"Hey, Chris, isn't that your dog?" asked the scruffy-looking guy to his even scruffier-looking friend.
His friends' gaze turned away from his grilling chicken breasts and towards me and Ryu. "No, wait... well, one second now... hey hold up man, where'd you get that dog? Is that my dog?"
"Nah man," I replied, gripping Ryu's leash tighter as I sensed him sensing my apprehension, "this ain't your dog."
"Chris, I think that's your dog, man." The less-scruffy dude started to approach us.
"Listen, guys, I can assure you that this is not your dog," I replied, my tone growing deeper. "He will be more than happy to convince you himself if you get any closer." That, of course, was an outright lie. Ryu would sooner roll over onto his back and offer up his tummy for rubs than defend me from brigands.
"Nah nah, that's not my dog, let'em go Bryce." He turned to me as I continued to walk away; "Sorry man, it's just that I've got a dog just like that."
Of course you do. Two mean looking brothers dressed in parkas and running shoes, grilling their dinner at 8pm in the parking lot of the Extended Stay Hotel here in Fort Wayne, Indiana, have a dog that looks exactly like mine. I was tired after a good 10 hours of winter driving from Steven's Point, Wisconsin - 8 hours of meandering around the Great Lakes, through Chicago Traffic, and getting hoplessly lost in Fort Wayne in that Hemi Dodge Charger with nothing but quick pit-stops. I was exhausted, impatient, and my tolerance for bullshit was near its all-time low - and I was certainly not going to get jumped, scammed or mugged.
Eagle Marsh Nature Preserve, Fort Wayne, Indiana
There's tired, and then there's tired. I'm pretty much always tired; the circles under my eyes are like the rings in a tree trunk's cross section you'd use to count its age. Hey, if Al Pacino and Vince Vaughn can make it work, I figure I can too. After countless visits to health specialists, numerous blood tests and lots of research, I've come to the conclusion that I'm just, well, tired. Whether I get 5 or 10 hours of sleep makes no difference, and if it weren't for having to go to work and walk my rotten mutt every morning, it's likely that I would sleep in most days.
Tonight, though, I was tired. The drive took a lot out of me, and the car was not exactly the ideal winter vehicle. When I picked it up at Avis in Saskatoon a few days earlier, I thought it was a bad joke.
"Umm, that's not my car in the front there, is it?"
"Yeah, the Dodge Charger, it's a great car! V8, rear-wheel-drive, 19 inch mags. You're going to love it."
"You do realize that this is a one-way rental to Toronto, yes? In January? Through a snowstorm?"
"Oh it'll be fine, you just have to know how to drive. Also, it's already got Ontario plates on it, which is better for you."
"How is that better for me?"
"Well, you're going to Toronto, aren't you?"
"Yes, yet somehow I still don't understand why it matters which plates are on the car."
"Well, you know, you'll be in Ontario and you'll have Ontario plates. It's just easier."
"Do you have anything else that might be more appropriate?"
"We have a Cadillac coming back in about an hour, but I'll have to charge you extra."
"The Charger doesn't have winter tires, does it?"
"No they're high performance tires, but they're brand new!"
Suddenly, the fact that Saskatchewan is the province with the highest rate of automobile fatalities per driver in Canada - nearly twice as high as the next runner-up, Alberta - was slightly less baffling to me.
Saskatchewan... tu m'as pris ma femme... elle m'a crissé là... pour un gars de Régina. - Les Trois Accords
I had mixed feelings about leaving Saskatoon. For reasons beyond the scope of this blog post, I needed to get back to Montreal. I like to think of myself as someone who's generally independent and self-sufficient, but right now I sorely needed to be close to people. My people. I needed my social circle, if for nothing more than to be able to call up a buddy and go grab a beer or eight after a crummy day at work. At some point in the future I'll delve into more detail about Saskatoon as seen from a Montrealer's shifty eyes, but for now this is about getting the hell out in a Dodge and back out East.
I hate touchscreens vs. buttons and knobs in everyday life, but In cars, they make about as much sense as a tuna fish sundae. Here's a fun game: can you turn off the heated seats? I couldn't! In fact - I couldn't see anything on the screen in the daytime. Progress!
We left early on a cold Saturday morning, the rented black-on-black-leather Charger filled to the brim with boxes, luggage, garbage bags and two groggy lifeforms. With a push of the ENGINE START button, the engine roared to life and settled into a low growl. I could tell from his raised eyebrows that Ryu was apprehensive about being stuck in this car, but he didn't have much of a choice. Printed Google Maps taped to the dashboard, we set off towards the border at Estevan, SK without much fanfare (the Canada-only route north of the Great Lakes was treacherous with bad weather at the time, so I decided to head south). Asides from some icy patches and overturned trucks, the drive was uneventful until we reached the border crossing from Estevan into Portal, North Dakota. For reasons beyond my comprehension, I inevitably get pulled over at customs. Every. Single. Time. I've never so much as carried a pocket knife over the border, yet I always lose at least a couple of hours answering questions in a windowless room about what "my plans are" in the U.S. There's always a stern but polite older male asking the questions, while the newly-recruited football jock stands watch in the corner of the room, his palm gently resting on his Colt. By now, I knew the drill.
"Strange time of year to be driving back home, ain't it?" asked the customs officer.
"Not really. I'm getting transfered back so I'm heading back."
"What's with the rental?"
"I sold my car before I left, I thought it was too old to make the trip safely."
"Will you be looking for work in the U.S.?"
"No, I'm just driving through and staying with friends or at hotels on the way back to Montreal."
