For my final night in Coquitlam, I was relegated to the basement “suite” occupied by Chuck and L. L’s aunt had come visiting from out-of-town, and I decided to do the gentlemanly thing and give up the spare room. In my own, somewhat twisted way, I had been looking forward to this night. Just me and my two best friends, in a good ol’ fashioned sleep-over. I was certain that after an hour or so, we’d have the slumber party vibe going and we’d stay up until the wee hours of the morn, talking about boys we like, giving each other make overs, and playing Truth Or Dare. When my mattress was laid out on the floor, I was getting all set to start the girltalk, but there was a flaw in bringing my dream to reality. After the tough day of being interviewed and teaching, L was pretty beat and just wanted to head straight to bed. When given the option of snuggling next to a beautiful woman or playing Truth Or Dare with me, Chuck chose the woman, and thus I was once again relegated to my own devices. I stayed up for about an hour, jotting down the day’s thoughts in my coil bound notebook, and then crawled onto my mattress. Tomorrow was to be a big day. Sunday was my final day. Sunday was the day I went home.
Chuck and L had set their alarm clock for bright and early, 9 AM, so they could get me to the airport on time. But, as I’ve already said, Chuck and L like their sleep. 9 AM, the alarm went off, and I jumped out of bed, and began getting dressed in the dark. But, from Chuck and L’s chamber, I could the disgusted grunts of someone not ready for the day, and a hand slamming down on the snooze button. OK, I thought, I’ll just wait this out. Give them their 9 more minutes. 9:09. Alarm went off. Disgusted grunt. Hand slamming snooze. Fine, I said, they can have a few more minutes. 9:18. Alarm. Grunt. Snooze. That’s the last time I was going to let that happen. 9:27. Alarm. Grunt. Snooze. I burst into their side of the room, screaming, “Mom! Dad! Wake up! Santa came!” After about another 15 minutes of me doing everything short of climbing into bed with them (and don’t think I didn’t consider it), I finally got them up. This was my last day, and there was still stuff to do.
With my hosts out of bed, I dragged them into the light. I had packed my bag the night before, and my backpack, stuffed full, was already sitting at the top of the stairs. I was ready. I gave Chuck a moment to finish waking up, and L a moment to visit with her aunt. As they were doing that, I began saying my good-byes to L’s family. True, my natural shy tendencies made me avoid them, but I liked them. My mind was elsewhere, though. When good-byes were said, we all piled into the car and set out to our first destination.
There was this place near L’s place that they had been promising to take me all week. Out back of a school, there was this secluded valley. Down at the bottom was this little babbling brook. It was high on Chuck and L’s list of things to show me, and I had been pressuring them to squeeze it in on this, the final day. We arrived at the school, and began the walk to the back. Along the way, I shared with Chuck and L some of my intricate revenge fantasies for my final day of work. Did you know that they didn’t know that there’s a song called Take This Job and Shove It? They wanted to show me so much, but there’s still a thing or two I can teach them. At the back of the school was this tiny, overgrown path that Chuck and L started leading me down. Soon, we were at the top of a steep embankment and, like a trio of mountain goats, began making our way down.
When we reached the water’s edge, I took a deep breath and looked around. This was a deep valley. The trees on either side just about blocked out the sky. There were no more traces of the surround buildings. The faint rush of water and the wind in the trees was just enough to drown out the sounds of the traffic. When you stepped into this valley, the city disappeared. I took another breath; my last breath of west coast air. L led us from rock to rock out into the brook. We ended on this large one, where we all sat for a moment, lost in our own thoughts, and had a brief conversation about life, love, and the meaning of it all. While we were all contemplating, I glanced over at L. Perched on that rock, staring down the water’s path, she seemed serene; at peace. This will always be my lasting image of L. But, enough of this. I had one more task to complete. We all came back to Earth, and made our way back to the car.
