footloose in wonderland

Footloose in Wonderland

by Greg Blanchette


Swami Georgie had an environmental epiphany last month after reading an essay in one of his high-brow alternative magazines. “I’m going to do what’s right for the environment,” he pronounced at a dinner party one evening, with his trademark mix of earnestness and bullshit. “I’m moving to Manhattan.”

It’s widely recognized that the Swami, as a Tofino patriarch, speaks mostly for audience reaction, and this harvested the usual crop of raised eyebrows.

“Think about it,” he says. “You’d live in a small apartment because the rents are so high. Most of your walls adjoin other apartments, so heating is more efficient. Traffic is in constant gridlock, so the neighbourhoods are set up so you can walk most places you need to go, for shopping and stuff. And there’s the subway or a taxi for the rest. It’s the perfect minimum-impact lifestyle. We should all be living in cities. This back-to-the-land thing…” He waved a dismissive hand in the air.

I thought this over later, on the long drive back to Ucluelet. (I had leisure to think because I wasn’t driving, I’d bummed a lift from my neighbour.) The defining quality of the rural, it seems, is distance — from urban centres, mainly, and to a lesser extent from your neighbours. And in the modern world distance cannot be tolerated — it demands transportation.

Bucking this imperative is difficult. I know, because, in my former life, appalled by the ubiquitous effect of car upon city (where a third of land is sacrificed to soulless automotive amenities like roads and parking), I swore I’d never own a car. That choice instantly circumscribed my whole life, dictating everything from job possibilities to recreational pursuits.

Given a decent bicycle, suitable clothing, and a firm constitution it was workable, if some- times wet or boring. Naively, I had believed that moving to the coast, which I did six years ago, would cure this situation. “Small town,” the thinking went, “equals walking everywhere.” How quickly I found this was not so!

Pretty much everything you want to do out here means going somewhere, often far away, and usually with a pile of accompanying people and/or stuff. Even a seemingly back-to-nature pursuit like surfing demands a vehicle — for the boards, the towels, the beer, for getting everybody to the beach … all but impossible without. Which makes surfing impossible for me. That’s the dilemma: you may be car-free for the loftiest of environmental, moral, and aesthetic reasons, but when you have to get somewhere in a hurry or move a lot of stuff, you’re hooped. If you ain’t got the wheels, boy, you’re begging the ride.

I interject here that hitch-hiking is not an option for me, though it seems to work for others. I, however, am the world’s worst hitch-hiker. Something about my appearance screams “axe murderer”: I can stand by the Esso with a stupid-friendly grin and my thumb out for an hour without getting a ride.

No, friends with cars are the only sensible way. But it’s hard on the ego to be begging rides all the time. Even if your victim is driving to the same place you’re going anyway, it still feels like imposing. And it’s tiring — phoning someone, having the catch-up chat, popping the question, discussing the reasons they can’t help, saying good-bye, phoning another likely prospect… it can take all afternoon to strike it lucky.

Besides, the neo-con über-commandment of the age is that everybody takes care of their own needs. This world looks unkindly on social leeches, and harshest of all on the smugly righteous leech — the category occupied by us voluntary car-free types. So it’s impossible to escape the feeling that you’re taking advantage of the charity of your betters (namely those who are liquid enough or employed enough (or dumb enough?) to support a car habit.)

Now, the Swami’s pretty nicely set up in Tofino, and has no more intention of moving to Manhattan than of getting a sex change. But as with most everything he says, there are bitter seeds of truth buried in his blather. He has a couple of houses demanding heat, plus trailers and outbuildings, and he lives out of town a ways so he spends a fair bit of time in his big green truck visiting friends, going to the Co-op, and attending various meetings (usually about “sustainability”). There’s no way he can sustain that life without The Vehicle, and he knows it.

The killer is, deep down I’m as lost as him. Sometimes friends go away for a week or two and I get to use their car. And it only takes one, maybe two, rainy-day errands before I say, “Oh well, just this once.” From that point it gets ever easier to hop in The Vehicle and haul my carcass wherever it has the faintest urge to go. I hate myself for it but I am lost, doomed, until the car-owner comes back and I once again, reluctantly, take to the shoe.

Or, more likely this time of year, the gumboot. You end up schlepping through the precip, moon-suited up, hood pulled down like some prohibition-era thug — the solitary pedestrian in existence while the half world screams by, warm and cozy in its cars, every eye (so it feels) on the weirdo who doesn’t know enough to get out of the weather.

On a good day you may take delight in the freshness of the rain, the little animals you see, the details lost to those behind windshield glass. On a bad days, though (and as winter drags on there are many bad days), you might as well have the word LOSER printed across the back of your jacket.

There’s a frisson of comfort and recognition in meeting other walkers or cyclists. But everybody else in Tough City, for sure, crash-landed on Planet of the Autos a long time ago. I have more than once watched people drive from the post office to the Common Loaf, as though walking were no more an option than slithering.

Maybe in their minds it isn’t. The inveterate walker spends a goodly amount of time refusing rides from pressing acquaintances who apparently no longer believe it’s humanly possible to walk from one end of town to the other. “No, really, I’ll be okay… it only takes 15 minutes… but I want to walk…” And walk we do. There are so darn many places we’ve absolutely got to go. Some wag — it might even have been Swami Georgie himself — once opined that most of the world’s problems would solve themselves if people would just stay home for 20 years.

Until that happy state of affairs arrives, I live for the day I’ll see the Swami hoofing along the mup, his backpack a-bouncing, or maybe standing beside the highway with his thumb out, and a fixed, pleading smile pinned up under his moustache.

Greg Blanchette lives in a bifurcated Wet Coast village that spans two peninsulas and embraces the largest municipal park in the known universe. Lately he has taken to shaking a rattle as he walks the streets.

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Footloose in Wonderland - a Tofino story written by Greg Blanchette for Tofino Time Magazine in March 2005.

tofino time march 2005

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