Sunday, March 19, 2017

East of O, After the Snow

Winter was fading, though maybe not quickly enough.  We had a few days of glorious low double-digit temperatures and I guess we were lulled into thinking that, yeah, winter was pretty much over.  But right in the middle of March Break, a snowstorm rose up from the North Atlantic to take a wide swipe at all those who thought it was time to put away the toques and scarves.  Over two days, it dropped 25 centimetres of ugly white fluff on Ottawa.  I had been hoping I was going to be able to take one of these days off (I work in for an Ottawa school board) to go for my first drive of the year, but the dropping of snow, like a pile of file folders flopped onto a desk at the end of a workday, made me wonder if I was going to pull it off.

All the past summer, I had been taking small therapeutic road trips one or two hours out of town.  One reason for these trips was the stifling heat that had come down on us that summer, especially in August.  Sitting in my rented room without air conditioning proved to be nearly unbearable, so I would get into my car with nothing but my phone and my wallet and just head somewhere to get the wind moving through the windows and dry out my sweaty, overheated body while easing my troubled, overworked mind.  I had just freshly ended a marriage that I had spent two years trying to rebuild, with false starts and vain attempts, and was just newly becoming acquainted with life alone.  I spent the earlier part of that summer wallowing in the notion that loneliness was the worst state imaginable, until I realized that being alone meant that nothing was holding me back.  It was then that I decided to get out and explore the world I had been passing by all that time.  The road trips proved to be helpful, showing me things I hadn't noticed before, answering questions that I had kept silent for so long as I sought new roads and placed faces to names of little towns I had only seen on roadsigns before.  I was up and moving, moving on and moving up.

On the second day of the storm, I took my car in for an oil change and to check why an engine light was coming on.  It turned out to be nothing so, heartened by not being seated with a repair bill, I booked it the next day to get the crack in the windshield fixed.  I resolved that if the weather improved, I would be out on the road as soon as that repair was done.

The next day the sun was out and the sky was a deep blue. A stark contrast to the bleak hostilities of the days before.  The temperatures rose to just beneath freezing, just enough for the salt laid down to work on the road.  I took the  car in at 10 o'clock, then sat in the Tim Hortons across the street to wait it out.  There, coffee at my wrist, laptop before me, I plotted my course.  I had been wanting to see where Mitch Owens Drive went, knowing it went east.  I had never seen the eastern part of Ottawa, and it stayed an unanswered question for so long.  I supposed there might just be a lot of snow-covered farmland, but still; I wanted to know.  Some might call it the Middle of Nowhere, but the middle of nowhere is always someone's somewhere, someone's home.  Someone always knows that seemingly desolate road you get lost on.  It's funny that this Nowhere is actually part of a city that I live in.  So many of us don't know our own towns or cities, so many still need a GPS to get around a city that they'd lived in all their lives.  That never sat right with me.  I want to know, because I know there's no such place as Nowhere.  It takes ignorance to call a place that.

My plan was to follow Mitch Owens Drive from Manotick as far east as it would go, then slip up to Highway 417 and continue east until it reached the elbow where it would head into Quebec, where I would turn the other way and follow County Road 17, fording the Ottawa River back into the city.  That would satisfy my curiosity, I thought.  At 12 o'clock, the window was done.  I gathered my things, got the car and hit the road.

Driving into Manotick, I thought about how the town definitely had money, judging by its cleanliness and character, but it wasn't pretentious like some towns liked to present themselves.  It still held a small town personality, letting it's own geography do the advertising.  That geography was the Rideau River, which split itself in two to create Long Island, upon which Manotick proper was established.

It has touristy historical features here, like Watson's Mill, Dickinson House,which was once the campaign headquarters for Sir John A. Macdonald no less, and there is picturesque A.Y. Jackson park, named after the Group of Seven artist who lived in the village for ten years in the late fifties/early sixties.  But I wasn't a tourist, I was a traveler.  I had someplace to go without anywhere to be.

I hit Mitch Owens Drive, which was named after a city councilor who was briefly Mayor of Gloucester in 1984 and had served with the RCMP and had a stint on the schooner St. Roch, which was the first ship to completely circumnavigate North America through the Northwest Passage.  Worthy attributes to warrant naming a county road after you.  I was surprised to learn that he had died only last year as owner of a trailer park right there on the Drive, which I noted as I passed it by.  Mitch Owens Drive is otherwise known as route 8, which is a throwback for me to Old Highway 8 in Niagara, which goes from my old stomping grounds in Queenston, all the way to Goderich on the shores of Lake Huron.  It was an important road for me as I always took it to get into the urban center of St. Catharines, but it was also significant with all the stories attached to it from the days of the War of 1812, which defined the area like no other event in history.  I was happy to discover another route 8.

