By Madonna Hamel
At the end of November I was watching Avril march around in her commandant boots, hands full with stakes and hammer and surveying tape, marking and remarking the place where her new getaway home will eventually be built. I’d just got back from out east where I’d been travelling between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City, emptying storage lockers of twenty five years of mostly books and sweaters. I had managed to weed and purge the piles down to fifty boxes, and rationalized that, in fact, I was doing pretty well, if one considered that I was ending up with two boxes per year. The process was long and exhausting, physical and psychologically, considering all the heavy lifting and the sudden appearances of long forgotten artifacts.
My plan was to send them to Val Marie and my cozy apartment on the ‘edge of town’ and figure out where I’d put everything when I rejoined them. But of course, nobody at the various depots had ever heard of Val Marie, and it wasn’t “in the system”. The last time I heard that expression I was looking for information about a pension I’d paid into. A nice clerk regretfully informed me that I didn’t exist in ‘the system’. I countered with my deepest conviction that, actually, I did exist. And here I am to prove it! The clerk couldn’t agree more and would redouble his or her efforts to tap, tap, tap me back into existence.
When a nameless, faceless, fleshless ‘system’ gets to make big existential decisions for me I want to give it some of its own medicine. And I resent how the wizard behind the curtain makes the low-paid clerk take my smart ass flak.
“You know, it’s not really my existence we should be questioning here,” I whisper across the counter to the person trying to conjure me up. “Have you ever met this ‘system’ entity’?”
“Well, actually, we mean ‘the computer,” they might politely explain, giving me a pitying look.
“Could it possibly be- and I’m just throwing this out there- that the ‘system’”- and by now I’m making quotation marks with my fingers- “could be wrong?”
Sometimes I wonder if clerks, when they work their furious fingers across their keyboards, are actually sending an email to a colleague to call them and save them from the loon in front themselves.
I wouldn’t blame them: we all need the help of flesh and blood people when ‘the system’, with its inherent indifference, rigidity and lack of humour, just has to be right. But, standing in front of the shipping clerk, being informed that Val Marie does not exist in their system, I wasn’t too bothered. After all, I moved to the village to get away from the ‘system’, so the less the world knew about it the better. The closet town in ‘the system’ was Swift Current.
The boxes would get there before me, but I had a month in which to pick them up. As things turned out, Avril was going to fly back from Toronto to Regina with me. And she had rented a truck. We could drive home via Swift. We could pick up the boxes on the way. It was then it hit me: I had spent my adult life wandering and nesting, settling in, then pulling roots, leaving pieces of me behind along the way. And now I’m starting to clean up after myself.
Every morning, for the ten days Avril was here, we’d rise in the dark, fill our travel cups and head up to the park for sunrise. We’d park and hike for an hour or two, splitting off, then meeting to compare notes on the critters we’d spotted. We came across moose, badger, coyote, snowy owl, rabbit, hawk, muskrat, prairie dog and plenty of bison. Then we’d drive back to my place, I’d get back to my writing and she’d get back to re-staking her foundation.
One day Ervin took us up to his land along the Divide and we set out salt for the cows and checked on the bulls. There was no wind, no birdsong and somehow their absence made the open space seem even larger, more beautifully fearsome.
“Wow, you’d sure wouldn’t want to get stuck out here, there’s nobody for miles!” remarked Avril.
“It’s why people can sometimes get the wrong idea about those of us who live in places like this, like we all like to take the law in our own hands. Actually, we just need to get things done. And we find ways of doing it, or call someone who can. You work with what you have.” Says Ervin.
At the café or Prairie Wind. It takes a long time for visitors to understand how remote we are. No, sorry I can’t sell you my water, this has to last til Monday, and no I can’t make you a macchiato, we don’t have the ingredients and no there is nowhere to buy the ingredients and yes the store is closed and no there is no 24/7 ‘convenience’ store. Things will fail to operate the ways you need them to, or would like them to. But you find a way to bring them back to life- or do without. Once, standing beside my car, with a map open on the hood, trying to figure out where I made a wrong turn, a tumble weed tumbled past me. I laughed at the truth of the cinematic cliché- sometimes, it’s just you and the land and the sky and the flora and fauna of the territory. So ‘embrace the suck’ and get on with it.
Avril’s last morning in town I was in Swift Current teaching a writing class. She decided to visit the park one last time on her way to Regina. She went for a hike, bid farewell to the critters, then hopped in her rental truck, started it up and shifted it into drive. Only it wouldn’t move past neutral.
OK, this isn’t happening, she thought. And gave it another go. Finally she called the rental company. And the “system” reared its head, once again.
The system, another name for bureaucracy, was in place to make her life a living hell for the next twenty-four hours. The ‘system’ states, in fine print, that trucks are exempt from mechanical malfunctions, present long before the renter showed up. The fine print also says a lot of other nonsense that is never articulated to the person signing at the bottom of the page covered in tiny black dots resembling words. The more she tried to explain her situation the more she realized how dependent she was on the people nearby, not strangers on the phone.
“No! There is no tow truck. No. I can’t walk into town, I’m in the middle of nowhere in a national park! There’s no repair shop, nearby. No cab, no bus, no subway. Do you understand? It’s a miracle I have cell reception!””
“Wow, “I exclaimed, when she called me in Swift Current “ Look, this has to have happened before, surely your guys in the film industry must rent stuff, maybe they know what to say.”
While she was on the phone to the transport teamsters, I called Ervin.
“What, kind of truck is it?” he asked. “ If it’s a Ford you call one guy if its GMC you call another, if…oh what, the hell, it doesn’t matter what it is: we all call Arthur! And, if need be, Arthur and I will impound it until those rental people come to their senses.”
Arthur was there with his truck and expertise in a matter of minutes. Page, out taking photographs of badgers, took shots of the proceedings ‘for evidence’. By the time the truck got towed and Avril got off the phone with representatives of “the system”, she’d missed her flight home and had to book another. She was now out $700.00 for the flight, $600.00 for additional eventual towing to Regina and a predicted $7000.00 for the transmission of the rental.
Thankfully, Avril’s transport friend gave her a phrase. It’s usage was a game-changer and I’m sharing it with you now in case ‘the system’ tries to bully you out of a few thousand dollars because one of their vehicles was on its last legs and you got dinged with the bill. While you can be liable for “loss or damage”, you cannot be held responsible for “failure to operate”. The phrase worked. Avril was responsible for the rental fee and she was ‘only’ out the price of a second ticket home.
But she left with something more: she learned that when a machine fails to operate, the people of villages like Val Marie, shift into high gear. They ‘get ‘er done’. They take care of people, they even laugh about it later, and they look to each other, not ‘the system’, to confirm their existence.
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, Sask. home.