The April fool

The attic of my writing life is filled with antiques: files of newspaper and magazine clips, Xeroxed copies of manuscripts, notebooks, tape cassettes.

There is also a black binder labeled Journal 1980, jammed with typewritten entries from spring and summer, from Ontario to the West Coast.

What I see now are the musings of a young man not unlike the old man: an expat American struggling to reconcile a life in Canada; a city boy in conflict with a craving for wilderness.

On April 1, 1980, my wife Linda and I and dog Yaz, a two-year-old black standard poodle, left Toronto in a new 14-foot Mini Cruiser motorhome we called Fenway.

The plan was to ramble west across Canada, drive down the coast to L.A., east to the Grand Canyon, north to Yellowstone, and then bolt across the northern states to arrive in Maine as the leaves turned.

I’d take a job on a paper, maybe in Portland or Bangor. We’d rent a little house on the ocean. I’d practice journalism, write Travels With Yaz and quit the paper when a New York publisher handed me a six-figure advance.

For the journey, I packed my Olympia portable typewriter and a list of newspaper and magazine editors who said they’d take stories from the road.

Linda had a Nikon and darkroom supplies to develop film in Fenway’s tiny bathroom.

Reading the journal today, those inner conflicts I mentioned jump from the pages, starting with the first entry on the first night, camped in a snow-covered parking lot off a frozen lake a couple of hours north of Toronto.

The date of departure is not insignificant.

April 1, Algonquin Park, Ontario

After seven years in Canada, seven years of calling myself a New Yorker and feeling more and more like a Canadian, I really feel like a tourist, a traveler, passing through, unlikely to return.

April 26, Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba

Awakened to news from Iran on the radio – a U.S. raid to free the hostages was aborted, eight U.S. airmen killed. And yet, just before turning in, all I can think about are the bears Yaz treed on our walk around the lake, the moose we’d seen off the road, the beaver working on its dam, the beauty of this park.

May 8, Saskatoon

Went to a movie. Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two.” Good movie. Bad choice. James Caan plays a New York writer, living in a New York townhouse, going to restaurants, taking taxis. And me? I’m some fucking Okie driving across the prairies in a covered wagon, tin plates clashing in the back. What the hell am I doing in Saskatchewan? SASKATCHEWAN! If I see another red pickup I’m going to scream.

May 16, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Here, at our campsite, it is quiet, except for the rushing water of the Kicking Horse River. We have a great view of Cathedral Peak (10,000 feet), which lit its golden dome at sunset. We crossed from Alberta into B.C. today, but the Rockies defy provincial borders. They are splendid and unique and awe-inspiring.

May 20, near Kamloops, B.C.

The radio says the “no” people won in Quebec, where saying “no” means saying “yes” to staying in Canada. No one in the West seems to care whether Quebec stays, goes, or gradually drifts away.

June 3, Vancouver

Had dinner with Malcolm. Lots of talk about writing and books and journalism. Been a long time since I had someone like Malcolm to talk to. Didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.

June 7, Larrabee State Park, Washington

Crossed the border today. The U.S. Customs guy was really confused and really arrogant. American man? Canadian wife? New York plates? Where’s your home? I said: “Here. Or New York. Or Toronto. Take your pick.” He finally waved us through.

June 11, Olympic National Park, Washington

At a campground, surrounded by Washingtonians and Californians. I feel like a Canadian here and an American in Canada, always more comfortable when set apart, looking in.

June 13, Denman Island, B.C.

Safely back in Canada – not that I felt threatened in the U.S. But hard not to be jarred by the gun on the belt of the U.S. Customs guy; the guns in the holsters of the guards at the ballgame in Seattle; the Californian at the ferry dock in Port Angeles ranting about the blacks taking over Oakland and San Francisco.

June 19, Denman Island

Have spent a week here, in a little campground off the beach, beside the rainforest, in Fillongley Park. May be the best place yet – bald eagles in the trees, clams and oysters for the picking, cutthroat trout in a nearby lake.

July 8, Kootenay National Park, B.C.

Met a lovely family (dad, mom, three young sons, Doberman) from Suffolk County, Long Island. He’s a teacher, wrestling coach and looks like Nick Nolte. Showed me the .357 Magnum he smuggled across the border.

My journal entries ended a few days later. But the odyssey continued.

I did file stories from the road, from telegraph offices, several on cowboys and Indians, on rodeos and reservations.

We followed the original plan: down the coast to San Francisco and L.A., the canyons of Arizona and Utah, Yellowstone and the dash east all the way to Maine by early October.

I walked into newspaper offices in Portland, Augusta, Waterville and Bangor, changing into a suit in the back of the motorhome.

All the editors thanked me for dropping by. All said they had no openings.

Besides, they said, I was probably over-qualified for a reporter’s job on their small papers and wouldn’t be happy in their small towns.

We went “home” to Toronto. I never wrote Travels with Yaz.


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