I was amazed at how quickly the road had bounced back from a snowstorm only a day before. It was hard to believe that just the day before the area was under blizzard conditions. Snow was pushed aside and the temperature had risen to help the roadsalt in melting the snow that had been tamped down by traffic.  The sun then did its part by drying the pavement, making conditions perfect for driving.  I felt blessed, and spurred on by such an opening of opportunity to make this a memorable drive.  I slid in City and Colour's Little Hell cd to join my mood.  I chose it because Dallas Green's soulful singing and bluesy/folky/rocky songsmithing added some sweet melancholy to the trip.  City and Colour is always good traveling music in my opinion.  Another Niagara connection for me, as Dallas grew up in Niagara like I did (you may notice I am big on local connections).  My ex wife actually remembers him at parties, introverted and hiding that massive genius that would bring him so much success later on.

I hit Boundary Road where route 8 ended, zipped north to Hwy 417 and headed east, still reveling in the dry road and sunny sky.  The last time I had been on this stretch of highway was back in 2012 when my (then) wife and I spontaneously decided to drive to Moncton to catch a conference that she wanted to attend.  We did it early in the morning before the sun rose on the other side of Montreal on Hwy. 20, so that stretch of the 417 was always a mystery to me beyond what could be illuminated by our headlights.  The landscape I was driving through confirmed my assumption that it was all flat farmland. It looked, again, like Niagara, or even Holland, were it not for the industrial parks that peppered the scenery.  I drove this way for another half hour, until I realized I had better stop to get some gas, relieve my bladder and get something to eat.  I wanted to find someplace Ma and Pa to eat at, but when I saw some curious red and white signs for a truck stop called Herb's, I thought I would try it out.   What could be more of a local flavour than a truckstop called Herb's?  Finding a table in the restaurant, I was shown just how close to the border with Quebec I actually was, as every conversation around me was en francais.  Nowhere in the country is the concept of bilingualism more alive than in Ottawa.  Growing up where I did, just across the river from Buffalo, New York, French was taught, but it wasn't a priority.  Here in the nation's capital, immersion is common in schools and you can hear French spoken at any given corner.  That comes from two things, being right across the river from bastion of French Canadianism; Quebec, and the city's status as the nation's capital.  And sitting at my booth in Herb's, I heard that culture firsthand.  I ordered a steak, medium rare, with some mashed potatoes and a cup of coffee and caught up with my social media.  The steak, as it turned out was tough and seasoned way too enthusiastically, so I struggled through it as best I could, then had a pecan pie washed down with more coffee.  It was well enough to refuel, and the waitress was nice enough to earn my 5 dollar tip.  It was time for me to hit the road again, au revoir et merci...

A little further on, the highway took it's swing to the north where it would head towards the Ottawa River and then turn east again, making it's way towards Montreal.  When the highway took that eastern crook, I was looking for the off-ramp to County Road 17, where I could make my way back to the city close to the banks of the river.  Over time, I passed into Quebec.  I didn't know its border dipped down to south of the river, and when I posted where I was on social media, some of my friends started to wonder what the heck I was doing. "Did you hit a snow bank and veer left?" asked my girlfriend, Julia.  I was wondering what I'd done, myself.  I should have seen the offramp at that point.  Realizing my mistake, I got off the highway and doubled back.  It was time to call on the gps app in my phone to re-orient myself and it told me that the off-ramp I was looking for was 12 km ahead of me.  When I finally approached it, I saw there was no exit onto Road 17 from the 417 eastbound.  That's one thing Google Maps doesn't tell you!

Getting onto County Road 17 at last, I can see the hills across the river, the striations of dark, bare trees imposed over freshly fallen snow, looking every bit like something Emily Carr would have loved to have painted, the undulations of the landscape with the gorgeous worn down curves of what were once towering mountains like the Rockies or Himalayas hundreds of millions of years ago.  It always struck me, the disparity of the mountains on the Quebec side and the flatness of the Ontario side.  What could be more illustrative of the differences between provinces and cultures?
art geek
Passing out of Hawksbury, I came upon a sign warning of a night danger of moose crossing the road. That's another quintessentially Canadian thing; "Watch for Moose".  The moose silhouette looked pleasantly familiar: the central object of Charles Pachter's dramatic painting: "Mooseplunge".  The painting itself has Pachter's iconic moose in silhouette, just stepping off a precipice to plunge into a pitching white-capped sea.  It has brought out much discussion as to what allegorical properties the painting evokes, from courage, to disenchantment, to sacrifice, which is what all good art is meant to do.  The road sign however has none of those dramatics, highlighting only the moose, having it look only like it has its head down to face any imposing traffic that dares to stop it from crossing.  When I made mention of it on Facebook, Charles mentioned that he had given the Ontario Ministry of Transportation permission to use it, and thusly you will find the image on roads all around the province.

