*To listen to the audio version of this story, head over to: https://soundcloud.com/user-915491502/the-tractor
There’s an old hotel in the southern interior of British Columbia, near some place I don’t quite recall. It’s an old cowboy hotel; a beautiful, wooden building, lovingly refurbished by someone who cared enough to do so. It stands starkly white against the yellow fields of dehydrated grass.
It’s never winter there. I mean, surely it is sometimes, but never in my head. When the winter hits in the interior it hits hard, but, here, many kilometers away in Vancouver, I can’t picture the snow. It’s always summer, the way I can only ever picture a cowboy in front of a high red sun. And I know that same cowboy I’m picturing experienced the same harsh winters that dominate the interior today — the very same winter I’m denying even exists; I know that they were at times devastated by its power; that they lost crops, lost wage, and lost family to its endlessness. And yet I project this sort of symbolic optimism onto a scene that, for all I know, ends in bloodshed just moments after the horse-man pauses to be photographed under the red sun.
There’s an old cover shed out back behind the hotel that houses the tractors and the wood. When I was 16 and my dad and I were staying there, I’d asked him if he would take a photo of me with the big red tractor parked underneath the lean-to. He did so on what is now considered a very old phone and the photo came out all grainy and there I am, 16 and unkempt, leaning one-armed against the machine, looking, frankly, quite dorky. Now, for some context, I was a skinny kid, and if you looked at me or any of my family, you might get the impression that we would, should the scenario arise, go down in the first round. And while this is true of myself and maybe most of my family (sorry guys), it isn’t true of one of us. Because my mom is tough as nails.
She grew up north of Edmonton on farmland acreage, tending to the creatures that needed it and to the plants that required it, and worked longer, tougher hours of labour than I could ever begin to catch up to. Whereas me, I grew up nearly parallel with the US-Canadian border and there was nothing “north” about me. Nothing rugged. There’s two stereotypes I’ve seen most prominently associated with the Gulf Islands where I grew up, and that’s that we’re all hippies or we’re all artists or we’re both. I’ll leave it up to you guys to assign either or none to me, but I’ve always fancied myself more an artist than a hippie, and at the age of 16, I certainly had the… shall we say, modest build that’s often associated with an artist. And I knew this, and with the metabolism of a young man I knew I wasn’t going to be outgrowing it any time soon. There was no delusion. And yet there was this feeling in me that I was much more than that, that I was somehow something else. That I had some of my Mom in me. And I took that feeling with me on that trip with my Dad, to the hotel, and on that day, with my Dad and the tractor, I felt like I was exactly that which I felt I was — I was a cowboy.
There I was, looking like a dork, but convinced I wasn’t, and by the time we were leaving the next morning, I was championing this new mentality. I, made of dust, the embodiment of the choice to leave the dirt underneath your fingernails.
We would drive, and I would listen to music. Legs perched on the dashboard, dirty brown ball cap facing forward and a can of coke in the drink pit. I would exchange one disc for another in my brother’s old Mini-disc player. I listened to a lot of pop punk music and ska growing up — anthemic music for a generally positive childhood. But I had recently found something else. A quieter sort of anthem. And there was one song that I kept coming back to. It was a desert song, bleeding dust into the air and the old Mini-disc player would cough and hack, and I would look out at the passing countryside and see only this stark endlessness. And it was wonderful. And it was a wonderful song. It was a cowboy song and it made me feel like a cowboy, beside my cowboy father, taking on the landscape in the romantic way I always found myself hoping one would. I couldn’t listen to it enough.
This was a very formative time in my life. I was 16, I was introverted and I had only just began to come out of 16 years of being, well, unsociable and, frankly, un-coachable in the social arena. I played a lot of video games (I still do), I wrote a lot (much more than I do now), I spent days not seeing anyone else, and, truthfully, I liked it that way. I was reclusive, and while I wasn’t quite the hermit I had been at my youngest ages, I feel now, looking back, that had I maybe found God at that age I might have fancied myself a societal anchorite. So long as I could still play Final Fantasy.
But there was one caveat to my ambitions of complete and utter solidarity, and that was to travel. I loved the idea of travel. And that manifested itself, more often than not, in these trips I used to take with my father through the interiors of British Columbia and Washington State. These trips were always something I openly looked forward to and, though I couldn’t have unpacked at the time why, openly coveted, as well. I saw them as this kind of controlled wildfire; this sort of curated experience that was held up on the backs of a lot of cliches — you know: the open road, unforeseeable adventure, maybe some brief episode of summer love. It was a tornado in a vacuum; every bit of adventure I craved without any of the danger because, well… my dad was always there. It was like having a bodyguard. He would always get me home. All of this exploration and learning and seeing and doing would take place and I’d go from a place of fulfillment and a full stomach to a place of hunger and teenage moodiness all in one day and then we’d get into a bed or into a car and I could sit and I could read or I could listen to music and then I would sleep and it would all reset once again.
