive and drive and drive and forget whatever our lives were. There’s only now. But families wait at home.

The car takes us around the island; we beach bum, make daisy chains and flower crowns, collect sea shells. I’m riddled with love and memory at every turn in my childhood townships. We walk all along the river to the waterfall in Kagawong. My heel catches on the cardboard on the driver’s side floor every time I switch from gas to brakes. The car trundles along Highway 540. I silently beg my mechanic grandfather not to say anything about the state of it. We make ferry reservations and I worry if the car will make it up the ramp. Early in the pre-dawn of the next morning we depart. The car is full of our gear, planting bags and shovels and a moose skull and work boots are strewn about, bags of chips and snacks and the trappings of roadtrips. She makes it onto the boat no problem, off the boat like a dream and all the way back to Guelph, and then to Toronto.

I resolve to live my life like we lived that roadtrip. It’s symbolic for me of a divide, of a shift. I used to suffer from horrific, over bearing anxiety- two years ago, even a year ago, if I had missed my ride home, I probably wouldn’t have nonchalantly strolled back into my hotel room with a bottle of Baby Duck held aloft and said “Oh well!” Emotionally, I would have shut down, given in to my internal, all consuming panic. But I know now, I can do anything. Things have a funny way of resolving themselves once you get started along the way.

I’ve left out a lot of the hairier details of the trip- the nailbiting anxiety of Sam trying to get insurance and plates, the drama and tears. Those aren’t the parts of it that were important. The car made it back. We made it back on our own resourcefulness. Buying the car was technically a bad decision… it isn’t on the road anymore (the amount of body work it would need to be serviceable is worth much more than the car itself). It could have broken down at any time. We had to keep a window cracked constantly just in case of carbon monoxide. Going through the steep hills of the Lacloche mountains, it wouldn’t hit 80 and I had to pull over to let lines of backlogged traffic pass by. But may there be many Corollas in my 2017- figuratively, of course.

(Except if we decide to put another 10 day trip permit on it and drive it back to Hearst for the 2017 season, as I am strongly in favor of.)

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