Off the Grid

Escaping the rat race.

NUVO Magazine: Off the Grid

Illustration by Andrea Wan.

The sand underfoot is white enough to seem like a deliberate cliché. The granules are so fine that each footstep squeaks. The shallows are (of course) a tropical blue-green—enough to make us forget we’re in British Columbia. White foam tops the big rollers coming in off the open ocean. There is nothing between us and Japan, unless you count the large mass of buoyant debris from the tsunami.

Following wolf tracks down the beach, we start finding flotsam. Or is it jetsam? A big, red 500-watt light bulb stamped “Takuyo”, improbably intact. A yoga ball–sized float labelled “Musashi”. A carton of milk with writing in kanji. The sole of a child’s sandal. The wedge heel from a woman’s shoe. A rubber wheel. Painted boards. And everywhere, plastic bottles, the shapes and lettering familiar from a Japanese supermarket in East Vancouver.

Plants I’ve never seen before creep and spring and loom from the sun-dappled forest floor. A few hundred metres inland, we find part of a fish beside the trail—fertilizer now for the trees. It’s no surprise this area houses one of the Heiltsuk First Nation’s creation stories.

Later we sit by the fire, sipping sangria mixed in a Nalgene hiking bottle. A pair of humpback whales breach in the channel. Our supper that night is red snapper and rock cod, caught fresh. Would I rather be toiling in a cubicle? No, although the answer is not as simple as it might seem.

A year ago I was sitting in a stone office behind a big oak door, with a card that read “Bureau Chief” and a job that involved wearing expensive neckties and taking politicians out for breakfast. As CTV’s correspondent at the Quebec legislature, I rode a fun, fast-moving beat, surrounded by some of the best journalists in the country.

I had just rejected an overture from a competing network in booming Calgary, instead setting my sights abroad. “The last time they posted Beijing,” someone told me, “nobody from our shop applied.” I laughed off suggestions that I had ambitions beyond the press gallery, but there they were.

Still, there were nagging feelings that I hadn’t chosen this path for myself. I realized when I looked back over my quick ride that I was mostly living out other peoples’ visions for my life. I had followed their suggestions and projections, always taking the path of least resistance, until I found a way to make a decent wage doing very little real work.

Broadcast journalism is a disturbingly intangible product. Even with the advent of online archiving, it’s easy to feel like a tree falling in a forest.

Broadcast journalism is a disturbingly intangible product. Even with the advent of online archiving, it’s easy to feel like a tree falling in a forest. (Granted, most trees don’t fall at noon and 6 o’clock every weekday.) Once in a while, something I reported had an impact, but even then, the effect wasn’t necessarily positive. Most weekends I struggled to remember what I’d worked on that week.

In the basic sense that human labour is supposed to add value to raw materials, it’s sometimes hard to feel all that useful on TV. Of course your intent is to inform the public, and your hope is that you help citizens make informed ballot-box choices, but good luck explaining to your mechanic or butcher how indispensable you are to democracy.

It was harder still to justify my profession to activists—or people who see something wrong and do something about it. When I saw something wrong, my job was to stand there with a microphone and pretend wrong was just a counter-argument to right. Two sandbags of equal size, teetering on my moral scales.

I had a dream the night before everything tore apart. My sense is that you ignore dreams at your own peril—not so much the content, which can be interpreted subjectively, but the feeling you’re left with when you wake up. In this case, the feeling was abject, all-consuming dread. In retrospect, I’m glad I paid attention.

In the dream, I was driving a machine, a big, loud piece of heavy, steel-treaded diesel machinery. I had stolen the machine, which I remember was a problem. It was like a piledriver, except it was for planting tombstones. (I wish I were making this up.) The machine had a whole hopper full of engraved granite slabs, with a big pneumatic arm that reached back and loaded one tombstone at a time. Relentless, it swung forward and slammed each stone into the ground, then reached for another.

I was driving across the sloped lawn of the National Assembly, the legislature in Quebec City where I worked five days a week. (Again, my subconscious is not known for its subtle touch.) I was planting crooked rows of tombstones in the grass—smashing them into jagged tooth shapes, driving over them and crushing them, tearing up the flowerbeds.

I woke up with the feeling that I was about to get in big, big trouble. I grabbed a towel and headed down to the condo basement, where I jumped on the treadmill. Let me just say that if you ever need to think hard about your career or life purpose, avoid running on something as metaphorically loaded as a treadmill. Needless to say, I felt worse the more fake kilometres I notched up.

