Divine encounters by Coldwater

Michael Johansen
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Getting out of Toronto used to mean taking the Spadina subway to Finch Avenue and then transferring to a westbound bus, getting off right beside an onramp for Highway 400 - the best place in the city to hitch a ride north.
Most times, I travelled alone in my younger days, but one time I had company. A guy named Joe got on the bus and happened to choose the seat beside mine. We started talking and found we had the same plans.
We decided to try our luck hitchhiking together. I should have known better.
With me and Joe, every ride was slow in coming. Every one was short. The first didn't even take us out of the city, but deposited us at a worse onramp.
Every one that followed was like that, until finally, 12 hours later, the warm sun was long gone and we were under a dim streetlight by the turnoff to the aptly named town of Coldwater.
After our first favourable impressions of each other, Joe and I turned out not to be such good travelling companions after all. For me, the problem became clear when Joe's only topic of conversation turned out to be his love for Jesus Christ. He talked about it nonstop, about how he'd found salvation and turned his life around to become a better person - and good for him, I said, and I meant it.
When we got picked up, he'd talk about it nonstop with the drivers, who sometimes dropped us off quicker than we'd expected. Back on the side of the road, he'd talk about it to me some more.
Joe's problem was that I did not share his religious views and I had no intention of adopting them, no matter how much he set his mind to changing mine.
My first encounter with religion, when I was about four years old, had set me on my course. It took the form of a comic book I found in a gutter. The colourful panels promised some people a happy existence after death, but threatened unbelievers like me with eternal suffering in a sea of boiling magma. Neither option made any sense to me, and they still don't.
By the time Joe and I met, I had already decided I will probably only find out what happens after death when I die. I am curious to discover if I'm right or wrong about hellfire and damnation, but I'm in no hurry to settle the question.
Unfortunately, Joe did not share my attitude. When we stood in subzero darkness beside the deserted highway, he insisted the two of us should get down on our knees to pray to Jesus Christ for a lift. I do not believe in a god, I told him, and even if I did I would not pray for something as mundane as a ride.
On reflection, I may have been unfair to Joe, but only because he was from Louisiana and his thin blood made a warm car a much more important thing for him than it was for me. I felt the cold, but I'd known worse and I could take it. Joe, on the other hand, was probably getting a foretaste of his hell.
Joe never said another word to me. He kneeled on the dirt shoulder and prayed for several minutes. Then he got up, crossed the highway and stuck his thumb out for a car that soon appeared. It stopped. He climbed inside and it whisked him away to the south.
As soon as the taillights faded, another car came my way, giving me a ride all the way home, dropping me off at my front door.
Today, that spot on the lonely highway is buried under tonnes of split-laned concrete and there isn't a hitchhiker in sight, but as I pass the Coldwater sign, the memories return.
I didn't make a friend that day, nor he a convert, but at least I got to experience a fascinating example of cosmic chance - or maybe it was a divine joke staged just for me.

Michael Johansen has gone into travel mode. For the next few months, he'll be writing from everywhere between Labrador and Vancouver Island and
Tierra del Fuego.

Geographic location: Toronto, Finch Avenue, Louisiana Labrador Vancouver Island Tierra del Fuego

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