Back in 1974 I was about as lost as you could possibly be. I’d left my adopted home a year or so before and had been living on the street, on welfare, unemployed or working at one dead end job after another for very little money. It was a bleak time. I felt snared by circumstance and left with little hope of better so I began to hit the road just to get away.
I was a hitchhiker then and at that time it was still a safe thing to do. People were open and friendly and rides came often. I don’t know what I was looking for back then, maybe it was just to be heard and sitting in a car chatting with a stranger felt good, safe in the distance new encounters are forged in.
There was a safety in anonymity. I could talk about anything. Drivers mostly just wanted someone to share the highway with and conversations seldom drifted near anything real or dramatic or painful. The car would rumble down the road to wherever it was pointed and I would sit and imagine things turning out better than they ever had when I arrived. I thought it was a perfect way to fill time and days.
Then I met Earl. He was a Finn in his late 60s and after a few decades in Canada he still spoke with a thick accent. But he was friendly and liked to laugh and he told good stories. It felt as though he could remember every detail of everything that had ever happened to him and his stories were rich and deep and engaging. We drove from outside Toronto to the north end of Lake Superior together.
He told me stories about his home in Finland and here in Canada. He spoke about his wife Anna-Liisa. He spoke of their common love of fishing in the Ruunaa Rapids in the River Lieksanjoki, how they loved the feeling of the land coming to inhabit them there. He talked about their dream of building a fishing lodge in Canada and how they slaved to make that a reality. The place they chose was as close to a Finnish landscape as they could find.
He made this country home. When they made their dream happen they infused it with their own energy and their lodge was small but successful. He was happy there. He felt like he belonged and that the story of his life was written well here. He could stand and look out across the broad back of the river and feel connected to his homeland by energy and spirit and then feel connected to Canada by the warmth of his wife’s hand in his as they walked the shoreline.
They largely gave up on towns and cities and worked to make their small home as self-sufficient as possible. Earl came from a long line of lumberjacks and he built an enormous wood house for firewood from trees he felled and bucked himself. They had a root cellar. They smoked fish and Earl hunted and butchered the meat they kept in a freezer. Anna-Liisa baked and put up provisions. Their life was their home and their home was the land.
Then Anna-Liisa died. Earl said it felt like the world suddenly became a quieter place and he struggled to hear the birds. He buried her near the cleft of pink granite she loved and where she had planted flowers in its crevices and cracks. He sat there in her old rocker on summer evenings and sang her Finnish folk songs, drank tea and let his pain wash over him. His life was less without her and he felt lost for a long time.
But he said he felt like it was his country now with his wife laid in the breast of it. Said their spirit and energy had been grafted on to the spirit of Canada itself because of that. He looked at me and asked if I had a place where I could set my feet and spirit down and feel anchored. When I didn’t answer he shook his head sadly.
“I come here to find myself,” he said “and it was not even yet my home and here it’s been yours all along and still we make the same journey.”
He asked me to stay and work for him but I needed to move on. I was still searching for somewhere and couldn’t yet settle for here. So he gave me thirty dollars and a ride to Thunder Bay and a fond wish that I would find a home for myself like he’d found his. “Come back and work,” he said as I left. We both knew I wouldn’t. But I never forgot his story or his words.