Bus to Whitehorse

How much of this country do you have to see before you’re Canadian?

Southern Ontario can’t possibly cut it.

Get on a bus and go to Whitehorse.

When you speak to strangers in strange places you may hear a lot of bullshit. It becomes necessary to take a certain amount of distance from what you’re hearing to assess it and determine how much of a story is actually true, if any. The fact is when meeting strangers many folks enjoy embellishing their lives or recreating their personalities. It is a small adventure in being a different person.

There are some people, however, who will surprise you. They genuinely interesting, who are not puffing their chests or taking the opportunity to be someone else. The people who have done so much and been so satisfied with the things they’ve seen that they see no need to impress anyone else. The true travellers.

The True Traveller

Dirk Scepter was born in Holland and he’d appreciate it if you didn’t confuse his accent for German, thank you. He is an immensely interesting human being, full of relevant anecdotes and unusual facts. He could be a guide for the last stretch of highway to Whitehorse. The simple reason is that he’s taken the route so many times.

Dirk generally take a two to three week vacation in the summer from his work as an aviation writer and photographer to travel up north to visit friends in some distant town in the Northwest Territories, but this year he had some extra time so he took the bus up to Whitehorse from his home on Vancouver Island, just for the pleasure of the trip.

I met Dirk when the bus driver started chatting with me about my camera in Fort Nelson. He mentioned good places on the road to photograph and that the front had some good views. He pointed out Dirk, who is well known to the drivers in the area, and suggested we sit next to each other. Dirk told me I was welcome.

The first thing that struck was the honesty in his voice as Mr. Scepter told me about his travels. When I mentioned I was from Israel

Sometimes the people you avoid on the street when you’re in your own life are the most interesting and kindhearted people on the planet. They are wise, sad, crazy and empathetic to anyone who sees the world outside the box. Spend an afternoon with people like this and you’ll never see the world the same way again.

Stranded in Fort St. John, BC

The bus to Fort Saint John, BC arrived an hour late, at 6:30. I asked the driver if he knew about anywhere that was open all night so that I might pass the hours drinking coffee and typing something or other on this laptop.

The driver referred me to a very nice young man who worked behind the counter. “This isn’t Andrew,” he told me, referring to another Greyhound employee who was evidently the go-to guy on all things Fort Saint John, “but he might be able to help you.”

The employee who was Not Andrew and I discussed the map at length, trying to figure out where there might be inexpensive lodgings or at least a 24 hour Tim Hortons. Coming up dry, he offered to give me a lift to the nearest motel after his shift.

I had e-mailed a couple who hosted couch surfers in the town and mentioned that they may have contacted me. If I could just check my e-mail I might discover I had a place to stay after all. He sent me to a local coffee shop where I might be able to do that.

The coffee shop was closed. Everything in the town was closed. I sat down behind the shop’s building in a parking lot, hoping I could catch the signal but it wasn’t there, they had shut everything off for the night.

I walked back to the bus depot and noticed a sign in the alley: “Salvation Army, Emergency Shelter.” I went over, rang the bell and waited. As I stood there my mind made itself a movie about the shelter, Drug addicts howling in the hallways, fights breaking out, bad smells and stolen camera equipment. No one answered. I panicked.

Back at the depot, I waited for Not Andrew to close up, and then asked again about 24 hour Tim Hortons. As it turned out there was one a few blocks up, but it was only open 24 hours for drive-thru.

That’s fine, I figured. In such a small town maybe they’ll let me sit inside and chat while they work the drive-thru. I decided to walk over there. I thanked Not Andrew for his help, picked up my things and hauled over to the main street, tortoise-like, with my belongings on my back.

Saved

A block away from Tim’s I heard someone shout. “They didn’t let you in?” Across the street two men sat on plastic chairs against a brick wall. They were smoking cigarettes and drinking beers. I crossed over to talk to them.

Errol introduced himself to me first. He was in his fifties with grey hair and blue eyes. He wore an outfit that would have been considered very stylish in 1987, apair of faded jeans, clean work boots and a white Tommy Hilfiger button-up. He grinned at me.

“I saw you standing outside, I figured they’d let you in.”

“No one answered. I waited for a bit and then I figured I’d just spend the night drinking coffee at Tim’s.”

“Nah, they’ll let you in. You just gotta be patient, sometimes there’s no one at the desk so you gotta ring a few times.”

