Bittersweet Sands Sample Chapter

The Road

The winter sun was hard in the rear view mirror as the truck chased its shadow north. The music played, the tires hummed, trees and farms passed; my world became snow-covered fields sliding behind me like the engine’s rumble.

I left the outskirts of Edmonton around noon, heading north. Once I saw that unbroken horizon beyond that crack in the windshield a shiver of freedom washed over me.

All those telephone lines, white lines on the road, tar streaks on the asphalt, everything disappears into a fuzzy blackness far out in the distance. I imagined getting so small I saw my body going inside that dot deeper and deeper. I saw where the road should end, but I knew I would never reach it. Sometimes the dot disappeared around a corner or down a hill, but it always came back when the highway straightened. It would swing away for a moment, teasing.

Makes you wonder. Would that be like out in a spaceship, going into a black hole? Getting darker and darker and smaller and smaller until you were so dark and so small you joined with all the black into a cosmic nothing?

There isn’t anything sweeter than the rumble of eight cylinders and four tires on an open road. The sound sank deep inside my heart, like being spellbound by thunderous music in the front row of a ZZ Top concert.

You have to know that at the other end of those chrome tailpipes there’s a thousand pounds of metal that means business. When I touched the gas, an angry sound like a Gatling gun rattled.

I played the CDs loud. The songs were raw, dripping of moonshine, smoky bars and callused vocal chords. I sang at the top of my lungs the songs with four beats to the bar, not much different than beating on a hollow log but I’m going north on Highway 63, I’m going to McMurray.

Double lanes take the pressure off. Everybody’s going the same way, the same speed. It’s funny, you inch up on a car ahead, and it seems to go faster. When I passed, I checked the people out: old ladies, businessmen, kids asleep in the back seat, farmers picking farm-dirt from their noses. Once my truck passed them, it seemed to slow down, even though the cruise control had never moved. It’s funny.

The double highway ends too soon.

The truck rumbled past a field near Newbrook where workers have nailed hardhats on top of the fence posts. There’s a mile of different coloured hard hats, each put there from people that have no more need of them, and want the world to know it.

The oilfields are easy to find, just get gas at Grasslands and turn left at the huge green sign that reads:

FORT McMURRAY.

Slowly, that black spot got bigger. It spread along the cracked windshield and the horizon. I turned the headlights on.

My world became the windshield, the green and red circles of the dashboard, the music, the heater, the steering wheel.

I passed the place where several years ago I had seen people running beside the highway, the black underside of a car in the tall green grass, and a splash of black-red blood on the edge of the asphalt. I remembered the overturned car and the crowds rubbernecking, and a woman in a black blouse and bare white arms holding her mouth in horror from something in the grass.

I see that woman’s revulsion-filled face every time I pass that spot.

There are a lot of places like that on Highway 63. Time drifted like smoke in the wind. The humming of the road became my world. All the miles folded one into another sliding behind my truck, going into that same good-bye.

A car passes doing at least 130Kms, then another and another. A four-car convoy of testosterone dripping mouth breathers who figure if they travel in packs the cops can only catch the last one. I moved over and rode the rumble strip and let the knuckle draggers pass.

There’s nothing wrong with Highway 63 if it only connected two isolated farming towns. If farmers were the only traffic Highway 63 had, it would be a showpiece. But that road doesn’t just connect two sleepy towns in northern Alberta. Highway 63, and a lesser extent Highway 85, funnel all the traffic from an oilfield the size of the state of Florida into a couple of narrow two lane highways out into to the outside world.

I drove, and drove, through forests of skinny trees with tufts on top of them, like pubic hair on a stick. Woods and vague outlines of lonely farm houses the only scenery, black on grey.

Hours I drove. I moved my arms, surprised at their stiffness. I wiggled my toes, and looked at my hands on the steering wheel. They were hands that pulled things, held things and every once in a while, punched things. The skin of my hands are covered in scars. Once on a boring afternoon waiting for equipment that never arrived, with the sun hitting my hands and making shadows of the veins, bones and hair I had idly tried to count the scars. I had given up when it became obvious that like craters on the moon there were so many different sizes of welding scars that counting them all is impossible.

At first I thought ‘it’s an illusion’ but an orange glow defined the night’s horizon. I’d seen them before, those domes of orange in the night marking out small towns along the Yellowhead Highway like popcorn on a string.

I had driven through those small towns, catching flashes of people sitting in their living rooms. I wondered what they were thinking. Probably wondering where that loud truck was going. In Grasslands a couple walked together, their heavy gloved hands holding. I passed back into the night, my eyes adjusting to the lonely black.

But this glow was different. The whole horizon shone like a giant prairie stubble fire, and I was driving into the middle of it.

I shivered. I was doing something, going somewhere. I was entering McMurray proper.

I passed a ‘Welcome To’ sign, and a turnout that I’d never stopped at. There’s that hill that always pops my ears, a street sign, a red light. The hospital on the right is massive, its sheer size a warning.

After hours of forest, my truck was suddenly driving through lights and stainless steel high-rises. I stopped at a stoplight, the truck idling, my body shaking from the road. I had driven through the black and came out into the brittle lights so vibrant that the buildings shimmered orange.

In Fort McMurray half-ton trucks drive faster. People walk upright with clear eyes towards some near objective. They are younger, stronger, in a hurry. Energy squeezes from the cold air blanketing the city.

People don’t lounge in the oilsands, there’s a Monday morning urgency to their movements. The work goes on. Winter isn’t the pause it is in the south. Snow is bulldozed, huts are erected, creased orange tarps climb to amazing heights covering the sides of stainless steel towers. Lights in formation pierce the black and orange so the refineries look like Halloween decorations gone mad.

Padded workers disappear into their bright orange tents, re-appearing only to shuffle penguin-like into other huts.

The work goes on. The still eternal cold torments Fort McMurray and the refineries, warping sounds, shattering pipes, cracking engines.

The work goes on.

I held the sticky steering wheel and looked over the neon city, an orange nebula in the middle of a silent forest black as tar.

I had arrived.