Tuesday, February 10, 2009

September 19: Escape from Portage la Prairie

Since I had tried the routes to the east and west of the oxbow lake out of town, I decided to see if I could find a path south through Portage la Prairie's Island Park back to my canoe. "Island Park" is a misnomer. It is simply the center of the oxbow lake, connected by land in the south. There is a single bridge in the northeast connnecting it to town. I hoped to find some route to my shining path in the south.

I got as far south as a white pickup, parked at a dead end which also had a middle-aged man in a flannel shirt, and a small dog with cute curly hair and a cute temper when it comes to bicycles. The man called the dog off of me and drove away in the white pickup. I couldn't getaway so fast. It was obvious when riding over the grass to escape from the dog that my rear wheel was flat for the third time of the day. It had been gimpy for a while but it finally refused to hold any air. Considering how long it took last time to fix it, I figured it would be quicker just to walk it back to the canoe.

Figuring out how to get there was the hard part. I walked back the way I had ridden, using the "left-hand rule" to try to find a route down to the south. That is, always take left turns, and turn around at any dead-ends. After about three dead ends I realized walking was going to be far too slow to find the Southern Passage, so I would have to head north, past the old fighter jet overlooking the lake, over the bridge, and back onto the Community Pathway.

At some point I had a rule that I hated all cities the first day, and loved them the second. This wasn't really working in Manitoba, though. I loved Brandon all the time I was there, but I still had not come to grips with Portage. The town seems to be missing most of its sidewalks, and drivers seem to treat pedestrians as obstructions anyway, gunning it through intersections to avoid stopping for walkers. While cycling into town, I could not get any cars to pass me at a safe distance regardless of whether I rode right, center, or left in the lane. It was frightening.

"Left!" a man yelled behind me, annoyed at this person walking his bike on the all-important Community Walkway. He cut in front of me on his hundred-dollar dual suspension mountain bike, with the seat all the way down so he had to ride frog-legge and fat. He was fat! Arg, but that wasn't important.

Not one single person in Portage la Prairie was interested in the Brompton. This is not a matter of demographics but the spirit of the city. In Brandon everyone stopped me to ask questions about it, young and old, rich and poor, natives and immigrants, single men and single mothers. Portage is all cheap mountain bikes, rusty ten speeds and silly cruisers. No one probably knows enough about bikes to notice it.

No one in the town seemed happy. Mumbling waiters who can't listen right even to get a tip -- hey, I only asked for $2 back, and he gave me everything back. I managed to shove some of it back in his direction, but not as much as he would have gotten if he had actually listened to me instead of just mindlessly going through the motions. And I don't know how many times I had to repeat to the hotel agent that I was canoeing for her to understand that I had no car. Even the woman at the art gallery, who understood about the canoeing park, still told me I should "drive" here, and "drive" there.

That isn't fair. The women in the art gallery seemed happy, and why not? They had to be proud of the quality of the art exhibit they could put on in such a small town. I had to think hard about who else I had seen that didn't seem utterly depressed. There were two in the art gallery, and the two park workers who helped me portage. Two young, native fishermen I met at the park were positively blissful. I don't know if that park should count, though; it's outside city limits.

I did witness one spontaneous outbreak of joy. My first night I had made it to the library just before closing time, and there was a girl leaving, twelve or thirteen. She checked out and broke into a huge smile, saying "I just looooooove books!" She had glasses and pigtails. No, maybe she was Hutterite. It is hard to tell. The gloom of Portage presses in on this memory and I can't recall if she had braids or a kerchief, wore a dress or jeans. The gloom set in immediately.

"I know you do," croaked a librarian, almost sarcastically. The bookgirl was one of maybe half a dozen people who could save the city from divine wrath and she was unknowingly mocked by one of the people she might have loved.

The library was new and in nice condition on the outside. Patrons are limited to six books out at one time, and are charged for checking out DVD's. One woman wanted to check out two DVD's, and that would have costed $6. She didn't have the cash, only Interac, her debit card, which the library doesn't take. She considered running out to an ATM, but then just said, "Oh, forget it." I thought the librarian was happy that her discs would avoid the psosibility of extra scratches.

I could go on. A woman had difficulty renewing her card because she didn't have a driver's license, and of course how can you read if you can't drive? Two native men wanted to use the internet terminals, but were turned away for not having picture ID. Maybe this is normal, but it seemed like a lot of incidents in such a short period of time. Maybe the men were lucky, though. This is the only library I've been that actually charges people to use the computers.

As I was thinking these thoughts, I was now walking alongside Crescent Road. I was told in the art gallery to keep my eye out for a statue of a bird on top of a tree. I had seen it in the distance, over the woods, but as it got closer I was thinking about the library, and remembered my brief, fragmented chat with Shawnti. She had said the event that had caused me so much grief on Day 45, the killing of the boy on the bus, had happened in Portage la Prairie.

Wait, that was in Portage la Prairie?

Was that why everyone was so gloomy? Surely that couldn't be the only reason. The fur traders used to have about a 15 mile portage from the Assiniboine up to Lake Manitoba here, and they used to carry everything on tumplines, which put all the weight of their gear nd merchandise on their foreheads. That is not the happiest origin of a town name.

I had thought the violent act was entirely due to the strange internal workings of the mind, but what if it was actually more based on the sad clouds of the environment? What kind of legal precedent would that establish when the verdict comes down "Not guilty by reason of Portage la Prairie"?

It had been very warm the last couple of days, and I walked in shorts and short sleeves. Mosquitoes rose out of the mowed grass and speckled my arms and legs, their stings surprisingly blunt and painful, like shots of poisonous medicine.

"I've got to get out of town," I thought.

"I've got to get out of town before I kill someone!"

Day 90 ended: 49*56.395N, 098*14.028W

I can't just leave it there. The girl at the art gallery had wanted to call the newspaper, and I refused adamantly. Eddy Harris and Matthew Mohlke, when they met with newspapers, had both felt the tedium of waiting for the reporters to arrive, and then seeing their epic personal quests cut down to soundbites, to five minute feel-good stories. The girl had said, "Well, it's just such a big deal for this town," and I couldn't see why. Why should the people in town care what someone who was passing through was doing?

Well, the murderer and his victim were both just passing through, too. It really wasn't Portage's fault that event happened there.

I had a little light, this idea that yes, you can go out there and do things, strange things, that it is safe enough, that there is adventure and excitement to be had in this world, and a newspaper would reduce that light to just a faint glimmer. A spark might be just enough to give someone a bearing in the night, but I hid my flame under the bushel.


John said...

It's my experience as well that books are allowed, and allow, a greater deal of latitude in parochial environments than almost any other source. I don't know what to attribute this to, though.

Kevin Saff said...

Books are very very subversive.

As a Mennonite, you don't really need to look any further than the radical reformation to understand that. Somehow the anabaptist understanding of the Bible was "hiding" for centuries in a book controlled by the Catholics.

Literature in general deals with conflict to be interesting, and human conflict in particular to be relevant. Significant amounts of literature are about fighting the social conventions of the day. When we look at literature through our conservative lenses we see a celebration of present-day values in these works, when we look at them in radical lenses we identify with others who were fighting the system they found themselves in.

Good literature does that. It will be put to both purposes in the end. The books that survive do so because they continually fuel revolutions without being burnt themselves.