Road Trip: My Near-Death Experience in the Fraser Canyon

When I was 17, a buddy and I set out on a road trip from our hometown of Calgary, Alberta to Vancouver, B.C., a journey which would normally be expected to take 11-12 hours. It would take us considerably longer than that.

This was due to our mode of transportation, which was my 1973 Plymouth Fury. If, like most people, you don’t know what that is, try this: First, imagine you are 17 year old guy. Next, picture the hottest car you have ever seen. Finally, wipe that image completely from your mind, and think of what the opposite of that might look like. That’s the Plymouth Fury. It was sort of like a cruise ship on wheels. My friends and I could play a game of pickup football on the hood alone (we left the trunk for dance parties).

In spite of its lack of aesthetic appeal, it had been a fairly reliable vehicle for me. I had no reason to suspect that it would not be up to the task ahead of it. Well, except for my mother, who reminded me that it was an older car, and would almost certainly break down. She was adamant that we not go. I told her it would be fine. She reminded me that our route would include dangerous mountain passes, not to mention the treacherous Fraser Canyon (this was before the Coquihalla highway) where narrow roads wind around blind turns precariously perched upon sheer precipices. My mother was always fussing about the possibility of bad things happening to her baby. I said that she was being silly, ignored her advice and left.

We broke down in the Fraser Canyon. Fortunately we were able to coax the ailing vehicle to a safe place off to the side of the road that was big enough so that the wounded behemoth did not obstruct traffic. Exiting the vehicle, we lifted the hood on the off-chance that either one of us might have a clue what was wrong. We did not. We left the hood up, the universal signal that says, “Hey! We’re idiots who drove a junker into a remote location only to have it conk out and we have no idea what to do about it.”

Having accomplished that, we took stock of our surroundings. First off, it was 40℃ (back then, we called it 104℉). The sun, all alone in a cloudless sky, blazed down on us mercilessly, reminding us of our isolation. As we stood beside our now-comatose beast of burden, a cliff rose up at our backs. Looking left and right, we saw two lanes that extended only as far as the next blind curve in either direction. No other vehicles. Crossing the highway we came upon a steel guard rail which, upon further inspection, we found to be the only thing between us and a sheer drop that terminated far below with some jagged rocks and a churning Fraser River.

Have you ever had a Fraser Canyon moment? I’ve recently embarked on a journey of sorts; a new phase of life: retirement, and a second career as a writer. It’s been a great ride for the most part, but now, as I’m attempting to get my first novel published, I find myself somewhat stalled in the middle of nowhere. There are a number of options open to me, but none of them currently seem very promising, and it’s difficult to know which way to go.

The map told us that Boston Bar (this was before Cheers was on TV) was the nearest town, but that it was very far away. We decided to wait for a passing vehicle; some Good Samaritan who would come by and save the day. Unfortunately, the only things that rolled along over the next half hour were the beads of sweat that poured down our faces, so eventually we came to the conclusion that we would have to set out on foot. We struck out towards (we sincerely hoped) Boston Bar, and agreed to hitchhike if anyone at all came by. I had never hitchhiked before. My mother said it was dangerous, since you never knew who would pick you up. But what did my mother know, anyway?

We trudged along up the highway, every step a marathon in that wretched heat. I’ll never forget the moment when we finally we saw the sun glint upon a distant approaching vehicle. As it drew nearer we could see that it was an old, faded-red Datsun pick up, and that it (joy! rapture!) slowed in response to our eagerly upraised thumbs.

The driver pulled over, stopped and leaned over to open the passenger door. He was somewhere between 60 and 100 years old, a little rough looking, but seemed friendly. We’ll call him Slim. We told Slim that we needed a ride to the nearest town, and he invited us to hop in.

My friend and I looked at each other warily. I’m not going to lie: we were more than a little apprehensive. Of course, being adolescent males we hadn’t discussed our feelings (or allowed ourselves to show any outward signs of anxiety at all—duh!), but let’s face it, we were two kids stranded in the middle of an extremely harsh environment with neither the know-how nor the resources to solve our problem. And now we were about to get into some old dude’s truck so he could take us off into the wilderness, pull out his axe, murder us and hide our bodies. And worst of all, I would die having to admit that my mom was right.   

The truth was, we didn’t have a lot of options. So off we went, three guys shoulder to shoulder in a tiny truck (with a stick shift!), windows rolled down in a fruitless attempt to blow away the oppressive heat (and . . .  er . . .  aroma). Our chauffeur was friendly indeed, and alleviated the awkwardness by asking us the sorts of questions one asks when attempting to initiate conversation with strangers. ‘Where’re ya from?’ ‘What the heck are ya doin way out here?’ ‘What happened to yer car?’ ‘How dumb are you guys?’ etc. We soon realized that, in spite of his appearance, he was not the sort to murder innocent young’uns. Not intentionally, at least.

His driving was what would likely get us killed. Or rather, his conversational prowess. Normally, making eye contact whilst communicating with others is a good thing; it helps establish trust, experts say. I’m going to suggest that the experts have never driven through the Fraser Canyon with Slim.

Slim looked at us whenever he said anything. He said lots. When he finished speaking, he’d take a quick glance at the road, jerk the steering wheel to bring the pickup back into its lane, then look back at us in expectation of a response. We soon recognized the need to speak quickly and keep our answers short.

That was easier said than done, given our level of distraction. We wanted to be polite, but when your vehicle edges ever closer to a cliff as the driver launches into leisurely discourse, it’s difficult to pay attention to what he’s saying. He’s telling you all about his life, and all you can hear above the sound of your pounding heart is your own voice in your head saying, “We’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die!” Then the vehicle veers hard back on course, throwing you against your sweaty seatmate. Recovering, you notice Slim’s expectant glance in your direction and realize with horror that his last utterance must have been a question, and that if you don’t answer it he will not look away. And the tiny truck approaches the death-drop yet again. Essentially, it was like having a casual conversation with a gun to your head.

We survived, obviously. We made it to Boston Bar only to find that, since it was Sunday and the only service station was closed, we’d have to wait until the next day. We ended up sleeping in the car that night. I don’t recall how we got back there, but it obviously wasn’t with Slim, or I would remember (or we wouldn’t have made it).  The next day we called a tow truck, which we couldn’t afford, and got the car repaired, which we also couldn’t afford, and then were off to Vancouver.

Looking back, I can see a number of ways in which this might have ended badly. From the vantage point of middle-aged maturity, I view this experience, along with many others in my life, as an opportunity to learn and grow. In fact, even as a 17 year old, wise beyond my years, I was eager to share my newfound insight with those around me. For upon arrival home, when my mother anxiously inquired as to how everything went, I replied, “Phht! Fine, of course. Mom, you really need to learn to relax.”

Always the good son.

 

 

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape

You don’t spit into the wind

You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger

And you don’t hitch a ride with with Slim

— Jim Croce (paraphrased)