Thursday, 20 February 2014

Tumbler Ridge

This isn't a story about running or hiking or really anything outdoorsy. I've had it on the tip of my tongue for years and years, but was never quite sure how to say it (I write much better than I speak, things get less jumbled) or how to frame it. It's a job story - sort of. In the end, though, it wakes me up at 2am on nights when the blur of traffic keeps me up, and sits with me deep into a run when other thoughts go away. It's been here, itching at me, for a while - I just needed to find the right words.

And anyways, it is enough like running - the part of running that takes me to strange places, uncomfortable places, places where the skim of politeness and normalcy get sweated off, so just the uncomfortable guts remain.(also, the last couple weeks have been a bit short of run adventures, so here goes)

Fall 2006
I was one week into my job as an articling student at a Big 4 firm in Vancouver. Other students, fresh from training, were photocopying, or finding files, or hole punching. I was getting ready to go to Tumbler Ridge, in Northern BC, to visit a coal mine. It's neither here nor there, but I was barely 22 years old and barely four months into living in Vancouver and mostly vibrating with loneliness in an unfamiliar city full of too much concrete and glass.

Travel time
The plan was to observe the inventory at a coal mine. I was sent up because I was the cheapest available labour. The supervisor on the job was sent up because he was very good at his job. Being very good at your job in a Big 4 firm means working a lot and doing unpleasant things, in hopes of getting promoted and having other people do the unpleasant things for you. In this case, it meant my supervisor had to visit northern BC to look at big piles of coal on the night he was supposed to take his wife out to a nice dinner for their wedding anniversary. So that was pretty much the spirits he was in.

Our flight to Prince George left at 7am. I arrived at the airport way too early for the flight,  and fidgeted in the lounge for almost an hour. My supervisor arrived 10 minutes before take-off, glowering into a muffin and coffee. The plane took off and it was still dark outside. I shut my eyes to sleep - then felt guilty as I saw my supervisor working on his laptop.

The plane we flew on was tiny, and barely half-full. This is an important detail, because it shows just how unlikely it was that my luggage would be lost. But my luggage was lost. Because we would be flying back late the next day, there was no point arranging to have it returned. I was wearing jeans, a sweatshirt, and running shoes. It was expected to get well below freezing.

My supervisor impatiently sorted out our rental car, and we started the 2.5hr drive to Tumbler Ridge. It was a sorta-sunny late September day. The light was milky and muted and the blue sky already had the pale cast of winter. We drove over low hills with trees turning orange, past rivers and cliffs. The towns we went through had one stoplight and a few scattered buildings. At the biggest one, we picked up supplies - a toothbrush for me, and a container of honey peanuts - our lunch.

The town
We arrived in Tumbler Ridge at midday, not as a large town but more as an exhausting of all other options on the road. It was a mining town - there were two coal mines nearby - and in the middle of the day it was deserted. All the buildings were low-rises, all grey concrete. The town was boom-bust - at that time, a nice house could be bought for $25,000. There was one restaurant and one bar.

The mine
I was loaned steel toed boots, a big orange safety vest, and we took a pick-up truck to the mine. The mine was at one of the larger mountains, which was being systematically ground away in order to mine coal. My supervisor told me that, by the end of the mine's life, the mountain would be gone. We drove to the gaping, open pit, standing next to mining equipment that felt stories tall. The truck wove its way up on packed coal to the edge of the pit, the wan sun slanted into the black in the late afternoon.

The mine site office was two trailers that shook in the wind gusts. We spoke to the people working there and gazed out at the huge piles of coal - that was the inventory we would be "counting" tomorrow.

The night
From the mine we went right to the "nicer" restaurant, which was also a club, and had dinner with two of the people working for the mine - who loved the north, the fishing, the endless forest, the quiet. The town was too small for hotels - instead, me and my supervisor would be sharing one of the apartments in the mining housing. I took a shower, washed all my clothes in the sink, and cranked the heat in my room in hopes they would dry by the next morning.

The coal
The next morning, in winds that made the two trailers at the mine site shudder and knock against each other, we went to count coal. Or really, we went to watch a guy with a GPS rod count it, and do whatever accountants do to make sure he was doing it right. This mostly involved getting coal dust blown at my face for hours as low clouds covered the top of the mountain. This was the point of the trip - both of us flown up, drove up, to see the coal. And there it was.

