BY MARK THOMAS
Copyright is held by the author.
I HAD just squeezed onto the gravel shoulder, vainly trying to exit the congested highway at Adelaide Street when a radio traffic reporter applied a label to my evasive maneuver. “I’m starting to see examples of a phenomenon I like to call ‘Hamster Traffic’” she said cheerfully. “Four lanes of drivers simultaneously attempt to merge into a single exit, as they realize the severity of the blockages ahead and try to access alternate routes . . .” there was a pause punctuated by the heartbeat pulse of helicopter rotors, “. . . like hamsters huddle in their cages to sleep.” The reporter described similar scenes of chaos up and down the QEW, then her transmission suddenly stopped.
I left the blacktop entirely, steering onto a grassy margin, but there was still no way for me to slither around the congested mass in front without getting wedged against a heavy chain link fence. That barrier separated the gently curving ramp from a triangular patch of wasteland designed to collect runoff.
It was simply impossible to inch forward any further.
A man exited his Volvo station wagon and squeezed through the jumble of fenders to check out the situation at a traffic light, a hundred meters ahead. When he returned to the car a few minutes later he opened the rear doors to let his children out.
Oh no I thought. Stay in the car Stay in the car Stay in the car. If everybody remained at attention with engines running and feet on pedals, I could maintain the fiction that traffic would soon resume its normal movement, and I could get to the airport in time for my flight. But the family in front of me opened up a board game, positioned it on the hood of their car and started to happily roll dice and move little plastic tokens around a colourful cardboard circle.
I raged for an hour, banging my forehead on the steering wheel and occasionally leaning on the horn, disturbing the Parcheesi tournament. But, eventually, I had to accept my altered fate and I climbed out of the Silverado to mingle with some other drivers who were having a conference farther up the ramp. Someone with a satellite phone announced that the military was moving in, but it might take days before the heavy equipment could be manipulated into position via heavy-lift choppers. We could see that Adelaide and the nearest cross street were as badly jammed as the highway, so it was impossible to briefly off-road it and escape. Someone suggested walking into the city to find a hotel.
“Screw that,” a heavily tattooed man said. He gestured at his cube van which had a banner for “Event Tents” on the side. “I was supposed to set up for a thousand-guest wedding in Mississauga. Let’s just camp here.” A few people nodded.
Another man said: “I’ve got a load of stuff for the Bass Pro in Niagara Falls. Let’s check it out.”
Someone else offered up a pair of bolt cutters. I peeled back a section of the chain link fence and teams of strangers carried rolls of vinyl onto the grassy triangle, eager to burn off some of the edgy frustration that is stored within every commuter.
We were so busy setting up our camp that I lost track of time. People were swinging sledge hammers and pulling ropes with remarkable energy, as if we had to get ready for a circus show that evening. Another group dug a fire pit and loaded it up with several bags of charcoal. The Bass Pro driver was busy unrolling a mountain of orange sleeping pads. A small cohort was carrying odd containers of water gathered in the nearby commercial neighbourhood. An elderly lady walked around with a huge wire basket of croissants and pepper-ettes in case anyone was getting hungry.
The strangest thing I saw was the rapid plucking and evisceration of three enormous Canada geese. A large flock of the birds were grazing like cattle near the highway barrier and some brave soul had just waded into their midst and strangled a few. The remaining herd shuffled a few meters away and continued to crop grass as if nothing had happened.
By the time evening rolled around everyone was exhausted from the unaccustomed physical labour and feeling slightly disoriented from the unusual meal. I must have eaten a dozen pieces of plastic-wrapped pastry along with several pounds of dripping barbecued highway-goose seasoned with Seven-Eleven condiment packets.
Then two women appeared out of nowhere in exotic belly dancing attire. “We were scheduled to perform at some stupid corporate team-building gig,” they shrugged, jingling bells with every movement. A space was cleared in front of the fire pit and they danced, while an obviously talented person improvised a snare drum out of a pair of cast off hubcaps.
As the gyrations ended and applause rose up into the darkening sky, two men approached our tents dragging a home-made wagon. “We made it to the next exit,” they announced. Their faces were streaked with sweat and grime, but they were grinning widely. “There’s another camp set up, just like this one. We traded some of my oranges for pre-cooked bacon!” They held vacuumed-sealed packages above their heads like hunting trophies.
We had forgotten, or perhaps hadn’t even noticed, that the men had left on an expedition, but everyone cheered loudly at their heroic return. Three other men who had clearly dug deep into the Bass Pro load of supplies were smearing camouflage paint on their faces and trying to figure out how to operate the safety clasps on some lock-blades. “We’re going hunting for coffee!” they shouted and everybody cheered again. The body jewellery of the belly dancers seemed to punctuate the tail end of every enthusiastic ovation.
I wandered back to the Silverado, to get an extra blanket for one of the Parcheesi children who was getting cold, and noticed that tiny blades of grass were already pushing through cracks in the blacktop.