He offered me a beer and a cigarette. I politely refused. “You’re a good girl,” he laughed.

Errol told me about himself. He was a carpenter, and had just found work in the area. He talked proudly about his son and his grandson, just 2 years old. He had come in from Alberta. He was staying at the shelter for a few days, and it was his first time there. He assured me it was a nice place.

His friend stayed quiet all this time so I introduced myself to him. Tony was a smaller man, a few years older than Errol. He wore a cap over long grey hair and a shaggy handlebar hid his face. He was rather shy and so easily let Errol do all the talking.

We all walked back to the shelter together, where I was introduced to the staff and got set up with a bed. My bunkmate was an Inuit woman named Cecelia. She was in the shelter with her partner. They live in Nanaimo but were hitchhiking up to Inuvik, NWT. There they would take a plane to Cecelia’s hometown, on the shore of the arctic sea.

The bulk of the shelter’s clients were middle-aged men, transient trade workers. Hearty, friendly and ingrained with an old-fashioned chivalry they were a delight to be around.

The shelter’s pastor fit in well with them. A tall, bald, muscle-bound man covered in tattoos, Al was once a criminal who had resolved to turn his life around when he became involved with the Salvation Army. He spoke about his past with a mischiveous delight, like an untroubled parent might talk about their naughty child’s misadventures.

I left early in the morning, packed up and refreshed. I thanked everybody I had met and wished them luck, knowing I would likely never see any of them again.

The greyhound bus is an interesting creature. It has carried people of all castes across this country and many others for years. If you search the term “greyhound sucks” on Google.com you will get a plethora of websites complaining about the service, the drivers and the people who travel. Of course there are issues, but as the most economical form of transportation out there (unless you’re a hitchhiker) the quirks sometimes have to be taken with a grain of salt.

The Australian Driver

My bus driver from Edmonton and I get off to a rocky start. We meet for the first time at the terminal before the bus loads. He has an Australian accent and I want to ask him how it came to be that he is working for Greyhound in northern Canada, but I don’t. I have a more pressing concern.

I ask him about my luggage. I tell him that I am on my way to Whitehorse but that I am getting on the bus for Fort St. John, which leaves at 6:30am. He tells me there is a bus for Whitehorse but it doesn’t leave until midnight.

The miscommunication leads to an unintentional standoff. I tell him that his company issued my ticket and I don’t know anything about the schedules. He tells me that he did not personally issue the ticket. I don’t believe either of us meant to get defensive. I stop, put down my things and show my ticket.

Edmonton to Fort St. John, loading at 6:30am

He tells me I could wait until midnight in Edmonton rather than have a night time layover in a small town, but I refuse. Partially because the idea of spending one more night on a bus makes me feel nauseous and partly because I was happy with my schedule and didn’t want to chance the disaster that night follow if I make a change.

Finally, understanding my dilemma and seeing my resolve seems to have softened him. I would also guess he has a daughter my age. Middle aged men who are protective of young women generally have daughters. He takes me to the loading area with some extra tags and tells the woman working there that I need to change my tags.

He smiles and winks at me when I thank him. I switch my tags and ensure that I am not stuck without my warm boots and sleeping bag when I spend the night without a roof in northern BC.

Night time on the bus

The ride from Saskatoon to Edmonton is the hardest section so far. The bus leaves at 10:30 pm and arrives in Edmonton at 5:30 in the morning. I get back on the bus to find the newspaper I had was “cleaned up” and an older woman was sitting in my place.

I find another seat and settle in as the newcomers join the bus. A heavy woman with a toddler chooses to sit next to me, a thick and formidable barrier to the aisle and bathroom, which I was hoping to use once the bus started moving.

The toddler’s favorite word is “Mommy”, and she does not have any trouble displaying it. Her mother gives her a banana to keep her quiet but the smell is worse than the child’s voice. The lights go out and the lady in front of us offers to turn out her seat light so as not to disturnb the child and I guiltily turn mine off as well.

I am pressed against the window with my bladder pressing against my stomach. There is nothing outside but the complete blackness of Saskatchewan’s flat countryside. I am uncomfortable, there is a hole in my belly, my joints ache from hours of stillness and my thigh is pinched by a sleeping toddler’s shoe.

When the bus stops for a smoke break the girl stirs and wakes. I use this opportunity to excuse myself and use the bathroom. I get back and somehow make it back into my seat. Earphones in, I lean back and do my best to sleep.

