A small two lane road leads northeast from the 417 just outside of Ottawa. It joins the highway to the village of Carp and along the way it passes an old farmhouse where I spent three vivid years as a child. My family moved into the old farmhouse on Carp Road when I was six years old. We’d been living on an army base outside of Pembroke for four years, the years from which my first memories come, and the open freeness of Carp Road and it’s mixture of farmhouses and suburban family homes, chaotically spaced, smelled of novelty to my inquisitive, excitable self.
Our farmhouse was not attached to any farmland. It had been the house of an old family man whose son had built a ’50s-style tract house next door. The old man had passed a few years earlier and the son, Al, had been renting his father’s house out to supplement his income from the Beer Store job he had in Ottawa. The house was set off from Carp Road by a hedgerow and not much else. The road wasn’t busy, as highways go, but it was busier than anything a kid from an army base had ever seen. Being more rural than not, it was often populated by carcasses, dead animals who hadn’t understood that people need to be someplace so quickly that they’d build machines capable of smashing small bodies in an instant in order to arrive hours or days earlier than they would have in the past, skipping the journey altogether because the destination is all that matters.
Going anywhere at all required navigating the road, and with houses spaced as unpredictably as they were, the kids from Carp Road were often riding along the shoulder, passing the O.P.P. station in order to get RC Colas from the vending machine at the small garage.
I became friends with my neighbour, Tim, Al’s son who was a year older and he introduced me around to the other kids. One of the kids, Scott, lived just down the Road from us, on the other side, and one day Tim journeyed to Scott’s to hang out on his smooth asphalt driveway. It felt cool to just ride a bike on something so freshly poured when all around was cracking concrete and old gravel roads. I set out to join Tim at Scott’s shortly after Tim arrived there. I mounted my brand new chrome BMX Constrictor, a gift for my sixth birthday earlier that week. The Road was interesting to me; I could hardly remember seeing road markings from up close before. I pedalled along the asphalt, eventually weaving in and out of the hashmarks in the center of the road in anticipation of crossing entirely to pull into Scott’s driveway. Predictably, if you live a narrative, I soon heard a honking coming from behind me. I turned to look over my shoulder and I saw a nightmarish black van catching up to me.
Later, I would swear I made it all the way across the road, onto the gravel shoulder before the van hit me. I still remember it exactly that way. The only reconstruction that makes sense is that the driver of the van, a 16-year-old kid who had just earned his license, had been trying to move around me, into the oncoming lane, and I behaved completely unpredictably by doing the same thing myself. Scott’s house was on the other side. His driveway beckoned. My new friends beckoned. The road was empty when I began my short ride.
The van plowed into my back tire, my shiny new wheel, at a perfect angle and launched me from my saddle into the ditch. Had I been hit at any other angle I would have been run down, crushed beneath the wheels of the black van. I suffered nothing but a couple of scrapes on my knees from the handlebars as I flew by, and split scalp that required only six stitches to close.
Tim saw the accident from his vantage in Scott’s driveway. Can you imagine? Can you imagine a seven year old boy running down the Road from which his new friend had been struck? Can you imagine him running into the old farmhouse to tell his friend’s father what had happened?
Can you imagine a young father sitting in his kitchen in the early morning faced with this immense disaster? Can you imagine his thoughts as he wondered again about this new place to which he’d moved his family?
And can you imagine his trepidation in walking upstairs to tell his wife, to tell the boy’s mother, that their son had been hit by a van and was hurled into a ditch on the side of the road?
My imagination is good enough to put myself in their shoes, the small messenger and the large. I can be the parent who is suddenly terrified for his child.
But I’m not sure I can imagine being so confident in my child’s ability to learn from mistakes that I’d ever let him on his bike, out on the Road, ever again. How could they believe I wouldn’t get hit again? How could they believe I was smart enough or wise enough to navigate the Road on my own now, when their only evidence, the only anecdote they had, was of my failure?
I aspire to have that kind of confidence in my children. The world will not help me, will encourage me to doubt them, to doubt their future, to doubt their competence, their safety, their ability to learn from mistakes. I don’t know how to fight the world. But the Road is out there, and it will beckon them too.
—Shawn Burns, backpackingdad.com.