HOPE: #8

Norm Gibbons

Some years ago, I ventured from Newman Bend near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains on the Alberta side. I had spent several months in the small town recuperating from a mysterious ailment at the “Layover Hotel,” as it was commonly known by the longer term residents. When I received my discharge notice, an inmate of the unusual name, Mr. Bonfire, with whom I had played endless games of chess, advised me to take the highway south leading into semi-arid country.

Building on those instructions, and with an inscrutable smile, Bonfire further commented, “When you see a sign of HOPE, turn West.”

“Is it far?” I asked.

“A little off the beaten path. Just follow the sun.”

This advice I took as I had no pressing commitments.

In anticipation of a great odyssey, perhaps culminating in a bold and new life plan, I mused that the clear desert air would serve as a tonic for any residual infirmities that might still linger. In point of fact, I was intrigued with the notion that HOPE lay in a particular direction; and moreover, existed as an actual place. Before leaving, I filled my rucksack with heaps of dry staples in the unlikely event that food became scarce along the way.

As the midday sun blazed directly overhead, the season must have been summer.

Each morning of the journey, I freshly re-imagined how HOPE might look, and also wondered if the residents there would somehow be different from those in Newman Bend, or other towns I had visited over my years of wandering.

Once off the main road, I walked for several days camping overnight along the wayside. The Rockies loomed ahead, the peaks cresting in blinding white light. The evenings were cool, though not cold, and each new night-sky seemed more star-filled than the previous one. Sleep didn’t come easily, a chronic condition, which I have long accepted. Often, when dusk approached, I flinched at the dark shadows of bats cavorting above my head, and as night enveloped, I heard owls hooting close by. Whether or not those nocturnal aviators welcomed my intrusion, I could never determine.

img_4336Occasionally, a sign post appeared assuring me that Bonfire’s directions were precise. Perhaps a week into the trek, even though the days were superb, I had anticipated a car ride. Never once did a vehicle appear going to or coming from HOPE. And never once did I meet another wanderer along the route. At times, the further west I progressed, the road became neglected pathways with hedges growing on either side; in some cases, little more than tunnels of tangled vegetation.

little-hope-baptist-church-400x315At the end of one of those dark tunnels, I came upon a ramshackle sign in a clearing indicating the way to Little Hope Baptist Church. The arrow pointed magnetic north through an even darker tunnel. I quickly decided to forego that pathway remembering Bonfire’s specific instructions to follow the sun and always bear west. In any event, visiting the Baptist Church of LITTLE HOPE hardly seemed an occasion for emotion, when a far more grand HOPE surely lay in the distance.

Well into the second week, the scenery waxed magnificent, opening onto vistas of enormous, round boulders extending along a great plain – a pitch where one could easily conjure giants playing the game of bocce. And further along, I strolled through a featureless expanse, excepting seven, black, volcanic megaliths, which, in my fertile mind, gestured that I become their mascot. Needless to say, I declined their invitation. I flushed all manner of birds and animals, even an antelope, which, if I recall correctly, had been added to the endangered species list. My rucksack had lightened considerably making the journey easier.

An upsetting moment materialized during the third week. As I trudged over a low hill, I saw a scene of wholesale destruction. On first impression, it seemed like the abandoned Hope High School had been the scene of an epic battle; so too the abandoned town of HOPE, which I could see in the distance. Walls were missing from the school, sections of the roof had collapsed, and windows were blown out; yet at the same time, while I made my way through the rubble in hallways, and peeked into several classrooms, I noticed that student drawings still lined the walls, bookshelves still held their textbooks, and desks – though unoccupied – looked as if students had merely taken a recess break. To an extent, this marginal preservation of order persuaded my mind to dampen its turmoil.

joplinhighsignUpon leaving the school, I then realized that I hadn’t come on a battle scene; more likely, HOPE had the misfortune of lying in the path of a tornado. I debated for sometime about proceeding onto the town of HOPE.

Standing in front of the brick portal to the high school, I made a rather astounding discovery. From a distance, I had presumed the sign of HOPE HIGH SCHOOL had lost its first and last letters of HOPE during nature’s fit of rage, but, in spite of the damage to the sign, some kind soul had come along with a roll of Duct Tape to make the point that HOPE still prevailed. Or so I thought.

Upon closer inspection; in fact, I stripped the tape away and could see that the H had really been a J, the E had really been an L, and very faintly I could discern two more letters, I and N. Putting it all together, I now realized that I stood at the site of Joplin High School, and just in view looked upon the town of Joplin. Even though I sympathized with the town citizens, I unashamedly took joy in the certainty that HOPE still lay elsewhere.

UnknownOn the final day of my journey, I came upon a similar signpost to the one I had first seen at the beginning of my adventure with a stubby arrow pointing West. Though I was in no particular hurry, I wanted this sign of HOPE to indicate the remaining distance to travel, as my provisions had reached a critical low. In particular, I had foolishly eaten all of my energy bars, which in the past protected me from the debilitating effects of low blood sugar. Soon my hands trembled and every pebble on the road looked like an insurmountable barrier.

With hindsight now, if I had only known the remaining miles to HOPE, then that knowledge alone would have made it much easier to sustain my forward progress. Whether large or small, a simple number would have given me the fortitude to continue my journey. As it turned out, Bonfire’s directions – to always travel West and always follow the sun – certainly didn’t satisfy my needs.

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Author’s note: Many times an anonymous, unidentified black and white photograph suggests a story. I’m working at a B & W series.