Gloria called one evening with an elaborate story of why she had ended up in Edmonton and not in Fort McMurray, working, like she was supposed to be doing. All I hear is, “do you want to join me?” I quit my job and a week later, I left Montreal in a Drive-Away car, gas paid to deliver a Park Avenue Buick to Saskatoon. It was the summer of 1981, I was almost twenty and this next step was the only thing I was sure about.
Ontario went on for days; trees and lakes and glittering pink granite. The Prairies held a sky so big that I watched lightning storms miles away while driving under calm cumulous clouds. The wheat and canola weren’t very high yet—it was June—but plenty of other grasses rustled in the wind, green and gold. The backseat of the Buick was huge, perfect for sleeping. I parked in rest areas or gas stations after driving long into the night listening to music and talk radio. I had never been nowhere in particular.
In Saskatoon, I dropped off the Buick at a used car lot, and by mid-afternoon, I was on the Trans-Canada highway heading to Edmonton. I stuck out my thumb, quickly got a ride, and climbed for the first time into an eighteen-wheeler. The family-man driver scolded me on the dangers of a girl hitchhiking alone—he’d picked me up to save me—but I didn’t pay much attention, distracted by the novelty of riding high on the springy seat way above the rest of the traffic. I listened instead to the grind of the gears.
That evening, I got off a city bus in front of the Muttart Conservatory, botanical gardens across the river from downtown Edmonton, with distinctive glass pyramid greenhouses that looked like giant skylights. Gloria was sitting on the bus-stop bench, sullen, impatient, as if she regretted asking me to come. The first words out of her mouth were, “You don’t really need those boots, and I don’t know about that pack.” It was not the reunion I was hoping for. We awkwardly ate the crackers and cheese that Gloria produced from her bag and watched the park empty, and then snuck up towards the glowing pyramids to find a place for the night. We checked out the Temperate and Tropical greenhouses, and rolled out our sleeping bags beside the Arid pyramid. The cacti and red rocks looked so warm behind the glass, and after spending the night shivering in the damp grass, we decided to head straight south, to the desert.
I had my birthday in Yellowstone National Park, where Gloria and I spent three days hiking deep into the mountains. One evening at dusk, a foraging moose blocked our path, barely looking at us, so we sat down and waited for her to lumber off into the woods. I felt very small sitting by our fire at night; the light from the flames made the forest darker and there were lots of rustling noises outside of our flimsy tent as we fell asleep. I was more wary of Gloria. There was an unmistakable pull—nameless—but then she’d push away with a story about how she might get together later, sometime, with a long-haired guy she’d had sex with on her way up to Fort McMurray. By the time our relationship ended, years later, I knew that Fort McMurray was a place she’d never been to, and that the long-haired guy was a man she’d never met. But this was first love; I wanted to follow the scent, not heed the warning signs. Standing by the side of the road, thumb extended, it was exhilarating to improvise and be anonymous and totally confused.
It was a hot day in a small town in Colorado. We’d just come out of a little grocery store and settled on top of a stone fence to eat something. Gloria pulled an ice cream sandwich out of her pocket. It was like a magic trick. “I’m poor,” she declared, “and I think it’s OK to steal a little sometimes.” I don’t remember what I thought, I just took my cue and followed suit—easily slipping cheese and chocolate into the pockets of my baggy shorts while chatting with cashiers as I paid for bread and peanut butter. “You’re good at this,” Gloria observed one day as I produced a jar of blueberry jam from the front of my shorts. I liked that she noticed.
We crossed into Arizona at the Four Corners, an intersection of desolate highways heading off into four states. The Welcome plaques were set into the red dirt, and we did what everyone probably does: we put one hand in Utah, the other in Colorado, the right foot in New Mexico, and the left in Arizona. The beauty of the American Southwest was sometimes undermined by our glimpses of the social landscape. Sitting at the counter of a noisy truck-stop diner, Gloria and I were being treated to a greasy meal by the trucker who was giving us a lift. It took me a few minutes to focus above the din and notice the anti-homosexual hate spilling from the TV up in the corner. It might have been Jerry Falwell or another lunatic from the Moral Majority. This was their turf, and the early eighties, their heyday. The truck driver was watching me; “homosexuals are sick,” he said paternally, shaking his head like we were little kids who had a lot to learn. We did.
My grandfather’s security-guard billy bat was tucked neatly into the side of my rolled-up sleeping bag, so my pack was to be placed in the back seat of any car we got into. If the driver got nasty, the person in back would pull out the bat and whack him in the head; the front-seat passenger had to steer the car to the side of the road. We weren’t really sure about what would come next. Inevitably, sometimes our packs were stuffed in a trunk or tossed into the back of a pick-up. I usually had a folding knife in my pocket, for slicing cheese or cutting the occasional rope, but couldn’t imagine sticking it into anyone’s neck. I was confident about using the bat.
