Retirement has many benefits I suppose, but one of them is the ability to escape from, well, Retirement. I don’t mean an idle wander from the banalities of métier and purpose, but rather the flight from the routine that seems to surface after the handshake and the gold watch. But escape to what, exactly…? Sometimes freedom itself is a cage –a candy store in the Hotel California, as it were.
I felt the need for a change, both of scenery and of pleasures, so I decided to flee from the protective bosom of mountains to the wide flat abdomen of the prairies. Alberta seemed a reasonable start: it’s the next province over in a whole string of them, and it shares our mountains -the unpainted side of the fence.
And yet to reach the other side and complete the escape is to negotiate a labyrinth -a rat in a maze. A random set of deep, green passageways lined by tall, glowering, protective walls guards each gate to freedom. Egress is not bought cheaply, nor with a guaranteed right of return. Absence is an exile whose only reward is a renewed appreciation of what has been left behind. And the thin tissue of the new reality beyond the windshield is too soon ripped by memories. The gift is evanescent and easily doubted; it verges on the unreal, as unreachable as a dream -not disappointing, really, just unassimilable. An untouchable hologram.
The mountains were a reassuringly three-dimensional world only hinted at from the coast –four dimensional if you count the time taken to creep through the unnamed, heavily treed rock canyons, trusting in the ever curving yellow line like Dorothy. But escape is hope; arrival is elusive –when does an approach end? When does the gerund become the noun? To linger is merely to toy with another journey. Postpone another escape…
I had decided to visit the Badlands of Alberta –a riverine trench carved into an otherwise flatland country where almost everywhere not there, is similar –dare I say identical? It is a two dimensional contrast to the mountain labyrinth and as I travelled like a line on an unending sheet of paper, I felt as if I were an ant on an infinite table seeking an entrance to the horizon, yet feeling it recede as fast as I approached. There were no believable ups or downs -just over-theres. Progress was unmarked except for telephone poles, or power lines marching off into the distance as if there was actually someone there to notice them, to greet them -someone who expected them to arrive.
I learned to read things that stuck up from the horizon –reminders of the dimensions I’d left behind. Telephone poles that approached the road ahead like serrated, stationary dinosaurs, heralded a crossroad with some numerically meaningless name that I could roar past and acknowledge as I might a passing a face in a crowd who happened to glance my way. They were welcome distractions from the eternal, browning crops that painted everything between the odd roofs that peeked up timidly, or the solitary, lonely grain silos that stood like prairie dogs on guard, lest I stray too close…
I felt continually watched, harassed by hidden things that chose not to reveal themselves –farmers hiding within stationary rusting tractors; eyes behind curtains too far away to distinguish; hands inside distant gloves uncertain whether to wave or clench. An odd feeling.
It was a drive under bi-dimensional clouds, speckled by occasional bursts of a pancake sun and omnivorous heat that threatened suffocation -a turning of the page by some unthinking reader. There was no dimension that included Time, because it did not pass –it could not. Time lives in expectation –in the hopes of achievement- and when this is lost or forgotten on the journey –when there are no markings to chart progress- its passage is an abstraction. It exists only in relation to something. But here, on the prairie, there was no something. No family of familiars –just a vague memory of an unnecessary addendum, an unexpected roof, or a maverick tree -real only in retrospect. As real as the horizon -or at least as real as the end of a rainbow; Time lived there; waved from there; but was as illusory as the pot of gold.
So, I do not know how long I drove; the fuel gauge was my only clock. There were no towns, just trucks that passed like tornadoes tearing at my wheels, sucking the metal from my protective cage. What cars there were, slipped past quietly, afraid perhaps of attracting unwanted attention from the behemoths that terrorized the asphalt line. You learn obedience here; to survive is to disappear safely over the horizon -the place I longed to reach: the el Dorado. There, other beings like myself lived their troglodyte existence, protected from the infinite prairie prowling just above their riparian trough: the badlands that already sounded like an oxymoron…
I sought the World Heritage site -Dinosaur Provincial Park- but already hope was fading. I feared it was another Brigadoon that only reappeared once an aeon -if it ever had. An Atlantis created to lure people onto the endless surface –stories of a hidden Eden; stories told by old, toothless people with shaky hands, under the sun-bleached prairie crops. Believed only by children, too young to know the words.
But even when I saw the sign and turned to follow another line, my faith was shaky. It is all too easy to succumb to prairie apostasy, I fear. There were no trees along the line, no dimensions to sell the lie. I was seeking yet another receding horizon with no edge. Another fable.
And yet, there is an edge sometimes, and what it hides cannot escape. Like Narnia, it lies just beneath the wardrobe’s door. And suddenly, as the road descended like an elevator, another world arose, mushroom-like, beneath my eyes. A sparsely coloured hobbit kingdom of jagged hills and hoodoos, mounds and trails, and people dwarfed by the grandeur of this unexpected kingdom. Up and down returned, and even the phoenix Time peered at me through the buried treasure of dimensions.
But I was reminded of England’s Lake District, or New Zealand’s Fiordland –Disneylands both: Edens writ small -purpose built almost; glimpses of our heart’s desire, but as evanescent as a Gypsy camp. This was no home away from home; it was a film set –not meant to be the journey’s end.
And yet, at least it was a world of things, of places. Of volume. But even there you could not stay too long; even there the prairie called. I could feel it sighing as I left.
But, deprived of things again, I got lost on the way back. I suppose I should never have tried to leave my home; there is no pleasure dome of Kubla Khan outside. We must all learn to live within the cage assigned -its open door leads only to another cage.