I love Canada, and I know the people, towns, and way of life along the shores of Lake Huron as well as I know the back of my own weathered hand. Most people don’t find it very inspiring here in the wintertime, and truly, when they hear days like today were -33 degrees, they are justified, even if you’re careful to make the distinction between Celsius and Fahrenheit. Truly, it doesn’t make much difference. It’s cold, either way. But it’s also beautiful, especially if you know where to look (which is towards the water and into the woods).
But I woke up this morning with the wind howling. It blew unfailing across the frozen lake, over the ice waves, and smashing hard against the cottage walls. Gabriel would sleep until noon, if I let him (to be fair, so would I), but I coaxed him outside and even he took a few steps backwards—for the wind pushed him that way—and until he threw his shoulder into it and focused his eyes ahead—which were still adorably droopy with sleep—did he actually make any progress moving forward.
Listening to the wind howl is like listening to two old horses separated from each other, and I couldn’t take it. I figured that surely the wind had to be far more pleasant inland, and though inland is not my preferred direction, it was today. Plus, Stratford has bookstores and its comforting to walk those streets knowing some of the best actors in the world walk them, too, if only in the summer for the Shakespeare Festival.
So inland I went, and in quite a hurry, for I had plans to browse all the bookstores AND find some time to write in my favorite little café before it closes at 7. But as my jeep heaved to and fro across the desolate county roads, blowing snow every way but down, I thought, “you know what, I bet this would instagram beautifully.”
So I pulled over several times, sometimes by accident for the wind was that strong, but usually because there was something wonderful and half hidden in blowing snow to photograph. An old abandoned house crowded with pine trees. A lonesome old barn that groaned with each successive gust. The road in front of me….which I could barely see, even while standing on it.
That’s when it dawned on me that I probably shouldn’t stand in the middle of the road, for it would be just as unlikely that a driver would see me as I would them. Truly, with the way the snow was going, neither of us would have known what hit us (that’s a terrible pun, I’m aware) and then Gabriel would be an orphan. I couldn’t feel my forehead or my fingers and I almost lost my phone twice snapping a barn in a particularly strong gust, so it was time to get back into my jeep, anyway.
I continued driving and the visibility continued to deteriorate. Sometimes, I had to sit at an intersection for several minutes because I couldn’t tell if anyone was coming. I couldn’t even see what color the stoplight was. A few times I thought perhaps I should turn back, but I mean…what ADVENTURER says that? No one. Plus, I figured if I could handle the roads—and with 4-wheel drive and Backstreet Boys blasting, of course I could handle the roads—surely the rest of Canada could, too.
So I kept driving.
7 kilometers outside of Stratford, I passed an old barn and the world’s most adorable Canadian pony (Napoleon and Ed are the American and English equivalents, accordingly). I knew I HAD to say hello, and I pulled over immediately, but quickly realized I had parked on train tracks. In my defense, the tracks, themselves, were covered in snow and the snow drifts had covered up the railway warning signs, so it was an honest mistake, but I would’ve hated to subject the pony to anything violent, so I promptly moved. Then I went back to visit.
I expected he’d just stand there and eat why I talked to him and told him how cute he was. Instead, he nickered hello as soon as he saw me. Friendliness is rather rare in ponies, so it was all I could do not to squeal, jump the fence, and give him a bigggg kiss on his soft, velvet nose and ruffle his thick, rugged forelock. He turned and watched me for a minute and then tried to forge forward, but the snow was so deep and his legs too stout, so he didn’t make it very far. He sure did try with all his might, though. I was afraid he was going to get stuck, and that really scared me, so I did my best to politely discourage him from trying any further. I’ll take 100 jeeps, trucks, and tractors in a ditch before I’ll have a pony stuck in the snow.
He reluctantly retreated, but remained as close as he could, seemingly happy to have a little company. I noticed he was beginning to shiver and I wondered what his owners would think if they came back to find him wearing a zebra striped blanket. I really, really, wanted to blanket him. But then I remembered I didn’t have a horse blanket in my jeep since I’d been in Canada, and I wondered what kind of person I’d turned into.
Well, finally the pony retreated into the barn (hopefully, to warm up), and I got back into my jeep and drove into Stratford, only to find several semi-trucks and SUVs pulled up along the shoulder on the opposite side because the road was shut down.
I was past the road closure sign, so I couldn’t turn around to slip back through, which had been my immediate impulse.
“This’ll blow over in an hour,” I thought, “which is just the amount of time I need to quickly browse the bookstores.”