The accident
It was getting to afternoon, and light snow was falling intermittently. We were finishing lunch at a cafe where we were the only people, and preparing to make the drive back to the airport for the afternoon flight. My supervisor got a call - one of the senior engineers at the mine had broken his foot. There were no real hospital facilities in Tumbler Ridge. As a result, the engineer would need to be driven to Prince George, then would fly to Vancouver.

The rental car was in my supervisors' name, so it was up to me to drive the engineer, in his car, back to the Prince George airport.

The drive
Even though it was only mid-afternoon, it was already starting to get dark. The sky was filled with clouds and the air smelt like snow. I picked up the engineer, who had already been given multiple T3s. I am a notoriously bad driver, and 22-year-old me was definitely not any better than now. However, it was pretty much a straight shot for a couple hours down one highway to the airport, so I figured I could do it. Besides, there were very few alternatives.

I started to drive. There were no other cars on the highway. I hadn't showered, and could feel the grit of coal on my skin. The engineer next to me started to talk.

He was old, had been doing the job over 25 years. He worked two weeks on, two weeks off. Had done it his whole career. About how strong his wife was, raising two grown daughters on her own half the time, him gone to the mine site. About how sometimes only work seemed real, and home just a holding pattern.

About how, years ago, he wasn't sure, but he was crying at this point, work was harder, shifts were longer and it got dark and stayed dark for a long time. He was weaker. About how he hit his daughters - definitely one, maybe both. Not just once, maybe a while - a month, a couple years, time can go funny. About - oh god, he was crying so much now, maybe the drugs or the pain or the twilight at 4pm and us the only cars on the highway and I could feel the coal dust under my eyelids, in my throat - about how much he loved them and how sorry he was, he was so goddamn sorry. He knew they loved him, but he didn't think they would ever forgive him, and how could you love someone the right way?

I'm not a good driver at the best of times, and I can't say the right thing at the best of times. I checked each sign - 50km to Prince George, 18km to Prince George. I made sure to get into the passing lane and signal correctly when I passed a truck. The crying had faded, and the engineer was very quiet. I didn't put the radio on.

I thought about the coal mine - on the edge of a soon-to-be-extinct mountain, next to an empty town,  trees and trees for miles and winter already coming in September. I thought of the mining housing, from the 80s, brought back again from the boom-bust-boom cycle. The high piles of coal the GPS contractor clamboured on, to measure grades and volume and all that blackness getting shipped to China.

I arrived at the airport and put the engineer into a wheelchair. I don't think I said goodbye. My misplaced bag was waiting for me at the check-in desk.

I got back into the rental car with my supervisor. We still had a couple hours before his flight. It had been two days without internet, and he needed to check his email. We drove around the town with the WiFi searching on, looking to pirate wireless from a house with an unsecured network. We also took a detour by the local highschool to look at the girls: "this town is so damn ugly, I want to look at something attractive."

We arrived back at 10pm on a Friday night, and drove back down Granville Street with the comforting lights of the city on either side. My coworkers were already out at a bar. I was exhausted and grimy. The drive still made my veins feel like they were filled with something light and corrosive. I showered, changed, went out, drank too much and danced until the place closed down.

Five days later, I was still scraping coal dust from behind my ears. The mine was bought out by a larger company several months later. I'm not sure how much of the mountain is still there.

I know I'm supposed to write about running, about the outdoors, to be funny and self-deprecating enough to be readable, even when I get a bit dark. The thing with life, and maybe running, is the fine line between a bit edgy and really dark. That self-control when all the defenses are down, that scraping scraping scraping away between whatever life is, and the truth underneath. That ability to find our edge, face it, and pull back hard when needed.

And sometimes, at the end of a really long run, at the end of a hard day, when I can't quite find words and everything just seems that much closer, I still remember that afternoon: me driving, us alone for miles with just a weaving flat road, surrounded by forest. The engineer, stripped down to his pain and his grief and his demons, crying next to me. My eyes still watering from the coal dust, looking straight ahead, with my foot as hard on the gas as I could go.

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