NeWest Press

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South Away

The Pacific Coast on Two Wheels
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Highway 1 tapered south of San Francisco as my sister and I closed in on Devil's Slide. One behind the other, Alisha in the lead. Rubber tires clinging to the crumbling white line at the asphalt's edge. Devil's Slide's reputation for landslides and collisions preceded it--warnings about this treacherous, winding stretch of highway had plagued us since the Oregon-California border. Knowing this, we could have taken another route, detouring inland along the Interstate, but that would have added an extra half-day. Moreover, after sitting on our asses for a week in San Pablo suburbs--an hour-long train commute from the bright lights of San Francisco proper--we were anxious to hit the road.

It was November 10, 2009. Ten weeks earlier, I had collected my final paycheque, packed my bicycle panniers, and rolled down the driveway of the house in Terrace, British Columbia, where I'd been renting a room for the summer. I am as fresh and untired as they come, a brand new university grad with a B.A. in Archaeology and no actionable plan for the future. I knew I didn't want to end up like my mother--or the rest of the content-in-their-mediocrity middle-class who populated the Surrey suburbs where I'd spent my childhood--and I knew I wouldn't survive doing something that I hated. Rather than settle into a career (assuming there was a job waiting for me, which there wasn't) I had decided to ride my bicycle six thousand plus kilometres down the western coast of North America, from Terrace to Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the Baja Peninsula. A month into the journey, my sister, Alisha, had joined me.

Now, we were careening down the dusty California coastline, halfway to Cabo, the torrential downpours of Washington and Oregon behind us and SoCal's palm-lined beaches beckoning us south.

At Devil's Slide the highway wound further inland, and soon Alisha and I found ourselves on a wooded mountainside, the rock-scree slope topped with deciduous trees whose fire-hued leaves were carried off by gusts of wind. Pale, near-bare branches ribbed over the roadway. Out of sight, a couple hundred metres to our right, the jagged cliffs of Devil's Slide promontory dropped into the frothing Pacific Ocean.

A horn honked--aimed at us? My heart slammed. Cars in quick succession, inches from the sides of our back panniers. Like a pair of rabbits that had inadvertently wandered onto the track of the Monaco Grand Prix, we were trapped. Why hadn't someone thought to lay the road six inches wider? With no place to pull off to let vehicles pass, we'd become hostages to this devil of a mountain.

I followed the hitch of Alisha's hips as she rocked up the slope, the incline so sharp that we were barely making headway; simply balancing, maintaining a straight course among the rush-wind of passing cars, was challenge enough. My ears echoed with the whir of traffic until at last we reached the summit. The woods cleared, our surroundings suddenly arid, barren. Straws of yellowed grass poked between smooth hillside stones to our left; sheer cliffs plunged into violent surf on our right. Once Alisha and I began our descent, I lost sight of the drop, but the snaking guardrail stood as a reminder of our precarious position on the mountainside. My eyes sped along the twisting white line of the highway shoulder. Another blaring horn, and my chest cinched tighter. My bike computer read thirty miles an hour, but traffic streamed past as if we were standing still.

Abruptly, Alisha's rear tire leapt into my field of vision. Too close--and still decelerating. I snapped the brake levers. My back wheel locked. Panic.

"Go!" I shouted. A fast-approaching potato chip delivery truck loomed like an aggressive T-Rex in my side-view mirror. "Go-go-go-go-go!"

I clipped her from behind, tire against spinning tire. She screamed. A feral, deep-bellied wail.

I knuckled down on the brakes again. My bike frame shuddered from the force, skidding. Even closer to the guardrail. Eyes fixed on the quicksilver sea, hundreds of metres below.

Holy shit, I thought. This is where my story ends.

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Arctic Smoke

The Marquis Hotel has a century of murmur in its bones. Tales, too--inhaled at twilight by hissing vents, circled through hallways and hidden rooms, exhaled at daybreak. Downtown Lethbridge crouches under the edifice, toking its secret histories: the coal baron and his paramour, the runaway pastor's daughter, the felon on the lam--clandestine meetings, illicit love, voyeurs known and unknown--Mormon bishops, gamblers, whores.

The Marquis is over a hundred years old, ancient history on the Canadian prairies. By day its fading brick reaches to the sun, slate shimmering reds and greens, stonework cooled by shadows. At night the Marquis casts a spell: its pinnacles slice and crack the moon's light, then strew it in peppercorns across the tangle of gardens, while starlings gather on pitched rooftops to watch. Gingerbread windows gulp the remaining moonbeams; behind the glass, fires spark and dwindle in the hearths.

Townfolk say an entire floor has been closed long as anyone remembers. Ghosts, demons, murder--depends who tells the story. Some say two brothers came down from the High Arctic in the roaring twenties, stayed in the Marquis a whole year. Haroot and Maroot Darker, both eccentric, both in love with some Japanese woman inexplicably named Zurah. When she fled northward with a new lover, a white knife thrower from the carnival, the brothers' eccentricity turned to madness. Room One Thirteen, people say, demolished, sprayed with blood, but who killed whom? Some old Lethbridge folk tell the story differently, cackle over dark rum cokes or burnt black coffee in taverns grimed with failing light. Insist the brothers did not die--could not die--for they were dark angels cast from heaven to wander earth, to feed on malice, to tear apart the bonds of love.

But the story can never really be told, because no thread is ever lost: every hard choice and chance encounter weaves the tale out of itself--stitching, whirling, snaring--forever knotting and unspooling at the same time. So the angels may still haunt the long hallways, but who would know? For the Marquis has lost its voice to carpets, drapes, and crooked pictures--to thick coverlets and layered dust.

The century is about to turn.

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let us not think of them as barbarians

you cannot write these things down
you cannot write them down
you cannot write them down
says the singer of praises.
the warm draft of summer
the burn of stone on bare feet
the blood of my rivers--
you cannot write this down
you cannot create calligraphies of pain
says the singer of sorrows.

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