Alden Wallace Mackay // Contributor
The land between the Rockies and Ontario is like one vast yellow sea, so flat on the horizon you can see the sky falling with the curve of earth. You can see weather systems on the horizon, grain silos and fallen barns, and you can drive for hours along gravel highways without seeing another car. It’s harsh land, this country, and a lot of it. But in my mind this only meant that there was hardly anywhere to camp. I spent nights sleeping in parking lots in towns that still had snow on the ground in June, or else I slept in my car parked alongside wheatfields. Finally, I decided that I’d had enough of the Prairies and in one day I drove clear through Manitoba into Ontario.
When night fell, I arrived at Kenora, Ontario. I found Wi-Fi at a Tim Horton’s, googled ‘free campsites near me’ and found one about an hour north at Silver Lake. I took Highway 671, and as I drove I dreamt of spending a few days at this lake, reading and swimming and relaxing. I wasn’t even bothered by the fact that my gas tank was on reserve and my phone only had ten percent battery.
Well, I cut off the main road and down along an old settler’s trail which would lead to Silver Lake. The trail was very old—probably pre-confederation—and the car I was driving was a sedan. The whole way down I felt like I was on a boat in stormy weather. I could hear rocks scraping up against the underbelly and ferns and weeds brushing against the side doors. The Milky Way overhead was prominent now. My windows were down and the car was filling with bugs. After about forty minutes of driving the trail suddenly turned into sand. My boot was on the gas and the engine was revving hard, but I wasn’t going anywhere. I was stuck.
I packed a bag with whatever I thought I’d need for my very long walk back to Kenora and I left a note on the dash, should any curious soul pass by, explaining that this vehicle had not been abandoned. It took me over an hour just to walk back up to the main road, and the whole way up I shone my flashlight at the ground just past the ends of my boots. How long would I be walking for? Four hours? Six? I didn’t have any cell service either, just a cliff bar. It was a cold night in Northern Ontario, but I was sweating hard.
After about another hour, a truck came up the road and I waved it down. The driver slowed to a halt and rolled her window down only about a quarter of the way. Her daughter was in the passenger seat and they both studied me as if I were some alien creature.
“Yes?” she said.
“I’m having something of an emergency here,” I said, and quickly explained to them what had happened.
“Aw hell,” she said. “Get in.”
They were residents of Grassy Narrows, the terminus of Highway 671. They drove me to where they thought I could get cell service, and I was able to make a phone call to a towing company based in Kenora, but the operator told me that they wouldn’t do any towing this late at night. They said, “Call us back in the morning.” I felt defeated and I didn’t want to bother the women any longer, so I decided that I’d just go back to my vehicle and figure something out in the morning. It had been a long day.
“Do you have a gun?” said the driver’s daughter.
“I do not.”
“Well you know this is bear country, right?”
“Wolves, too. We just saw one on our way up.”
My throat got tight. My eyes were sweating. I had no idea there were bears in Ontario, let alone wolves. I thanked the women, said goodbye, then began my commute back down that old settler’s trail.
And I was very scared, more so now that my fears were rational. As I walked I heard snapping in the woods and shone my flashlight into the trees, throwing shadows at figments of my mania. I tried to keep my mind on nothing but the steps I was taking, but insanity was raging in my skull. There were times when I heard a second set of footsteps, but when I stopped to listen, so did they.
My flashlight flickered, then it died. And then I knew true darkness. All that remained was noise. The enormous din of insects, the calls of animals in the distance, the snapping of twigs in the trees. I walked on, thinking about each step I took.
That night, for the first time in my life, I prayed. I prayed to a god unknown, a god I didn’t believe in. I prayed for deliverance, and I made pledges. There’s humility in prayer, and even talking about prayer, but humility requires the amusement of somebody else, and that night I longed for company. I would’ve loved to be laughed at. I walked thoughtfully, careful not to trip on any roots, and when I made it to my vehicle I curled up on the back seat and instantly fell asleep.
In the morning I climbed a ridge and held my phone high over my head until I found a single bar of service. While swatting mosquitoes and scraping ticks from my ankles, I told the towing company operator all I knew. My phone died mid-conversation, and I waited three hours for somebody to arrive, wondering the whole time if the directions I gave were accurate.
In the end, of course, everything was fine. I got towed back up to the main highway and found someplace else to camp. Who knows what good my prayer did. Probably nothing, but maybe everything. The odds of birth, survival and wellbeing are incalculable, and in response to this uncertainty all one can do is be grateful. I never knew that I was a praying man, and it makes me wonder what else I don’t know about myself. I have tendencies to seek truth through experience, but after that night in Ontario, my desire for adventure would be satisfied for a long time.