driving to Fort McMurray

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Fort Mac is burning and tomorrow Evan Prosovsky is flying in from LA so he can shoot the disaster on IMAX film. He's making a documentary about Alberta, and this is part of living in Alberta. Dylan doesn't want me to drive up north with them; I'm begging to go.

 

Friday, May 6, 2016

10:23 am - I ask Dylan where he got his sunglasses from. "I got these in Italy because everyone was wearing huge, douchey sunglasses and I was 19 and I thought that's what I wanted." He turns to me, the mirrored lenses tilt in at the bottom, making his forehead and jaw both bulge, somehow. "I think I got these in Florence." I say, "Florentine sunglasses?" and Tom says, deadpan, "My Tuscan Eye-Windows." 

We're on our way up north. In Edmonton, the smoke is starting to seep in. I've never been up above the 53rd parallel before. 

We have a flat of water bottles and 5 cans of gas to fill up before we leave the city. Evan has a sleeping bag; we only have blankets. We'll probably sleep in the cars.

I'm trying not to worry that I'll spend the weekend playing the part of a useless woman. My job on this trip is to write what I see and what happens to us. So here we are. Dylan and I in Blanche, Evan and Tom in the SUV that Evan rented yesterday. No one knows how far we're going to get or if we'll be able to see anything. 

Dylan is playing the Summering demos that aren't on Bandcamp anymore and I've heard or misheard a lyric like, "I keep waking up in a past voice." Already I am farther north than I have ever been. The highway out of town is all smooth brown road and overpasses layered over slabs of green grass. The air is still clear but the sky is hazy.

 

11:13 am - In Smitty's this morning a man with a tucked-in shirt answered his phone cheerfully, "Well, there no Fort McMurray any more!" Tom and Dylan were eating male breakfasts--eggs, shredded hash browns, sausages, fruit--and I was eating multigrain pancakes with chocolate milk and black coffee.

The colour of the sky against the stands of trees with new leaves is the colour of a piece of romaine lettuce dropped on the surface of blueberry yogurt. The double lines on the highway are so yellow they're almost orange. Dylan and I barely talk. Already I wonder about the people heading south, what they've seen.

 

12:39 pm - Stopped on the side of highway 63 so Evan and Dylan could pee. They compared gas mileage (Blanche is not doing so well), Evan described buying his jeep, Sweet Pea, from a drug dealer in San Jose who wired up an iPhone charger right to the engine and took the bulbs out of the tail lights. Apparently Evan took the jeep to get checked out once, the guy started the engine and knew immediately that 3 things were wrong. "I guess I was only running on 6 out of 8 cylinders?" Evan says. "Jeep whisperer," Tom says. "I don't know anything about my car."

 

3:08 pm - A camper flipped over and crushed on the highway going south. Evan stops to film it. Buckled styrofoam panels. Food, dishes, toys, a baseball cap, a padded envelope with an electronic part from an RV supply centre addressed to Craig Lockyer of Fort McMurray. There seems to be an inordinate amount of literature related specifically to owning a Recreational Vehicle. Ritz crackers flung free of the wreck. Windex. Dawn dishsoap. Watermelon-printed tea towels. A matching set of red-handled cooking utensils. Hotdog buns. I wonder if I am going to see blood or body parts thrown beyond the yellow police tape into the grass, into the cattails. Nothing of the sort. The scene of the accident, like the whole highway only 2 hours out from Fort McMurray is strangely clear and serene. A couple of women in fire patrol t-shirts stop by the side of the road to ask if we have water and gas. Evan asked what it was like up ahead, where the road closures start. The brunette woman said well, this highway's closed already, but we're all here. The blonde woman, aviator sunglasses, hair in two braids, said more convoys were headed south today. There are certainly more cars heading south than north. I haven't seen anyone behind us since we left Grasslands.

Evan was obviously thrilled with the first thing to shoot, just as I began picking through this dead family's flung possessions. He homed in on a toy dump truck. Dylan was uncomfortable with this trip to begin with, worried about exploiting a tragedy rather than documenting, recognizing it. Found crash scenes are not his idea of filmmaking.

