I stood, thumb out, at the edge of Regina for hours in a night ablaze with the blinding light of gas stations and fast food drive-ins – an artificial day that would abruptly end at midnight, when everything shut down and the lit edge of the city receded into desolate night. How could I be so invisible in such light? Once a car pulled over to the shoulder of the road and tore off again, spitting gravel at me, just as I got within a few feet of it. Beer cans flew out its windows on a tide of crazed teenage laughter. More pacing, kicking dirt till a red car lurched to a stop. I hesitated, waiting to see if it was another joke, the car ripping away as I got to the door. Neither of us moved. I watched it a while longer then started over, walking as though I could care less if I got the ride or not. I grabbed the door handle, peering in the window. A pissed-drunk guy in shorts, about thirty, sprawled back against his seat. I got in. I knew that to get out of Regina I was going to have to accept this kind of ride.
“How far you goin’?” I asked.
“Not very far,” he said.
Better than nothing. He weaved back onto the tar and headed approximately in the right direction, east. He drove in silence about five miles before he popped the question.
“You wanna gimme a blow job?”
“Well how ’bout I give you one then?”
Then more silence but for the clatter of his tailpipe. Another two or three miles and he lurched onto the gravel and passed out. I got out and walked. It was dark, maybe nine o’clock, but like the dead of night.
Why would there be so little traffic outside the capital city of an entire province? There are only ten provinces, for chrissakes. I walked, ears attuned to the faint approach of motor sounds from the west. A car sped by. Later, another. Then the sound of a truck. Waste of time, they never stop. But, what the hell. I put out my thumb, just in case. A long semi eased up beside me and I climbed up.
“Is that your car back there?”
“No. I got a ride with the guy but he passed out.”
“Shit, I thought that was your car . . . why I stopped. I can’t really give you a ride,” pointing to the ubiquitous No Riders sticker.
Yeah, I know. I’d wondered why he stopped.
“Listen, there’s a truck stop about five miles up ahead. I’ll take you that far. I’m stopping there anyway and maybe someone will give you a ride from there.”
The diner was lost in a giant lot filled with big trucks. I didn’t even have a dime for coffee. I tried to get a ride there but eventually the owner told me to leave. On my way out I noticed the candy machine had a lever stuck halfway out, so I yanked on it and an O Henry bar dropped into the slot below. I tried it again and got another O Henry. I kept this up for as long as I thought I could get away with it and left with my pockets stuffed with O Henrys, maybe enough to feed me till I got home. I stood around the lot devouring bar after bar, waiting for one of the truckers to emerge and when one finally did he dismissed my appeal without a word. Fuck off, was the implication. I was not optimistic, so walked on, fishing for bits of chocolate and nuts in my teeth with my tongue.
Back on the road it was now about ten or eleven of a pitch black moonless night, flat prairieland in every direction; not even the faint hum of a possible ride in the distance. I started to walk. Sometimes on the road it felt right to stay put till a ride came along. Other times it felt right to just keep walking. Sometimes it felt right to keep walking because the road wound through the hidden landscapes ahead and walking brought surprising, glorious views. Other times it felt right because the spot I was in felt wrong.
One time, in Northern Ontario I stuck to a spot for hours, I didn’t know why. There was almost no traffic but the spot felt right. I could see down the curve of the highway for miles. There’d be no cars and then, eventually, that sweet motor hum would rise from silence and a car would appear, almost always followed by another, maybe two others. This mystified me. It must be some kind of magnetism I thought. A form of magnetism that governs everything, things want to stick together. Behind me the land rose in a gentle slope to a house sitting atop a hill. A little girl was playing in the yard by herself and now and then I’d turn to watch her for something to do. She went back in the house and I faced the road again. Soon she came running down her driveway. She came up to me and handed me a bag. “My mother made you some sandwiches.” She was, at that moment, the most beautiful little girl on the face of the Earth, and so was her mother, grandmother and the whole perfect matrilineal line going back to Eve. “She said I had to come straight back home.” She turned and walked back up the hill and I watched her all the way up.
Now I was walking eastward in the flat and lonely dead of prairie night. I never liked sleeping in the open, beside the road or in a field. I always looked for some kind of raised, protective structure. I suppose I feared being eaten by small animals, hiding in the grass. Here was nothing but space, so I walked.
After a while the feet take over, a life of their own, they just go. Hour after hour on the dark prairie highway, moonless, starlight illuminating the waves of grass. The feet know by now where to go and if I slept a bit I’d be okay, my direction true, no danger of straying into fields or the paths of eighteen-wheelers. Hours on the mystic plain, I’m just a wandering mind carried weightless on somnambulant body. I actually did fall asleep a couple of times. Woke up still walking.
Whoever walked like this? By day, sure. I’ve done it myself, miles and miles at a time. But the dead of night? On the holy Saskatchewan plain? I knew this land was holy because more than half my rides had been with pious drivers who talked that crazy Jesus talk. Asking if I loved Jesus and all that crap and usually I just nodded some vacant nod, a mindless covenant.