Every time we drove into Vancouver over the past few days, there was always one sight that caught my eye. It was an A&W. You might not find that impressive. There are hundreds of A&W’s in the country. But this one had captivated me. For you see, it was freakishly small. It was about the size of six phone booths. L said that it was nothing more than a drive through; a kitchen with a drive-up window. But, on one of our drives-by, I was sure I could see about two or three tables inside, making for a freakishly small dining room. It was just so small. I had to get a picture. We drove up to the A&W, and I pulled out my camera. Chuck and L opted to stay in the car, and I went across the street for a better picture. As I got the restaurant in view, I glanced over at the car. I couldn’t make out Chuck and L. I wondered what they were talking about. Was I the subject of conversation, or were they already planning their lives without me? I cleared my mind of questions and took my picture. With my final task in Coquitlam done, I headed back to the car. I had a plane to catch.
We headed off to Vancouver International Airport. L knew of an expressway, and we soon found ourselves zooming on the outskirts of the city. I glanced to my right, and saw what would probably be my last look at Vancouver. I could see the towing castles of glass and steel comprising its downtown skyscrapers. I could see mammoth bridge supports, rising high above the water and the vehicles they carried. I could see ships docked along the water’s edge, preparing to leave for ports unknown. I settled back and looked down the road. I began talking. I don’t remember what about. I just felt like I had to say something. As the drive continued, what I was saying soon degenerated into a mindless collection of song lyrics and rhetorical questions. I just had to say something.
The airport soon appeared on the horizon. I could see hangers lined up on the street we were driving down, each one housing some form of jumbo jet. I looked up to see several of those jumbo jets taking off and landing. This was different from Edmonton International. Whereas Edmonton’s airport is about a half-hour’s drive out of the city, Vancouver’s airport is an actual part of the city. Chuck and L’s plan was to drop me off, let me get checked in, then pick me back up, so they wouldn’t have to pay for parking. At first, I was opposed to this plan. There would be no large, Hollywood-style good-bye at the gate. Besides, what were we going to do for a half-hour before my boarding call? The many fast food restaurants outside of the airport’s gates assured me that yes, there were things to do outside of the airport. So, Chuck and L dropped me off, and I went inside to check in.
The departures terminal of the Vancouver International Airport is a daunting place. It’s a full blown mall, lined with all sorts of bars, booksellers, and gift shops. At first, I was somewhat lost. I looked at an incredibly long line, fearing that it would be the one I had to get in to. Luckily for me, that was the line for Air Canada, and I was flying WestJet. My confidence began to return as I followed the signs pointing to the WestJet counter. You’ll never get lost if you follow the signs. The WestJet counter area was currently undergoing renovations. Everything was in a clean, new white, with clear plastic drop cloths hanging from the ceiling. I got into the corral of velvet ropes, and thanked my lucky stars that the line was only three people long. In 10 minutes flat, I was all checked in with a window seat. And, I’d like to take a moment to thank the fine people at WestJet for such a quick check-in process.
With that out of the way, I went back outside to meet up with Chuck and L. They were pulling up just as I walked out the door. The Fates were truly on my side that day. I jumped back, pleased that I had conquered Vancouver International. Since it was getting to be around lunch time, we decided to go back to a Wendy’s that we had passed earlier. My final meal on the west coast would be greasy fast food I could easily get back home. Some how, it was appropriate. I met these two in university, and back then, eating out always meant one of the many fine fast food restaurants in Camrose.
Over Big Bacon Classics, we had our last conversation. I don’t remember what was said, but I remembered that they listened. I had to ask them one last time. I turned to them and asked if they were glad I came. They said yes. That completed the trip for me. Yes, I was glad I came. I got to hang out with my two best friends for one last time. I got to experience things I had never had the courage to try. And, to top it all off, I was on my own. For the first time since I finished at Augustana, I had a taste of independence again. Would I go again? Hell, yes. But, it’s a lot more fun with a friend. When our fries were finished, it was time to go. My plane was leaving in half an hour.
We stood in the parking lot of the Wendy’s. As L was about to get in the car, I screamed out, “Wait! If all you’re going to do is slow down and kick me out, this is my last chance to do this!” L turned and looked at me, and I threw my arms around her and gave her the biggest hug I’d ever given her. She returned the hug, and I held her in my arms for what would probably be the last time. When we were done, I stepped back, and looked at her. She almost radiated this light from behind her eyes, like she was some kind of angel. She looked at me, with those radiant blue eyes of hers, and it were as though she were staring straight into my heart. I could tell from that look that she knew who I was. For the briefest of moments, I considered kissing her. Nothing passionate; just a peck on the nose, like how I kiss my niece. I could imagine L and I having the conversation my niece and I always have: “Why did you kiss my nose?” “Because I love you.” “I love you too, Uncle Mark.” Only, to L, I’m just “Mark.” I decided not to, though. I was afraid I’d weird her out. I settled for my hug.
