Fleeing the increasing pressure to settle down, a restless young man heeds the call of the road and sets out on a meandering four-month bus trip from Dawson, Yukon, to Key West, Florida. Continental Drifter is the record of that journey.
Although a journalist by training, Dave Cameron is reluctant to play the role. He hopes merely to observe quietly, to collect experience. On the road he meets a variety of strangers, some more strange than others – from the Dawson City gold miner in designer sunglasses, the evangelistic co-ed, and a number of alcoholics (some more recovering than others) to the owner of a shrine to Elvis, the Crocodile Lady, and the leathery pensioner intent on passing his days beneath the palm trees of Miami Beach.
Collecting stories and mementos as he goes, by the end of his travels Cameron has also acquired a richer sense of the possibilities of his own life. Equal parts travel picaresque and coming-of-age memoir, Continental Drifter is at once an interpretation of many fleeting individuals and a gradual discovery of one in particular.
I fully expected the boys at U.S. Customs to be mistrusting. My dirty, multi-pocketed backpack must have seemed a tricky vessel of illicit freight. I wore a wide-brimmed hat that threw shade over my weary eyes, and I had the overgrown facial and head hair that suggests to many an inexcusable disdain for social norms. And I had just crossed the quiet prairie border between North Portal, Saskatchewan (pop. 80) and Portal, North Dakota (pop. 100) on foot, reason enough to be presumed guilty of something.
Besides, I imagined that doubt and suspicion were a key part of job advice posted on the office wall: Appear dour and be wary at all times while on duty. Although you may be permissive and good-natured at home, don’t bring a vulnerable countenance to the workplace. Here, you are decisive and all-powerful—act that way. Free passage into our nation is not a simple right for the hopeful folks idling beneath your steely gaze. It is a great privilege.
A blond, closely cropped deputy sheriff type came outside and waited for me near the door. With about five paces separating us, I stopped walking to allow for the showdown of first impressions. He crossed his arms and squinted—the practised look of stern judgment—and quickly fired the usual bullet: "Where are you from?"
This I considered a multiple-choice question. "Canada," I said, obviously and unspecifically.
"Okay, but where are you coming from?"
"Well, I started up in Alaska, the Yukon, actually. I’m taking the bus to Florida, so Portal is about the halfway point, I guess."
Likely story, his face seemed to say. And apparently I had provided too much information too fast. The handsome young officer was on the verge of irritation.
"What I need to know is where you came from today."
"Oh. Estevan, Saskatchewan."
He paused. "So where’s the bus?"
His malicious half-smirk indicated that he had made a joke. Since his job involved stopping every morsel of infrequent traffic, regular bus service was something he would know about. That particular doorway to the United States (the Portal portal) is mainly used by long-haul transport trucks and local families with friends on the opposite side, plus the occasional stray RVer who thinks he’s found a handy shortcut to either Chicago or Calgary. The officer was also vaguely amused, I thought, because I was so clearly a baggage-search candidate and he had time to kill.
"I had to hitchhike," I said.
He nodded as though that matched his guess. "Step inside, please."
Inside, as he began dissecting my bloated corpse of a backpack, I pulled a few sweat-wrinkled traveller’s cheques from one pocket and some American cash from another, modest proof that I could afford to loiter for a while in his expansive, expensive country. Meanwhile, he had found my kitchen-in-a-plastic-bag: a jug of orange juice, a half-loaf of bread, a banana, some raisins, peanut butter and a jackknife.
"Breakfast?" he said, grinning across the room at his co-worker, an older, pot-bellied man who offered no reaction, resolved to remain unimpressed with life. Any element of surprise had vanished from his job long ago. The wall beside him was plastered with missing and/or wanted persons flyers: sons abducted by fathers, or daughters who simply disappeared. The grainy black-and-white photos seemed to capture people when they were looking lost—wide-eyed and caught off guard—and now represented the paper-thin hopes of someone stuck searching.
The young officer’s inspection descended past my sleeping bag to my slim wardrobe: three Ts, a sweater, a pair of jeans, a hooded raincoat. When he got deep enough to regretfully finger two pairs of crusty socks, lifting them out and releasing them quickly like dying fish, he speeded things up considerably. From the pack’s lid came my toiletries satchel, and from the side pockets a tape player and two novels.
While placing The Call Of The Wild and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the counter, the officer whispered the titles to himself, perhaps wondering what those particular books indicated about the person who has chosen to read them. Eventually, with the various pieces of my moveable life laid out like crime-scene evidence, he took a step back.
"Awright, I think that’ll do. Do you always live like this?"
"You get used to it," I said. I looked down at the backpack, now resting empty, deflated. "Holds everything I need."
He wasn’t quite satisfied. "But where do you live? I mean, where will you go after Florida?"
"Oh, probably back to Ontario for a while. That’s where I grew up. Most of my family is still there."
