The Quest: Part 2: The End of the Quest
By James Stevenson
Right. Time to get back to this story, since I’m heading for the road again next week. I can write while travelling, but I tried to write “The Quest: Part 1: The Quest” all throughout the events of “The Quest: Part 3: The As Yet Unnamed Part of the Quest, and later as well, and I didn’t write anything good. I remember multiple writing attempts in a cinema in Toronto, multiple attempts in cafes in Colorado, and an attempt in San Francisco that impressed the barman so much he took the dumplings off my bill. But none of it went anywhere. And I was not even trying to write about Montreal yet, which is the difficult part.
You see, I was going to Montreal to do the most absurd thing I had ever done in my life. I was going there for a woman. This, I gather, is a common story. Talk to Americans about Canada and they’ll either mention the women or the weed. Now, I’m no woman, but as we shall see I am an incredible dope.
I met her over a year ago, as I was working morning shifts in a café. The only thing to brighten my day was a visit from Violet, the exchange student from Montreal (that’s not her real name). She’d come in almost every day and sit down in the back corner with a pile of books. Nobody else was there that early, apart from a couple cooks downstairs, so I’d bring her some coffee and we’d chat for a while. She was working on her PhD, and she was smart and interesting. She would smile and laugh and listen, sweeping her long, lush black hair together over one shoulder and looking at me from under dark eyelashes. Her field was French literature; she was writing her thesis about love. “It’s the best pick-up line,” she told me once. “Everybody wants to be my muse.” She was right. So did I.
One day, after a month or so of this, already past the point I should have asked her out, she was telling me about how her room was haunted. “Wow, really?” I said.
“Yeah, I wake up every day,” here she paused to look me straight in the eyes, “alone,” she laughed a little, “and I have this feeling that someone is watching me.”
Damn! She’s flirting with me! Yes, well done James, you’re quite right.
I made some stupid joke about this massive stuffed whale I have that I share my bed with, and after some further oblivious conversation asked, “Do you have facebook?” She confessed that she didn’t. “Well,” I said, “we should stay in touch when you’re gone. I’ll give you my address, send me a letter.” Yeah, go me! Amazing work there.
We swapped addresses and I went home that day a happy little clam, with only a slight nagging suspicion that I’d completely ballsed that up. It was ok, though, she’d be back on Friday. Well, she wasn’t there on Friday, nor the next day, nor the whole next week. Every day I’d shoot occasional glances into the back corner, finding it empty and feeling a little glummer every time. No luck. She was going back to Canada soon, so after a couple weeks I figured she’d left.
But she came back just once, two days before leaving. This time, she came in when I was just finishing work, so we ate lunch together and took a walk through Hyde Park. It was good. Neither of us would admit any romantic interest, but it was in the air, somewhat. I said I’d come visit, and I asked her if I could just turn up. “Sure,” she said, and smiled. “You can sleep on my couch.”
That day I already knew what I was going to do. My goal was clear. I had the rest of the summer to get in shape, learn French, and get to Montreal.
Almost immediately I wrote a letter to Violet explaining, basically, how she was an incomparable goddess and I an incompetent nerd who’d probably miss his chance at true love because he was examining the pattern in the cobblestones. I sealed it up inside my well-worn copy of Catch-22, sent it off, and booked my ticket to Halifax within a week.
Two months later, after the rather unnerving trip through New Brunswick, I arrived in Quebec. I’d neither learned French nor managed to care what shape I was in, but more importantly, I’d had no reply from Violet. I wasn’t broken up about it; time passes and feelings fade. So… what was I doing there? Who knows! I was having a good trip already, and what was there to lose? At least I could get my book back.
After a night in Quebec, I caught a ride to Montreal. My driver was Estelle, girl in her thirties, a real fiery woman. We hit it off pretty well. She’d hitchhiked across Canada a couple times, fending off a few sleazy guys along the way. She was badass, she wasn’t afraid of anything. She was a little chubby, with cute freckles, and she was so full of life that it made her beautiful.
