Opinion » Maxed Out

Back to school means back on the road...



I can't say the nightmare has any real beginning. The other recurring dream I have, the falling dream, always starts the same unique way. It's easy to identify and get ready to enjoy. But the recurring nightmare simply has an uncomfortable way of insinuating itself into whatever other movie's playing in my sleeping head. Maybe that's what makes it so hard to identify until it's well underway.

But once started, it's like a chainsaw without an off switch. It screams until it runs out of gas. Or if I'm lucky, I finally battle the endless darkness until I reach just enough consciousness to say, "To hell with this; wake up."

Although it can visit me any time of the year, it always takes place near the end of a school semester. With only days to go, it dawns on me I haven't attended Comparative Romance Poetry, or Quantum Physics, or Microeconomics of Developing Countries or some such since the first class when I realized I had less than no interest in the course. But I'd never dropped it, never been back, didn't have a clue what it was about, wasn't sure where the book or course material was, and suddenly came to the ugly realization the final exam was in a couple of days.

It's important there's still some time until the exam. If it was going to happen in only a few hours, trying to do anything about it would be futile. But there weren't very many university classes I took that a smart boy couldn't learn enough about in three days, with the aid of a purloined set of class notes, to fake his way through with at least a passing grade. So the race is on to once again prove the Faint Hope theory of blundering my way through university.

Feeling a bit like Mario searching for the princess, I lose myself and my mind in a maze. I can't remember where the classroom was, or my locker, or the book I hope is in the locker but could be anywhere in dreamland, or a single other person who also took the class and might have actually attended and taken notes. So I wander aimlessly through endless corridors, long, compressed, telephoto shots with no discernible forward progress.

I know it's pointless but I can't face the alternative — failure. Or worse, throwing myself on the mercy of the heartless she-monster who teaches the class. She — yeah, go ahead and have your own Freudian field day — is, in part Gretchen Gaschler, with whom I spent two dreadful years in high school exploring the battleground of algebra. Frau Gaschler had what could best be described as an obtuse approach to teaching an already obtuse subject and some cruel twist of fate made hers the first class I had every morning of the week. Since my friend, who I picked up on the way to school, could only manage to drag his sorry butt out of bed on time about two days out of five, I was late the other three. Frau Gaschler was neither understanding nor sympathetic. I was number one on her perpetual shitlist.

In equal measure, my antagonist is an unknown archetype. Short-haired, sweetly demure, she is a caring teacher one moment who can suddenly turn into a cruel, heartless, student-devouring Bunzilla the next. She looks like she belongs in a quaint, one-room school house teaching John-Boy to cipher until the moment he tries the old dog-ate my-homework line on her, at which point she reaches through his chest and rips out his entrails, the better to read the depth of his lie, and laughs maniacally as he writhes in pain and embarrassment in front of the classroom of giggling, horrified children.

So you can see why asking for mercy would be pointless.

It's been over three decades since I slept through my last university class. The frequency of this dream has tapered off in that time and frankly, I can hardly remember the last time I had it before last week, such is the power of repression. But the rhythm of life established in childhood lingers. It may not be back to school time for me but we're indisputably waltzing into autumn and autumn is the time of year for humans and more evolved beasts alike to hunker down, get to work, be productive, store your nuts away for the winter and leave the frivolity of summer behind. Days are getting shorter, nights colder and longer. Diligence is the theme of the season and our intransigent government and hopeful teachers have finally settled their strike. School daze are on again.

Since I don't have to attend, I'm going to make like a tourist and leave town. And I'm not coming back until — fingers crossed — the snow flies. The deserts of the southwest are calling me back.

Any time of year is a good time of year for a road trip, but September and October are particularly good. The bounty of everybody's season of labour is paying off like a broken slot machine. Apples will be abundant throughout Washington's misspelled Okanogan valley. Grapes will give a musty smell to Yakima and the Tri-Cities. California's central and imperial valleys, drought notwithstanding, should be an endless roadside stand creaking under the weight of fall's harvest, dirt cheap, fresh from the fields and as full of flavour as they will ever be.

New Mexico will be redolent of roasting green chile and piñon pine smoke, assuming I can smell anything after traversing Colorado's mile-high pot haze.

Kids are back in school, highways — especially the bountiful secondary roads that spiderweb the U.S. — are less congested. Shorter days encourage a slower pace of travel and contemplative walks offering expansive vistas, all made more pleasurable knowing the odds are Whistler will be mired in the drizzle of October.

The tricked-out cars of Chicano lowriders and the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Fiesta both sound like worthy feature stories to justify at least part of this trip as a business expense. The people I meet along the way will fill in the gaps as will, of course, the land itself. I'll get to see family, old friends, familiar places and eat my weight in New Mexico's unique brand of Mexican food.

And like a refreshing dessert after a fine meal, I'll be back just in time for our local election and the countdown to another ski season. Now why don't I ever have recurring dreams about that?