Six and a half million trees, I tell the inquiring trucker at the cardlock. He crosses his arms and leans against the box of my filthy crew cab, turns his head and spits a wad of chewing tobacco onto the diesel painted asphalt. Rolling the brim of his grease stained hat between his hands, he asks how bad the bugs are, laughs when I show the rash of blackfly bites on my neck. The truck takes a hundred and twelve liters of gasoline and I am still standing there holding the pump when he and his eighteen wheeler start up and head west down the Trans Canada.
Treeplant is a surprise homecoming after the city years, finding that in the midst of the shellshocked rookies, I know these towns with flat horizons and frost buckled pavement. The sky is vast and the sun hangs for longer, we are so far north. The trees are straggling Boreal forest that throw no shade. Slash piles of pulp trees line the railroads and there is always a faint, mechanical bustling of heavy equipment. As treeplanters we visit the town and drink oil-slick coffee served by Francophone waitresses who impart their wisdom in small, unexpected tidbits. Every May after my first season in the bush I find myself homing in on northern Ontario like a migrating bird. We’ve got a lifer! Marc says when I return for the second year.
When I was very small my father was a long distance truck driver. My mother and I lived in drafty houses in rural north western Ontario with wood stoves and well water and backyards full of Massasauga rattlers and black bears. My father was a tired stranger who sometimes visited us in these houses of his choosing, but he inhabited the bunk of an eighteen wheeler and the Formica countered truck stop diners that are ubiquitous along the highways. Mam came in one night with an armload of firewood, the blizzard blowing in the door behind her, and sat down and wept in front of the woodstove. We took hastily packed boxes of clothes and she drove, white knuckled, to my grandmother’s. He kept the empty houses where he stored his belongings. My weekends with my father were spent in the truck, traversing the province, prairies and the north eastern states.
My dad drove a logging truck here. In these towns and their twins he hauled loads of cut trees through the very same forests I now travel with my spade and my bags of seedlings strapped to my hips. Many years later I expect to find him in the tavern that still exists in Manitouwadge or in the bar with the biker chick bartenders with the classic rock soundtrack and the sign forbidding dirty work boots. We haven’t talked in too long, we have too much in common. On a camping trip together we stayed awake to listen to the loons on the lake. We prefer anonymity, are quietly, gruffly embarrassed by our deep and abiding love of logging roads and nameless lakes and rivers and nights spent alone in the woods and on the road. We have too much in common and yet we stand on the opposite side of some imaginary line. He drove the trucks that took away the logs, he stayed in the motels and made his solitary journeys in the cab of a Mack truck. I rove the decimated land, planting rows of jackpine and white spruce and black spruce that will never be cut in my lifetime. I stay at the hotels, too, but the rowdy numbers of treeplanters are frequently evicted and disgraced.
He and I drove to West Philadelphia once when I was seven. It was the height of a summer heatwave and there were children playing in the spray of a busted open firehydrant. He had forgotten that paper mills and freight warehouses tend to be located in questionable industrial areas, he’d forgotten that outside of our quiet towns there was urban crime and a different kind of poverty than the tar-papered log cabins. We brushed our teeth in a truck stop bathroom that night where he clumbsily combed my hair. We parked outside a crumbling stripmall to sleep, warily locking the truck doors. A violent knocking on the window woke us in the early hours of the morning; a police man was inquiring about a bank robbery that had occurred just in front of the truck while we slept. The presence of a child convinced him that my father hadn’t commited a petty bank break in and he thanked him and asked him to move on at first light or get ticketed for vagrancy.
Other than the steady engine, Bob Seger on the radio, we drove home in silence. Both inclined toward reticence, we drove thousands and thousands of kilometers without saying a word. One night, unable to sleep, I joined him in the front seat to watch the star streaked sky race by, pretending I was the passenger in a spaceship on some solemn and important mission. As daybreak came he pulled over into a Husky House parking lot, where we sat and watched the sun make its journey up over the wavering horizon. Bacon, over easy, white, are the first words of the day, to a waitress in pin-striped white and blue who brings out the hearty servings of bacon and eggs and homefries.