So, there was this ease of access to adventure. Explore and live whatever life you wanted with no responsibility. It was a bit like playing a video game. It was great!
But, the thing is, that’s not what these trips were really about because what they were really about was family. They were about my Dad and I. And the truth is, and I can tell this now looking back, *that* is why I coveted it. Because whereas there was this part of me that felt strong ties of identity to these desert landscapes — again, somewhat nonsensically “backed up” by my ties to northern Alberta — what I didn’t see actually happening was that, while I was on that trip and the ones before it, I was forming an *actual* identity. One which certainly included my Albertan ties, but also my Gabriolan, and much more prominently than either, my ties to my immediate family. To my mom, and my dad, and my brothers. What was really happening wasn’t a re-enforcement or a confirmation of my love for my immediate surroundings, but rather a slow reveal of the importance of everything I had left behind. It was a hand reaching through the flames of the wildfire and pulling me through the smoke, revealing, eventually, a place on the other side where I could more readily breathe. A long, lush field where I could look back and see everything, and see every part of what I am.
I could see the sun, but now I could also see the snow.
I like to think the places that we go are shaped by who we go with, or who we don’t, and should I ever go back to the hotel without my father, I would venture to say it isn’t the same place that I went to when I was 16. Still a wonderful place, surely. But the lessons I learned on that trip were so particular to the fact that I was there with my Dad.
A few years ago, while at a used bookstore in Vancouver, I, on a whim, picked up a copy of a book called the Dictionary of Astrology, which, in its first pages offers the distinction between Astrology and another form of thinking that it is often mistaken for: Astromancy. The distinction here is that Astrology suggests you can find patterns in the behaviour of the stars while Astromancy is the one which speaks of fortune-telling and absolutes. I was, and still am, fairly skeptical of both. But, much like one may draw small details of faith from a religion while not subscribing entirely, I read in that book that Cancers love unconditionally and I kind of liked that and I kind of held on to that. And when I look at that photo of myself and the red tractor now, while he may not be in it, I picture only my father, behind the lens, and by extension my family and in this instance there is no projection needed for a scene that, for what I *do* know, ends in love and familiarity.
I had the opportunity recently to visit Idaho with my friend Ricky. We drove down in his car, which we call The Duke. It was a long drive through the hot middle-country of Washington and Idaho. The main goal was to make it out to this old firewatch building we had rented in one of the national parks.
But, in the undercurrent, there was this second narrative, because Ricky and I had driven through this exact country once before. Only, when we did it that time, The Duke broke down and we got stuck in this small, one-road town for a couple of days. Now, that’s a different story for a different time, but what I mean to draw on here is that this time around we didn’t get stuck. Heck, we even tempted fate.
We intentionally stopped in that same small town this time around to put some closure to that trip from so many years ago. We stopped in the same spot we had when The Duke had broken down and went into the same “Radio Shack” (and I put it in quotes because the store, while called Radio Shack, most certainly was not a Radio Shack) and when we came back out and the car started and we drove away onto that stretch of highway that had previously avoided us, there was a sense of completion. Certainly with a level silliness to it — it wasn’t a particularly haunting part of either of our lives — but still with a sense of termination, and it was significant, and it was bonding. And the only way either of us could have felt that sort closure was for us both to have been there.
We carried on and after arriving at the lookout, Ricky delved deeply into the book he had brought, and I went outside onto the catwalk with my guitar. I sang that same song that I was obsessed with on that trip with my dad. And I thought about this idea that it’s the people you experience them with that will actually define a place and I looked out at the Idaho landscape and thought about how, in amongst all that travel with my dad, there was this other relationship that was blooming: that of the one between myself and music. That time on the road was the same time I really started to love music the way I do today, and it was the same time that I learned the way it and all art, like our most immediate friends and family, can really shape who we are. We’re a nuanced collection of many different things, never just one, collected over a lifetime, and that’s a wonderful reality, in and of itself.
So, I sat there with this song that had been there with me in the desert so many times before, and with it, found some closure to some old experiences, and looked out onto some new ones.