Douglas & McIntyre
One Native Life

Book details:

August 2008
ISBN 978-1-55365-364-6
5 1/2" x 8 1/2"
272 pages
Biography & Autobiography / Autobiography
$29.95 CAD

Douglas & McIntyre

One Native Life

Excerpt / Additional Content


Driving Thunder Road

There’s a poetry to life that’s easy to miss. You get busy, there are bills to pay, changes to navigate, sudden tragedies, the minute details of keeping yourself on the straight and true. But the poetry is there nonetheless. You just have to live some to learn to see it.

My first car was a 1964 Rambler. It was the Typhoon model, with a 232 in-line six motor and the word “Typhoon” in script along the side. When I got the car in 1976 it was not wearing its age well. The original solar yellow was faded, and the black roof was spotty and easing to dull grey.

The car was rusty, and its seats were torn. It smelled a little funny. The exhaust kicked up smoke, one bumper rattled, and that classic engine took forever to get up to highway speed. The Typhoon sat low on its suspension, causing it to resemble those clown cars you see in the circus. Turning corners I sometimes expected the doors to fall off. But it was my first car and I loved it.

I worked at a place called Seneca Steel in St. Catharines, as a labourer on the foundry floor. My job was to push carts filled with metal plates over to the punch press operators for fabrication, then empty the discarded metal into bins. It was hard, heavy work, with a lot of overtime, and I slept in that car a lot of nights. Truth was, it was my first job in quite a while, and I lived in that old Rambler until I could afford a room.

There was an eight-track cassette deck in the car, and I splurged on music. I drove around the streets of town with The Who, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy pouring out the window. I was twenty-one, working in a steel plant for minimum wage, with no roof over my head and no real direction in my life. But I had a car. That made all the difference.

Summer evenings seemed to last forever back then. Friends and I would cruise for hours, as long as I could afford the gas. We’d lean out the windows shouting at girls or drive to Port Dalhousie beach, where there was an antique carousel, and lean against the hood, drink beer, smoke and listen to music. That car was our clubhouse. Every night we went somewhere.

When everyone had tired out and there was only me and the car and the road, I found an exotic, irreplaceable freedom, a mix of asphalt, headlights and music. I drove into the heart of those deep summer nights, cruising secondary highways and back roads with the windows rolled down and the music washing over me.

There was no desperation in my life then, no anxiety, no worry. There was only the road twisting away into the night, and Bruce Springsteen and his classic song “Thunder Road.” I’d drive and play it again and again until the early morning, when I’d find a place to pull over, get my blankets from the trunk and fall asleep.

That song seemed to come from where I lived, a land of yearning and loneliness with redemption teasingly out of reach. “Thunder Road” was about cars and girls and the way you sometimes find yourself alone on a charcoal stretch of highway wanting nothing else but to drive and drive and drive.

My job bottomed out about the same time the car did. The exhaust system fell off one day, and the drivetrain started making horrendous noises. I sold the car for parts, for about fifty dollars. I tapped it on the hood one last time to say goodbye.

I hitchhiked some after that, explored the country, found whatever work I could. I was a dishwasher in the Salvation Army hostel in Regina, Saskatchewan, when I finally stopped, living in the basement of a rooming house with just my clothes and a stereo. It would be a few years before I had a car again, but I was never without a copy of “Thunder Road.”

There was something in the whine and wail of the harmonica at the start of it that touched me. It was as if a resonant chord lived within me, unresponsive until I heard that sound. It filled my chest, made me want to carry on, made me happy and sad and lonesome all at the same time. Whether I was driving or not, the song recalled old cars, carousels, buddies and shiny, beautiful girls forever out of reach. The nights busting open, those two lanes that can take you anywhere: that’s what Bruce sang. That’s what called to me. The idea of hope, of answers, of salvation just beyond the horizon.

Sometimes now, when the night is long and deep and quiet, I’ll remember an old Rambler and a kid playing a song called “Thunder Road.” Life is filled with poetry. It may not be pretty all the time, but it’s there nonetheless. Our job is to find it for ourselves.


