“Dos guy was preddy loud last night, hein?”
Thierry is talking through gritted front teeth as he holds a corner of our tent’s fly to keep it from blowing away. We are breaking camp at the Nipigon Marina about thirty metres from the lagoon. The wind was strong all last night.
“I don’t think loud begins to cover it, Thierry.”
We were in our tent, last night, by eight o’clock after a tough Canada Day ride from Schreiber. Shortly after eight they arrived in their trucks with music blaring - mostly hard rock ballads delivered in the scream/sing tradition. Though there were several tents and trailers settled in for the night, this boisterous crowd of men had arrived to party.
“Yeah, even I were gettin’ a bit annoyed. And I is nocturnal. At first I tawt, you know, nice change of pace after so many night wid just you snorin’.”
“I don’t snore.”
“‘Ow do you know? You is always asleep when you is snorin’”
I roll the fly up with the tent and the footprint. Thierry skips nimbly on the growing bundle as if he is doing the ‘Log Driver’s Waltz.’
“Well, I didn’t get much sleep last night. So I couldn’t have done much snoring.”
From their banter about drills and gravel and staying in motels and what unlikely sexual feats they would accomplish if only there were some women around... I concluded they were not local men. They were part of a road crew working on a new section of highway. Canada Day. They have the day off and they are ready to celebrate.
“Dey sure drank a lot. And smoked a lot of reefer, man.”
“I didn’t smell any weed.”
Thierry holds up a tightly wound joint.
“I got one left. Easy pickin’s. Dey dun notice nutin’. You wanna blaze?”
“No, Thierry. I have to stay sharp when I’m cycling.”
“When dos guys finally leave in all dem truck, I dun tink any o’ dem was sharp.”
There is a kind of coarse bonding that men sometimes indulge in - especially, it seems, men who do tough physical labour. Men skilled with heavy machines. Men who share dangerous tasks. Who must have each others’ backs. Much of it is just vulgar bluster and mocking laughter. Some of it is beyond the pale.
“You ‘ear dat guy shout de N-word? ‘Is buddies dun e’en shut ‘im up. If Benoît were ‘ere ‘e would ‘ave made dat guy pay.”
I had heard it. And I suppose if I had more courage I might have dragged myself out of my sleeping bag and had a word with those men. But they were many and I was one. They were drunk and unpredictable. I had a tent and bike that were easy targets for retaliation. I was, to tell the truth, a little alarmed by it all.
After the outburst that included the N-word one of the guys remarked that there were plenty of tents around and “you never know who might be in them”. As though the utterance could only count as an unpardonable offence in the presence of a Black person. But... I guess it was, in some way, a small admonishment.
In such circumstances, with such men, maintaining loyalty with one’s comrades usually trumps concerns about bigotry and racism. Outright dissent invites ostracism. The racist in the group may not be popular, but to criticize him promises a worse fate. Now you think you are better than everyone else.
No one is allowed to be better.
More shouting. Some glass breaking. Someone owes someone a pack of smokes. Talk of setting off fireworks. Some expressions of concern about police. Some belligerence.
“I’ve fuckin’ drank beer with every cop is this town. It’s all chill,” someone boasted.
Nevertheless, it was getting dark and cold and most of the men started to head out. Engines were gunned. Gravel spat from tires. A final display of bravado. Still some distant conversations. The music still droning on but moving about as though someone was carrying a ghetto blaster. I tried to sleep.
About 11:30 and the fireworks began.
Thierry startled me as he scrambled to the bottom of the sleeping bag. A series of high pitched screams followed by resounding explosions. Multi-coloured flashes on the tent as though it had caught fire.
Approaching voices. The music is finally switched off. Expressions of satisfaction. Certainty that the others had missed the best part of the evening. And a final frustrating half-hour as a remnant struggled with a truck that wouldn’t start.
Please go away. Just go away.
And this day after Canada Day, I reflect that there seem to be two Canadas. A Canada where young men can be drunk and sexist and racist and gun their engines in the night.
Where a guy stops me outside the Esso Convenience Store to ask me if I know that the Freemasons are in league with the government and together they are developing a new low-frequency sonic weapon.
Where another cross-Canada cyclist, older than I, shares my picnic table at a rest stop and complains about some campsite next to his where “this bitch and her boyfriend partied until four in the morning and you could just tell by their voices that they were both retards.”
Or the guy waving and standing on his porch over a sign that says: “Thank-you, truckers, for making me a proud Canadian again.”
Then the thoughtful conversation with a stranger who lets you pet his dog. Or the woman who asks you about your novel and exclaims that her husband loves to read and she’s going to get a copy.
The guy who stops his truck just ahead of your bike in the middle of nowhere and climbs down and hands you a plastic bag with juice and fruit cups and muffins. “Remember me? A couple days ago at Marathon? I thought I might pass you so I bought this for you.”
Or the women who gives you a discount on a camping spot, throws in a free Pepsi, and you both chat about your elderly mothers.
And along this highway I never know which Canada I am going to meet. And a part of me thinks that, sometimes, both these Canadas can exist in the same person. That someone can do a white guy, like me, a kindness but feel no compassion for anyone outside a narrow racial/ethnic category. Or recalling that the guy with crazy sonic weapon conspiracy theory started his conversation with me by lamenting fundamentalist religious hypocrisy.
Like Anne Frank, part of me wants to think that people are good at heart. Those men, last night, drinking and shouting. Maybe they just wanted to feel that they belonged. Why is it that the flip side of belonging is, so often, exclusion?
“Hey Brudder! We gonna ride today? I is getting used to de rhythm o’ dis bike. He ‘elps me to nap when you is pedalling. Like gettin’ rocked to sleep.”
Thierry sits on the handlebars yawning as I push the bike up the steep gravel road out of the marina. There is still a lot of Canada left to see.