That morning was when I realized I didn’t have to stay. When I finally offered it to myself out loud as a possibility, the sense of elation that washed through me was terrifying. I wondered if I had simply gone crazy—if I would be found weeks hence, wandering a highway somewhere in a frilly nightgown. I considered the question of insanity very much as one would check for broken bones after a car crash. Does that hurt? How about that? Everything felt fine. Maybe I was okay.

I asked my employer for an unpaid leave of absence that would correspond to my cameraman’s five weeks of summer vacation. With the legislature shuttered and politicians at home in their ridings, it felt like the ideal time to weigh my options and make a careful decision. My boss agreed and the request was granted. I packed my truck and struck off for the West Coast, ready to do some pondering.

I was halfway from Montreal to Ottawa when my boss called back. I don’t know whom he spoke to from corporate, or what script was written for him by HR. My new orders were to either turn around and report for work next Monday, or resign. “If you do go,” I remember him saying, “I’d appreciate it if you could let us know before Friday. I’m going on vacation and want to get this sorted out before I leave.”

That was Tuesday. I thought about it non-stop for the next 72 hours. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, I realized that the station had airtime to fill and ads to sell. It’s just the nature of working for a big telecom firm. I chose to quit my job.

I hope the past 12 months have taught me something. I’ll call this lesson one: embrace uncertainty. Once I accepted that anything could happen, anything did happen.

I hope the past 12 months have taught me something. I’ll call this lesson one: embrace uncertainty. Once I accepted that anything could happen, anything did happen. I spent two months in the Mojave Desert, filming a blind musician as he jumped his motorcycle. (We met in an airport.) Huddled under a makeshift sunshade on the baking salt flats near Adelanto, my friends and I watched Predator drones circle above us on test flights as the big dirt bikes roared back and forth in the shimmering heat.

Chased out of an oil refinery by security, my girlfriend and I drove the back roads of Alberta until we found a special field. It’s where a pipeline is supposed to start that would end in the Pacific Ocean, 1,177 kilometres away. We travelled to the other end and jumped in the water, running our fingers over seaweed and barnacles. None of this was in my day planner a year ago.

Lesson two: embrace vulnerability. I used to really buy into the myth of self-sufficiency. I took great pride in having my own apartment, my own car, my own RRSP, my own insurance policies. I looked after my own interests. I would go to the supermarket, cook elaborate meals, and eat them alone. This made me feel lonely. “Shockfest,” as a dear ex-colleague would say.

I didn’t have a severance package, trust fund, offshore accounts, or gold ingots waiting when I “retired”. I had to start over. And at various points—stuck in London, for example, trying to finish a film, or on a gravel road way out of cell range with two flat tires—I’ve had to ask for help. It wasn’t easy. But each time, at exactly the most crucial moments, people stepped in with the help I needed.

Nobody can go it alone, nor should they have to. In my reading, I’ve discovered that many ancient cultures were built around reciprocity, teamwork, sharing. Family. People cared for others who were vulnerable. They gave things away, knowing they would in turn receive what they needed. I think Republicans call this “socialism”.

Lesson three: embrace interconnectedness. Only within my fantasy of control and self-sufficiency could I seriously believe my actions didn’t ripple outward like waves. But if a child’s shoe from Japan can wash up at my feet in Canada, then surely what I eat and say and buy can have an impact next door or across the world.

Skinning a lamb near the Deadman River, shucking oysters on Quadra Island, sowing greens with my grandmother, or picking blackberries along Burrard Inlet, I’ve been forced to think about where my food comes from and, in many cases, what it ate. It’s a simple thought exercise, but not obvious for someone raised in the city. Realizing how many overlapping systems I depend on has sparked a new fondness for pasture and sea water and sunlight and rain.

Riding my bike up and down hills, I’ve had time to think about energy—how much energy I need to get where I’m going, how much food I have to eat to get there, how many dollars that food costs, how much work I need to do to earn those dollars. These simple equations, extrapolated to larger systems, raise interesting questions. I’ve begun to understand that I’m not actually separate from you. Why, here you are, reading my weird thoughts.

In the months after I left, a few people from different industries got in touch to say they’d “pulled a Nagata”. There was a newspaper article comparing me to a flight attendant who had given everyone the finger and jumped down the emergency chute. I was asked on TV to analyze a resignation letter from a Goldman Sachs executive who quit his job. The problem is, I don’t know anything about investment banking or the stresses of being an airline steward.

Perhaps wonderful things would have happened if I’d stayed. I like being able to pick up and go at the drop of a hat. I like choosing what I want to work on. I like having time to sleep properly. I made a decision that I have questioned and replayed endlessly over the past year, but ultimately don’t regret. So far.