From Kamloops you climb out of the arid valley onto the flat, prickly belly of plateau. Then you steer into the hard slant of curve before climbing to the lip of the Nicola Valley.
There it’s all sky and trees and the undulation of mountain leading downward then upward again into the long pitch and trough of the Coquihalla.
From there the road winds downward steeply, the waters beside you cascading all white and blue and green. You feel the air change.
At Hope it hardens, bearing the first tang of salt and the when the road swings out into the glint of hard sunshine that is the Fraser Valley you can feel the ocean beckon like a half remembered promise.
You’ve come to love this drive. You’ve come to know it like the words of an old song, the roll of it like syllables. And it always harkens you back to something, takes you away from the wheel and the traffic to times when the road was all you knew, the gypsy in you seeking an encampment, a fire in the night.
It was the ‘70s. I remember them as a series of departures. There was nothing for me to hang my life on, no peg, no permanence, no marker and I travelled lots.
Back then I saw the country as a Velcro map — if you stayed out there long enough, you were sure to stick to something, somewhere.
I had a friend who travelled with me some. His name was Joe Delaney and he was an ex-army brat who quit school and hit the streets about the same time that I did.
Everyone called him Joey Chips after a character in a TV commercial and even though he hated it, Chips was how we came to know him.
When I met him we were hanging out in St. Catharines, Ontario, at loose ends and trying as hard as we could to be hip and slick and cool. Mostly we hung out with the crowd of street kids who gathered at night around the old courthouse on James St. across from the Hub Tavern.
The first time we took off, we had an old 1963 Buick that threw a rod outside Iron Bridge, east of Sault Ste. Marie. We hitchhiked and wound up in a small town called Echo Bay where a group of locals took exception to the long hairs and we had to fight our way out of town.
We were aiming for Vancouver that time but we turned back in Winnipeg.
The next time we wound up in Thunder Bay where we hired on with a railroad section gang for the CNR. We stayed in trailers outside a railway stop called Shebandowan, halfway between the Lakehead and Atikokan.
It was fall when we arrived and we worked right through that winter leveling track, sweeping switches and freezing in the minus 35 snow.
I got a job in Regina in 1977 working as a manager trainee for the old S.S. Kresge company. Chips thumbed his way out to join me and we got an apartment.
But he was used to a faster life than a prairie town could provide and he left after a few months. I stayed on and when the Kresge job bottomed out after a year, I called Chips and he came back west ready to continue our highway jaunt to anywhere.
That wouldn’t happen. We never got out of town. There was something in me that craved being rooted more than footloose and I found another job and prepared to stay.
Chips hung in there for a while but there were places he needed to go, things he needed to see and if he didn’t exactly know what they were, they called to him anyway.
The last time I saw him was on a sunny April morning in 1978. We stood at the intersection that led to the Trans Canada Highway and drank coffee until the talk ran out and he turned to go.
He shouldered his pack, gave me a gap-toothed grin and walked away. I remember watching him until he disappeared, the road seeming to open up and welcome him, folding in on him and carrying him away.
My life changed after that, banked into the long slow curve that would see me become a writer in the fall of that year, reunite with my native family, find my roots and begin the set of travels that would lead me to journalism awards, published books, the love of an amazing woman and a cabin in the mountains at 52.
But he was my last best friend — Joey Chips Delaney. See, there’s a union that happens when you’re disenfranchised and displaced. There’s a gap in you that only another nomad understands.
You don’t even have to speak of it to know that it exists in both of you. Instead it shows in the way you take so easily to the road, to leaving, to departures sudden and sharp and sad.
I don’t know what happened to him. It’s been 30 years and I still remember the talks, the ungrounded dreams of wanderers certain that next move will be the big move, that the next choice will result in the tumblers of the universe clicking into place, that the next stop on the road will be where she or it or they are waiting, faces already familiar as the longing you carry.
We travelled a lot of hard miles. We shared soup kitchens, flops, fistfights, drunk tanks, hangovers and the back-breaking, mind-numbing work of unskilled men.
We shared the desperate urgency of youth. We shared a lot of lonely highways, each of them leading us somewhere, in our hearts and in our minds, in our wishes and in our dreams, all tenuous and fleeting and frail.
He was my Dean Moriarty. He’s in his 50s now too and wherever he is, I wish him well and hope for him all the grace that these highways have led me to.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.