Driving to Newfoundland

By Neil McKinnon

old blue van

The dream had come true. We were retired, the kids were gone, the condo sold, our furniture in storage and we had a new-used camper van. Our leisure years would be spent savoring the delights of the open road—the first delight, a summer-long excursion across Canada ending in Newfoundland. We spread sleeping bags on the floor for our final night in our empty home.

“Good night, dear. Tomorrow we leave Calgary, outward-bound and fancy free.”

My wife, Mildred, is good at hiding enthusiasm. “I’m going to miss my studio,” she said. “There’s no room in the van to spread out my art.”

“You’re mistaken, precious. The whole outdoors will be your studio. You’ll paint an airplane every day.”

“It’s plein aire, not airplane.”

“Nevertheless, you’ll love it.”

“I like it here. We can see the river, wildlife and birds from our living room. It’s perfect.”

“Nonsense,” I replied. “Think of the freedom, camping, sitting by an open fire.”

She gave me a goodnight salute with her middle finger and went downstairs.

***

I’d bought the van some weeks earlier. “Come and see,” I shouted from the driveway.

She came to the door. “What is it and how much?

I whispered the number.

“You spent half a year’s salary on that?”

“It’s a bargain, precious. No more mortgage. With this baby, we can live anywhere and all it costs is campground fees.”

Mildred had anticipated a retirement spent painting in her studio but I argued for making nature her work space. We’d had conversations where the temperature rose above what is considered safe on a hot day. Eventually, her resistance eroded and she agreed to “try it once.”

***

We woke to a howling wind on the first morning of our new life. Our street resembled an outtake from Nanook of the North. Spring had disappeared beneath a carpet of frozen sleet.

Carolyn, the real estate agent arrived at ten to get the keys. We were fortunate in our choice of realtors. “I love your condo,” she’d said. “I’ll buy it myself,” . . . and she had. She laughed at some private joke as we stepped into the screaming blizzard. “Good luck on your trip,” she chortled.

We stopped at a nearby greasy spoon for breakfast. I ordered for both of us and sipped lukewarm coffee while Mildred delved into the morning paper.

“We did it,” I said.

She stared through the window at the icy chaos. “Wonderful. I can’t wait to start using outdoor toilets.”

I detected a spot of resentment in the way she slammed her cup . . . and perhaps a tinge of indignation in the way her boot collided with my shin under the table. Eventually, a waitress scattered runny eggs and limp bacon in front of us, but the arrival of breakfast didn’t cheer my wife. “Oh, my God!” she said.

“It’s okay, precious. We’ll never have to eat here again.”

“It’s not that. Listen!” She read from the paper.

Alberta Man Wins Lottery

Jeremy P., a local artist has become a multimillionaire courtesy of last night’s Lotto 649. Laughing at his good fortune, he commented, “In a few years, I was planning to retire to the South Seas to paint. Now I can do it immediately.”

“Someone hit the jackpot, so what?” I asked.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “I went steady with Jeremy in art school. He asked me to marry him and I said no. I wonder if his offer still stands.”

“That was years ago, precious. He could never be as romantic as I. Who else would risk frostbite to escort you to such a fine establishment?”

Despite my flippancy, I realized that I had stumbled in the romance race. We were homeless on a morning that was unfit for polar bears while my wife’s ex-suitor was a multimillionaire, an accomplished artist and heading to a warm climate. My interest in art is confined to Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, and the only warm climate I know is Saskatchewan in August.

We abandoned the eggs and left. The roads were treacherous. I inched my way out of the city to a local campground. Mildred stared at the deserted site. “We gave up the house for this?”

“It’ll be fine. The van has a heater. We’ll be warm and toasty while we’re waiting for the weather to clear.”

We parked and Mildred started an early lunch.

“Isn’t this great,” I said. “It’s our own little world.”

She began banging the stove.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

She spoke slow, articulating each word. “The. Propane. Tank. Is. Empty.”

Our fare, that day, consisted of a bag of peanuts and a chocolate bar. Without propane, the heater didn’t work. Blankets and four layers of clothes made the temperature tolerable.

The sleet turned to snow and continued through the night. Next morning, I ripped slabs of ice off the van while Mildred spoke to herself in tongues. After a breakfast of leftover peanuts, we crept down the highway to buy propane.

Suddenly water appeared. It dripped on our clothes, soaked the groceries and ran on the floor. The pump had frozen and cracked. While it was being repaired, we checked into the nearest motel to wait for warm weather and dry roads.

***

Our journey began on a bright morning in early May. The first revelation—prairie campgrounds don’t open until June—so water, electricity and sewer weren’t available. I pointed out that these were minor details compared to the joys of experiencing new vistas. Mildred pointed out that we hadn’t left the province, so the vistas weren’t all that new.

Soon the rain started. Although not a blessing, it proved scriptural—continuing for forty days and forty nights. “A higher power must be watching over us,” I joked and then ducked as a coffee cup detached itself from Mildred’s hand and made its way the length of the van. She then recited a sermon composed entirely of words found only in the bible and on washroom walls.

We splashed through Saskatchewan and Manitoba, spending days in wet empty campgrounds. In northern Ontario, I left the van door open. We were invaded by thousands of black flies who squatted in every nook and most of the crannies. “They’ll eat us alive,” Mildred wailed.

“Don’t worry, precious. We’ll be okay under the blankets.” I downed a double scotch, pulled a sheet over my face and dozed off secure in the knowledge that I was bite-proof.

One of the consequences of being my age and male is that I have started to grow. Like a new mushroom bursting from soil, a saucer-shaped expanse on the top of my skull has erupted from the surrounding hair. A friend of mine claims the bare spot is actually the solar panel that powers the sex machine. Mildred disagrees. She says the hair on my head has simply migrated to my ears. Unfortunately, the sheet wasn’t quite long enough and during my scotch-induced sleep the black flies chewed into my solar panel. That, a small hangover and Mildred opining that perhaps our visitors were actually termites did little to contribute to my morning equanimity.

However, my indestructible good nature prevailed. “Why don’t we spend a few days in the city while my head heals?” I suggested.

She jumped at the idea. I set the steering wheel toward Toronto. An hour down the road, the motor coughed and died. “We’ll have to call a tow truck,” I said. Mildred stared straight ahead and didn’t answer.

After an hour, the mechanic emerged from under the hood. “The bad news is that your van is a write-off,” he said. “The good news is that I can take it off your hands.”

He named a price which didn’t quite cover our bus ride back to Alberta.

***

Days later, we were in Calgary perusing real estate ads. “Look!” Mildred exclaimed. “Our condo is listed and there’s an open-house this afternoon. Let’s go.”

“We want our place back,” she said as we came through the door.

Carolyn looked up in surprise. “You understand that house prices have skyrocketed since you left,” she said.

“I don’t care,” Mildred said. “I need my studio.”

To make a long story short, we used all of our savings on a down payment and took on a larger mortgage than we’d left behind a few weeks before. Carolyn seemed happy—she left immediately on a Caribbean vacation. To make ends meet, I have returned to my old job but I’m not downhearted. My wife is happily painting and I’ve discovered why we failed to see eye to eye. Recently, I overheard her answer a friend who had enquired about the size of our van. “It had as much space as a small jail cell,” she stated.

My light bulb went on. I’m now setting money aside every payday. Mildred’s birthday is coming and I intend to surprise her with a larger van. Size really does matter. We’ll get to Newfoundland yet.

The End

 

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