Somehow, the above conversation took over an hour, and the stripping of my car took another. Ryu was waiting in a small kennel outdoors, where he enjoyed the attention of other folks and families who were waiting to get cleared. The worst part of it is these customs officers are always incredibly nice guys once they realize that you're not trying to smuggle in Canadian pharmaceuticals. It's basically their job to act like scary thugs to folks who might be breaking the law, but underneath it all they're not trying to make your life miserable.
When at long last they determined that I was not, in fact, a national security threat, I was sent on my way again. It was getting dark, it started to snow and the winds were picking up. I felt sorely out of place here, along a desolate undivided stretch of bleak North Dakota asphalt, driving through terrible weather in pitch darkness, just me and my dog, black ice coating stretches of Regional Road 2 taking us from Minot, through Devil's Lake, to our destination for the night - Grand Forks. We checked into the motel, I set up my Rip60 for a quick workout, and then we both freshened up (as in, I took a shower while Ryu licked himself clean). I headed downtown to "Rhombus Guys", where I had a fantastic pizza and some good conversation with an army vet about attack drones, marriage and Miami - somehow managing to connect them quite eloquently I might add. To my fellow Canadians: never be afraid to order pizza in the U.S. The most mediocre pizza in your run-of-the-mill American town will invariably be light-years ahead of anything we might consider to be "good" Pizza in any Canadian city. And because the pizza in Grand Forks was far from mediocre, it felt like a luxurious and well-deserved reward for the 10+ hours I'd just driven.
Sorry bud, but for the last time, no, you can't drive. You're not even insured on the rental car, ok?
The next day, after a quick walk around the motel, I packed up and we were on our way to Amherst, Wisconsin, where I'd be staying with long-time family friends. Indeed, this 8+ hour stretch wasn't any easier on me or Ryu, so there was a euphoric sense of arrival upon pulling up in Carl and Diane's driveway. This was the second time I'd been here in 4 months, and it felt just like being home. Asides from Ryu getting mauled by their otherwise-adorable chihuahua a couple times - she bit him on the tongue, which is more action than I'd gotten in weeks - staying here was therapeutic and we were in no hurry to leave. Carl took me along to a high school basketball game, precipitating warm memories of my days as a terrible, short and nervous high school basketball player. I walked around Amherst some more, which is itself a picture-perfect postcard example of Smalltown, USA if there ever was one. I tried to earn my keep by fixing various computer issues Diane was having. All too quickly, though, we were all packed up again, and on our way to Fort Wayne.
I tend to romanticize small American towns, but that's only because there's so much to love about them. Knowing your neighbors, running into friendly people, having a drink at the only café in town, and often a sense of community solidarity rivaled only by Cuba.
The drive through Wisconsin and Illinois went well, with the weather having cleared up considerably over the past couple of days. I'd found myself wishing that I had more time to make stops in Milwaukee and Chicago, but that would have to wait until next time. Because of the odd configuration of the Chicago bypass interstate, I'm quite certain that I neglected to pay a non-negligible number of tolls by driving through the "quikpay" or "fasspass" lane or whatever silly name they call it there, instead of going throught the "Coins Only" lanes. I'm expecting a nice letter from Avis any day now.
The newly-constructed Extended Stay Suites in Fort Wayne was a welcome sight. After walking Ryu - and having the above-mentioned run-in with those two gentlemen who claimed to have a dog exactly like mine - I headed out and enjoyed a rather forgettable meal accompanied by a less-forgettable beer. You know what I said about Pizza in the U.S.? While I wouldn't go so far as to say that American beer is better than Canadian beer - it isn't - you can have some really pleasant surprises when you stick to the local microbrewery drafts. Ask the barmaid / barman for advice if in doubt. When travelling through small towns, always sit at the bar and always tip well. It'll make all the difference in how your evening plays out.
Upon returning to the hotel later that night, I was stunned to look through the lobby windows and see my dog walking around the lobby, his long tail wagging happily. How the hell did he get out of the room? I then saw one of the guys who tried to stop me earlier, and was sure that he'd somehow found out my room and went in to grab Ryu. I rushed in, ready for a fight with this crazy dude who was fixated on stealing my dog, except... it wasn't my dog.
Their color is a little different, but unless they're side-by-side, they could pass for twins. The dogs, of course.
It was, in fact, a dog who looked nearly exactly like Ryu - they could be twins. He hadn't been lying at all. We both apologized to each other for what had transpired earlier, and went outside with both our dogs - who got along famously, I might add - where they were grilling more food. It turns out he even runs an animal rescue organization and saves dogs from being euthanised. He's also a really nice guy to boot. I felt utterly silly for my earlier paranoia and fearfulness of strangers, which are completely new feelings to me, feelings I really don't like. I guess that's what living alone in Saskatoon for 2 years will do to someone. I need to get back to being myself, in a hurry.
The rest of the road trip went by quickly. I drove to Toronto the next morning, which brought on an odd nostalgic tinge as it marked the first time in 3 years that I'd been in the city without seeing my [ex-]fiancee. I had to get some wings of course; Toronto, being the largest metropolitan area near Buffalo, has arguably the best wings on the planet. The cute waitress at the Wing Shack in Newmarket recognized me right away even though it was the first time I'd been there alone, and those breaded wings swimming in "Texas Homicide" sauce never tasted better. I thought that coming back to Toronto would be difficult, but things felt pretty alright.
Q: Why does Ryu love hotel rooms? A: He's allowed to sleep on the bed.
The final stretch the next morning was from Toronto to Montreal, a drive I'd done dozens of time before. I had to switch cars in Toronto, giving up the Charger for a Jeep Compass, which mysteriously had even less storage capacity than the Charger. The drive home went by quickly, and upon pulling up to my buddy Vahe's house in the Laval suburbs, I knew I was finally home. Really home.