It’s 4:30 on a hot, dusty, Friday afternoon and I’m literally bumping into my new employer as she’s locking up to go home.
Rob sits in the rental car, which is full of my stuff and has my old bike; my only means of transport in the months to come, dangling off the bike rack attached to the trunk. We’ve just pulled into Fort Saint John after a two day trip from Vancouver and have spent the last half hour going up, down and around 100th Avenue trying to find the Treaty 8 Tribal Association offices.
“Oh, it’s easy to find,” Susan, the TARR Archivist and receptionist, had told me when I’d phoned, panicking because I hadn’t heard from anyone. “We’re kiddy corner from the Lido – that’s the old movie theatre – and just up from Rainbow Bingo. You can’t miss it.”
We had missed it. But we found the Rainbow Bingo and worked our way back up the street, me walking to look at the numbers and Rob crawling alongside in the car.
So we’re outside the only place it can possibly be. There’s no sign, no numbers and the place is falling apart. I tell myself I can still go home with Rob if need be and that’s when I meet Deborah. We have a rapid fire conversation because she’s late to pick up her daughter; two actions I’m soon to become very familiar with, and she tells me she’ll see me Monday around 10 am. I breathe a sigh of relief. She seems accessible, friendly. The Director of the Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Research Department is not a dragon lady.
“Try the Bluebell Motel,” she replies to my query about a place to stay. “We’ve had students stay there before and I believe they do weekly rates.”
We say goodbyes and head down 100th Street, the very centre of town, until it meets the Alaska Highway and the nightmare of road works and detours that goes with it. They’re widening the road and we zigzag across it to the Bluebell, where we check in. We can’t believe the number of sixty-thousand-dollar-plus, brand new trucks that are on the road and there’s new construction everywhere. This is oil and gas boomtown with a vengeance. But I’m here. For better or worse, I’m about to start my work term with TARR and Rob has to leave for Vancouver early tomorrow morning. After that, it’s just little ol’ me and my bike.
I try to combat loneliness with two strategies: I shop and I cycle furiously around town, from perimeter to perimeter and beyond. I marvel at the fact that I had to travel to Fort St. John Walmart to find jeans and T’s that fit and I hit the children’s department religiously for a week. The Bluebell is my home by default because there is nowhere else. Phone call after phone call strikes out, as does the first move; when I agree to share an apartment with a girl in her twenties, only to find after the first night that she’s changed her mind and doesn’t want to give me a key. We do the key dance in Dairy Queen before she admits that she doesn’t want a room-mate after all. I move out that night and it’s back to the Bluebell.
I’m pumping the local churches for prospective landladies and manage to persuade the local D.J. to put out a ‘Help’ plea over the radio. I’m beginning to think I can’t afford to stay any longer when Dot turns up in her gold S.U.V. like the fairy Godmother in Cinderella and whisks me off to, yes, the Aurora Apartments. I’d phoned for an apartment that had already been rented, but Dot needed someone to stay in her place while she managed the Charlie Lake Campsite. We’re perfect for each other and I move right in. I have a plush, extra-thick mattress, wide screen TV and a balcony; all at reasonable rent. I’m in heaven. In celebration of my new place, I cycle way down 100th Street until it disappears into gravel with fields on either side stretching as far as I can see.
It’s beautiful. A young black bear clambers out of the bushes onto the road just ahead of me and, thrilled though I am to see him, I wonder how fast I can peddle if mum appears too. Luckily he jumps back into the bushes when he catches sight of me and I can continue to be thrilled. I carry on to the end of the line, where 100th meets the edge of the cut banks that drop steeply to the Peace River valley way below.
The view is breathtaking. I take photo after photo, then sit in the sun and watch the swallows soar in the updrafts from the valley. I see a grave and a cross with a scarf tied around it that teeters on the very edge and go over to investigate. It belongs to a teenager who drove straight off the road one dark night. The car lies wrecked and rusting below the gravesite. It’s poignant and sad, but seems to typify the North somehow, where life and death are so close together and certainly not confined to old age. The more I talk with Susan at work, the more I’m struck by the sheer numbers of people in her life that have passed on too young, too soon; acquaintances, friends, uncles, cousins. We seem so removed from that down south in the city. I’m spending a lot of time with Susan. Deborah is so busy with negotiations that she’s flying from Ottawa to Victoria, to Edmonton, to meetings with the Chiefs and Councils of the Communities and has little time to spend in the office. Susan is de facto boss to both me and fellow co-op student Dave, but she’s not been in the office much longer than we have, so we waylay Deborah as she passes through and glean as much information from her as we can. The three of us have become an item – partners in crime and friends.