25th August 1999
After a big greasy breakfast I made a fruitless search for a souvenir for Toby. For Christina, in keeping with the Doug Webber motif, I bought a copy of his wife's cookbook, Blueberries and Polar Bears.
I was the only one who wasn't going to ride the 17hour train to Thompson, and so I left the others wandering around in the featureless streets of Churchill while I shared a cab to the airport. The cab driver was a shaven headed woman, who when asked by my fellow passenger "Why the new do?", said matter-of-factly "Cancer", and kept on talking as if nothing had happened (these people are tough in these parts).
The airport was full of mostly Indians heading further north and tourists or workers heading south. I kept to myself and began writing more of this journal on the plane. I arrived in Winnipeg where the weather was still summer, picked up my bags I had left a week earlier in left luggage, and boarded another flight to Minneapolis. My Canadian adventure was over.
The Mid-Life Canoe Club
The trip home took two and a half days, almost one third of the actual journey down the river. I used this time to reintroduce myself to modern life, a bit like the decompression of a diver coming up to the surface.
In my newly unemployed state, the cheapest flight took me from Winnipeg to Minneapolis to Cincinnati and finally to Gatwick. Plenty of time to kill.
In Minneapolis I stayed right next to the Mall of America, the world's largest. I went there on foot, which involved crossing six lanes of traffic and a parking lot the size of my home town. I was there in search of some things to make me smell better and stop itching. They certainly had that, and more.
I ended up wandering around aimlessly in this monument to excess. Depending on the shop it seemed to be staffed like a UN Conference on Development: a few Somalis at this shop, some Koreans down the way, smiling Filipinos at a Japanese restaurant and scowling Hispanic cleaners (who could blame them-what a Sisyphean task).
The ubiquitous Gap People who look like their Limited counterparts who resemble the Abercrombie and Fitch folk who are like Banana Republic citizens who are clones of the Old Navy crowd who copy Nike aficionados were both workers and customers, indistinguishable from each other except for their joint religion of buying and selling the same image.
And boy were there lots of them.
The food, however, was varied, ethnic, good, and cheap. I had some blackened Cajun fish, jambalaya, sauteed cabbage, and a drink for five bucks.
My one abiding memory was asking a girl in a Williams and Sonoma shop if she knew where some other store was. Understandable in a place of this size she had no idea. I then told her I thought it was in the North Sector. Did she have any idea which sector she was in? A blank stare. No idea, even though she worked there.
Having just emerged from eight days of checking my compass, watching the sun's position, ticking off way points, and wondering what the hell we would do if one or more canoes sank and we had to walk out, I realised just how far we have come as humans but how much we have forgotten as individuals in a cosseted world. The survival instinct is dulled by the banality of modern life.
When I arrived in Gatwick a day and a night later, Christina and Toby both said I looked like a survivor. My beard was white (it got a big thumbs down from both) and I had lost about six pounds (I only weigh 169 to start with). Gone the spare tire (and good riddance).
In spite of my showers I smelled a bit, and the wet cotton (remember that!) in my dry bag was festering away.
But the welcome I received and the satisfaction mixed with relief of having made it in one albeit leaner piece made it all seem worthwhile.
The Mid Life Canoe Club indeed. Mission accomplished!
On This Mid Life Thing
There really is something to this mid life crisis thing. I have had plenty of time to reflect on it and I have decided I can best explain it by thinking of life as walking up a seesaw. When you are young, and up until your middle age, you can only climb. And since you only climb, you don't really think about the process. Of course sometimes you slip and fall, but because the gradient is steep you just pick yourself up and resume your daily steps onward and upward.
Suddenly though as you near the middle years which are like the fulcrum of the seesaw, one step forward makes you lose your balance and you can head abruptly downward. Relatively speaking, this very unstable period lasts a very short time, but it is unnerving, even terrifying. You more or less have to jettison everything you have learned and adapt to a new reality. Hopefully you inch your way forward and become comfortable with the inevitability of this new situation, the slow descent to the latter years of your life. Or else you fall, and hard.
Watching Dexter in action had given me a new perspective on this process.
I read a good quote which said that at twenty you don't care what the world thinks of you, at thirty you worry a lot about what the world thinks of you, and at forty you discover that it wasn't thinking of you at all.
It is this combination of instability and the realisation that you are alone in this crapshoot of life that may bring on a crisis from what is, when seen from afar, only the natural order of things. What goes up will always come down. Believe that, and accept it.
The Mid Life Canoe Club was, for me in any case, a watershed event. No one died. No one got hurt except for minor cuts, mosquito bites, and sore muscles. We saw a polar bear, shivered a little, had to improvise a bit and make a few decisions to avert what might have been ticklish situations.
We got along, had a bellyful of laughs, sang and reminisced, and did the obligatory bonehead move or two. We all came from different situations and backgrounds, and had differing skills and abilities, each with something unique to offer.
And though we didn't do anything earth shattering, didn't push ourselves to the limits of human endurance or break a world record, we did achieve something important both as individuals and as a team--something that will endure. For a few days in a northern wilderness, we made some memories and learned some lessons about life, about ourselves, and the world in which we live that will last us the remainder of our time on this remarkable planet.