Shortly after this column is published, I’ll be lost in the wilds of Vancouver Island, hiking the Juan de Fuca trail alone and chasing waves back into the Pacific. I could say that I’m going there to trip over tree roots, skid over moss and rock slime and peer into tidal pools to study anemones and starfish. I could say I’m going there to smell pine in its most concentrated form, but that would be a foil.
The real reason? To catch a double rainbow in mid-smile. Wish me luck. But it won’t be my first time. As I write this, I’m staring at a 4 x 6” Kodak photograph of a double rainbow I snapped in 2003.
A young gay fan in Tennessee recently asked me for an autograph, explaining in a rather formal letter that he’s on a mission to get signatures from “the people who are gonna give us our future.” My first impulse was to write back, “Are you sure you have the right email address?” Instead, I’ve decided to rise to the challenge. No pressure. I figure this rainbow pic should do the trick. But I can’t decide what to inscribe on the back.
Maybe it’s because there’s so much to say about the photo.
Seven years ago, I jumped on a train heading west across Canada. By the time it chugged through Jasper National Park in the Rocky Mountains, I had grown sick of staring out the window at an unending scroll of bedrock, wheat and animals, so I disembarked. I adjusted my 60-pound backpack and my compass and walked up the first mountain I found.
What followed were four terrifying and exhilarating days of discovering bear prints outside my tent, hiking on a switchback above the clouds and the boreal tree line, plunging my whole arm into a giant fungus bush, trying to avoid stepping on blind marmots who couldn’t see me, getting high from drinking ice-cold glacial water, coming face-to-face with a black bear gorging on raspberries and inching backwards away from it for 20 agonizingly slow minutes while clutching a can of bear spray I hoped I wouldn’t have to use.
I know, hard to believe. All this time, you had me pegged as a city boy.
But one of those days was not like the others. I had just finished risking my life unnecessarily by fishing in bear country (think about it), while destroying a pristine lake by losing a pocketful of line and tackle in it. All in all, not my best ecological performance. Then the rain hit. When you’re in the clouds, rain is a wall of mist. I saw red droplets spread quickly across the sky — or was it across my retinae? I dropped my fishing rod and ran for my disposable camera.
Orange was faster than I was. I fumbled with the camera, my fingers wet, shaking and covered with algae. More colours. I finally got it to work as violet completed the rainbow. Then a second arc appeared, and I took three quick exposures. I may have screamed.
There’s nothing cliché about chasing rainbows, because it’s so damned hard to do.
But today, I consider that rainbow old news. I’ve changed a lot since then, and it no longer represents me. The only thing worse than an old rainbow is flat beer. The sparkle is gone.
So, Juan de Fuca, here I come. On this trip, I’ll be a more responsible traveller. I won’t be tempting bears and cougars, and I won’t be destroying waterways or irreplaceable fungi. The National Parks website tells me the ocean has washed out entire sections of the trail, so I’m training hard at the gym to toughen my body. Anyway, I have a feeling I’ll be spending less time counting kilometres and more time coaxing out the beginnings of a new novel, surrounded by forest nouns I’ll be unable to name.
And, of course, I’ll be hunting for another double rainbow.
Recently at the gym, I told a friend about my upcoming trek.
“I’m going to find myself,” I told him half-jokingly.
“I didn’t know you still struggled with that,” he replied, finishing the joke.
This made me think. If this struggle is the only thing that’s going to drag me out of the city, out of my comfort zone and into the wilderness, where I have no choice but to learn new shit every day, then I never want it to end. Otherwise, what right do I have to be signing rainbows?
Here’s the inscription:
“Being a proud, out queer person is a terrifying and exhilarating dance with bears and cougars and starfish and anemones. The more we try to surprise ourselves, the more it’s worth it. Hug the rails but allow for detours. And wherever you travel in this crazy life, it’s always better to have an open-ended ticket. This is your future. Hope it helps. And for Pete’s sake, bring a waterproof camera.”
Fingerprinted appears in every issue of Xtra.