I had planned on spending hours and hours and hours in Stratford, but I did not like the thought of even temporarily being cut off from the way that I had come, and I felt a self-imposed rush to leave as soon as possible. Never in my life had I ever felt alarmed or trapped or cornered until I got a zebra and learned what captivity and force and trapping looks like to him. Just knowing the road block was there gave me goosebumps and a clenched jaw. Sura also flares his nostrils and his veins begin to pop up under his skin.
It’s a terrible feeling. But there was no point in trying to get out right then.
I tried very hard to concentrate in the bookstores, but I couldn’t. The day was not going the way I had envisioned, and the cozy, mysterious bookstores I’d imagined were drafty and had too many predictable book club airport novels. I wanted to ask the store clerks what they’d heard about the weather, but I was afraid to ask, so instead, I asked if they had books on dreams or “Clan of the Cave Bear” or anything by L.M. Montgomery, and they didn’t.
All the other books—and there were so many—looked oddly unfriendly to me. The ones I’d usually be attracted to—the dusty, forgotten ones in the corners or tucked in next to the floor, I could barely pretend to notice. I didn’t want to open any of them, admire their covers, feel their pages, and linger between shelves to swallow their scent.
That’s about as uncharacteristic of me as not having a horse blanket in my car.
I had to get out of Stratford.
On the way back to my jeep, I passed a lady who was so bundled up, I could barely see her wild eyes and she was walking like a mummy, with her arms propped well up in front of her from the layers upon layers of clothing and down coats wrapped around her chest.
My stomach turned. This was not a good sign.
I began to pull out of town, and I thought about getting gas just in case I spent the night in a snowbank, but even 5 minutes seemed like way too much time to spare. I imagined that getting back to the cottage would be a matter of beating the police with their roadblocks. Every single car chase movie I’d ever seen flashed before my eyes, so obviously every moment counted and it was shame I didn’t have a pair of aviators to wear.
However, after finding that every major road leading out of town was closed and watching other drivers have meltdowns as they came to the same realization, I decided I’d better get gas and think about whether or not I could handle the proposition of being stuck in Stratford for the night, knowing Gabriel was alone and stuck at the cottage.
The gas station was total chaos. People were shouting and honking, and I just shook my head thinking this is why I could never live in a city. But it was more than that. This was NOT the Canada I knew. Instead, the situation was exactly like America, and that was a devastating revelation.
I had to walk inside to pay for the gas, and I was hoping there would be some wise old Canadian man behind the counter who would be unimpressed by all this drama and simply point to the fastest way out of town. Instead, there was a girl just a little older than me with blue hair and three cartoon stars tattooed from her neck to her ear, though only two of them were colored in. I stared at them for a moment, trying to figure out why.
“That’ll be $45.90”
As I handed her my credit card, I said “could you tell me which roads aren’t closed?”
“You’re not getting out tonight, sweetheart, so don’t even think about it.”
This was not what I wanted to hear, but I felt my mind prickle at the thought of a challenge…a dare.
“There has to be a way,” I said gently, and then I hesitated, “…I have a dog. I have to get home to him tonight.”
I was so aware at how lame that sounded and I felt my cheeks flush, but it was the only excuse I could think of that might justify my desperation. And determination.
“You’re not the only one, sweetheart. School buses are still trying to figure out how to get kids home. How do you think those kids feel sitting at their desks hours and hours after school is out?”
“I was homeschooled, so….” That’s what I wanted to say because this girl was not answering my question and neither her nor I had anything to do with school buses.
I had just devoured an entire series of TEDtalks on compassion, understanding, and world peace the night before, so I took a step back from the counter to think about this for a moment. Arguing with her wasn’t going to do any good, but none of the lecturers had said anything about handling compassion when the rest of the world turns on you.
It was then that I spotted a rack of Ontario maps. I slunk to the back corner of the store and quickly selected the map with the most visible backroads. As I returned to the counter to pay, I wondered if the girl would pick up on what I was planning to do and take offense.
There was a man ahead of me. A local. So he was in no real hurry to move aside and he seemed to relish in everyone else’s frantic displacement.
“It’s gettin’ pretty bad out there, eh?” I heard him say.
“It wasn’t just an hour ago that people were coming in here saying there were dead bodies all over the highway and blood on the snow,” the girl at the counter replied. Within the close proximity of the store, I saw every single shopper look up from their selection of chips or pop to absorb that image.
“Okay,” I thought, “this isn’t the zombie apocalypse.”
