When I was young, I spent a lot of time in Winnipeg with my grandparents but I always knew that the day would come when my grandmother would take me to the bus station and put me on the bus. The bus would back out of its stall and there’d be the smell of exhaust and the soft, bristle feel of the blue bus seats.
In those days, WWII was still on or just finished and a military mentally had, over six years of war, seeped into every aspect of our lives. Bus drivers were like Sergeant Majors, making everyone line up in January cold outside the bus, taking our tickets at the bus door, letting us onto the bus one at a time. It didn’t matter how cold it was, how hard the wind blew, how little a kid was or how many kids a woman had with her.
Few people had cars in those days and we were packed into bus. Sometimes, the driver had to set up camp stools in the centre aisle.
I always tried to get a window seat. I sat there, my nose pressed to the cold glass, my breath frosting the glass, taking pictures in my head, memorizing the landmarks of the road home so that if, some day, I had to return home on my own, I’d know the way. In winter, the ride was scary, the bus wheels crunched over frozen ice and snow, the streets of Winnipeg were piled high with ploughed snow, even in early afternoon, the sky was dark, clouds pressed down, snow drifted before the wind.
We stopped, from time to time, to pick up passengers who were huddled against anything that would shelter them from the wind. The door would open with a whoosh, people would stamp their feet on the steps to break off the clinging snow, the driver would have gone outside so he could put their suitcases and boxes into the luggage compartment under the bus, then he’d get on and the door would swing shut with another great whoosh, the motor would rev up and we’d pull away from the curb.
There were city lights, house lights, commercial building windows, but then as we reached the edge of the city, we plunged into darkness. The snow drifted more heavily, the houses were further and further apart, the graveyards were filled with drifts with only the tops of the monuments showing, fences were barely visible, houses appeared in window lit clusters, the houses of strangers who might or might not, if you knocked on their door needing help, open them.
The road to Selkirk led through Lockport, a marker past, then Selkirk itself with its looming brick mental hospital. From there the farmer’s fields, the uncultivated forest, were swept by wind, covered by a frozen sea of drifting snow. The trees stood up like iron. We turned away from the highway to places like Dunnotor, stopping to let people off at Ponemah, Winnipeg Beach. Cold had shrunk the houses, snow had buried them. People took their suitcases and boxes and disappeared into the darkness over roads whose sides were piled high with ploughed snow.
Home was closer now. If anything terrible happened, if the bus broke down, if I got off at the wrong place, I was closer to home. It would be easier to find my way. We stopped at crossroads where people climbed down and disappeared. Seats now were empty. There was the sign for the Lutheran summer camp, then the sweep of marsh and beyond it, Lake Winnipeg. Then there was the hospital and the turn onto Centre, the wheels squealing on the dry snow and there, my head bobbing, my eyes searching, was my mother large in her winter coat, waiting.
I had to hold onto the safety bar climbing down the steps and had to jump from the last one onto the packed snow. “How was the trip?” she always asked. “Fine,” I always said but there, behind my eyes, was every landmark that would lead me home, just in case.
I traveled that road from Gimli to Winnipeg endless, countless times and when I turned sixteen and got a summer job in Winnipeg, on weekends, lonely in a city where I had no friends, I took the bus to the city’s edge and put out my thumb. I rode in cars, in trucks, in the back of trucks, on motorcycles, each ride taking me past landmarks I knew by heart. Sometimes two rides did the trick but other times, it might be six and
I might walk for long stretches as the sun fell toward the west.
In later years, I traveled new roads home, from Riverton, Snow Lake, Pinawa, and then, in a crazy grab at a dream, graduate school in Iowa and back, along Highway 75, roads through hills covered in corn as far as the eye could see, down into Minnesota, around Minneapolis, through a landscape full of silos, through small towns with church spires, past houses that seemed they should be on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Down to a border with rituals I had not known and through a southwestern Manitoba I’d only heard of in school lessons.
And then, and then, the impossibility of four years in southern Missouri, its magnolia, redbud, persimmon blooms, its soft accents and watermelon fields and each year when the nights remained stifling hot, we went north, north to home, away from cherry coke and pecan pie, toward a remembered dream. We watched the landscape go by, sorgum fields, the pecan groves, the small farms of intricate, decaying houses, and then through Iowa again, hills and corn, and the lakes and forests of Minnesota. We knew when we arrived in Winnipeg and I began to count the landmarks of my childhood that our trip was nearly done. And, once again, we watched intently, calling out the markers that led us home and turned finally into Gimli and stopped in front of my parents’ home first for we knew there people were waiting, watching out the window for when we would appear. My mother first, scooping up the grandkids, hugging all of us and my father, trailing right behind.
We finally settled in Victoria, not planned, a five minute phone call, a loaded trailer, crossing through Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Washington State, a road never to be traveled again, and now the road home was stretched, the sixty miles from Winnipeg to Gimli, turned into two hundred times that, every year the ferry across the ocean, over the Rockies, through Banff, the slow progress through the centre of Calgary, the big sky, the rolling hills, sometimes the antelope, Medicine Hat, Swift Current, Moosejaw, Brandon, always pointing home. I know these markers now as well as I did the ones of childhood from Winnipeg to Gimli. After thirty-eight years of driving home from the great West Coast and driving back, I need no map.
What is home? Nowadays, no one waits to greet me as I arrive. My parents rest with my brother and grandparents in the graveyard north of town. No hugs or news. No pot of tea upon the kitchen table, butter tarts or vinarterta. In the house where I grew up someone else lives now. Many of my high school classmates have spread across the world or died. Home, I think, is a place, a history, a familiarity, but most of all, people, open doors, intense interest in each other’s lives, happiness in reconnecting, perhaps the life we shared when life was at its most intense. Perhaps it’s just a habit for some of us, this coming home from distant places but in Islendingadagurinn, in the Gimli Park, at the foot of the Viking statue, on the dock, along the beach, eating fresh pickerel fillets, visiting those who have stayed, or returned to live, or to visit, I find evidence of that thing called home.