Alex Supertramp and Canada Slim

“What´s in a name? That which we call a rose
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”
(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)

“Each thing is the same with itself and different from another.”
(Plato, Theaetetus)

“Like the pine trees linin’ the windin’ road
I’ve got a name. I’ve got a name.
Like the singin’ bird and the croakin’ toad
I’ve got a name. I’ve got a name.

And I carry it with me like my daddy did,
But I’m livin’ the dream that he kept hid.

Movin’ me down the highway
Rollin’ me down the highway
Movin’ ahead so life won’t pass me by…
(Jim Croce, “I’ve got a name”)

“There’s nothing to writing.
All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
(US sportswriter Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith (1905-1982))

As the very few who know me well can attest, I can modestly say I have lived the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.”.

I have travelled many a mile on thumb and foot, lived in a few places and have had my own share of adventures, some similar in nature to more famous folk than myself, some very unique to my own particular person.

In the rare telling of my tales, some people have said to me that I should commit these memories to print so that others might be both entertained and possibly enlightened.

The problem has been that much of what I have experienced has been felt on an extremely deep and personal level making it difficult to form such feelings into words suitable for others to read.

Both the encounters of Day One of my Four Points walk, as well as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, have inspired me to finally put to paper (and blog) some of the background to these Chronicles and perhaps give you, the reader, some insight as to who your humble writer is.

Krakauer´s bestseller tells the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a young man from a well-to-do family, who hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley.

He gave away $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burnt all the cash and identification in his wallet and invented a new life for himself.

(Into the Wild was later produced by Sean Penn into a movie.)

It is a truly understated but powerful moment when McCandless destroys all documents in his possession showing his existence.

He renamed himself Alexander Supertramp.

There were moments on Tuesday, Day One aforementioned, that made me think of McCandless and my own personal history.

Bargen is the northernmost municipality in Switzerland.

It is a farming village and last stop for cheap gas before Germany.

It is farmland and forest, a few buildings and roads, and a river called the Durach, which begins west of the hamlet and flows down to meet the Rhine at Schaffhausen.

On every second mailbox in town one finds a sticker proudly proclaiming participation in an event where four towns named Bargen came together.

(My own search has revealed a Bargen in Bern Canton, in Germany´s Baden and one in faroff Sweden.)

Why not choose a name more original for your town?

I remember during my walking days in Canada I gave an interview to the Stratford Beacon Herald wondering aloud why so many North American towns named themselves after European places rather than use the native names instead.

I have seen both Stratford, Ontario, and Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and despite both having Shakespearean festivals, the towns couldn´t be more different in character.

As much as it is good to respect your ancestral heritage I think a celebration of what makes you individual and unique is far more important.

But I guess for the 300 souls that choose to live in Bargen this name game is not at all a matter of concern.

Identity and its reality don´t seem to worry the folks of Bargen.

Consider the inn Am Krone in the heart of the hamlet.

Bargen could not be more physically or psychologically removed from the sea, yet Am Krone is most definitively a nautical spot.

Anchors, ships´ models, photos of huge oceangoing vessels and sporty sailors, nets, knots, even the wheelhouse of some great ship, boldly proclaim a love of the sea like Bargen is some displaced Davy Jones´ locker or a marooned landlocked island much like the Swiss character itself.

Am Krone is not some sailor´s watering hole, but it chooses to brand itself accordingly.

I walked out of Bargen, 605 metres above sealevel, and climbed hills steeply upwards along the Via Gottardo. A warm day, but not unpleasant, good cool breeze, ideal hiking conditions. I walked happily with a bottle of Brauerei Falken’s (Falcon brewery out of Schaffhausen) Adam und Eva Apfelbier(apple beer), bought in Bargen, in my backpack.

Signage began to appear for the Merishausen Naturlehrpfad (nature learning path) telling those who cared to read about different types of grass, how many hectares of hay it takes to feed your average cow, etc. Even the sheep chewing contentedly at one of the signs seemed impressed!