Walking the Territory

These are the days of summer’s end. Above the mountains clouds are a heavy grey, ominous with snow that’s a mere month away. There’s a washed-out feeling to the blue sky now, and the jays and other winter birds have begun to peck about the yard. Even loon calls in the thick purple night are urgent now. Autumn moons. Time to fly.

The morning air bears a nip as the dog trots back from her foray in the trees, heaving fogs of breath. Mist shrouds the lake. The black water speaks of ice and the deep glacial dark of winter. Geese flap down the cleft of lake, angling south, and beavers fatten up on saplings near the shore. These are the days of melancholy, the air chilled and bruised. As you walk the territory of your living, you’re saddened some by the dimming of the light but thrilled at the power of change everywhere around you.

In the autumn of 1986 I walked the northern territory where I was born. My uncle had told me where our camps used to be, and I rented a boat and motor and headed down the Winnipeg River. It was an important trip for me. I’d been reconnected with my native family for eight years by then, but I had no sense of my beginnings, and I wanted to see where it had all started. There was something in those territories I needed. Exactly what that was I didn’t know. I only knew that I needed to walk there.

The summer boaters had all disappeared by that time. There was only me on the water. Powering down the length of the river, I was awed by the incredible combination of fullness and emptiness. The land had a haunting quality. Mysterious secrets lurked in the trees and rocks and bog.

The water was dark, with a bottomless feel. I sensed the presence of big muskies and sturgeons and pike no farther away than the length of an oar. The day was overcast, with some breaks in the cover when the sun poked through. It illuminated rapids and swells and eddies, so that the spume of them glistened like frost against the hard black of the river’s muscle.

When I found the cove across the bay from Minaki, I nosed the boat into it. There was only the ripple of the water and the wind in the trees. Everything else was silent. I cut the engine and allowed the boat to drift in to the thin gravelled stretch of beach. The land seemed to slip by, and there was the sense of time bending in upon itself.

No one had been there for some time. That was obvious from the overgrowth on the narrow trail that wound up from the beach. The trailhead was barely discernible. Everywhere there were windfall trees and exuberant bursts of bracken and bramble and moss and lichen. I had never experienced such stillness.

I didn’t know where to look for the campsite, so I settled into a steady prowling. The ground was rocky and hard to navigate. But I managed to cover a lot of it. The deeper I walked into the bush, the more I got the feeling of time suspended. Only my footfalls on the rock and twigs sounded in that thick unmoving air.

I could feel the land around me. There were no edges to it, no limits, no borders. I stood in the middle of its relentless unfurling, alone, vulnerable, humbled by its magnitude.

I walked for hours. Now and then I’d stop somewhere, sit against a tree and look around. Sometimes I just stood in the forest and felt its quiet power, its pervasive upwards thrust. I never did locate the old campsite, but I found something much more valuable. As I stood in that chill autumnal light, seeing my breath float into the dimness, I found the essence of my Ojibway self.

In the shadow and break of the land, I could imagine my people living. I could sense the discipline they needed to survive out here. I could sense the fortitude, the strength of will, the grit and determination the land asked of them. And I could sense the deep spirituality that it engendered, feel it like an ember from those tribal fires glowing at my core.

I boated later to other spots my uncle had suggested. On each trip to the place my history began, I gleaned more from the land. I never found a physical clue of my beginnings, but the fundamental psychic connection I made has never left me.

I am and will always be Ojibway. Anishinabeg. It is the identity Creator graced me with. What I become in this world is framed forever by that definition, just as it is rooted in the land from which I sprang. As long as there is the land there will always be a home for me, a place my soul can wrap about itself.

When we speak of land claims and treaty rights, this is what we mean. This way of returning to a place where history is a feeling, a spiritual presence that empowers, enables and sustains us. A point of contact with Creator. A prayer and a realization. When you walk the territory of your being, the truth is everywhere around you.