It is 5am. The bus turns and slows and this motion wakes me up. I look around and I am confused. I have stretched out in the bench and the woman with the toddler is gone. She must have taken one of the stops before Edmonton, because she is nowhere on the bus.

I can now confirm that the prairies are flat. How flat is not for me to say, but it is clear that thousands of years of inland shelter from storms and subsequent bodies of water has left the Prairies incredibly two dimensional. I don’t know what it is like to drive here in the winter but in late July, the canola fields are the only relief from the monotony of the green brown stretching out on either side.

Saskatchewan

Welcome to Theodore, Saskatchewan. Population is 439. That’s about 1 fifth of my high school. We stop here for five minutes or less, and pick up a short old woman who sits across from me and works hard to show her scorn at the mess on the seat next to me that does not allow a second person to sit. She has a bench to herself, but that does not erase her disapproval.

The town is sweet, and seems to have the sole purpose of providing a place for truckers to stop on the road. Upon closer examination there is some sort of mill and the tiny town is obviously productive in some industry other than tourism.

We leave but the woman continues to stare, without saying a word. She looks at my things and then at me. This is short-lived: her destination is actually the next stop in a town of a similar size. I smile at her as she stands, but she does not return the gesture.

Canada is REALLY BIG. I know you’ve heard it before but unless you’ve driven it, which I’m sure some of you have, you can’t know. Not really. And I can’t describe it to you. But Canada is, indeed, very big. And full of people.

Tyler

Tyler is a drifter in training who is out of place in the crowd of college teens and low-income immigrants. He introduces himself to me with a firm handshake, his palm is rough and thick as raw wood, He’s just 17 years old with a baby face, and can’t wait to get out of his seat for a cigarette break. He looks dirty, his face is covered with a thin layer of dust and sweat and his outfit is the only one he’s worn since Frederickton.

He grew up in BC’s interior but was spending time in Frederickton when he decided to drop everything to hitchhike out west. This isn’t the first time. He’s made hi way to Saskatchewan hitchiking before. This time, he happened upon a middle aged man in the Kingston area who drove him to Toronto, bought him a greyhound ticket and some snacks and sent him off to Edmonton, It’s his first time on a bus.

Tyler keeps the ride interesting. He tells me about being dropped off in a trailer in the woods by his uncle, where he had to catch his own food and fend off grizzlies. He tells me about getting up at three in the morning to bike to school which is 25 kms away through bush and gravel road. His life jumps from coast to coast, from BC where he helped his dad in landscaping to NB where he spent hours a day chopping firewood.

There is a defiance of youth in him, he tells me stories about past experiences that are probably based in truth but wildly exaggerated. He ignores the restrictions of time, planning on arriving in Edmonton and working for a bit in landscaping before heading back to Toronto to do some sightseeing. He’s not sure if he’ll make it back to Frederickton or to BC, but he hasn’t finished high school.

He has mastered the art of getting help. He knows how to tug on people’s heartstrings, whether or not he intends to, The people he meets give him advice, offer him help and listen to his stories, myself included. I have begun to wonder how many people I’ve passed by who started out like him. It’s possible I’ll never know, but I will make an effort to meet and understand them.

Sharon

sharon

Sharon is on her way back to Calgary from London, where she met her first grandchild. The baby boy was born hours after she arrived in town. When she gets home she’s planning on taking a plane to Europe to travel. She’s leaving her dog, Rusty, behind at a friend’s farm.

Three years ago, just after she got her dog as a puppy, she watched her husband die of a heart attack and decided not to waste her life. She wants to see the world. I joke with her about romance in Europe.

“Maybe you’ll meet your second husband there.”

“Oh, it’ll be my fourth.”

“Maybe you’ll meet your fourth husband there.”

“Well, my first one didn’t work out, my second was stupid, he was a rebound. And my third one died on me! What does that tell you? I’ve had enough.”

Sharon’s daughter says she’s stuck in the 70’s, and she is. Her hair is long and straight, not dyed and not straightened. Her clothing is casual – blue jeans, a sweat shirt and hooded vest.

I said goodbye to Sharon in Saskatoon, she got on a bus going south to Calgary. Though we didn’t speak much it was like saying goodbye to an old friend. I didn’t get any contact information for her, but I hope she goes to Europe.