When the Going Gets Weird… (Part One)

*Originally posted  March 28, 2009*

” It’s a hundred and six miles to Chicago. We’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

– Elwood Blues, The Blues Brothers.

Losing your mind in a Mantioba winter is a distinct possibility. Within the Winnipeg city limits, there’s no real threat — always a good car theft or murder to keep the brain alert. It’s once you get beyond the Perimeter Highway, out to the small towns and farmhouses held hostage by nature 5 months out of the year, that the risk begins to rise. You see, twice every day – once in the morning and once at dusk – there is a moment when the sun lies just below the horizon. Snow covers every inch of the world, muting the already flat features of the praries. On a clear day, without any clouds in the sky, you can look out upon the earth, and you won’t be able to tell where the it ends and the sky begins. It all blends into a snowy, off-white (fuck, I’ll be honest, it’s grey) landscape as wide and far as you can see. It’s a truly amazing thing to behold..one time.

…But this is what a Manitoban wakes up to every morning (and sees before going to sleep) virtually every day for months on end! If one stops to think about the landscape too long, it will send a wave of panic through their whole nervous system. An awful, sickly feeling suddenly takes hold, a feeling that the whole world might be like this — that This is All There Is. This freezing, bleak, unending Grey blanket.

The feeling soon fades away. Of course, the whole world can’t be like this, can it? The thought was foolish. And then you look out again, out at where you think the horizon must be, content in the knowledge that soon this god-awful season will be over and you will still be there. You will have lived through another winter in Manitoba, your mind still intact.

The first Friday of March happened to begin with one such dawn, and after my morning battle with The Grey, things picked up a little. Plans were made. ‘Paul’, a friend of mine, was having his 20th birthday party that night in the city, and damned if I was going to miss it. After a few text messages, it was obvious to me that Paul was way too high for one in the afternoon. My requests for details about the party were met with incoherent, semi-functional responses it what must have been English. But it was after all his birthday, and he could do what he wanted. Eventually I got the details for the night straightened out to a suitable level, and went back to class. That was all. Just another night on the town, nothing more, nothing less.

The party didn’t start until 9:00, and my classes were all finished by 2:30. Living in one of those small towns I mentioned earlier, getting back into the city that evening would have been a pain in the ass. The only sensible option was to stay in Winnipeg. But where to go, what to do? The university was dead, emptied out for the weekend. Go see a movie? ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ is not a good flick to see alone, I’m sure. Shop a little? I already own enough T-shirts, and there aren’t too many holes in most of them. And then, like lightning, the answer came to me. I remember sitting at a cafeteria table with friends.

“Hey guys, I think I’m gonna walk to Club Regent.”
“It’s snowing out.”
“Yeah, so?”
“Rob, Regent is miles away. You aren’t gonna walk there.”
“Wanna bet?”
“No. You’re already planning on walking to a casino, you don’t need any help with the gambling problem.”

I suppose I had to let that one slide. At this point, by all appearances, I could pass as an addict. My eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep and from hours poring over papers and assignments. A thin, mangy beard was spreading across my face, a result of a misguided bet that I would not shave over the course of Lent. So far so good. All that was needed now to complete the gambler facade was a mad, obsessive urge to bet.

But gambling was not the objective here. If it were, I would be at the roulette table right now rather than in front of a writing desk telling this story. Planning to walk – not take a cab or bus, but walk – for miles to reach a gambling house on the other side of town, even though other casinos are far closer, is not the behaviour of a hopeless gambler. No, the end goal here was not money or strongly mixed cocktails. It was nothing tangible of concrete. The end goal was the journey itself. Nothing can righteously describe why I chose to make the pilgrimage that night. The impulse must be felt to be understood. It had something to do with being told I wouldn’t or couldn’t, and with the slight risk that the journey entailed. But it mostly had to do with the fact that nothing particularly interesting had happened in a very long time. The walk would make for a decent story if anything, something to shake myself from the rut I had gotten into.

