Wawa, Ontario, Canada

This is a fine place to start a story, I reckon. Sitting on Agawa Rock on the north shore of Lake Superior, toward the western edge of Ontario. The Ojibwe people settled and lived in this land forever, and are still here.. They’re a handsome tribe; the women have a beautiful high cheekbone so common to what the Canadians call “First Nations” people.

Maxine, Jake River and I had climbed down from the highway through some great shifting big vertical plates of rock to the shore, shimmied along next to the clear and cold lake to find some 400 year old pictographs made of ochre and fish fat. Drawings of snakes and a dog with horns. Great stuff, not wheel chair accessible. Maxine reminding us always of worn soles and long falls. The Ojibwe were using this sheer granite face 100 feet tall as an early bill board to passing canoes. I think this particular painting means, “Hey! Exit here for good eats! Easy in and out! All major shells and beads accepted!”

We’re here because it was on the way west, toward our new home in Oregon. In the car with Maxine and Jake River is Dexter the dog and Annie B. Brown, our loving cat who isn’t sure about our decision to take her across on the drive instead of a fast flight on the airplane. No really, Annie, airline food isn’t what it once was, and how’d you like to get stuck in Chicago O’Hare, anyway? It can happen, I’m here to tell you.

Annie’s been great. She settles into a foot well most of the time. When I’m driving, it often means that the foot well she chooses is mine, which makes braking and operating the clutch a bit touch and go. Maxine will have none of it, so when she’s driving, Annie’s still under my feet, as she just reminded me with a yell when I moved about and squished her tail. She did make a surprise move earlier though, sprinting out the door and across the field toward a hedgerow. It must have been a bit comical to see Jake on one side, me on the other sprinting to keep up, and Dexter running her down head on. You go Dexter. What a hunter. Suddenly Annie drops flat and I couldn’t see her at all until Jake, who is closer to the ground, reached down and plucked her up from between some thick straw. Quite a team.

Deciding what route to drive west on followed the typical course around here: hmmm… lessee… what would be the slower more roundabout way? First, no freeways. I didn’t want Jake thinking that a trans-national drive was about off ramps and Denny’s. There’s such an intimacy of experience, an opportunity to experience a bunch of non-corridor pass-by America. Nobody lives in Wawa because of the highway, and Wawa doesn’t define itself by the cars that drive by. Here it’s about the lake, how’re the fish biting, the local curling league, the size of the mosquitoes.

It’s a bit funny that I’m here in Wawa, in fact. And it’s funny that I’m even talking about it like this, because the last time I was here was about 1980, hitchhiking through on one the various trips taken back and forth, coast to coast, typically with just a thumb out. Back then Wawa was famous and feared among hitchhikers. As the legend went, if you got dropped off near Wawa on the highway, you were toast. No one would pick you up. After a few weeks you’d walk off the highway into town, meet a nice Ojibwe girl, settle down and open a coffee shop. Maybe you’d get a job in the mines, which are still active. I never knew the exact reason, but figured it had a bad reputation as an Indian town with miners to make it even worse.

I shared this story with the waitress at our motel restaurant last night. We were in the midst of eating an extraordinary meal of local lake trout and home made pirogues – a total surprise. She laughed and said she understood, as she had moved here with her father, who used to say that he should have never stopped for gas 25 years ago when driving through. Something about Wawa.