Driving on, I began to get the feeling I had about 25 years ago when I had forgone taking highway 400 from Barrie to take Highway 27 instead.  I had just finished a March honeymoon with my first wife in the Muskokas and was already in love with the landscape of Algonquin Park and the area, so to take this rural route home, looking at the rugged surroundings blanketed in snow under a clear blue sky, it was like the icing on the cake.  I had the same feeling on #17, as if I had bypassed the route oft-taken to find this jewel of a road with all its treats to feast visually on.  Again, I could find the Quebecois contingency on this side of the river, as every town had the spire of a church poking up from its skyline, presiding over them at whatever the highest point was.  This is the same that I saw in another trip through Quebec; the heavy influence of the Catholic Church at the center of every community.  Whether in the run-down facades of Alfred or the new developments around Wendover, that spire was there in attendance.

hot ride
If I had brought my Kim Mitchell collection with me, I would have put in the obvious cd when I entered Rockland.  I could tell I was getting closer to the more urbanized environs of Orleans because I was seeing more of the corporate colonialism that you will find in all urban centers all over the continent; the Macdonalds, the Tim Hortons and the Walmarts popping up on the side of the road as the concrete architecture began to become more plentiful.  Rockland's saving grace however what the closeness of the road to the Ottawa River.  Numerous times in that town, I could look to my right, and there was the expansive plain of the frozen river going on for a good kilometre or two and then the mighty Gatineau hills, rising above the flatness with meaning and power.  It was about 5:00 at that point, so the sun was low enough that it would shine directly onto my chest in the car and warmed me so much that I had to take my sweater off.  What a glorious thing it was, so soon after a snowstorm, after a long and drudgerious winter, to drive in nothing but my teeshirt.  What a perfect day it had become.  I was so thankful to be out there and able to appreciate the sun, the sights and the road.

When I entered Orleans, 17 transformed into Highway 174, which would take me directly into downtown.  Being the time of day that it was, I didn't want to get caught in the snarl of rush hour traffic, which would be instant buzzkill for an otherwise perfect drive.  Luckily, I knew a way around it.  I zipped off the highway at Montreal Road, then curled around to take the Sir Georges Etiennes Cartier Parkway, the scenic route on the east side of Ottawa, leading into Sussex Drive, avoiding the traffic of downtown commuters, keeping me along my beloved river and past the most beautiful scenery the city has to offer.  It was a route I took often the past summer, coming back from Petrie Island or visiting the Aviation museum.  It was a salve for my hurting soul then, and it was a welcoming sight this time around too.  Coming into the downtown, I passed Rideau Hall, the Royal Canadian Mint, the National Gallery and the Chateau Laurier, then zigzagged my way onto Wellington St., then Elgin, then Laurier, then finally, sneakily, I got onto Queen Elizabeth Drive, the stretch of road that followed the picturesque Rideau Canal and took me almost directly home.  It was the penultimate perfect ending for a perfect drive that had lasted 6 hours, all said.    None of the barriers that I had anticipated with trepidation had presented themselves during this trip.  The roads were clear and dry, the traffic was minimal, the sun was out and the sky was blue. I was tired, and my backside was in the tingles of numb-bum, but the fatigue did nothing to depress my elation for this wonderful day I'd had.  Pulling into the driveway of the boarding house in which I live, I backed the car in, then sat for a long few minutes.  I felt like I had awakened from a long nap.  A long nap with the most delicious dream...

Thursday, March 16, 2017

One Night in Toronto: a drive out to the Tragically Hip

I left her house that morning; the house of my estranged wife, probably something like ten after nine, I think.  I don’t really know; the clock in my van is off by about fifteen minutes.  I’d been there to pick up some tickets to see the Tragically Hip in Toronto, thanks to some residual generosity on her part,which I’m nonetheless obliged to repay sometime soon, just not now.  She has connections to such lofty and inaccessible things like tickets to the Man Machine Poem tour, and knowing how I’d wept when I heard the news of Gordon Downie’s diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, she pulled some strings and got them.  My estranged wife, my spouse, a woman I had once
loved deeply who was still in tune with my yearnings and needs.  I’d often thought our relationship would make a good Hip tune, full of questionable syntax, with a heavy Johnny Fay battery, something angry and fast paced with a soft, tender and lilting bridge in the middle.

