His delivers done, George pulled out of Dryden on the Trans-Canada highway headed west and there on the shoulder of the road was a young man thumbing a ride. You expected to see young people on the highway in summer, but not in the near winter weather of November, and not at 8 o’clock at night. He hesitated, sized the young man up, applied the brakes, and brought the truck to a stop about 50 feet down the road. George waited.
Through his rear-view mirror he could see the youth running, his head down and his backpack slung over one shoulder. He had long hair and sported a full beard, although thin enough to suggest that he was barely out of his teens. He was wearing a knee length pea-jacket, the kind that you could get at the army surplus store. George had seen kids wearing them around Winnipeg these days. He estimated that the kid was not much older than his son.
The kid stepped on the running board and opened the truck door. “Thanks sir!” he said, tossing his pack ahead of him into the cab.
“Your very welcome son. Kinda late and cold to be on the road, don’t you think?” George added, “Where’re you headed?”
“Well, I can take you as far as Winnipeg.”
“Thanks a lot, sir,” the kid said, rubbing his arms through the jacket vigorously.
George checked his side mirrors, took a quick glance at his passenger, returned his gaze to the side mirror and completed the merge onto the highway. There was no traffic out here at this time of night, only long-haulers and salesmen. Dryden was half way between Thunder Bay and Winnipeg on a lonely piece of highway, a highway that stretched across the country. George had driven this road nearly every day, except weekends, for seven years. While he didn’t mind the drive, the road kept him from his family.
Without taking his eyes from the road, George inquired, “What takes you all the way to Saskatoon?”
“I am going home for a short visit.”
“Your family lives there?”
“They live in Toronto now, but I lived in Saskatoon until a couple of years ago. I finished high school there.” As an afterthought he added, “I have been going to university in Hamilton, near Toronto.”
“So, your home is really in Toronto then?” George offered.
“Yes, I guess it is.”
The youth sat silent, looking ahead, from time-to-time glancing out of the side window into the night. George thought that the boy seemed uneasy, as if trying to feel his way through difficult terrain. He had seen his own son struggle like this. Trees and rocks lined the road, and now a river reflecting the moon on the surface of the water. George looked straight ahead, keeping his eyes on the road. “So, you have work in Toronto?” he asked cautiously.
“A bit of a vacation for you then?”
“Yes. I needed a break.”
“I get that.” George added, “What kind of work is it?”
“I work in a theatre company, I design and build the sets. We are between productions now.”
“I see,” George glanced over at the youth, noticed a quick smile.
“You like the work.” George returned his eyes to the road.
“I do. The last production was a difficult one though.”
George waited, nodded and returned his eyes on the road. The topography was flat here, the roadway cut through granite and trimmed by black spruce. They passed a motel with its lights casting halos into the cold night air.
The kid continued, “We ruffled some feathers. The work was a bit of a protest.”
“Against the war?”
“No. Questioning faith.”
“My parents were kind of upset. I think they were hurt.”
“Kids do a lot of that these days. Questioning things I mean.”
‘My dad is a minister, so I think he and mom were pretty upset. Like I had failed them.”
George started to say something and retreated. They drove in silence for a while past communities with and without place makers; Oxdrift, Vermillion Bay, Hawk Lake. Places that George knew well, that he’d driven through every day for seven years. Years that went by while his children grew. Lost years.
The kid’s voice broke the silence. “What do you do sir?”
“My name’s George, no more sir please.”
“Okay. I’m Jacob, Jake.”
“Good to know you Jake.” George continued, “I work in a factory that makes farm equipment, elevators and augers and that kinda thing. In my spare time,” George laughs, “I drive delivery to the small communities between Winnipeg and where I picked you up in Dryden.”
“That’s a long drive.”
“Takes me about nine hours, round trip. Four and half going when I make the deliveries. Three and a half return, when I empty. I’m in bed by midnight most nights. At the factory next morning at six sharp!”