The further south we went, the fewer people we encountered—campgrounds were deserted, candles melted in our tent. Seated single file in the narrow shade of a saguaro cactus, we waited a long time for lifts, watching for a telltale dust cloud to emerge, miles away, from the heat shimmer. As the vehicle got close, we’d jump up and stick out our thumbs. “Are you girls crazy?” People always picked us up. Sun-bleached hippies once piled us into their wreck of a station wagon and we wound our way out of the scorched red desert into a miraculous river valley, born-again Bob Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming” playing on the tape deck. That night we camped on their property, and despite their kindness pretended to be asleep in our tent when they came back to talk to us about Jesus.
Eventually leaving the heat of the desert for a blue ocean breeze, we arrived in San Diego early one afternoon after a long ride with a chatty patio-stone salesman from Yuma, Arizona. We dumped our stuff on the beach, ran across the hot sand and launched our bodies into the ocean, salt water soothing scratches and cuts I didn’t know I had. We caught our breath on the sand, drinking the Southern Comfort I’d snatched from a grocery store on the way to the beach, and then ran back into the water, bodysurfing, the waves tossing us onto the shore, the undertow dragging us back out, until suddenly, I was too far out. The lifeguard, standing on his chair, whistled furiously at us to get back. Gloria swam back with a bit of effort, but I was a poor swimmer at the best of times, and now I was drunk and my big baggy army shorts were dragging me down—fabulous for shoplifting, but not so great for swimming. I tried to wrestle them off but there were buttons, snaps and a belt and the beach was getting smaller and smaller, until, just like a movie with a happy ending, a surfer boy paddled to my rescue. I clung to the end of his board with one hand, and tried to keep my shorts on with the other as he towed me to shore. Safe on the sand, I wanted to shake the surfer’s hand, or thank him somehow, but he was gone before I could say a word. My shorts were half off and I’d been beaten up by the ocean. But worse, was that Gloria had barely registered my near death and dramatic rescue. “Oh, I could see you were going to be fine,” she said, digging through her pack for food. I felt silly for wanting her attention so I walked off to a bench on the esplanade.
Heat from the late afternoon sun warmed me, dried me. The adrenalin subsided. I was sore from all the thrashing. People walked, ran and rollerbladed by. Families gathered up their picnics, pails and beach umbrellas, kids running barefoot and sandy into the parking lot. I watched the evening crowd drift in with brown-bagged bottles, tacos and blankets. In my scruffy shorts on a bench by the beach in the California sun, cleaning my ears with a Q-tip I’d found in my pocket, I was rapt. No one, besides Gloria, knew who I was.
For nine months—the time between trips—I lived in a small one-room apartment on Parc and Mont- Royal. I walked to my job at a bookstore through the park, past the gazebo where travellers would sometimes be waking up when I went by. I loved that the parallel universe of backpacking passed right through my neighbourhood; I could jump back in whenever I wanted. Gloria went to live with her parents, but often stayed with me. She started, and then left, university, but went through the motions, and spent a lot of time in the library studying Greek mythology. Every Thursday night, we dropped acid. Lights off, candles lit, we’d sit on the floor cross-legged across from each other, waiting. A word, a glance, a sound from the hallway might be the trigger for a writing spree: on scrap paper, in book margins or on the wall—until another impulse prompted us to rip it all up. We made small sculptures from the melted candle wax, once creating an elaborate design on the window that never completely came off no matter how much lighter fluid I used.
Gloria and I were now a couple, an undercover couple, but couples made plans. We were heading to Europe and called it a honeymoon. I packed a camera, a journal with an embossed gold sun and a copy of Les Miserables that I had stolen from work, and booked tickets to London. Freddie Laker Skytrains was one of the first no-frills charters. It was already bankrupt by the time we wanted return tickets six months later. You brought your own food, and there was a smoking section towards the back of the plane. The idea was more fun than the experience; it was hard to enjoy a smoke in the foul air, dodging people, and their dirty looks, as they made their way to the toilets.
In Europe, we didn’t shoplift as much; the stores were smaller, the shopkeepers sterner, maybe we didn’t have to impress each other in quite the same way. We turned our attention to the thrill of sneaking into museums and castles. It was impossible to get past the medieval wood doors and barred windows, but at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye, we managed to scale a rough stone wall, using vines as ropes. We were pulled over the top of the wall onto a wide balcony by a man who thought that two Canadian girls climbing the castle wall was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.
That summer of 1982 was a rainy one in the UK. We got tarps to cover our cheap tent, and, when it was too wet to be out, we hung out in dark pubs, or in cozy public libraries reading newspapers and magazines, catching up on the world we were living alongside. Once, on the mossy, purple moors, miles from anywhere, our shoes squishing with water, we broke down and knocked on the door of a B&B. A large, square, 250 year-old farmhouse set back from the road, it was a cold, draughty place, and the lady of the house wasn’t thrilled to take us in—for good reason: we used up all the hot water trying to warm up in the tub, and almost started a fire when my sleeping bag started to singe and smoke on the radiator. On sunny days we camped in fields beside stone walls, or near abandoned tin mine shafts or cathedral ruins, and cooked pasta dinners on a single-burner stove perched atop a hardback book on Greek gods and goddesses that Gloria had taken from her local library.