 

3:32 pm - It strikes me that I'm jealous (envious?) of all people who face disaster, especially as a community. Driving up here, safe as we are, we're appropriating a sense of vitality, urgency, clear-headedness that inevitably comes with crisis and devastation. I hate myself for saying that it feels like a vacation. We can see the smoke now. We're driving right into it, passing trucks with boxes full of water bottles and juice boxes. Dylan wonders if the IMAX card will get us places a CBC card won't--past the roadblocks.

 

4:10 pm - There is something erotic about a man peeing on the side of the road. We're stopped about 70 clicks from the city to film the smoke billowing up into the cumulous clouds, which the smoke seems to form itself around. How odd that this is what making art looks like--finding the vantage point from which the disaster is reduced to smoke blue on cloud white on dune orange on young grass green. The smoke takes on the form of a seal's body flopped sleekly across the horizon. We are driving at its belly.

 

7:29 pm - We got the roadblock around 5:00 and found a gaggle of news vans and amateur photographer set up in the ditch and on the highway shoulder in a long line, filming what they can, smoke pluming up black and white and sulphur yellow by intervals a kilometre or two back from the highway. There are a few cars full of Fort McMurray residents here with us. Some of them have been here for days. They want to go back in to rescue pets, mostly. I don't blame them, the way a disaster becomes much more real than rules conceived of by people in peacetime, unaware of how precious and precarious life actually is. Dylan notes that the people who've stayed have enough respect for nature to continue to wrangle with it, even when it becomes a sweeping inferno. Dylan made a few calls to see if anyone could get us past the roadblock, but it's Friday night and no one in the police force or the government is in the office to answer their phones.

The people parked in front of us are in a camper and towing a boat, which they're sitting in as if to enjoy the view. Their large black dog is tethered to a wheel, in front of a metal bowl of water. He seems terrified. They ask us if we're ok for water and gas, and we ask them the same. Every few minutes a vehicle on its way south slows down as it passes and a driver asks if we're ok for water, ok for fuel. A photographer from Toronto has convinced Evan to stay until it gets dark. The little boy in the boat, who's probably 12, keeps loading two plastic guns from a big container full of pellets. He has a machine gun and a hand gun. Dylan has a cold in the teary stages; they've got the camera out in the ditch but Dylan has to walk back to the car for tissues every couple of minutes. He's the one who convinced the boat family to let Evan shoot their portrait--7 seconds or so of IMAX footage, the three of them in their boat on the side of the road. The little boy raises his demanded cut of the movie profits from 30% to 50%. On a cellphone, the woman says she's slept 6 hours in three days. They all look rough--t-shirts and pajama pants, dirty hair. The man comes out of the camper with a carton of apple juice and something he's eating off a stick. Either a pickle or a sausage, I can't tell. 

 A convoy of Diversified buses rolls past. These must be some of the people from up beyond Fort Mac, who have to be escorted through the dangerous zone. Dylan opens the backseat door and stuffs an armful of coiling, sprawling film into our plastic garbage bad. I turn around in my seat. "That doesn't look happy." "It's all good," he says, "this is probably about 10 seconds." 

The sun is getting low. We're easing into golden hour. The amateur photographers are mostly gone, the smoke acting as a light diffuser. People are eating, chatting. There is nothing to do but wait. The boat people wait actively, not getting distracted by much, pointing out the planes overhead, white fish against the smoke; the helicopters with their round, red, hanging udders--water bombs or dye. 

So far I am, from cinematic and humanitarian points of view, useless.

A little boy and his father, bald with a construction company t-shirt, diamond earring, were at the roadblock when we got here, hoping to get 12 kilometres back in to rescue their cats. A man driving a water truck, who was going to be let through, told the police he needed another driver and the man and his son ran and got into the water truck. "Well, I have a class 1 license," the man was saying as he ran. The water truck roared off toward Anzac, which we can see burning.