So, at 4:30 in the afternoon, I find directions to Club Regent on Google Maps, and set out. I consider stopping in for a nice dinner at a halfway decent restaurant, but time is of the essence. I settle for pizza at the Portage Place food court. Not that great, but it doesn’t matter. A panhandler begs me for change, and I drop him a couple bucks. Hopefully he spent it on something worthwhile, like booze.

Half an hour passes. I begin to doubt the advice of Google Maps. Snow sculptures of toques with legs sticking out of them adorn the streets, many half melted and crumbling. There is something strange and unfamiliar about this place. Doubt sets in. Was this really the way I meant to go? I text ‘Micheal’, a friend who is by now riding on a crowded bus back into Selkirk.

Rob (5:01): “I’m beginning to think walking alone across town was a bad choice”
Mike (5:02): “No really”
Rob (5:15): “All the signs are in French here”
Mike (5:25): “Nice”
Rob (5:25): “Yup Yup Yup”
Mike (5:26): “Dude you have made a huge mistake”
Who, me? Rob Holt? Never.
Mike (5:27): “You are not going to get there”

That remark was the Point of No Return for my evening. It was all the motivation I needed to press onward. Somehow the knowledge that someone did not expect me to see this through made it all the more important that I keep going. To turn back now would be to admit failure, to settle with what I already had – and right then, all I had was The Grey. I would not, could not allow it to win, because beyond that horizon, there is something else. There must be.

I walked into a gas station, spotted the map kiosk, picked up the downtown Winnipeg section and replotted my route. All the while, a French-speaking teen boy with the unfortunate task of working the till kept staring at me. No doubt he was silently hoping that this chilly, bearded Drifter-Looking-Type wasn’t going to make off with any of the store’s precious contents. I flashed the kid a smile, all teeth, before walking out. His eyes followed me out the door.

A similar scene unfolded nearly two hours later. Having taken two wrong turns and walking for miles up and down Lagimodiere without realizing it was the wrong street, the sun had now set. The temperature was now steadily falling. I trudged into a Sobey’s, hoping they might have a map or two. Surely enough, there at the customer service desk, there was another kiosk just like at the gas station. My fingers, numb with cold, fumbled to open it. It fell out of my hands, and I squatted down to pick it up. When I looked up, I saw a young girl working the till in front of me. Our eyes met, and while I tried to smile, there was a definite look of suppressed disgust on her face. I recognized it as an expression I would reserve for hated relatives or noisy drunks. It was a look of masked contempt, and I really can’t blame her for bringing it out. Ice had built up in my sparse beard, and was now melting and trickling down my chin. I shivered, fumbled and breathed heavily, unable to feel my fingers or even grasp a map. I looked and felt like a wreck, and she undoubtedly sensed that. She wanted to know if I was a threat, whether she should contact the police immediately or just let me wander like a lost child through the aisles for a while before leaving of my own accord. It was not one of my prouder moments. I used the customer bathroom, ran some hot water over my numb hands, bought a Dr. Pepper, and knowing now where I had to get, exited. No hassles, but no big, fake, friendly “We Appreciate Your Business” smiles either.

Seven fourty five. After three hours of walking (two and a half without seeing a single person on the sidewalk), an array of flickering lights peeks out from behind the dark silhouette of a building. In bright white lights, there it is — CLUB REGENT. I have triumphed over the elements, the city’s poor street planning, and common sense to make it to this place. A sense of triumph sets in. I fire off a few quick “Just-So-You-Know-I’m-Still-Alive” texts.

One person replies, “Oh my god. I’m glad you didn’t die”.
Micheal responds, “Dude”.
Yet another answers, “Holy shit…Was it worth it?”

Let’s find out. The night is still young, and the tables are calling. I pause a moment, lick my lips, shiver one last time in the Manitoba cold, and step inside.

To be continued…

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