“I know this route like the back of my hand, every little whistle stop along the way.” George looked ahead at the road, straight, with a single white line. There was nothing here for a long way. The truck headlights piercing the dark, and the occasional lights of traffic passing the other way.
“There’s a truck stop ahead in Kenora. Are you hungry?”
Jake hesitated, and George added, “Don’t be shy. I’m paying. My treat.”
“Yes, thank-you. I haven’t eaten since lunch.”
George eased his rig into the all-night truck stop at the edge of town. Whiffs of snow drifted across the parking lot, where there were a couple of long haulers. As he entered the restaurant George greeted the others with a nod, they were usual company, and some nights when he had a later shift at the factory, he’d sit with them. The place smelled of grease and coffee and diesel fumes. The décor was straight out of another era, melamine counters and tables, worn leatherette stools and a jukebox at every booth.
George ordered takeout for he and Jake. Two toasted westerns, a coffee and a coke. And they were back in the truck heading west out of Kenora. They were now 30 miles from the Manitoba border. George ate his sandwich from the wax paper unfolded on the seat, his eyes on the road. Jake ate hungrily, his bottle of coke perched between his knees. They passed Lake of the Woods, where the border to the United States reaches far north before rejoining the 49th parallel across the prairies. The lake reflected the night sky.
Reaching for the last of his sandwich George announced, “Well that hit the spot.”
“Yes. Thanks a lot.”
“You’re welcome. I’d hate to see you go hungry,” and added after a pause, “Do you have a girl back in Saskatoon?”
George watched the youth smile at the suggestion. “She must be pretty special for you to make a trip like this at this time of year.”
“She is. The thing is I left in a hurry with my folks. I forgot to say goodbye.” Jake dug in his pack, pulled out a picture of a young woman dressed in a red sweater and blue jeans, smiling back at the camera with a startled look. George glanced at the picture and returned his gaze the highway. “Good looking girl alright.”
“I surprised her when I took the photo.”
“Are you two getting serious?”
“Not sure. It has been messed up year for me. With the move and my family,” Jake replied, lowering his head.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
George turned on the radio and turned the dial until he found the local station. “I like to catch up on the day’s news,” he said. The radio crackled, and a newsman’s voice cut through the static… in a close contest, where the electoral votes of four states were in doubt until earlier today, Richard Nixon has been declared the 46th President of the United States. Humbert Humphrey conceded at about noon today. In international news, an arrest was made today in connection with the Cannock Chase abduction and possible murder of at least one school-aged girl near Birmingham, England…
“Looks like I missed the local news,” George declared, and turned off the radio. He added, “Nixon has promised to end the war. His election is probably a good thing.”
“Many of my friends don’t think so,” Jake said.
George changed the subject, “Sounds like they have made an arrest in the kidnapping case. I can’t imagine what the parents must have gone through. More than one child has gone missing and found dead in the woods near there.”
“Yes. I have kids though, it’s close to home.”
“How old are your kids?”
“I have a son about your age, and two daughters, a few years younger. Still in high school. I worry about them.” It occurred to George to add, “Your folks likely worry about you too.”
“They never say so. It’s like we live in different worlds,” Jake sighed.
“The ‘generation gap’. Whoever came up with that phrase got it right!” George declared.
The two sat in silence, separated only by a couple of feet. Outside a light snow was falling, landing on the windshield. George pointed at the sign announcing they were entering Manitoba. Jake nodded. A mile into Manitoba, George braked and brought the truck to a stop on the shoulder of the highway. He motioned for Jake to get out of the cab. Jake felt uneasy at the request but was reassured by the sincerity in George’s smile.
“I want to show you something.”
George climbed out of the truck and in the moonlight walked toward a newly frozen lake, sheltered by a small woodlot. He motioned Jake to join him. They looked across the lake glowing silver in the cold. George picked up a small chunk of stone and sidearm threw it in an arc, sending it gliding toward the lake. The moment the stone hit the surface of the lake there was a loud hollow sound that echoed and reverberated into the night air. Jake picked up a stone and tossed it, and again the silence of woods was shattered with the sound of breaking glass. Jake had never heard anything like it.
