Saturday, June 27, 2015


I've long been fascinated with railways. Not trains, but railways. They're things that can spirit you away from where you are to places where you could be. 

Abandoned railways take you to times where you can't be. They are corridors back into history, connecting the present to places once relevant but since forgotten. To disappear down one of these isolated rights of way is to vanish into obscurity.

In my youth, when I backpacked around southern British Columbia and trekked the abandoned Kettle Valley Railway, hitch-hiking was my default mode of transport. On one trip I was picked up by a lady of about forty in a rented car. She was leaving her life behind, resiling from an interminable and rancorous custody battle for her 9-year-old daughter. Her character had been irremediably maligned in court, and she had lost her last appeal. I was shocked to think of what it must take to make a mother leave her child behind. She was philosophical but clearly broken by it.

I was just 23 and coming off the collapse of my own marriage. We were young and it was my first real relationship. We were together four years.

"So what are you looking for?" the mother asked. She was calm and kind. "Why are you out here on the road?"

I liked her. She was sincere and kind. I considered her question seriously but all I could come up with was a flimsy, "I really don't know." I was a bit unsettled, by both the impotence of my answer and at not having contemplated an answer at all. What unseen motive is moving me?

"I've come across a number of young men your age doing the same thing," she said. "Journeying, searching. And they're never really sure what they're searching for. It makes me wonder what it is." She paused reflectively. "I think maybe it becomes clear only later, after it's done." 

Now beyond her age then, I wonder if she was looking for her own answers. Looking back, had I been able to at the time I'd have answered her this: We have no idea what our lives mean. We just tell our stories and the meaning emerges, ethereally like consciousness emerging from our cerebral sweetbreads. That's why we tell our stories: we are compelled to find the meaning in our lives. 

I'm reminded of this conversation as I return to the abandoned Kettle Valley Railway, twenty years later, after the end of another significant relationship in my life. What am I doing? Am I looking for something? As young adults we are still weaving our tales; as old adults do we review them? Is this a manifestation of mid-life crisis? In our forties do we regress to our twenties to see where we went wrong?

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