The Grand Tour

Pearson International Airport, Toronto, Canada, 6am, October 3, 2005. Normal hours don’t exist for pilots or flights, at least when it comes to the places I travel. It’s as if the powers that be have conspired to make every flight as confusing and as hard to plan as possible. Maybe the men and women watching from on high figure as long as they have to be working and suffering at ungodly hours, so too should the very people who make their jobs necessary. 

‘Awake’ for two hours, I’m exhausted and not light of heart. Health issues at this time make sleep impossible on a good night, but after driving seven hours to Toronto, working online for a few hours at the hotel and then tossing and turning until just before my wake up call, when – naturally – my body and mind wanted to shut down, I’m back on the move and running on fumes. Should have just driven straight to Pearson and skipped the hotel altogether. 

Airports suck. They are sterile environments populated with sleep-deprived travellers; a faceless and nameless legion that move collectively through time and space. But time doesn’t really exist in airports, not like it does everywhere else. There are clocks all over, not to mention the giant flight boards announcing arrivals and departures, cancellations and delays, but time bends and fluctuates in this world, leaving the strongest traveller drained. 

I am particularly numb this morning. Flying, once enjoyable, is now commensurate with going to the dentist (no offence to dentists). Even flying within Canada, the levels of stress and bullshit are enough to give a healthy person a stroke. It’s those plotting bastards in the control rooms above – watching on video screens – making things just a little bit unpleasant. You can almost hear them laughing. Things have only gotten worse since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. 

To keep myself distracted I do what I often do when travelling, sitting for extended periods or simply when I’m bored, I go to the office in my mind. It’s a cool little space. Much cleaner than my real office. Here I work on projects, sift through the dusty filing cabinets that contain the threads of my life. I spend an inordinate amount of time going through the Useless Information File. Mostly I work on songs and music. In my head my fingers are always nimble and my guitar never goes out of tune. 

My musical tastes run the board. I grew up – like most kids – listening to whatever my parents listened to. Canadian legend Stompin’ Tom Connors, Merle Haggard and Charley Pride (Dad); The Beach Boys, The Platters and Jan & Dean (Mom). Around fourteen I started digging into the music my older brothers were listening to: ASIA, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. My own record collection at the time consisted of two albums, The Stray Cats’ Built For Speed and Michael Jackson’s Thriller

My musical appetite was fed mostly by the records my dad listened to. It was his house and his record player, and you listened to the stuff he liked, which at the time consisted of Ricky Skaggs – when he was “just a country boy, a country boy at heart,” before he suffered success guilt, repented and became a Bluegrass giant – Conway Twitty, whose fake name and real hair always made me laugh, but whose music struck me as powerful, and Hank Williams

Growing up, Hank Williams was the king of the country mountain as far as dad was concerned. It didn’t get any better than Hank Sr. That is until George Jones landed on dad’s radar and threw the entire universe off balance. George and Hank wound up in a tight race to be the best of the best, a race that would eventually lead to Hank losing prime space in the record rack. From then on it was Jones all the way. No contest.

Dad’s love of the man they called Possum only grew deeper as the years went on. And even though I made fun of most of the music dad listened to, I secretly loved Jones during my hard rock and heavy metal years. Even when I was obsessed with bubble gum bands like Motley Crue in the early ’80s, I still listened intently when dad put a George Jones record on at home (or a cassette in the car). I never let on I liked the music, of course, it would have ruined my hard rock credibility, such as it was.

For those readers who have never been to Pearson International Airport – first let me say, well done, and second, if at all possible, keep it that way. Pearson is the size of a small town, and navigating the behemoth structure is like being in a foreign country. The walkways, much like streets, are a clusterfuck likely designed by the same nimrods watching from on high who make the entire airport experience cranially excruciating. Nothing makes sense, at least not to a brain blunted by fatigue. 

Thankfully, even a sleep-deprived dreamer can manage to find the right flight and get to the gate on time, with the help of a kind kiosk soul. Yes these angels do exist, although they are getting harder and harder to locate with each passing year. One can only imagine what it will be like in the years to come. I’ve been lucky, just when I’m about to crack wide open, a bright light shines down from above and an angel appears. 

This day is no different. With the help of a Pearson Angel I actually make it to my gate with time to spare. There’s even time go to one of the many in-airport stores and pick up a sandwich and a drink. After being robbed of a small fortune, I take my $15 sandwich and $10 bottle of water and find a seat. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld asks in his book Is This Anything? ifthe people who set the prices at the airport know what things cost in the outside world? It’s a fair question. 

I gobble down my tuna sandwich that tastes like styrofoam and quench my thirst with the pure mountain spring water in the diamond encrusted bottle (I’m only assuming it’s pure and from a mountain spring and diamond encrusted because of the price). Walking the ten miles or so to find my gate not only left me hungry, it left me parched. I check the time. What the hell? Is the clock slow? I swear one of the hands just moved backward. 

Still an hour to go before my flight leaves. Luckily I purchased a magazine at the same time I bought my barf-bag breakfast and holy water. The airport crime bosses don’t get to set the prices on the magazines (not yet, anyway), so I scooped up the latest issue of Rolling Stone. I read about the latest fashion trends, celebrity scandals and the political views of the owner/publisher. There’s even the odd blurb about music. 