Grease stained and sleepless from hotel room parties and overwork the tribe of treeplanters move our convoy of re-purposed school buses and trucks and trailers, our nomadic city in miniature, from contract to contract. I’m clean from a Husky shower, paid for in loyalty points earned from shopping for energy drinks and travel sized toothpaste and scratch cards. My sweaters are carbon stained and propane perfumed, but a load of dirty undershirts and a pair of Mickey Mouse boxers are occupying the much abused laundry machines. Ol’ Bertha the Bluebird has to leave an hour before the rest of the convoy just to arrive at the same time, so I collect my dog from his picnic table tether and we head out. I drive my crumbling Bluebird kitchen bus three and a half hours south west from Hearst, the shifting gears and creaking brake lines a familiar soundtrack. Bob Seger’s on the radio, I’m clutching my styrofoam coffee cup between my teeth while I wrangle the bus into compliance and I head out down the highway with my Egg McMuffin pinched between my index and pinkie fingers. An OPP cruiser slides by, not noticing my plates that are three years out of date.
I know the next town, to my surprise, not just the vague familiarity of all the mining and logging towns, but the actual knowledge of the main-drag diner and the public beach that lies just down the road from the laundromat. There’s a rumour that a crew from Brinkman has blown up the Manitouwadge laundromat. I don’t know how we have come to know this, in the bush, without Wi-Fi or cell service, how gossip spreads. Tentatively, Laura and I poke our heads in the door, where a woman wearing glasses on a crocheted lanyard sits. Treeplanters? We’re sheepish. Yes? She beams and takes our laundry from us, deftly sorting the filthy rags into the machines earmarked for work clothes. The treeplanters van caught fire in the parking lot, she tells us. There’s no hot water or dryers because the propane exploded, but the building itself is fine. The thrift store is just across the road, she says. They’ve been waiting for you! The small towns sleep over the winter and accumulate their treasures to sell to us, trashy romance novels, three dollar wool sweaters, wedding dresses we buy for seventy five cents and stain with red wine.
My drive from camp to town, the bus filled with boxes of oranges and industrial sized tubs of peanut butter, is filled with wildlife. A yearling moose on the shoulder of the road looks like a hitchhiker from a kilometer away. The radio crackles incessantly. Schoolbus coming up Twist Road, kilometer six. Ten four. On a frigid winter night, my father stopped his truck on these rutted roads to check the chains on his tires. A pack of timberwolves surrounded him and the truck and he retells the tale of his narrow escape through the passenger side door over and over again. Time does change and erode- the mines have re-opened in the twenty years elapsed since I once used to come and spend weekends with my father at work in the logging camps. The town is re-moneyed, the trucks bigger and shinier. There’s even a place in town to get lattes, now.
I often drive at night when the tree contract is done and we nomadic travellers move on across the country toward cherry and apple orchards. I pretend to be a spaceship pilot guiding a crew through the night. They are in a cryogenically frozen sleep and will awake once we cross these new provinces, awake to a new dawn and mountains we have not yet seen for the darkness. I know they’re there, though- after the days of prairie monotony and optical illusion, I can feel the ascent into the Rockies like a promise. Its midnight when we reach Banff, the tourist town empty on a summer night. We’re vagabonds, vagrants, travelers. I was given this gift years ago, of the road unfolding like a ribbon under wheels, the miles rolling away between me and wherever I didn’t want to be. My tree family and I roll out our sleeping bags on the grass verge of a soccer field and spend the night there, waking before dawn to pack the car back up and go and browse postcards, drink the first coffee of the day. The patriarch of a clean, bright tourist family guides his children away from us. Now that it is light, I sit in the backseat and watch the mountains flash by. It is a summer of fire and they are ablaze, shrouded in carcinogenic smoke.
I call him from the Okanagan. We’ve missed Christmases and birthdays and anniversaries in between. How many trees? he asks. Six and a half million. He says the blackflies must have been hell, and I laugh. You know, I say. Of course he does.