I descended into Merishausen, population 850, a town rather than a hamlet, but like Bargen, a farming community surrounded by forested hills.

Its only claim to fame, as far as I can tell, is its Pfarrscheune (parish tithe barn) which is listed as a Swiss heritage site of national significance.

Of interest is a lovely fountain with a tiny watermill marking the intersection of Hangstrasse to the Hauptstrasse (main street).

I stumbled across an animated passionate game of local football then followed the pathsigns to the local store/post office.

There I discovered a delicious treat called a bishop´s mitre (Pfaffenhut / Chapeau de cure) a sweet tri-cornered pastry piece of hazelnut heaven.

The Via Gottardo continues to follow Hauptstrasse past three bus stops. The third bus stop (and the one I used to take me back to Schaffhausen) is called “Im Kerr”, named after Kerrstrasse.

(Of course, one of my next projects will be to find out from who or what this street is named.)

Seeing my first name on a beer bottle and my family name on a street sign has made me consider my origins.

When I turned 18 I had a problem…

I wanted to go beyond high school and get myself some higher education, but to do so required something I lacked: a birth certificate.

Of course, I had a name by which I was known in Argenteuil County, a name I hated, for it was a name not only shared by two other boys in my class, but as well the spelling of it was evocative of a character on a TV show which I hated.

(I learned later from my sister that the name had indeed been inspired by the show.)

At the time of my birth my parents gave me a name, but somehow neglected to register it with any government bureaucrat.

And, as any identity thief will tell you, a birth certificate enables a world of other documentation to be possible.

Without one, other documentation like a insurance card or a health card or a passport are impossible – short of paying a Marseilles mafioso type or a Bangkok computer hacker a wheelbarrow full of cash.

To further complicate my life in high school, I was not raised with my biological family,(long story), but instead by a middle aged spinster/homemaker and a retired bachelor, who shared a chaste relationship wherein he allowed her to stay rentfree as long as she did the domestic duties.

(A practice I have learned is not that uncommon in rural areas)

It was not unlike living with a priest and a nun, minus the Catholic vestments!

So, my surname differed from my “father”‘s, as did my “mother”‘s name differ from my own and his.

Try explaining this complex situation when you´re a kid and barely understand it yourself!

To get a birth certificate, I needed to hire a lawyer.

Here was a golden opportunity to name myself whatsoever I deemed fitting.

I thought about sticking with an old Quebec tradition wherein Catholic-raised families registered as a first name all the boys Joseph and all the girls Marie, though these names wouldn´t normally be used off the record.

I thought Joe Kerr was a wee bit too tongue-in-cheek for my liking.

(Or course, Wayne was definitely out of the question as well!)

At that time I did not know my own heritage or roots, so I thought Adam (Aramaic for “red man”) was fitting for someone who was the start of his own generation, Oliver (as in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist)represented the orphan-like status I found myself in, and Kerr (Scottish for “left-handed”) (which by sheer coincidence I happen to be) the only real remnant I had of my unknown past, being my family name.

(There are castles in Scotland called “Kerr Castles” as the staircases are specially built to be defended by left-handed sword fighters.)

(Years later, a Turkish cabdriver in Ottawa would inform me that “Adam” was Turkish for “man”.)

The name was chosen for its initials as well: AOK.

Everything was all right with me(AOK), and A stood for my “father”‘s surname Allard and O for my “mother”‘s surname O’Brien.

(Later adventures would create my “Canada Slim” moniker.)

(Another story for the future…)

Like McCandless, I creat(ed) my own identity, and like McCandless, I found / find myself in adventures of a quite similar nature.

(SPOILER ALERT: minus his fatal final one)

Like McCandless, I possess a strong case of wanderlust and a love of nature.

Like McCandless, I search(ed) for my own sense of self and identity.

If life has taught me anything…

We are who we choose to be.


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