by Madonna Hamel
Every time I head east on the TransCan, I sneak a peak at Herbert. Although it wasn’t until last week that I actually re-entered the Herbert, thanks to my new friend and gifted musician Mark, who lives on a farm seven miles from the town, Herbert helped me face a new chapter in my life when I was thirty-six. It was mid-May, 1995, when my 1986 Chevy Cavalier yanked me into the town and 24 hours of affirmation by seen and unseen helping hands. But first things first.
That same morning I left Medicine Hat, Alta. after a week with my sister and her family. Her two sons, just little boys in superhero jammies at the time, helped me paint the giant wooden box screwed to my rooftop. There was already a psychedelic sunrise on the front of the bright red box, facing Eastward and Quebec City, (where I was headed, hoping to advance my career as an artist, explore my ancestral and find a band). On the passenger side of the box a serpentine alligator grinned at the slow lane. A bouquet of strange flowers of undecided genus bearing leaves and buds grafted from a variety of wallpaper patterns from the fifties curlicued their way from the driver’s side to the rooftop.
“You need a moose back here!” proclaimed Daniel. “On the back you have nothing for the people behind you to look at. You need a moose!” By the end of the afternoon we were as moose muddy, but the giant creature, with a mighty rack and a winking eye, completed the panorama over my head.
Inside the box I kept all my paintings, too big to stuff in my car, which was already full of books, sweaters and various ritual objects. My last night in Vancouver I stayed with my sister, having given up my apartment. I made my final purge in her driveway. I was unable to part with my candles, smooth beach stones, pinecones, tarot cards, favourite plate and cup. A worn and weary old woman Mexican marionette, who served me well in a performance involving a ballad about a lost spell, had long since gotten her strings in an impossible tangle, but I could not abandon her. Watching me try to sort the strings, the neighbour girl walked barefoot across the lawn, sat on the pavement and continued to watch me. She quickly bored of my efforts and starting going through things in my back seat.
“Can I have this?” she asked, holding up a tambourine.
“Uh…nope,” I responded, re-arranging boxes and baskets.
“Ok, then, can I have this,” she indicated a glass globe with figurines of Elvis, Martin Luther King Jr. and a manicured Jesus suspended in it. She wound the key on the bottom and it played ‘My King Will Soon Come Back Again’.
“Definitely not that!”
She gave me an exasperated look, held up a bag of marbles, sighed in a tone that said, look, I’m doing you a favour, then: “Ok. Then. This.”
“Ye-e-es. You may have that. But if you find any aggie cobs I want them.”
“No way. They’re mine now.” And she sat on the grass, dumped the bag and began sorting them.
That late afternoon on the grass, the girl, whose name I never learned, soon tired of her marbles. She wound the pouch bag around her wrist, and swung it back and forth while circling my car, as if casting a spell. No doubt she was also looking for some other donation to her cause. She read aloud the numbers on my license plate and then stopped in her tracks.
“Oh. It’s a Chevy! I hate Chevys.”
“What? Why? Did you have some kind of bad experience with a Chevy?”
“No. I just hate them.”
“Does your dad hate Chevys?”
“Well, you can’t just hate Chevys. You gotta have a reason.”
She shrugged and lifted her palms: “I was born like this!” And then, she waved goodbye and trotted back home.
Luckily, it wasn’t a race that spring of ’95, because Rosie, my car, was in no hurry. I called The Cavalier Rosie because a week earlier, having a beer with an art school pal who had recently changed her name to Jezebel, I admitted I was concerned about driving over 5,000km across country in a car that had been sitting in my back alley for over a year. Jez was trained in the arts of herbal medicine, from a wiccan perspective, and she picked up her pruning shears and clipped me a sprig of healthy blue rosemary from a giant bush next to our lawn chairs.
“Here, rosemary is a protection herb. Hang it from your rear view mirror.” And I did. I spoke to that sprig nonstop on a particularly labourious climb through the Cascades.
Besides the relay angels and the rosemary I had the one-leggeds, the trees. Apparently, the trees will also keep watch over a frightened or lost traveler, according to an indigenous woman who was part of a panel discussing “The Geography of Wonder” on CBC radio. At the time an overheating Rosie was lurching up and around the Canadian Shield and Lake Superior. The woman’s voice on the radio calmed me with her reassurances that if you “ask the trees for help they will give it to you”. I wasn’t certain in what form that help would take, but I no longer felt alone, surrounded as I was in the wilds of Ontario.
Like the Chevy-hating girl, I was born to look to trees for help and consoling company. We are all influenced by our geographies and the opinions and experiences of families. But what I love about driving, about travel in general, is when we enter unknown territory and some creature or object or space touches a chord as if asking: where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you all this time? As if you had a song you were singing all by yourself and suddenly you come up over a rise, or straighten out of a bend in the road, or step off a plane and something is singing that same song, in harmony, resonating with you.
I never met that kid before, and I never saw her again. She was the first brief encounter with a benign stranger on the eve of a journey full of brief strangers, including gas station attendants (they still had them then), truck drivers and waitresses. I think of them as guardian angels for the traveler, sharing news of the weather up ahead and knowledge of short cuts and scenic routes, giving the lone and the brave journeyer enough to make it to the next helper, then handing us over, like in a relay race.
Crawling over the Rockies brought back memories of my first visit to the mountains. I was fourteen and I was instantly smitten, a girl with her first crush. I suppose Freudians could say it was the thrusting phallic shapes of the mountains stirring up longing inside. I was certainly longing for something. As it turned out I wrote my first published poem from that week in the mountains. I spent hours trying to get within the proximity of my unnamed aching. The poem was accepted by the publishers of a book celebrating BC’s natural wonders. I remember the exact page the poem was on because one evening my parents came home from an evening drive, which often included a stop at the newsstand in town, and presented me with the book. Page 92, said my dad. And there was my little love poem: “The Mountain/Silent/ Strong/ Stunning/ Music of Majesty/and silent awe/Welcomes/Snow and Clouds/The Sun/to cast its shadow/in the Splendour of/sunrise/sunset/over graceful/Shoulders of/aged earth and/stone.” Remember, I was sixteen.
What the mountains had done for my burgeoning womanhood as a young girl of sixteen, the prairies did for my emboldened womanhood at thirty-six, pulled over in Herbert by a Chevy that needed a rest, and later, for my fully-felt womanhood at fifty-six, looking for solace when I moved to Val Marie. The mountains, became for me, Eros; the prairies Agape.
The reason I cannot drive past Herbert without stealing a glance is because of an experience of synchronicity I had there that affirmed I would make it safely to my new life in Quebec in my shaky vehicle. I would find new reserves of courage, tenacity and creativity. I would find my band. Despite waking my last morning in Vancouver suddenly certain I was crazy for even thinking I could just get up and move, with only enough money for gas and motels and a cooler of fruit and sandwiches, I would be ok.
My last morning in BC, standing next to Rosie, my knees buckled and I reached for my big sis and wavered and whispered: “I can’t do this!” She laughed and whispered back: “Of course you can. You were born for this.”
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie home.