Return to articles

Shake hands with the backwoods

By Michelle Elrick

It has been nine months now that I've been 4x4-free, though I can't say I exactly feel liberated. In the city, life without a vehicle has been relatively convenient, but here on the outskirts of Hope, British Columbia, I'm really feeling the dog's blisters.

It is early summer, late evening, and the dog and I are traveling alone to an abandoned acreage on the Coquihalla River where the novel I am writing is set. Friends dropped us off at the remote Exit 183, leaving us to navigate the final two kilometers on foot. I tighten the straps of my backpack and start off: "Just two kilometers, 20 minutes, half hour tops. We'll get there with enough daylight to pitch the tent."

Whistle, whistle. "Come on girl." I look back at the dog and realize optimism alone may not get us there. She is hobbling on three legs, her face a mixed grimace of pain and loyalty. I thought her paws had recovered from a three-hour excursion alongside my bike earlier in the week, but evidently I am wrong.

I dig through my pack for a pair of socks and pull them onto her front legs. Progress is slow. Every minute or less I stop to pull up her socks. Daylight fades to the gray of dusk and semi-trailer trucks barrel past us on the winding, unlit road. Suppressed questions of my sanity ring like a mantra to the rhythmic slapping of my flip-flops.

We round a bend and there is still no sign of our destination. I look down at the dog: she has lost both of her socks. I look over at the riverbank beside the road: it is steep, rocky and not tentable. I look ahead into the gathering darkness: no sign of the pink ribbon that marks the entrance to the acreage. I am not the type to admit defeat, but any fool knows when it's checkmate.

We turn back, sockless and cursing. An hour later, we are camped across the highway from Exit 183, next to a bonfire pit piled high with cases of empties. I watch the stars as I listen to my dog licking her feet and the lulling noise of highway traffic. Feeling the weight of immobility, I sedate myself with fantasies of driving.

As is often the case, the situation looks better in the morning. Clear skies and flickering green leaves greet me through the screen of my tent. I pack up and we relocate to a gentle, sprawling section of the nearby river. I hop boulders to a rocky sandbar and recline against the back of a good stone, water pulling around both sides of silence.

Every ulterior research motive of mine slips into oblivion as I soak in the uncontainable beauty of the Coquihalla River valley.

Hope continually outwits me. Every time I try to master it, it masters me. There is no way I can qualify this day as better or worse than the day I intended to have, but I am feeling privileged to be interacting with the environment on a more honest, fair level - a level akin to a handshake - with no engines or B.F. Goodrich All-Terrains up my sleeve.

It gets me thinking about what it means to be liberated. If liberty really is an SUV made by Jeep - with its promise of conquering the backwoods, crossing creeks and dodging boulders - then I definitely don't have it. But if liberty is the freedom to be present in the forest for the distance of a road - the freedom to be present for the chance perfections of a setting day, then it is mine more so than ever before.