He fell silent.
While repacking, I reversed the interrogation. "How’s life in Portal?"
"I don’t live here, thank God," he said.
"You live somewhere bigger?"
"Somewhere twice this size—two hundred people rather than one hundred?"
"Exactly," he said, not seeming to mind the little poke. He was quiet and aloof, a cautious talker, though again I wondered whether the reticence was genuine. Border authority was often a robot act, efficient and humourless. My desire as usual was to glimpse the individual beneath, know something of his true self. I looked out the glass door and across two lanes of summer-bleached asphalt. A lone eighteen-wheeler was pulled over on the shoulder, its hazard lights flashing. Beyond the truck lay anonymous fields, scruffy plain that gave way to more scruffy plain.
"So," I ventured. "Have you guys busted any refugee-smuggling operations recently?"
"Not much crime at this crossing," he said. "It’s not as exciting a job as you might think."
He followed my gaze out to the long grasses. He pursed his lips, and appeared to be chewing on the inside of his cheek. Presumably he was turning over thoughts, about the prairie, how its endlessness can seem a strange restraint, or about shift’s end, a lawn chair and grilled meat and something cold to drink. I waited.
"I guess I do get to talk to all sorts of people, from different places doing different things," he said. "Folks from all over, going every which way. I suppose I like that part."
He made this admission as if for the first time. While handing over my passport and cash he allowed himself to smile, perhaps having decided where to file me in his mental cabinet of characters who requested permission to enter.
"Just sign this and you can head for Florida."
I scribbled along the bottom of a piece of paper. I fancied I was promising to be a thoughtful nomad, to create few disturbances and to leave and shut the door behind me after discovering what I came to discover. The customs officer walked me outside and, with a crunching handshake, said, "Good luck the rest of the way."
The slightest of bonds had been forged: he was on my side now (and, quite literally, I was on his). As though I was the trusty horse and the backpack my dusty, sunburned rider, the southbound trot began once again.
I advanced only another hundred metres, however, as far as the Americana Motel, where I decided to bed down for the night. I was ready for a rest, and had adequate reason to pause. Six weeks earlier I had been passing through the Yukon. In another six weeks or so I would be in Florida. Besides which, begging for rides all day along a quiet belt of prairie highway had been a gruelling exercise.
After showering, I stretched out on a mattress of thinly cushioned metal springs. Eventually I propped myself up with pillows and watched the road through the open front window. The early October night was cooling quickly as the sun dropped away and the clear sky surrendered its blues. About one vehicle passed by every minute. I closed my eyes and could hear a steady breeze rustling the trees behind the motel, and a dog barking madly in the distance. Then the telephone rang, startling me.
My father’s voice crackled loudly out of the plastic receiver. "You were easy to find," he said.
I had stopped at the Americana because, unsurprisingly, it was the only motel in town. And Dad is a proud sleuth. Although I hadn’t talked to him in over a week, he knew where, and approximately when, I planned on crossing the border. Among other curiosities, he wanted to make sure I hadn’t been detained and roughed up by antisocial Customs thugs.
"If they mistreated you, we could send in the Mounties," he joked. "I could make a call right now."
"I don’t doubt that," I said.
"So, are you getting what you need?"
"What I need?" I knew what he meant: was the road trip justified; was I gleaning enough wisdom from the winos and waitresses across the land? What of singular value had I observed?
I related my hitchhiking drama for Dad, in particular the heartening conclusion that starred a man named Bill, and, in peripheral roles, Bill’s sister Pam and Kincardine’s Sunset restaurant.
"Really?" he said. But his next comment suggested he wasn’t surprised: "These things happen here."
By "things," I assumed he meant interconnections and neat overlappings. And "here" was simply here, the whole of a sprawling planet, the small world, this ball of infinite threads.
As we talked, a small camper van pulled in to the parking lot and idled in front of the room next to mine. The driver was a middle-aged man, and, as far as I could tell, he was alone. He unfolded a map over the steering wheel. He was lost, perhaps, or merely indecisive. Out of habit, my eyes fell to the van’s licence plate, an instant locator of origin. Ontario. Yours to discover. I felt an urge to wave from the window, or even go out and say hello.
"You’re starting to see the big picture?" Dad was saying.
"I guess. Maybe the big picture is a combination of smaller pictures."
"There you go," he said. "Better jot that down."
As we arrived at our goodbyes, which included my promise to call sometime soon, the Ontarian reversed out of his spot and drove back to the road. I hung up the phone and put on my shoes again. It was time to track down an American beer, an American burger, and a few talkative Americans. The man in the van hadn’t yet exited the parking lot; he was signalling but not turning, even though both directions were free of traffic. As I was halfway toward him, he finally disappeared to the south, rolling past the motel’s end.
Whenever you leave, and wherever you go, I thought, home finds a way to follow.