We camped outside of Thunderbay in your basic KOA campground after a harrowing, but craggily beautiful drive between Lake Superior Provincial Park and Thunder Bay. We saw the remains of three transport truck accidents. One was obviously a couple of weeks old, the dead remains of the transport left in a ravine. Another happened earlier in the day. The final one happened minutes before our arrival which necessitated a three-hour wait in a lineup that was several kilometers long. There is only one highway in those northern parts and when it is blocked everything stops. This accident broke our hearts and reminded us of both the precariousness of human judgement as well as the best of human striving toward mutual care.
We gassed up around 6pm near Pearl, stretched some dog legs and ate some victuals. We estimated we had another hour to reach Thunder Bay. Almost as soon as we left the gas station we had to stop behind a long line of stopped traffic. There was clearly an accident of some kind on the other side of the rocky hill rising in front of us. After twenty minutes, I got out of the truck to stretch my legs and breathe in some Lake Superior air. I heard someone calling me over. It was a thirtyish man in a red pickup truck leaning out of the driver side. He motioned me over. The pickup was loaded with various and sundry pieces of furniture and suitcases. There was a worried woman in the passenger side and two small children in car seats next to a strapped-in cooler in the back seat. He had a police scanner, he said. There was a three-vehicle accident about a kilometer ahead with fatalities. Air transport was coming. Having been a Medical First Responder myself, I knew then we would be waiting on that highway stretch for several hours. I gave some quick prayers for the Fire Fighters, OPP, pilots who were offering a sacrifice of service to their communities. Most of all I was thinking heavy thoughts about the three families of the people in the vehicles involved. The red-pickup truck man asked me where I was from. I said Nova Scotia. The five-year old in the back yelled out “We’re from the Cap, but we’re moving!” I considered asking where the Cap was, but the child’s proud face stopped me. The man looked at me and cheerfully announced, “Yup. This is everything we own. We’re moving to Winnipeg to find work. I have a police scanner. I will let you know what’s happening. Okay?” I thanked him and moved back into the truck camper to get some water and snacks. I went to his window and knocked, offering some chocolate-chip granola bars for the kids. The Mom said no thanks and the man exclaimed, “See that cooler? It’s FILLED with food. We are travelling straight on through.”
Carl and I reflected on the hazards facing long-haul truckers. They bring us our food and well, just about everything. Their work is hazardous and disaster strikes in seconds. Yet, disaster is a slow-moving beast too. I have had several truckers in the congregations I served. Their work requires them to sit for long times, eat sporadically, sleep fitfully and live with constant stress. Their lives are shorter than most people’s. I have always enjoyed talking to truckers. They are often insightfully philosophical and sometimes theologically adept. You can’t travel to so many different parts of two giant countries, meet an endless number of different people, live constantly with knowledge of your own mortality and spend a lot of time alone without emerging either crazy or philosophically wise. The work is eminently hazardous and, as a society, we rarely recognize this. This is why, when I am asked to do public graces at gatherings, I always pray for those who gather our food and who transport it, asking that working conditions be fair and honoured.
After an hour or so, people began to leave their vehicles and visit one another. Children wandered into the shorter brush with dogs. A couple of men in turbans walked alongside the cars stretching their legs. Several people stopped to exchange pleasantries and information with them. I did some stretching on the pavement in front of the truck but thought better of it after eating three mosquitos. After I got into our vehicle, a black sports car zoomed up the lane beside us and tucked in a space far ahead, disrespecting the car-queue that all the rest of us honoured, narrowly missing a couple of children milling about their parent’s cars. Carl and I looked at each other. We had been remarking earlier that the scene reminded us of a zombie movie. When the black car zoomed past, we looked at each other and I said, “That guy is the first to be sacrificed to the zombies because he is selfish, careless and is that guy in the horror movies that endangers everyone needlessly. Yet everyone tries to save him, even though he would not save any of them. Very un-Christian of me though because grace is the very opposite of choosing to sacrifice the selfish idiot.” Carl said, “It kind of works out though, because he would put himself first in line anyway, so the zombies have no choice.” I am sure Carl is onto some kind of fancy theological principle, but I cannot think of one on this drive-recovery morning.
After three-and-a-half hours, the OPP were able to open up the shoulder of the road to move the traffic. I went behind and wished the small family God-speed. He insisted they would be driving through. That would have been fourteen hours of driving. They did not want to stay in a hotel. I thought a lot about that small family and their courageous, hopeful spirit. We did not hear of any accidents on the way to Winnipeg, so they must have made it. Plucky people. Motioned onward into the night by police with flares, we filed past a white transport truck with the front caved in. A beat-up white pickup truck was in the ditch. Grim-faced firefighters surrounded it, while weary OPP officers motioned traffic through the strewn site. We, the still-living, encased in our steel, snaked our way through a setting of shocking destruction. We were only able to do so thanks to the service of all of those responders. I remembered the feeling of being at some of those sites. Your adrenalin gets you through your task, then you collapse at home. Sometimes tears come, more often they don’t. Mostly, you try to forget the images so that you can go to the next site. I thought of those small children and hoped they were asleep as their parents maneuvered their way through the vehicular carnage.
We later heard in the news that a couple in an SUV stopped to make a left turn off of the highway and were slammed into by a transport truck from behind, moving them into the path of the white pickup truck with four people in it. The two in the SUV died. The trucker was charged with careless driving. The people in the white pickup truck were taken to hospital with non-life-threating injuries and released. There are scores of families whose collective and individual lives are permanently altered.
What do I take away from this? Life can change in a second. Some humans choose to be selfish, speeding ahead in the lineup, narrowly missing creating more tragedy. Most humans choose to reach out, connecting in whatever way they can in a crisis. The basic seeds of hope for our collective human future were evident in that three-hour scene. Young families, packing their belongings and migrating to somewhere where their future might be brighter. People of differing cultures connecting and sharing information and food. Multiple generations, deprived of cell and internet service rediscovering conversation with one another. Men and women offering their volunteer and professional lives to rescue strangers, thereby putting themselves physically and mentally in harm’s way. And surrounding it all, this vast, living land unforgiving in its topography but filled with life from the tiniest microbe to the bears that no doubt silently observed this strange lineup of wheeled monsters, then much later in the resumed silence, ambled down to see what edibles they left behind in the ditches.