By chance and without irony, I decided to read “Heart of Darkness” on my trip to the west coast. Not that I’m comparing Joseph Conrad’s dreamlike journey up an African river into the savage soul of man to a family road trip up the Trans-Canada in a Hyundai Tucson. But travel, especially with family, can become a journey into the grumpy soul of man. This man, anyway.
We begin with the brain, that faithless betrayer. Despite reasonable education and the supposed dominance of logic, the irrational will have its way. The brain is kind of Republican that way.
Outside Drumheller, Alberta, for example, I was groping blindly in our basket of camp dishes when my middle finger slid sickeningly down the sharp edge of a paring knife. (“The horror! The horror!”) I cried out, pulled my hand back and put pressure on the cut, but never actually examining the wound.
“I’m okay,” I said. “It’s not bleeding much. Just need a Band-Aid.”
That’s what I said, but my stomach began to turn and my head grew dizzy. The irrational brain was in charge now. By the time I got back in the car (“I’ll drive,” my wife said), the Badland scenery was starting to fade to white.
My family tried to be helpful: “Do you need a hospital, stitches, a barf bag?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, hoping they could hear me with my head between my knees.
I learned three things: One, never set up your camp dishes like a Burmese tiger trap. Two, always have Band-Aids on hand to cover up the wound and the fact that it really wasn’t worth fainting over.
Third, it doesn’t matter that you know it’s just a minor cut. If your brain decides it’s going to check out, it’s going to check out.
The same goes for moods. When the dusky funk of grouchiness descends on you, there’s not much that can disperse it. Not even candy.
Everyone has specific family-travel grumpy triggers. It might be the gastric and spiritual distress brought on by too much gas-station coffee. It could be conflicts over refreshing air conditioning versus rolled down windows and resultant deafness.
For my wife, it’s failing to stop en route to check things out. For me, it’s stopping en route to check things out. You can see how this might cause a conflict.
“We’re on vacation,” is her argument.
“At this pace, we’ll be in BC by September,” is mine.
Unfortunately, it’s my turn in the back seat when we turn off the Trans-Canada onto a Manitoba dirt road heading for Reptile Land. I can only fume silently as we take a wrong turn and circle back on the Trans-Canada, wasting more travel time. I choke back a “told you so” as we pull into the driveway with its shacks, dodgy vehicles and buildings that have long given up hope for a fresh coat of paint. As we enter the humid, jumble-cluttered lobby, I form my face into a put-out expression like I’m trying to avoid a bungy smell, which is, in fact, the case.
But as we enter the attraction’s heart of dimness, with its steamy displays of lizards, snakes and gators, a fact emerges: it’s feeding time.
Feeding time! Why, that’s an asp of a different colour!
I’m not saying that everyone will be cheered by rabbit-munching crocodiles or that the sight of snakes swallowing freshly euthanized rodents will bring a smile to your face (“Mistah Rat — he dead.”). But it’s certainly not something you see every day.
Which is, as my wife points out, the point. It’s taken me 46 years to get to the prairies, and barring a cross-country flight from the law, it may be awhile before I pass here again.
So: Take a detour to climb the Badland hoodoos? Sure. Pull off the road to trek the Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk? You bet. Mount Lady MacDonald? Don’t mind if I do.
Adjusting expectations can keep this family trip from becoming a savage journey.
Unless, of course, they start mocking me for nearly fainting.