Travels of a misplaced stereotype

Michael Johansen
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It was a warm, sunny day in the small town of Owen Sound, Ont. I was downtown in my pickup waiting for a traffic light to change from red to green. On the other side of the street, going the opposite way, a woman was also stopped by a set of lights. She looked at the top of my truck. Then she looked again.

“What I want to know,” she called out her open window (mine was rolled all the way down, too), “is, where are you going with those snowshoes?”

The snowshoes were tied prominently to the bicycle rack on the roof of my cab. I also had a bike up there and a telescope tripod, but the large Algonquin-style shoes stuck out the most.

If I’d stayed to answer the woman, I would have held up traffic, since right as she asked her question the lights chang­ed and I had to drive away. I felt delighted by her curiosity. As I drove out of town, I thought about what I could have said, had the green appeared even a minute later. I settled on something cryptically amusing — a joke, if only funny to myself.

“It’s not where I’m going,” I could have shouted just before driving away. “It’s where I’m from!”

Some hot and humid days later, a friend near Quebec City saw I had a full set of studded winter tires in the back of my truck. Two of the tires stood upright, two of them lay flat, and all of them took up a considerable amount of space.

“Where are you going with those?” she asked.

I tried my obscure joke on her, but it apparently doesn’t translate well into French, so I told her about the woman in Owen Sound who had asked about the snowshoes on my roof.

My friend looked at them, where they were displayed like flags over the front of the truck.

“Good question,” was all she said.

That question seems to have been on the minds of a lot of people I’ve driven past these last few weeks. A bicycle perched on the roof of a vehicle attracts little attention (and the tripod just kind of blends right in), but a pair of snowshoes draws a lot of curious (and sometimes amused) glances.

I know if it had been me seeing such a sight, I’d have tried to get a look at the licence plate, to find out if I was one of those fabled Americans known only in mocking stories who come north in summer, expecting to go skiing in the mountains and to see Inuit living in igloos in July. My Newfoundland and Labrador plate probably only disappointed them, and their unspoken questions would have remained unanswered.

The truth is, I had packed my truck for two full seasons of travel. As I had anticipated, it was sum­mer in rural south­ern Ontario and Quebec, with high temperatures and balmy nights. For that season, I had the bike and a telescope, as well as a collapsible kayak and some assorted camping gear.

However, I’d left Labrador in February in the dead of a cold and snowy winter with more than a thousand kilometres of wilderness highway and gravel road ahead of me. For safety’s sake, I had to pack a snow shovel, some thick winter clothing and boots, and an Arctic-rated sleeping bag. I also had a full set of extra tires: the four all-seasons for summer and the studded winters (illegal in Ontario) for winter, of course.

Odd presence

I actually brought the snowshoes along for recreation, not safety, and on the roof they were nicely out of the way.

A gas bar attendant in Labrador City looked at them pointedly, but did not say anything, even though their odd presence on that warm Canada Day would have justified curiosity.

Not everyone is as comfortable confronting strangers as the woman in Owen Sound. If he had asked, I would have been ready.

Nowhere, I could have said. I’m there already: home in Labrador. It may be summer now, but winter will come soon enough.

Michael Johansen is a writer who lives in Labrador.

Geographic location: Owen Sound, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec City Ontario Arctic

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