The Final Ride
By Alex Chow
It was the spring of 2011, in a time and place where I felt refreshingly alone and at peace. Like it was the middle of the night and I was walking under street-lights, with only raccoons for companions, as a fine icy rain fell all around. If the entire experience of that chilly spring could be distilled into a series of repeating motifs, it would be that – and freezing my fingers off in order to smoke cigarettes outside my accommodation at 2am, and snuggling in the nook of a desk, napping beside the vast history collection of the university library. That, and many other things on my lonesome, make up the borders of the memories of my semester on exchange.
I was infatuated with my friend Adeline that year – a pragmatic girl who was my confidant and loved travelling as much as I did, but, on hindsight, was a bad listener and indifferent to everything else that I was fond of. I pined for her from afar while writing soppy letters seeking her commiseration. Perhaps it had something to do with not making it past the friends department while on exchange: when the first semester break came around, I tried to make the best of it and went on an adventure alone. I came across an environmentalist brochure raising awareness of the “Avatar Grove”, a spot on Vancouver Island where an ancient grove (or isolated trees, depending on your level of optimism) centuries old still stood with their moss green and limbs mighty. I looked it up immediately when I returned to my room and knew I had found my quest. A journey to the heart of the forest alone, like a pagan on pilgrimage. My jacket was forest green.
I took the ferry to Vancouver Island that weekend. The sea and sky were grey. Landing at the city of Victoria, an hour later, I walked around, taking pictures, and slept that night without doing much, except downloading all the maps I could onto my laptop for my road trip-sojourn through the forest. In my bag, I packed my Swiss Army knife, a compass and two tins of Spam (the compass, I later left behind in the car I rented; the Spam, thrown away unopened). When morning came, I checked out of the guesthouse and rented a red Chevy.
I took the main thoroughfare out of Victoria, ramping up the bass on the Chevy’s aged but functional hi-fi system. The sky was clear and sunny, the morning traffic was modest, and I kind of knew where I was going. Along the way, I stopped at a beach – not of sand but of grey pebbles. Everything in and around Vancouver seemed grey. I looked out to sea, at the kelp washed up on the stony ground. I took my photos and soaked in the strange scenery.
As I drove on, I came upon a portion of road marked out by faded strips of plastic tape, indicating a path leading to one of the groves. I got out of the car and wandered down the path, imagining myself an Indian scout amongst the tall pines and oaks. The trees were stately and beautiful, spotty remnants of primary forest that the Canadians termed ‘old growth’ and which now only occupy a tenth of their original area. Environmentalists had in recent years begun lobbying the government to save these old growth forests, employing the argument that this could provide more economic benefit by way of eco-tourism. At present, the lack of protection for the trees meant that there were no official markings on the trail, and it was a wonder that some of these trees were even discovered, isolated as they were in the sea of emerald green.
I walked the trail at length but could not find the grove pictured in the brochure, so I drove on – over stony creeks, winding roads hedged by tall pines and alongside a lake so large it had its own tidal patterns, all without meeting another soul. The Avatar Grove had become a kind of Grail that I had to find.
As eventide drew closer, the skies’ bluish tint signalled the last moments before nightfall (which comes early during the early spring). Shadows lengthened and I grew uneasy as the straight roads diverged and became narrower, until they became nothing more than gravel paths in the woods riddled with potholes. A misjudgement on my part led me to drive over one of these portholes at 40kmh. The resulting bump killed the engine.
I surveyed the situation as laconically as I could – I was in the forest hundreds of kilometres from Victoria, and there was neither traffic nor cell phone coverage in the area. I supposed there was no updating of my Facebook status to let Adeline know that I was about to perish in the wilderness and it was all her fault – although, perhaps, she would hear about it in the papers: “Emaciated Corpse of University Student found on Canadian Logging Road”. She would roll her eyes at my foolishness, before flipping the page to be engrossed in the latest news about the job market. I lit a cigarette, but before I could finish it, the sound of tyres scrunching over the gravel greeted my ears. Stubbing it out underfoot, I hailed the SUV, which contained a couple of forest rangers. It would seem like the end of my troubles, but, little did I know then, that the night still had scores of tricks to play.
