A CITY PLAN of Hearst, Ontario, is relatively simple: East to West. The town sits on the Transcanadian Highway and asks – are you going East, or West? Do you need diesel, or a trailer hitch? Do you need a coffee, or at least a coffee-like beverage? Do you need a night of sleep in a motel bed? Do you need a hot shower? (That will be ten dollars, please). Do you need a calling card?
Hearst has seen better days, maybe better years. Better planting seasons, to be sure. The lumber market is crashing and has been for a while, and here lumber is a lifeblood. That much can be seen from the log pile two stories high and many hundreds of meters long that stretches along the railroad tracks. (In front of it, surreally, a sign bilingually advocates: “Breastfeed!” “Allaitez!”) There were once plenty of people who lived in Hearst, but in the wake of the decline of lumber, many of them have moved away. The ones who stayed now make a living largely from those just passing by: truckers and treeplanters.
The latter is precisely the capacity in which I find myself standing on the Transcanada. It is May 31st and snowing profusely. Our planting outfit has decreed a day off from work, largely because the ground is too frozen to actually put trees into. The only person I know within a three hundred kilometer radius is standing next to me, also surveying the options on offer in la ville de Hearst, Onterrible. Among them: the hardware store known as Canadian Tire, not one but two pizza places, a thrift store, a derelict laundromat, and a McDonalds.
This particular McDonalds has one of those interchangeable-letters signs outside, which says: Last McDonalds for 500 kilometers. (It refers to the city of Thunder Bay, which is some ways – around 500 kilometers – down the road.) Imagine – an expanse of North America where this is possible! Rather, imagine the mind-reeling progression of events that lead to the point where this question makes sense.
My friend, whom I envy both for the thickness of his flannel and for the beginnings of a beard which shield his babyface from the harsh Northern Ontario elements, turns to me.
“Wanna get a double cheeseburger?”
The question is a loaded one, because the Golden Arches missed me as a kid. The vivid yellow M, so much a part of everyone’s field of vision in North America, had only peripheral significance to me. My parents fundamentally disapproved of it, and over the years, McDonalds became everyone’s scapegoat, coming to symbolize everything that was wrong with the spread of fast food, fast gratification, fast culture.
This is how it came to pass that, at the ripe old age of eighteen, I have never had a McDonald’s double cheeseburger. Normally, I would have been quite content to let this state of affairs continue. As it stands, though, I am extraordinarily hungry, and furthermore it is the last day of May and snowing more heavily than it should by rights snow in civilized countries on the last day of May and my wool socks are wet and the stories about wool insulating even when wet seem to be a myth if not an outright lie and oh God I am further even than normal from any place that could be conceptualized tenuously as home.
We trundle into the restaurant and order two double cheeseburgers. It’s warm inside. We leave soggy gray puddles everywhere we go. Sitting down in the standard-issue plastic chairs provides a welcome respite from standing outside in the snow on the Transcanada looking like awkward city kids we are. My friend pays for my double cheeseburger, the deal being that he’ll pay for it if I actually eat it, and within five minutes this wonder of assembly-line meatprocessery arrives via plastic tray. It’s steaming and seared and less than three dollars.
I bite in and it tastes good, of course. It tastes like fat and salt and comfort and everything millions of years of evolution have taught us to seek in order to survive in the wide harsh world. We sit there saying inane things about Canada and tasting the same “meal” that a businessman in New York might be at that very minute eating on his lunch break, that a kid in Prague might grab on the way home after school, the very same double cheeseburger with pickle and ketchup that people in Dubai and Dallas and Dusseldorf eat. I briefly wonder how the trajectory of my life brought me to this particular McDonalds in this particular forgotten town in this particular set of circumstances, but my friend starts up a debate as to which McDonalds menu item provides the most calories per dollar, and this lasts us the rest of the meal.
Fifteen minutes later, this first-ever cheeseburger is eaten, hands are warmer, socks are wrung out in the bathroom stall, and we head out into the bright white Northern Ontario wind.