Hermit of Desolation Sound

Chapter four: The road

Previous chapter [“The changeabout,” April 19]: A series of events in the late 1960s and early 1970s began to change Russell Letawsky from businessman to bushman. First, it was a canoe trip down the Moosenee River in Northern Ontario. Then, it was experiencing and loving marijuana at a stockbroker’s party in Toronto. After that, it was enrolling at York University to study philosophy, and being particularly taken by one of Freidrich Nietzsche passages. Soon after, something snapped in Russell Letawsky.

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse. I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish only to be a Yes-sayer.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882).

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In the mid-1970s, the passage above captured Russell Letawsky’s full attention and imagination. He became fixated with Nietzsche’s philosophical concept of amor fati, Latin for “love of fate,” or more specifically, “love your fate,” an enthusiastic belief that everything that has happened was meant to be, as is everything that will happen. Russell would read the passage over and over again, and with the help of his trips to the wilderness and his marijuana use, he felt the clouds in his mind lifting. Like Nietzsche, Russell wanted to look away.

On a particularly searing-hot and humid summer day, Russell found himself standing among the sweat-soaked masses at the chaotic corner of Yonge and Dundas in downtown Toronto. Forget about the rat race, at that moment Russell felt as insignificant as an ant. Every morning of every day, following all the other worker ants into smog-choked concrete and steel? For what?

Right then, right there, something snapped in Russell Letawsky. His life would never be the same. He would leave the city as soon as possible and head west, as far as he could go.

Russell had a girlfriend named Danielle who, unlike his ex-wife, shared his enthusiasm for the wilderness. But Danielle had a great job and didn’t want to leave it. Russell was relentless in their need to get away. Finally, she successfully applied for a job transfer to Russell’s hometown of Edmonton, and the trek to the west was on.

Russell, Danielle, and about five of their cats all piled into Russell’s gigantic boat of a car, a 1969 green Plymouth Fury III, and they hit the road with the radio cranked and the windows wide open. Apparently, the cats loved the road. But for two stoned hippies it was a pretty foreboding trip.

“We had some really strange experiences,” remembers Danielle. “Russell was a very good driver and very steady on the road. I fell asleep one night and woke up to the sound of crunching. When I looked out the window it was as if the road was moving. It was locusts, crossing the road, and we were driving over them. It was the strangest thing, for several miles. At another point, we drove through a forest fire. The flames rose at least 10 to 15 feet, on both sides of the highway, and we were being hustled through by the RCMP.”

Russell insisted on interpreting the fire and locusts as apocalyptic signs of not what was ahead, but what they were leaving behind.

By the time they got to Russell’s hometown of Edmonton, it was in the thick of the oil boom and available rentals were nil. They camped in a family member’s backyard, and while Danielle worked, Russell drank. He soon grew restless and resentful, desperate to continue his journey west. After too many fights, their relationship broke down, they broke up, and Russell continued onward with just one cat, named Old Satan.

By the fall of 1975, Russell was travelling around the interior of BC, having landed a gig photographing tournament winners of the hottest leisure sport of the 1970s: bowling.

It was in a bowling alley in Kamloops where he fell in love with a woman named Audrey, who was working behind the counter.

Just like Russell had pressured his ex-girlfriend Danielle to travel west, he now tried to convince his new girlfriend Audrey to finish the journey. Russell wanted to cross the finish line in a radical way: he wanted the two of them to “walk” to the ocean, over the towering Coast Mountain Range, without following any trails, train tracks or roads.

After much persuasion, Audrey eventually agreed to the trek, and together they entered the bush, and the adventure of their lives.

You’ll read that epic story in the next chapter of Hermit of Desolation Sound.

Grant Lawrence is an award-winning author and radio personality who considers Powell River and Desolation Sound his second home. Hermit of Desolation Sound is currently airing as a weekly radio serial on North by Northwest, CBC Radio One in BC. The Peak is proudly presenting “Grant Lawrence and Friends: An Evening of Stories and Songs,” Saturday, May 11, at Max Cameron Theatre. Advance tickets are on sale now at the Peak, Unit F - 4493 Marine Avenue.


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