“He Stopped Loving Her Today” is one of the most iconic songs in any genre. Anyone who knows anything about traditional country music has heard it. The story of a lovelorn man who finds relief from his broken heart only in death, was George Jones’ crowning moment. This was back before country music was sung by mullet wearing cardboard cutouts who wouldn’t know a country song if it hit them in the ass and called them Sally. 

Dad could listen to Jones every day (and I think he did). “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which stood among his favourites, and songs like “Bartender’s Blues,” “Good Year For The Roses,” “The Grand Tour” and “Radio Lover” would blare from the stereo on his days off. He would listen for awhile, then pull out his acoustic guitar and do his own version of Jones. Every country singer at one time or another – except maybe the ones who stain the genre today – wanted to be George Jones. 

Having no interest in hearing dad’s take on Jones, I’d head to my room and listen to my own music. Sadly, my days of collecting vinyl ended when the Stray Cats and Michael Jackson warped after I’d left them sitting too close to the heat vent. I was now collecting cassettes and listening through headphones on a Walkman. Not a real Walkman, some Chinese knock-off that played my Motley Crue and Corey Hart (yep, I loved him) cassettes to the point of breaking.

Fours hours and nineteen minutes on a plane doesn’t sound that long, but once you factor in the shuttle ride from the hotel, the hour wasted trying to navigate the airport, the hour waiting for the plane to board, the twenty-five minutes waiting to take off. Tack on the taxing time before take off (and once you’ve landed) and add on an additional thirty-five minutes to de-plane because some pinskull up front has never flown before or extracted luggage from an overhead compartment, and a four hour and nineteen minute flight is anything but.

It’s almost a full work day to get to Calgary from Toronto. But the fun isn’t over once you’re on the ground. Calgary International Airport may not be anywhere near the size of Pearson International, but it’s just as much a confusing maze of escalators and walkways that twist and turn and go on forever and add mileage to your shoes. How is it possible that every plane lands on the opposite side of the airport to where you actually need to be?

By the time I’m talking to the kind lady at the car rental kiosk, I’m on my second day with no real sleep. It’s like being drunk without the feeling good part. I’m flushed and a little lightheaded by the time I’m in my rental. Airport cars smell weird. There’s that stench of cleaning solution and whatever cologne the cleaning attendant wears. Driving out of the airport is easy. Whoever designed the signage and directions for leaving the airport wasn’t a dick. The radio in the rental is always on a hip-hop station. Click. 

My cassette collection doubled in one night when my brother offered to give me his tapes if I did the dishes. It was his turn to clean up after dinner, and he was no fan of dishpan hands. He had a small pile of cassettes he’d recently acquired through Columbia House. Remember them? You would send a penny and get a thousand free albums or cassettes with the understanding that you would purchase five or six more albums or cassettes at their regular (much inflated) price over the next year? 

I know tons of people who signed up for the Columbia House deal but I don’t know anyone who actually bought anything from the company once they received their free loot. Talk about a bad business model. Whomever came up with that plan had a great deal of faith in humanity. Perhaps that is when the real decline of Western Civilization began.

I did the dishes for my brother and added Synchronicity by The Police, Diary Of A Madman and Bark At The Moon by Ozzy Osbourne, Learning To Crawl By The Pretenders and a few other cassettes I now forget to my collection. To my dad’s despair there was nary a country artist in the mix. I imagine he wondered where he went wrong; how his son who once loved Merle Haggard and Charley Pride, had been lost to pop and rock music. 

It’s exactly 182.7 km –113.13 miles for American readers (the rest of you will have to figure it out for yourself) – to Barons, Alberta. One hour and fifty-one minutes according to online trip calculators. Of course that time doesn’t factor in traffic, construction, stopping to grab a burger and a coffee in the hope that the poisonous combo might stave off sleep. Falling asleep at this point is desired but more dangerous than ingesting the fast food and coffee. After roughly two and half hours, I reach my destination. 

Barons is one of those dots on a map that if you sneeze while driving past, you’ll miss it. It’s not a town, it’s a village. The population is pegged at around 296 the day I make first contact, but in reality it looks like there are maybe 10 people living in the entire community, a community I find out later had a bit part in the 1970s film Superman. One small scene in a school house is Barons’ claim to fame.

I find the house. Park at the neighbours as instructed. Kind neighbour comes out and greets me and gives me the key. I let myself in. No one is home (obviously). The plan is in full swing. A half hour passes. A car pulls in the driveway. Doors open and close. There is chatter between a man and a woman. The walls in the postage stamp-sized home are thin. The door opens. 

“What are you doing here?” The look on dad’s face is priceless. He’s a little overwhelmed to see me standing in his kitchen, almost 3000 Km from my own kitchen. His wife has been in on the plan the entire time and kept him in the dark for weeks. We managed to pull it off. “Who else is going to take you to meet George Jones tomorrow night at his show in Lethbridge?” I ask.

Thanks to one of my contacts in Nashville, I have arranged for tickets and a meet and greet with George at his show the following evening. Dad will not only get to meet his musical hero, he will – despite the local gate keeper in charge who barks “no autographs” – get some stuff signed by the country legend (Jones’ wife, Nancy, whom I have spoken with previously, will see the items dad brought and have George sign them). 

Dad is at a loss for words, but very happy to see me. We hug and catch up. I go to bed.

(December 2020)