Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Riding with Max Acie (Part 1)

It was September 2012 and I was in Winnipeg without a car.

By September Winnipeg showcases frost in the morning, and to make matters worse, it was a Sunday. I watched people pass me by, most of them looked like senior citizens, returning home from church. 

A taxi had dropped me off at the edge of town at 8 a.m. Two coffees and four hours later I was getting anxious. I had never waited this long for a ride before. I did not want to spend the night in Winnipeg. The only two people I knew in the city had since moved, one to Montreal and one to Halifax. When I returned to the Tim Horton’s for my third coffee of the day, I asked the young kid for cardboard and a sharpie. He asked his supervisor if it was okay. She looked me up and down and said sure, give him some cardboard.

Surely, making a sign would improve my conditions. I already knew what I was going to write: "Don't smell. Won't hurt you." 

It worked because within twenty-minutes (I hadn't even finished my coffee) a car had pulled in front of me. It had Ontario plates. Two people got out: a thirty-something dude with a snaggletooth and a young blonde with the face and body of a model. My general rule of thumb is to always keep my bag with me, or at least until I get to know the persons well enough. This couple got out of their car and opened their trunk. They introduced themselves, shook my hand. They were friendly.

"I'm Max Acie," snaggletooth told me, "and this is HB." 

She said hi and took my bag.

I helped her pack it into the trunk (where it was already tight) and then climbed into the little black car. It was practically a go-cart. HB got in the back. I thanked her, got in the front and looked the driver up and down.

"I always pick up hitchhikers," Max told me. 

He talked a lot, but always with an ear to where I was. He wasn't talking to merely hear the sound of his own voice, he wanted to engage with me.

"My actual name is Hannah," HB said from the backseat.

"But you can call her HB," Max said, "It stands for honey bunny."

I didn't call her that.

"Here, I can take your coat," Hannah said seeing me struggle with taking my jacket off.

We stopped in Brandon, Manitoba to check up on the car and get some food and art supplies. While HB browsed the local Wal-Mart, Max gave me $20 and sent me to the in-store McDonalds.

"Get yourself lunch," he told me

"Oh here you don't have to do that," I said refusing his money,

"Don't worry about it, man" he said, "it's a write-off for me."

Back in the car on route to Calgary I found out more about my ride.

"I'm a motocross rider," Max Acie told me, "I'm sponsored by Monster Energy Drinks... Ever heard of me?"

"Ah... no," I said.

I was driving by now as we were closing in on Regina. The prairies were widening by the kilometer and the further we went, the more comfortable I felt. Very few drivers let the hitchhiker drive their car. The trust level was going both ways. Or perhaps we were both stupid.

"I don't watch a lot of sports," I confessed, "but my friend Luke has probably heard of you,"

"No worries," he assured me, "sometimes it's creepy when people recognize me. Remember that guy at the Ikea, HB?"

"Oh I don't think I was there," she said from the back.

We stopped for Tim Hortons' donuts.

"I instantly feel like a diabetic every-time I eat this," Max said. I laughed, knowing exactly what he meant.

HB drifted in and out of sleep while Max and I started a friendship. There are few people I know that I can joke with in such a way that simple observations become ludicrous stories involving a multitude of characters and absurd events. Max Acie and I had the ability to make each other laugh in this way. I even had to pull over at one point to wipe tears from eyes, but that was later, after we had abandoned Joe.

Somewhere before Swift Current we stopped for gas. At the gas station we met Joe. He had a sign that said "VANCOVER" - notice the missing letter. Joe had a small backpack consisting of mostly beer. He asked HB if he could drink in the car, she said no. As we rearranged the luggage, threw out the garbage and basically prepared for another body, Max pulled me aside.

"Listen," he said barely above a whisper, "I don't think this guy is playing with a full deck. I'm going to pretend to be a cop, just so he doesn't try anything. HB is a little freaked out."

“Yeah, no worries Max,” I went along with the story. It wasn't hard for Max to act like a cop because his father was RCMP, or so he said. Max knew the lingo and this helped as we learned more about our friend Joe.

Joe's story started with a wife that kicked him out of the house, and his quest to see his brother in Vancouver so he could find work and start his life over. Eventually this story fell apart as Max pulled more details from him. 

Max had an knack for getting what he needed from people. As he withdrew more information from our friend Joe, the story became contradictory. Max was interrogating Joe in such a way, that, for a while I almost believed Max was a cop.

As Joe's story unfolded we almost hit a deer. HB was driving and Max was shotgun. I sat in the back with Joe. I kept an eye on him, mindful of the knife I kept at my right side. Joe was wanted for a crime. We didn't know what, but we assumed it was violent. Joe didn't want to go to prison in Winnipeg where "Indians pee on your head." 

Apparently British Columbia prisons were resorts with satellite television and out-door time.

“You know,” Joe asserted, “we have rights man. There's a Charter. We have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” His accent was hopelessly Canadian. This quotation about the Charter became a running gag on our trip.

We dropped Joe off at a Tim Hortons in Medicine Hat. Max had been texting his Dad and his verdict was "get rid of him." We tried to get him a bus ticket, but he didn't have ID so Greyhound wouldn't let him on the bus. 

Before ditching Joe at the Timmies, Max drove us around Medicine Hat extensively. He knew the little city like the back of his hand.

“Golf tournaments,” he said, referring to some RCMP league with his Dad.

It was nearly midnight and Joe was gone. We had already driven one thousand kilometres, but we pressed on. I took the wheel again and we headed for Edmonton.

Max had a motocross event the following weekend, so he and HB weren't in a hurry to get to Calgary. Max, however, had family in Edmonton. In fact, his entire family lived in Edmonton. How he ended up in Ontario is a question I never had a chance to ask.

We stopped for food again, this time at a convenience store. Max bought those disgusting microwavable burritos while HB and I opted for ice-cream drumsticks. All three of us got "mystery" bags of candy. Max paid for everything. 

Not long after getting back on the road HB fell asleep while Max and I started another round of jokes about Joe. Somehow, we joked, his ID will show up in one of our mystery bags.

Driving in Alberta in the middle of the night is an experience I suggest everyone try. The roads are brand new and everything is so clean. At one or two in the morning, there isn't another soul on the road. My thoughts were confirmed by Max when he said,

"Isn't this the best? Cruising along, having the highway all to yourself?"

I agreed. Things couldn't have been any better.

HB woke with a neck camp. She wanted a bed. I could have driven all the way to Edmonton, high on caffeine and sugar, but I was just the hitchhiker. A lucky one at that, since Max and HB got me my own room at the hotel we stayed at in Airdrie.

"Don't worry man," Max assured me, "it's a write-off. Plus, HB works for the hotel."

She assured me that she did. For the first time since I met her, HB (or Hannah) and I had a conversation beyond simple formalities. While Max was inside booking us rooms, HB and I sat out in the car. I asked her how she met him.

“I was working at the hotel, and he came in and, well, he was just so sincere. I could tell in his eyes. Some people may say he's ugly, but it's more than just looks.” She continued on, revealing that they had only known each for a month before embarking on this road trip. But it was love, she assured me.

Max returned and we parked the car. 

Up in my room I logged onto the internet and headed for Google Maps. I had started the day Winnipeg with little hope that I would have made it to Brandon by day's end. 

But here I was in Airdrie - 268km from Edmonton and 35km north of Calgary.

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