While poking around under the hood of my car, the rangers asked if I was on my way to see the big tree – I was in luck; they were heading there for a routine check. Fifteen minutes later, I arrived at what I thought was the Avatar Grove, but was, in fact, the San Juan Spruce, Canada’s largest sitka spruce, so named for the river it grew next to, towering over a small campground. The tree was gnarly, as though its middle section was made entirely out of giant knee caps overgrown with mossy leg hair, and its trunk was thick enough for one to be housed comfortably in it alone, with space enough to add a row of books. Large ferns grew out of its base and mid-section, and, when I looked up, I saw the stumps of old branches spiralling upwards like steps for wood elves in the Mirkwood. The San Juan Spruce was not the only ancient that stood in the grounds; an equally venerable big-leaf maple shared the space. It was leaning at a precarious angle, and the rangers remarked that it had to be stabilised soon to prevent its weight from tearing up its own roots from the ground.
In truth, seeing the tree was an anti-climactic experience; I had started off my journey as a “self-sufficient” adventurer, going where no Singaporean exchange student had possibly ever been. I assumed my counterparts were taking selfies in front of giant hamburgers and steaks, or on the other side of the US-Canadian border, strolling along outlet mall walkways with shopping bags in tow, while I pierced the heart of the Canadian wilderness indefatigably. However, instead of arriving at the grove with glowing eyes and a heart filled with awe for the majesty of nature, I had set foot in the grove as a bumbling Asian tourist, rescued by off-duty rangers. I even got a photo taken of me doing a tourist pose, with one hand on the side of the tree, looking up into the distant canopy.
After accommodating my whims, the rangers dropped me off at one of the towns by the shore of Lake Cowichan. It was completely dark by the time I arrived, and there were no discernible street signs as we pulled up to the side of a rundown petrol station. The rangers wished me luck on my journey and I was alone again, a stranger hitchhiking at night into a strange town.
At the kiosk, I met two swarthy but handsome first-nations girls standing behind the counter. I briefly related my story. They looked on with mild concern as I phoned all the tow companies in the area without luck. The night, however, was calm under the fluorescent lighting. I was warm, sipping black coffee, when one of the girls casually mentioned a tow truck pulling into the station. I stepped out, waving frantically, a marooned sailor catching sight of square-rigged sails on the horizon. It was a beat-up truck, driven by a man dressed in a black leather jacket, looking like an outlaw biker. He was accompanied by another, who looked like a rapper in grey hoodie jacket and baggy trousers. They agreed to tow my vehicle back to Victoria, asking only for gas money and a few packs of cigarettes in return. Too relieved to consider the perils of riding in the night with strangers, I tossed my bag unceremoniously in the back of the truck and hopped into the cabin, settling in for the long ride ahead.
I sat between the two of them, whom I’d call Nate and Jon, as they looked like a Nate and Jon. I learnt that they were on their way to deal cannabis in return for sex with a liberal-mannered lady, when they ran into me at the gas station. I couldn’t tell if they were joking, but surmised that, perhaps, they were a kind of modern day hedge-knight and squire who wandered about alternatively indulging in vices and helping people on a whim. The conversation turned casually to the prominent idiosyncrasies of my country, following which they brought out a bag of cannabis. An oily aroma, as though someone was frying a slice of spicy ham, filled the cabin when they lit their joints.
The chilled night air was blowing through the open windows and Gotye's ‘Someone I used to Know’ was playing on the stereo. We had successfully located my car, and it was now hitched to the back of the tow truck. I considered myself a few steps closer to being saved; the long night of my weary soul was ending, and my misadventure would soon be concluded. We were now on a series of mountain switch backs – S-shaped curves in the road – as it sloped down towards the coast; to Victoria, where I had begun my journey more than 12 hours ago.