“Going to BC, eh?” That was on the trip west. “Well folks think the mountains are so beautiful and all while the prairies are just flat and borin’ but that’s not really true.” I tried to see if I could catch a little sleep with my eyes open, so as not to offend. “God made the prairies first you see and then after he was done why he took all the leftover dirt and just dumped it out there and that’s how you got your mountains . . . see it’s just leftover dirt . . .hee hee.” In spite of everything I think he was serious. I suppose that vast emptiness, nothing much to see anywhere, years on end, you’d have to come up with something to believe in.
Sleep was such a mystery to me when I was a kid. You got into a bed and covered yourself up and, if all went well, you’d wake up and it was the next day. What happened in between? What happened to you and what happened to Time? Later there would be many nights to stay awake through, start to finish, but such thoughts were forgotten, there were deeper mysteries to fathom. Now, walking that asphalt passage through the sea of grass in the dark void was to visit, among other things, that unknown place. I wasn’t afraid but a few times I wondered if fear would show up, if the realization of being so completely alone so far from anyone or anything it might as well have been Jupiter would seize me and send the slender thread that held me to my known existence flailing off into the fields of brown grass. I stopped such thoughts and kept walking, dreaming the rest of my life. I was lost in space and lost in time, too. I had no idea at any point what time it was but I knew that night was long and that I’d walk forever before the new day came, with its cars and trucks and hope of a ride.
Night was to become home, where I lived at ease in my world and it was in some way a parallel world to the one I’d known before, in which I’d been refugee, in fact, from the night. It would strike me sometimes when in the morning I’d go out, maybe for some coffee or a pack of smokes and I’d see the day beginning for all the others, daytimers, just gotten up and headed for work or already at work in stores or drivers delivering groceries to all the shops in my neighbourhood, that I had strayed into the day from the parallel realm of night in which I lived, that I was invisible or, at least that my nature was invisible though surely there must have been a strangeness to me, the pallor of my skin or a look in my eyes that made them wary. Maybe I never felt at home in the straight world because it was a daytime world.
I’ll never know the distance I traveled that night. Maybe I knew and have forgotten. How many hours? How many waking and how many sleeping? Sleep could never have lasted more than a few minutes at a time, could it? How many thoughts and dreams? How many insomniacs in this land who never knew this solitary pedestrian walking across the prairie as they lay staring at the dark ceiling or sat in dark kitchens smoking cigarette after cigarette. How many sleepers dreaming of me or of themselves walking in silence under black heaven?
I studied the horizon before me, waiting for that thin line of light, a whisper glowing in the east just beyond the next rise, ready to slip under the mantle of black night. I had never before longed so deeply for that ball of fire to rise into the sky. I floated on, no longer aware of walking. Hadn’t been aware of walking for hours, now. I moved. Nothing else, anywhere moved, but me and my thoughts, forward, towards where the sun would soon rise again.
I thought, this is what life was for the first humans. Darkness, waiting for the sun. The Sun, god, centre of everything, hope, light.
I have only the vaguest idea of what it is I’m looking for, what I’m trying to say, what I’m saying. The fact is I remember little more than the barest facts of that walk. I don’t remember any but a few particular thoughts, I don’t remember the sky (was there any moon, or stars?). What was the sound, what were the sounds of that night? Did I hear the wind across the grass, were there bird sounds, the rustle of night creatures? What did I smell, what did I feel in the air? What sound did my shoes make? Sneakers on gravel? Boots on asphalt?
What I remember was the perfect, beautiful solitude of that night and my lonesome vigil, waiting, aching for the sun.
In my weightless, floating body I walked toward where the sun would rise, my spirit by now was as large as the landscape through which I moved. Larger, even. As large as all the places on Earth I’d seen and large as all the time I could remember and all the times to come that I could imagine and all the places I dreamed of that I had yet to see and, invisible, everyone I knew and hoped to know and, silent, the voices I’d heard and would some day hear. And yet as free as I’d become to encompass all the vast range of life I was, still, as solidly Here as I’d ever been, attentive to every pebble underfoot and every sigh of wind across my face and even in the obscurity of the night I saw every crack in the road, every weed alongside in the dirt and in the ditches and every blade of grass in the fields beyond.
I’d have given anything to have been safely wrapped in blankets in a soft bed somewhere. Even now, remembering, or trying to remember, the strange and possibly transcendent adventure of that long night walking across prairie lands I wish that I’d spent that night in happy sleep. Because, really, for all the adventure of mind and spirit, it’s a crazy thing to do – even if without any choice.
After ten hours walking, beyond even exhaustion, the walking automatic and without feeling, sleeping at times, as I had throughout the night, the absolute rapture brought on by the faintest glimmer of light on the horizon that eventually appeared, was the greatest imaginable joy. I was saved. The line grew slowly and soon a glow rose in the sky just above it, that gradually, minute by terrible minute, grew in size and glory. I am saved. I see the light and I feel it caress me, the tender heat of the sun. Soon, with enough of a radiance expanding slowly into the waning night, it was enough to call it morning, it was enough to call it day. And at that moment the first distant hum of an engine rose behind me, and grew louder. For the first time I stopped and turned to face the night I had just left, and held out my right arm, fist closed, thumb extended. The car sped past without even the slightest thought for me. I spun around to watch it pass and saw that it was filled with nuns. I cursed them. Nuns! “What the hell do you know about God?” I shouted at them.