In a matter of moments, we were back at the departure terminal. I looked over at L, then at Chuck in the back seat, and wished aloud that I had some epic final words to say. L said I should put it in a column. I got out of the car, and looked back. Chuck jumped up, and, with that big, goofy, grin on his face, threw his arms around me. I returned the hug, and held him in my arms for what would probably be the last time. I stepped back and looked at him. This man; my brother, not by blood but by fate. This man, who knew all my deepest, darkest fears, and my loftiest hopes and dreams. This man, who for some unknown reason, understands me. Chuck climbed back into the car, and the pulled away. Chuck looked at me out the window, and flashed the Vulcan salute. I stood there for a moment, and watched them go. There was no time for tears, though.
Forging my sadness into confidence, I marched into the terminal and headed for my departure gate. I paid my airport improvement fee, and continued on to the security checks. I blew the mind of the young security guard when he asked me to empty my pockets and I dumped out about $12 in assorted nickels, dimes, and quarters. What can I say? I accumulate change. With the security checks behind me, I proceeded to the terminal and waited for my plane to start boarding. I took one last look at the souvenir racks. My mind was aghast. I had forgotten to get my sister something. I was going to get her a typically tacky souvenir for loaning me her backpacking-across-Europe pack. I hoped she’d forgive me.
The call soon came, and I was soon in my seat. The plane engines revved up, and we were soon pulling away from the gate. I looked out the window to see the hangers I had seen from the street. Now I was seeing them from the other side, with the doors wide open and planes in various states of repair parked inside. We rolled down the tarmac, faster and faster. I soon felt the subtle rise beneath me, and we were airborne. Out my window, I could see the skyscrapers growing smaller and smaller, until they vanished into the mountains. Good-bye, Vancouver.
The plane ride wasn’t as fascinating for me as the one out to the coast. There was now a feeling of “been there, done that” hanging over the trip. I just leaned back, sort of absently looking out the window. Rather than look down, I looked up this time. I looked as high as I could. It’s amazing how dark a shade of blue the sky gets that high up. It almost rekindles my dream of being an astronaut. When I looked back down to Earth, I saw a lake. But something about this lake was familiar. I squinted my eyes, and off on the northern shore of the lake, I could make out a power plant. Directly below me, on the southern shore, I could make out two other power plants. I gasped. I knew this lake. It was Lake Wabamun, the lake I had swam in many times as a kid. By car, I was only an hour away from Edmonton International Airport. But, by plane, it would be a matter of minutes. I looked at my watch, and set it back an hour. I had arrived home.
At Edmonton, we touched down, and pulled up to the exact same gate I had left from eight days ago. I walked into that terminal with a renewed confidence. As much as I’d love to have a nomadic lifestyle, there’s something about a home to call your own. I was looking forward to just kicking back and reflecting on the week I had just had. I walked into the arrivals lounge to be greeted by my mom and dad…and my niece and nephew.
It turned out that my brother had pawned off his kids on my folks for the weekend so he and his wife could finish moving into their new home. I had to summon up long forgotten reserves of energy so I could make the quick transition from weary traveler to playful uncle. I took a deep breath, only to have my nostrils stung by Mom’s second hand smoke. We walked out to the truck, and I tossed by pack in the back. I was sandwiched into the back seat between my niece and nephew. Dad climbed into the driver’s seat and tuned the radio to The Ukranian Hour on CFCW. No doubt about it, I was home.
That night, I had one of my simple joys which I had not had in a week. I crawled into my bed, with my dog at the foot, and slept. I do enjoy traveling. I want to do a lot more in my life, but there is nothing like the feeling of coming home after a long journey. Your bed, your room, your home. But my heart still belonged to the road. That night, I dreamt of Chuck and L, and the adventures that they have had in their well-traveled lives. I lied awake in my bed after that dream, staring at the ceiling, once again feeling that my life was very small. The wheels in my head began turning. I would do this again, someday. As much as I loved my room and my bed, I again longed to see more than my four walls. I was home, but it was not the end.