“Wow! How did you know to do that?”
“We used to do it as kids on the ponds near the home farm. It doesn’t work when the lake is snow covered, just at freeze-up. My dad, being a farmer, knew things about the land.”
George motioned, and they climbed back into the truck. Jake was still shaking his head and chuckling to himself. George edged back onto the highway, an hour and 45 minutes out of Winnipeg, he was halfway home.
“You said you worked in theatre. What sorts of plays does your company do? I suspect not musicals. Not ‘Oklahoma!’”
Jake laughed, “No not ‘Oklahoma!’. Jake narrowed his eyes, searching for the right words. “They are plays about life I guess. People questioning what they’ve been told. Our writer is really skilled at exploring moral and ethical dilemmas, like a son who refuses to pray for his dying father, or the kid who doesn’t want to be a lawyer because he thinks the system is corrupt.”
“Something to be said for that!”
“Yeah, there are a lot of things that my generation is concerned about these days; the war, big corporations, poverty, progress, pollution, civil rights. I mean things are bad, with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King being killed earlier this year. I guess a lot of kids worry about the future.”
“You make it sound very depressing.” George stared ahead at the road, gripping the wheel. After a while he asked, “So how does the play end? The one where the one about the lawyer’s son?”
“The son leaves home, moves to the city and ends up on hard times. He finds friends who are interested in what he is and after a time becomes a writer. The play is autobiographical – a similar path our writer took when he was younger. The father comes to the realization that his son is doing what he loves and there is a reconciliation. A happy ending, except for the lost years.”
George nodded. He glanced over at Jake who was animated now, talking about what he loved. George tried to recall the last time he had a conversation with his kids.
George stared ahead at the road. The highway flattened out and cut a straighter path, through the night. Clouds drifted across the moonlit sky, and resolved into a clear sky, stars reflecting on the surface of near-frozen lakes. The moon gave a dim clarity to everything, casting a half light over the land and the farmhouses they passed. The windows dark, and only every now and then a pinpoint of light, hinting at the lives within. George looked over at his passenger to see that he had drifted off to sleep, his head slumped on his chest. He drove on in silence with the window open a crack, the cold air keeping him from sleep.
The road made its final ascent north toward Winnipeg. In a few more miles, the lights of the city would be visible, dotted on the flat plain through which the road coursed. It was past midnight and the city slept, a neon sign on a motel flashed Vacancy, beckoning late night travelers to stay. George wheeled his rig onto the lot, and Jake roused at the sound of the truck gearing down.
“We’re here son, Winnipeg!”
“Sorry, I fell asleep.”
“That’s okay Jake. It looked like you needed a good night’s sleep. I’m going to drop you here, this is pretty much the end of the road for me.” George pressed some bills into Jake’s hand and added, “Thank-you for the company and I hope you make it good with your parents and that girl in Saskatoon. She’d be a fool not to take you seriously.”
Looking at the bills in his hand, enough to cover a night’s stay, Jake stammered. “Thank-you George!”
As he drove away, George looked back in his rear-view mirror. He watched Jake recede into the lighted foyer of the motel, and noticed the youthful bounce in his step, his long hair resting on his shoulders, his tuque barely covering his ears. Jake looked back for a moment, and George waved his hand in a silent goodbye.
George drove into the centre of the city. There were a few kids milling about despite the hour and the cold. He was drawn to their youth, the way they traveled the road of their own choosing, at least for now. Taking the road that led home, he turned on the radio. Joni Mitchell’s song “Urge for Going” was wafting over the air waves, it filled him with a feeling of sweet irony. George decided that tomorrow he would take the kids on a drive somewhere outside the city, to find the perfect place where a woodlot encircled a small lake at dusk. And if the conditions were just right they’d skip stones across the surface of the lake. And hear them reverberate into the stillness of the night.