Our ride out of the Scottish Highlands was in a noisy mini-bus full of under-privileged pre-teens from Glasgow. They were on a weekend trip away with three male social workers and they picked us up for distraction. Some of the kids were wild to get back to the city, belligerent, yelling at each other in a thick accent I couldn’t understand. I sat beside a withdrawn girl dressed in a tidy, buttoned-up, heartbreakingly worn dress coat. We both gazed out the window as the mountains rose from the peat. As the bus was about to pass under a rainbow, everyone came together for a moment. At least, it seemed like we passed underneath. Within seconds the kids started arguing about whether it was even possible to pass under a rainbow since it moves depending on your perspective.
In the town of Oban we stopped for lunch, and before they were let loose, the kids were warned not to steal anything. As soon as we got back on the bus, it was clear that something had happened during that unsupervised hour. The kids started hissing, low at first. One of the girls had stolen something, and another girl had told on her—snake, a snitch, they hissed. Somebody in the back punched her in the face. The party was over; it was straight back to Glasgow, with no supper. We waved goodbye at dusk, next to a small village campground. One of the little skinheads, whose father was in jail for murder, blew us a kiss out the back window.
Strangers usually read us as sisters. We laughed it off, because we looked nothing alike, which left people puzzled, searching our faces for clues to explain the intimacy. Except for Dave and Dave—our first gay couple—they spotted us immediately. After squeezing us into their red Mini Austin, they impulsively invited us to stay for a few days in their subsidized council flat on the outskirts of Manchester. Dave, the hairdresser, French-braided my long hair and cut Gloria’s off. Dave, the burglar-alarm installer, made us chip butties—french-fry sandwiches—with mashed peas and soggy white bread. We watched TV; Boy George pranced on Top of the Pops. Their three-room cement block apartment felt luxurious, and it was one of the few times on our honeymoon that we felt comfortable enough to have sex.
We returned from our European travels a few days before Christmas. I arrived unannounced. Grubby after living on the beach and working in cucumber factories in Greece, I scared my family when I walked through the back door one night while they were watching TV. My bed at home was cozy, but the scrutiny of home was hard. My parents were concerned that I made little effort to see anyone other than Gloria, and I discovered that my friends didn’t really like hanging out with her either. At a party one night, I watched from the kitchen doorway as people avoided my girlfriend. Barefoot and cross-legged on the floor, spilling wine and tobacco on her clothes as she rolled cigarettes, she was glassy-eyed and rude and spat on the floor in disgust for emphasis. I was afraid of this Gloria, but felt an obligation, and even an inexplicable privilege at being the one chosen to take care of her.
As fast as we could make money, we left again, this time for New Zealand. It was the farthest possible destination. There we encountered the honour system: you pitched a tent and popped the money through the slot of a wooden box attached to a pole. Shopkeepers left us alone while they went to the back in search of a photo of a daughter who now lived in Ottawa, and did we, by any chance, know her? We probably didn’t always pay our camping fees, but it was disarming to be trusted. When Gloria stole a rock from the private collection of the feral goat hunter who’d taken us in, I was aghast. Our insular complicity, the way we were together in the world, had changed.
The bubble of our relationship burst when we decided to buy a second hand car with two girls in Australia. It was the best way to negotiate the massive outback—relentless sun during the day, freezing at night. We rarely saw anyone hitchhiking in the desert. I loved driving the tough Holden station wagon with the three-speed gearshift on the steering wheel shaft. As a group we were well prepared: two spare tires, lots of water and a how-to car mechanics manual which we barely had to consult. But as a couple, Gloria and I were not used to witnesses, and even lost the intimacy of our tent space when the zipper on the other tent broke one night, in the red-dirt middle of nowhere. I look back, thirty years later, at the tiny handwriting in my travel journal; I wanted privacy. The unlined pages are solid with miniature letters and curving sentences—I need patience, and a magnifying glass, to read them now. The four of us argued over food portions, where to go, where to put up the tent, but were finally unanimous about when to sell the car. Five months after we bought it, the car was sold in Perth, for just a little less than what we had paid for it.
Montreal was new to me after all those years away and I wasn’t attached to anything: apartment, neighbourhood or friends. In the late eighties, there were more places for rent than tenants, and I lived for a while in a huge run-down third-floor apartment in Saint-Henri near the Atwater market. There were so many rooms I forgot about them, and once discovered three pigeons quietly living in the front. I moved up the hill to the Plateau and found part-time work at a stock photo agency across the St. Lawrence river, riding my bike over the looming Jacques-Cartier bridge, steel girders shaking and rattling every time a trunk thundered by. My days were spent hunched over a light table selecting photos of anything from grizzly bears, to Bolivian markets and kids blowing bubbles, for magazines, calendars and schoolbooks. It was a little like travelling. And shoplifting—slipping toothpaste into my bag here, a little chocolate in my pocket there—kept me tethered to life on the road, and to Gloria.