I caught a glimpse of the speed limit (20km/h) as I was buoyed about by the centrifugal force of the car rounding the curves, when the truck lost traction on the loose gravel strewn over the asphalt. The truck’s human cargo and my red Chevy began sliding at a shear angle, towards the black abyss of the treeline. My companions were stoic in their silence – or still riding out the effects of the marijuana. Nate quit trying to pump the brakes and stared ahead with a sigh. Jon uttered an expletive. And I braced myself for the crash.
I can only remember, vaguely, a whole lot of bumps and metal scraping on concrete.
I was once more on a deserted highway with no cell phone coverage, the city of Victoria two hours to the south. My companions and I were out on the elbow of a gravelly road. As far as car crashes went, this wasn’t a bad crash. Apart from jolted by the impact, Jon and I were surprisingly unscathed. Nate, however, had the steering wheel in his way and had been thrown against it. He complained of neck ache, but not before losing his composure, stepping out of the vehicle, screaming the F-word repeatedly into the inky night, and pounding his fists on the auto wreck. I considered the whole misfortunate my fault, and briefly considered making a run for it, in case things turned hairy. Nate soon calmed down, though.
The mid-frame of the truck was now resting atop a busted concrete barrier, but something more ominous caught our attention: the sound of rushing water. Upon inspection, we discovered a deep ravine, with rapids that we could not see but knew to be there, rushing headlong beneath us towards the sea. Had we been travelling any faster, Jon exclaimed, we would have plunged over the cliff to eternal glory, bless our souls. The thought of escaping death served as some consolation, and we sat in the red Chevy with the hazard lights on, waiting to be found. Nate went into a monologue about his rotten luck: He was going through a rough patch, estranged from his wife, kids, cat. And, now, this.
At 1am, a vehicle approached. We appealed to the driver to phone for help when he got within reach of cell coverage. I guess he forgot about us after driving away, as no help arrived for a few hours. Finally, a one-man-crewed road maintenance vehicle making its midnight sojourn turned up. By then, the hazard lights of the Chevy had died. The scene must have looked pretty grim: two auto wrecks and three passengers slumped in the seats. We apprised the maintenance worker of our situation, and he radioed for help, which arrived in the form of a convoy of emergency vehicles. Nate had his neck immobilised by a C-collar and was strapped onto a gurney. We followed his supine form into the ambulance and were, in turn, followed by a portly police officer who hovered around asking questions and held up the ambulance, much to the consternation of Nate. When the doors of the ambulance clicked shut, I heard him mutter under his breath, “fucking pig”, before closing his eyes.
Around 5am, we arrived in Victoria, and Nate was wheeled into the A&E, while we sat in the waiting area, a place devoid of sensible human beings at that hour. We waited for an hour before Nate emerged on his feet, after having taken an X-ray which confirmed the absence of any serious injury. The only belongings we had salvaged from the wreck were my bag, and a large jar of loose change, which they carried around conspicuously on the bus to our next stop. I tagged along to Nate’s auto-insurance company and dozed while the two of them went into a room to speak with a company representative. When they emerged, I learnt that Nate’s claim had been refused as he did not possess a license to tow a vehicle. However, the loss of his truck did not deter his good humour, and he extended an offer to hang out in Victoria.
After shaking the hands of my companions, I made my way back to my hostel, tired and keen to board the ferry Coastal Celebration back to the mainland. I wandered about the weather deck of the large coastal ferry. It was cold and grey, wind whipping up ocean spray, and the rain had cloaked the ship in a fine mist. Standing alone on the deck of the ferry, I felt relieved to finally be on my way back, forgetting, at that moment, the kindness of strangers who had looked out for me during the course of my journey. I never did tell Adeline about my road trip. Some time after arriving back in Vancouver, I learnt that she was going on a backpacking trip with a friend (who happened to be male), and then I never spoke to her again.
I told my friends (but not my parents) plenty about the incident, though. Mostly, it made people laugh a lot at how the night never seemed to end. Some people asked if I had been scared. I suppose I worried a lot more about losing the deposit for my rental car, than for my own safety.
I guess that is really typical in a way.