COLUMN SIX: The Road Warrior

A surfer inside the barrel of a wave at the Mexican Pipeline, Puerto Escondido, Mexico. BIGSTOCK PHOTO


The best Halloween costume I ever wore was in eighth grade. This was in the autumn of 2008, just as it was becoming clear that the world’s economic turbulence was not a brief rut but instead something rather more severe. I was without inspiration the night before the day when my father said, “Wear a suit without trousers. You can be a broker who lost his pants in the market.”

It was a hit. At school, most kids were more amused by the fact that I appeared to be walking around in my underwear than actually appreciating the timeliness of the joke. When I went out trick-or-treating that night, though, I cleaned up. Our neighbours must not have lost much money in the crash, because they all were endlessly entertained by a 13-year-old capitalizing on the news to build his own sugary portfolio. It was my last year of collecting the stuff, and I remember acquiring enough that night to last through the winter.

The only other time my father had suggested a costume, I didn’t take him up on it. This one was less original—the idea was to dress all in black, with a white stripe down my back and pieces of yellow construction paper taped to my front. A skunk on the 401. The suggestion had not come with any idea as to how the fragrance might be achieved.

Odour is the defining characteristic of roadkill if you get close enough to notice. I would know: last month, I went on a bicycle trip around part of the province—from Pelham up through Algonquin Park, past Pembroke to Ottawa, and then back home along Lake Ontario, nearly 1,600 kilometres in all.

On a bike, you notice much more along the side of the road than you do from inside a car, and much of this more is no longer alive. I lost count after the first day, but I must have seen hundreds of carcasses over the two-week trip. There were the usual suspects, possum and raccoon and squirrel, though these predictable ones were outnumbered by those we rarely see from a vehicle. I saw dozens of flattened birds and snakes, turtles whose shells had been shattered, snakes—garters, rattlers, waters—all made one-dimensional. The smallest were the butterflies, their delicate wings too fragile to survive even a glancing blow. The biggest was a mature coyote, lying just off the shoulder. I saw no blood or visible injury. Had it not been sprawled flat on its back, eyes closed, I might have worried it was preparing to pounce.

The most important thing, however, is the roadkill that I didn’t see. Namely, me.

Nearly everyone with whom I spoke of the trip seemed alarmed that I’d be riding alongside traffic for that sort of distance, and their concern was justified. At several points I had no choice but to travel on busy thoroughfares, and the occasional car or truck, out of negligence or distraction or just plain absence of interest in the well-being of a cyclist, would whiz by, perilously close to turning me into a Halloween costume.

The sensation of such a close call never did last long though, and those few incidents did nothing to detract from the trip. Perhaps it’s because I can’t remember not riding a bike anywhere and everywhere, much the same as drivers who get their license on their 16th birthday soon forget the awesome responsibility of operating a car. Someone who didn’t begin driving until she was in her 30s recently told me that, “I just can’t get it out of my head that I’m in control of this 4,000 lb. bit of steel—really a deadly weapon.” Thinking of how vulnerable everyone around her was as she drove that weapon in turn made her feel vulnerable.

Driving and cycling have never had this effect on me, nor has being in the water, for the most part. But, a few months ago while I was in Mexico, there was an exception.

Puerto Escondido, a surfing town on the Pacific coast, is where the so-called “Mexican pipeline” and its ten-foot waves smash onto the shore. There was nothing of that size when I was there, though even still, I was wary about going in the water.

Down near the end of the beach, a group of local kids spent the day fishing. They had no nets or rods, only a slat of wood in their fists with length of line looped around it, a sizable hook at the line’s end. This they twirled above their heads like a lasso and threw it out into the surf in a long, flat arc. Standing waist deep, they would allow the approaching waves to push the hooks back towards them, where they would again spool the line and cast it back.

The fisherkids were far from stationary throughout the whole ordeal. The waves all varied in size and when a particularly large one loomed, they would sprint towards shore, trying to outrun it. This was not an option for everyone—those who had marooned themselves in water too deep instead turned and faced the waves, diving down just as they were about to break.

The effectiveness of this trick became clear when I (briefly) tried surfing. Just as Tom Hanks, in Cast Away, finds it nearly impossible to launch his boat into the waves, so too is it difficult to launch a surfboard—or even swim—out from shore when the ocean makes a determined effort every fifteen seconds or so to return you to land, where, you inevitably conclude, the universe is indicating you ought to stay.

Once I began diving beneath the waves, the sea seemed more welcoming. Even while struggling to remain on the surfboard, it was pleasant out past where the waves broke. There the water moved in great swells, and it was viscerally clear that what was moving wasn’t the water, but rather energy, thrumming in from some distant point in great pulses that heaved up and down like the chest of a sleeping giant.

Knowing that there was little chance of actually surfing, I was happy to bob on the board while others more experienced popped up and rode to shore. Watching them, I saw when it was just right to begin paddling, and after a while I tried catching one. I didn’t bother trying to stand up, but I did, eventually, manage to gather enough momentum to trap myself on the folding face of a wave as it roared inwards.

This was terrifying. Never before had I felt so incapable of moving or controlling where it was I was going.

When we—the wave and I—reached the shallows, I was promptly pitched from the board straight to the bottom, which was carpeted with serrated pebbles and a rough, gravelly sand. When, spitting and spluttering, I at last scrambled beyond the reach of the waves and emptied my pockets of what they had collected from the bottom, I saw that my foot was bleeding, and a toe bruised.

I didn’t try to hide the embarrassment as I hiked back along the beach. At least the toe didn’t get infected.

Being thrown about by the ocean is not such a bad way to be reminded of the depths to which our impotence can sink.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, brokers did not, as legend has it, hurl themselves out of windows on to Wall Street below. They did wander around, shocked into dumbness, eyes vacant, unable to believe what had happened—shaken at just how powerless they were once the market had decided in which direction it wanted to throw them.

No doubt there were similar zombies roaming Manhattan in 2008, right about the same time as I was walking around without pants. It might be nice to feel like a Master of the Universe for a while, weaving a Bentley across the yellow lines, peacefully unaware that you’re operating a weapon. But there’s always a shore waiting somewhere, and usually a wave heading towards it. Sometimes it takes more than Polysporin to treat the wound. 

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