Coast to Coast: Prejudice in the Flatlands

Alden Wallace Mackay // Columnist 
Karla Monterrosa // Illustrator

Like probably a lot of other people my age, I was looking for something to believe in. I think this is very common for people in their late teens—the desire for security and stability along the long road that awaits them. Some call it a pre-life crisis. I’d become obsessed with the idea of Truth, and I desperately searched for it in work, religion and relationships. But in the end I always felt empty and alone. I was going to university then and I had little time for soul searching. I felt trapped and I longed for adventure. 

        So I cooked up a scheme: a coast-to-coast Canadian road trip, alone, with no destination or stops in mind. Eat when I’m hungry, sleep when I’m tired, and camp only at free backcountry sites. If Truth was going to find me, I figured, then it would be on this trip. And I was ready, come what may. 

* * *

Well, I spent the first few weeks cruising around the foothills of interior BC, camping in green valleys, bathing in glacial flow and sharing sites with strangers. I’d been around these parts—Osoyoos, Castlegaar, Nelson, Cranbrook—when I was a snotnose—Osoyoos, Castlegaar, Nelson, Cranbrook—and of course it was different now that I was older and alone, but I still didn’t feel like I’d left home until I crossed the border into Alberta. 

        I slept a night in the parking lot of a Home Hardware in Canmore and in the frosty morning I watched rabbits hopping over railroad tracks. I saw a bald face of The Rockies dyed pink with dawn. As I drove on and passed more towns, the land around me eventually flattened and turned yellow. All along the shoulder of the highway I saw billboards informing me of the sin of abortion and my ultimate fiery resting place. But the skies were enormous and gorgeous, and men and women alike wore shitkickers and ten-gallon hats. I felt like my adventure had begun. 

        One ridiculously hot day in Calgary, I was cooking with a portable BBQ on the hood of my vehicle in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, when a stranger came by and asked what I was cooking. 

        “Breakfast.” 

        “A little late for breakfast, ain’t it?” 

        “Maybe.” 

        He was middle-aged, and wide around the middle. I don’t think he’d fallen on any good times lately. Part of his beard was yellow. After he saw my licence plate he asked where I’d come from. I gave him the Sparknotes remix. We chatted for a bit, and I wasn’t bothered. 

        Then he said, “You strike me as a fairly level-headed individual.” 

        “If you say so.” 

        “Are you a Christian?” 

        “No.” 

        He nodded. “But I can tell you’re searching. Don’t worry, you’ll find Him eventually.” 

        “I’ve done some searching,” I said, “but I’m not a Christian.” 

        “Well. You’re still young. I didn’t find Jesus myself until just recently. About five years ago…” And he proceeded to relate to me the story of his second birth. He said that he’d been an alcoholic, but now he only drank sometimes. “Jesus said you can drink a little, you know. Like how you can just get a buzz. Long as you don’t get drunk, eh?” 

        Time passed. I ate and listened to this stranger rambling on about our Lord and Saviour. I told him that I’d already read the Bible, but I didn’t find my Truth in there. I said, “How could I submit myself to something I don’t totally agree with? The scripture teaches to accept the Word literally, and there’s much in that book I can’t look past.” 

        “Maybe one day you’ll see the truth in it.” 

        “Are you telling me you agree with every word that was written in the bible?” 

        “Yes sir.” 

        “Sodom and Gomorrah?” 

        The man nodded gravely. “God has punished us all today with the AIDS pandemic for the sins of the gays.” 

        I blinked, then said, “That’s a pretty ass-ignorant thing to say.” 

        “Don’t get me wrong,” he continued, “I love the gays. I have gay friends. That’s why I want to help them.” 

        There was nothing I knew to say. His beliefs were rock solid, and not limited to homophobia. He spoke on how women ought to act when it comes to making the life of a man easier, “Get you a good woman who’ll keep you in shape,” and he said some pretty terrible things about people of color, telling me that since I was trying to live frugally I could take a bath down at the water park “like the Indians do”. He probably thought we were buddy-buddy because we were both white guys, but to me he was a miserable and hopeless manchild soon to die alone. 

        Like I said, I was younger at the time and I didn’t yet know of the harm of silence. Such was my logic: this person’s problems are not my responsibility. If I was a wiser and more patient man then I might’ve stuck around and tried to educate him, but all I did was pack up my BBQ and leave. And I regret this. 

        “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that. 

*      *      * 

It’s hard to believe that people like this actually exist if you’ve never seen them in person before. On the news they seem like they belong to another planet. How can somebody take stock in such hatred, in such a poor investment? How can they go their whole life without questioning the way things are in the world? The worst part is not just that people like this exist, but that they likely make up the majority. I don’t think that this man represents his religion or the city he was born in. I think that what he toils with is much deeper—a horrible belief system that stalks him like a shadow. 

        One’s beliefs run deep and it can be hard to question them sometimes, but when one avoids doing any self-examination whatsoever they run the risk of retreating into a sunken place of lonesome and hateful ignorance. I think meeting that stranger in Calgary helped me realize this and inspired me to continue on my search, wherever it should lead me. One thing was for certain: I definitely wasn’t home anymore. 

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