She’d just beaten breast cancer and was recovering from chemotherapy. All through her treatment she’d kept up her job as a massage therapist, and she hadn’t let the cancer take anything from her life at all. “If I wanted to dance, I’d dance,” she said. “If I wanted a guy I’d get one. I fucked fifteen guys last winter! I was dying, so if I wanted to get fucked I do it.” Oddly, she’d managed to maintain her life and her energy all through her treatment, but now that it was over she was quitting her job and starting over.
After a couple hours we rolled into the suburb where Violet lived, and I started to get nervous. My blood was pumping and I couldn’t concentrate on what Estelle was saying. She looked at me. “Ah, you’re in love,” she smiled. “You got the butterflies.” Then she went on to rant about how the butterflies don’t really mean anything, but I wasn’t paying much attention.
Estelle dropped me outside Violet’s apartment building and told me I could crash with her at her sister’s if it didn’t work out. She drove away, and there I was. Oh boy, I thought. Here we go. I rang the doorbell, held my breath, and tried to stop imagining some huge guy opening it and asking me what I was doing there. Thankfully, no such thing happened. In fact there was no response at all. Phew.
I taped my business card to the door and farted around the town all day. I was just killing time and hoping my phone would ring. I read a couple chapters of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, drank some coffee, eyed up a few bushes to sleep in, and eventually realised I’d left all my money in the Quebec. Perfect day.
By 8:30 it was dark and I was tired. My stupid duffel bag was heavy as hell and my feet were killing me. I decided to go to Violet’s house just to check if my card was there, then go crash out by the lake.
As I got up the house again I could see two women ahead me, walking up to the front door. There was no mistaking, one of them was Violet. My heart started trying to jump out of my chest. What could I do? Should I approach? Would it be super creepy if I was right there? I slowly walked over towards them. They noticed the card and lent in to read it. I kept my distance, resisting the urge to lean on a tree and declare seductively, “Bonjour.”
There was some animated talk between the two women, then Violet turned around and saw me there, trying to look as sheepish as possible, and she pretty much started freaking out. She clapped her hands to her face and, at a loss for a reaction, kept repeating “Oh my God!” A more discerning man than I, having written a heartfelt letter and sent it to an eligible lady, might have taken a total lack of contact as sign not to turn up out of the blue, but this hadn’t occurred to me, and there I was.
But it wasn’t so bad. She was not unhappy to see me, so I dropped my bag inside and we went for a walk. We wound through a maze of suburban houses, through the grounds of schools she’d attended and whatnot. We had a nice chat, but there was something important that was still unsaid, and I didn’t know what it was. We kept exchanging these warm little looks, almost flirtatiously, but it was too bizarre. I didn’t know what on earth I was doing there.
I remember we were walking down a dark street, lined with big trees, and there was lull in the conversation. Content, I said nothing.
“You know,” she said, “That last week in London I met someone else.”
I laughed, and all the tension left me. Now it was out in the open. It was pretty much what I expected.
“So, who’s the guy?” I said.
“Actually it’s a girl.”
Oh boy did I laugh! I laughed and laughed and laughed, laughed back to her house, into her car, to Montreal centre, laughed up the stairs into a hostel, laughed into bed, laughed myself to sleep, and woke up the next day so blue I could have made a killer jazz album if I’d had a saxophone on me.
I was really bummed out. I hadn’t realised getting to Violet was so important to me. All I wanted to do now was go home and lie in bed with Whaley, but I was very far from home and it didn’t make any sense to just give up. I’d always said to myself that if it didn’t work out in Montreal, I wanted to try to make it to California. So why not? I hadn’t wooed any women or retrieved any Catch-22’s, so I had better do something successful with this trip.