I set the map down on the counter as the man left disturbingly uplifted by the news of dead bodies and blood on the highways. He must really love Stratford and Shakespeare…and Noyes.
“I’ll take this one, please.”
“You know, if you’re caught on a closed road, it’s an automatic $300 fine, plus 3 points on your license, and if you get in a crash, insurance won’t pay for it.”
I can’t say I didn’t weigh my options for a second, but defying the law was actually not in my immediate plans, and as the girl finished reciting me my rights, her voice died a bit as she became distracted by the technical difficulty at hand.
“This map won’t scan….why won’t it scan?”
She glanced at the crowd of people 3 yards from the glass doors, half of whom were tromping their way in, seemingly on a mission for coffee.
“You know what? It’s on me. Just be safe, eh?”
Compassion. Maybe it exists after all.
Though, as I headed for my car, a man yelled at me for walking where he was going to turn around, so maybe it doesn’t.
I slammed my jeep door shut and pulled open the map as I watched more and more cars slow down on the streets, completely bewildered, while rolling down their windows to yell at each other for being in the way, even though the right way to be was not clear. Behind me, a car honked loudly, for I was still parked in front of the gas pump, and he wanted in.
After I moved out of the way, I watched a middle-aged man across the street honk at an old lady as she tried to navigate the slush, with her black leather purse swinging dangerously in the clenched hand she had outstretched for balance. Apparently, she was taking too long. Meanwhile, a big SUV pulled out in the middle of the street to purposely block any cars in front of him from allowing cars in the other direction to occasionally duck in and turn around.
I decided I no longer had faith in humanity.
So I dialed my mom knowing it would cost $10 for a minute of international calling, but sometimes, that’s the price you pay for your mom to tell you what to do.
I was shocked to hear her say “Honey, there’s not much I can do” and then we got cut off.
WHAT IS THE WORLD COMING TO?!
Maybe this WAS the zombie apocalypse.
Just as I was about to burst into tears, my mom called back and said, “Get gas, get a map and take the backroads. Stop at every single gas station if you have to and ask directions. Call me if you need me, and I’ll track you online. Where do I go for that? Google?”
I knew I liked her. 🙂
So off I went, freshly minted with mom confidence and starting with the direction that looked the least like a blizzard, and seemingly therefore, less likely to where a policeman would have made it with a roadblock. Canadians, unlike Americans, do get their priorities straight, even in emergencies.
I can’t say it wasn’t a little gut wrenching to drive in the opposite direction of my dog and where I wanted to be, but hey, at least I was driving. At least I was getting out of town.
Backroads can be such a guessing game, and I made plenty of questionable turns when I saw flashing lights in the distance. Meanwhile, the wind remained steady and the temperature plummeted. I wondered if the pony was warm enough, and a little pang of sadness ached behind my eyes because I wished I could have gone back the way I had come, so I could check on him, and perhaps leave the owners a note that read “Please please please sell me your adorable pony.”
I found myself behind a semi for awhile, and after 10 miles across snowy uncharted territory, that empty trailer bed had become an old dependable friend. Eventually we parted ways, and I was on my own again. Heading west, I was traveling at about the same rate as the sunset, and for a half hour, I watched as great fluffs of color collided with deep, dark storm clouds, imparting a sense of awe and fear and humility…and the persistent urge to pull over and take a picture (so I did).
Finally, the time came to turn north, and darkness soon fell. About an hour into the northern trek, a snowy gust let up and I was surprised to see a blurry stream of headlights behind me. For a second, I was embarrassed and thought perhaps I had been going too slow, but then I realized that those cars were following me. I began to slow down when I could tell some were having trouble keeping up.
A leader. So this is what it felt like to be a leader in the thick of chaos and emergency.
I liked it.
One by one, cars began to take alternate various turnoffs as we got closer to the shore.
Eventually, I was on my own again.
It had been 3 hours since I’d left Stratford, and I only had 15 kilometers to go before reaching the cottage. The roads were remarkably clear, and I felt my jaw loosen a bit. I blinked for the first time in perhaps 3 hours.
I pulled up to the cottage and found Gabriel at the door, faithfully waiting for me and completely unaware there had been any trouble. I texted my mom to tell her I was alive, and she suggested I kiss the map and then leave it inside so we can get it framed.
I kissed Gabriel a thousand times over, searched the cabinets for something to quiet my grumbling stomach, but soon got lost over instagram instead because I just had to see how the pictures of that pony turned out.
I think they turned out pretty good.