First, back to Quebec to pick up my money. I made it in four rides, moving bit by bit along the motorway. I remember one big happy guy who was a nurse and told me all about this six-wheeled car he’d bought for hunting. There was also a moustachioed man with a French accent and a beret who collected rare bicycles and “worked in theatre”. Eventually I coaxed out of him that he was a mime. He was perfect. All I could think of was that Gary Larson quote: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s around, and it hits a mime, does anyone care?” But I didn’t mention that.
After a night in Quebec, I headed straight back to Montreal to check it out. Since I’d had such an easy time on that road twice before, I slept late and took my time getting going. Well, I sure learnt my lesson. I caught a few rides, each time further into the middle of nowhere, and ended up only halfway to Montreal by 7pm. It was getting dark already, and raining. My only chance was to stand on the shoulder of the busy motorway, put on my reflector vest, and hope.
At first it was not so bad, but the minutes kept passing and the sun sunk lower below the horizon. Visibility was terrible, the cars were zooming by just a couple meters away, and the rain kept coming harder. My whole body was soaked and I was freezing cold. It was the worst situation I had ever been in in my life.
Around 9pm a little car slammed on the brakes and swerved over onto the shoulder. I grabbed my bag and sprinted over. This moment might be my favourite thing about hitchhiking. When I’ve been waiting somewhere, getting sunburnt or frostbitten, falling into despair, that moment I grab my bag and sprint to a car, I feel as light as air. Suddenly my bag weighs nothing, my feet are not sore, and I can run forever.
My driver was another nurse, and a really wonderful guy. He has four kids and lives on farm, but he doesn’t get to go home from work much. He drives around between hospitals, doing one sixteen-hour shift here, another 12-hour shift there. It’s exhausting. Our conversation was sort of philosophical, about the usual ponderage: life, satisfaction, happiness. My driver was a smart guy, and he spends all his time either driving alone or caring for the sick. I guess those are good ingredients to make a thoughtful man.
After a couple hours we pulled into Montreal. I’d had the worst day of hitchhiking I’d ever had, and he’d been driving all day. We stopped at a red light.
“So strange to see the lines standing still,” he said, pointing at the road.
“So strange to see them moving!” I said.
He laughed. “So we see the relativity of life.”
We went to his cousin’s house, had a beer, and he became the only driver ever to add me on facebook. Of course, we’ve never talked. C’est la vie.
I spent a few days in Montreal, but I was still restless and lonely. I kept looking for Violet every time I turned a corner, so I decided I had to get out of there. I wanted to head straight south, cross into America, and stay with some old friends in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It had been many years since I left America, and I’d been growing curious to visit. Is it really full of ignorant fat people rolling around fast-food joints in Hummers, waving flags, shooting guns and complaining about Mexicans? Probably not, but I wanted to check to make sure.
I got to the border fairly quickly. One young guy I had nothing in common with gave me a lift, then an old guy took me the rest of the way. All I remember is he said he was banned from America for having drugs in a club more than thirty years ago.
My ride into The States was fantastic. My driver was a rich guy in his sixties, obsessed with horses. He’d known since he was sixteen that he wanted to work with horses, and he spent the rest of life working any relevant job he could. He’s done everything from mucking out stables to jockeying. Now all he does is buy, sell, and raise horses.
We drove down south through beautiful golden hills, my driver either telling me what an idiot his son was or telling me about his horses. When we got to the end of the ride, we headed out to the farm to see them. We brought a bag of carrots, went into their paddock, and spent twenty minutes feeding them out of our hands. There were four of them: one beautiful mare and three of her young. They were all gorgeous tans and browns, very gentle, but with tremendous power under their skin. I could see why he was so obsessed with them.
My driver offered to let me stay in his camper. “You could go out there, fool around for a night, then I’ll put you back on your way tomorrow,” he said. “Fool around” seemed like a suspicious way to phrase it, so I declined. Anyway it was only mid afternoon and I wanted to keep going.
He dropped me at an on-ramp and I drew a sign for Pennsylvania. Almost immediately I got a lift. My driver, Paul, was driving a massive luxurious pickup truck. I threw my bag into the back seat and climbed in. This was the last ride I’d catch for a while, and it really stuck with me.
“If you wanna sleep, relax, whatever, go for it. I used to hitchhike, I know what it’s like.” This is always nice to hear. I don’t have to feel awkward in the absence of any inane conversation. Still, I started asking him about himself, and over the next five hours built up a picture of the most broken man I have ever met – perhaps the only one.
Paul was retired, living with his wife somewhere in New York State. He’d left her a note that morning that said “Gone for a drive. Back in a couple days.” He didn’t know how long he was going for, all he knew was he was going to drive straight for Colorado, cross the border, and buy weed the first chance he could get. He was so deeply fed up with life, and fed up with the law, now that Colorado had legalised marijuana, that’s where he was going. He’d have gone earlier, but he had issues with drunk driving and hadn’t been able to make the trip until then. He still had that box in the car that randomly beeps and forces you to take a breath test. He told me he used to be up to two bottles of tequila a day.
Paul had made his career driving freight trains for thirty years. I thought that sounded pretty cool, but I was wrong. It’s an awful job. You drive a few hundred miles to get to the train, then spend a day doing almost nothing at all, just watching for signals and watching your speed. It’s incredibly boring. In the old days, he said, the crew would all get drunk while they drove, but it’s impossible now. They’d all get caught through random drug tests. The more he talked about the trains, the more I got this impression that 50% of freight trains end up derailing. He’d had so many accidents they didn’t phase him at all. His stories about train wrecks always ended up with him complaining about the paperwork he had to fill out and the shit he had to put up with from the police.
But the worst part about the job is the people you hit. Whether they’re suicides or idiots, people die under your train. He told me about a drunk who’d fallen asleep with his head on the track. When they ran him over, the engineer looked at Paul and said, “He was wearing all black, it’s night, we could say we didn’t see him.” They knew the guy was a goner, and they didn’t want to stop the train, deal with the police, fill out paperwork, waste time. What difference would it make? They could just keep going. They did stop the train though, and called an ambulance. The top of the guy’s head was gone, and he was in a coma. He lived a day longer before dying.
Before Paul had driven trains he’d been in the navy. If I remember correctly, Paul was stuck in Hawaii waiting for orders in 1974. The Americans were intending to send more troops to Vietnam. At that time, Nixon resigned, and whatever plans involved Paul were scrapped. He never went to war, but while he was waiting in Hawaii, his nineteen year old wife was on the mainland dying of cancer. As soon as he could leave Hawaii he went back to her, and she died within a week.
I asked him if she was strung out of morphine, and he replied, “I was doing more morphine than her.”
When I met him, forty years had passed since then, and what struck me about him – and what I liked about him at first – was how little he seemed to care about anything. A lot of people throw around the phrase “I don’t give a fuck”, as if it’s something cool not to care. Paul said it a lot, but each time I could see he really meant it. He didn’t care whether he lived or died, whether I was there, whether I killed him (“You wanna shoot me, go ahead. I got nothing to lose”). All he wanted to do was to go and buy some weed.
“I gotta ask you,” I said, “You give the least fucks out of anybody I’ve ever met.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t give a fuck about anything!”
“You know, I spent my whole life trying to forget everything. Now I’m reaching the end of my life, and I’m trying to remember, and all I can remember is the things I tried to forget.”
“Like my wife dying or people I’ve run over.”
It was dark when we reach Carlisle. Paul dropped me outside a hotel, and that was that. It was another awkward hitchhiking goodbye. What do you say to a guy like that? It was sad to leave him alone again, but I’m not sure it made any difference to him at all.
Well, a week has passed since I started writing this, and in two and a half hours I’ll be on a coach headed for Belgium. My bag is overloaded with two skateboards, a kite, juggling balls, carving tools, a harmonica and a GameCube to give to Jason. It’s time to hit the road again.
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