I left Ottawa towards Highway 15 going through Smiths Falls, taking the scenic route that my brothers and I always prefer to take when we are headed towards Highway 401, treating myself to that rocky rolling landscape, that rugged Canadian Shield that I am sure is the basis of a lot of the Hip’s music, as much as the urban drama of the cities they have coaxed into their songs.  I was listening to Live Between Us, their live album from 1997.  Listening to Gord sing Nautical Disaster his delicious improvisations after the main lyrics of the song, I thought of what an anomaly Gord actually is.  No one out there does anything like this, this kind of rampant spontaneous creativity. I thought of the amazing mind that the man has, the deep intelligence from which he can drop these amazing monologues that startle you and draw you in like he was telling you the story of the rest of your life.  It truly does make him a phenomenon. How many thousands of seemingly disjointed sentences have passed from his mind, into the stadium air?  When I write, a lot of times it's his voice that is coming out, because though it's not the same deep intelligence that I draw from, it’s that inspiration that he gets me access to my own intelligence and depth. Right now even, little snippets of his voice turn my phrases.  It’s now like second nature to me, he’s burrowed in that deep.  That’s how important he is to me.

After two hours, I came into the Hip’s hometown of Kingston, where my sister has lived for almost the last 40 years. The Hip would play their last show here in a few days, and it would be broadcast on the CBC as a national event, not unlike the 1972 Summit Series, or the signing of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.It has a place in Canadian History, it does.  Because she lives just around the corner from Robbie Baker’s house, my sister has
her own Tragically Hip stories, but they are not all happy ones. She always remembers how Robbie’s rottweilers menaced her dog while she took it for a walk down Johnson Street. Robbie always had to hold his rotties back, but my sister always felt he could have held them better, and without the sadistic smile, she said.  I had met Robbie myself once, in 2006 at the go cart track just outside of town. Like me, he was there with his kids, doing fatherly things. I shook his hand, that hand that held a guitar and made all that wonderful music.  To this day, I remember how that felt.  There was no sadistic smile, though I found his voice had a surprisingly deep bass tone to it. I talked with him about family, and kids and his side project at the time; Stripper’s Union, then I left him alone with his private time.  I was starstruck, of course, but you could do that; talk to a member of the band as easily as running into someone from your high school graduating class.  They were that accessible.

A redemptive kind of rain started coming down just as I entered Kingston city limits, gentle and soft, where I could smell the gratitude of the earth as it blessed the ground. It had been a horribly hot week in Ontario, so after such a long stretch of weather, the water was welcome. I thought to myself how it wouldn't be hard to walk through this kind of rain in Toronto, how it would feel like holy water at Easter vigil, cleansing the sweat off of me before I walked into the cathedral heights of the ACC.  Merging onto the 401 however, the rain had passed, and I mused on how many times I’d driven down the Macdonald-Cartier and tried to wax poetic about it.  I had tried to write about the rocks and the trees and the test strips just outside of Belleville, but I never felt I was doing it any justice. The Hip, however, they've driven down the road thousands of times just like all Ontario bands had. Rush did it,  Rheostatics did it, Gordon Lightfoot did it.  Yes, an hour later, passing Glenn Miller Road in Trenton, Glenn Miller did it too.  But the Hip have captured that landscape, without coming off stinking of maple syrup.  They know those roads, those rock and trees.  They’ve sung of polar bears, flooding rinks, greasy jungles, garbage bag trees and Bill Barilko.  They just know.

As I came into the busy corridor of Toronto, I passed a woman who was getting out of her car, with no space to do so on the side of the highway.  I wondered at what she was doing, fearing for her safety.  I looked in the mirror to try and see her, but she was out of sight. I beelined it to the Yorkdale Mall, the best logistical nexus where the subway reaches the highway to fetch my brother, who had bussed in from Ingersoll to be there.  We had been to many concerts together.  Pretty much every Hip show I have been to, he has been there; both of us in different phases of our lives, breakups, marital strife, and now we are the same, struggling through post-marital uncertainties.  We ran up to the hotel to shower the salt off our sweaty bodies, then took subway and streetcar downtown into the hustlebustle hurlyburly of a night that hosts not only a Hip show, but a Blue Jays and an Argonauts game.  Bodies passed each other by, allegiances on our shirts, expectancy in our eyes. Some fans had the same tee shirt that I had on; the maple leaf crested highway sign.  We high fived each other in camaraderie as we passed by.

The concert was surreal. Gord didn't do much of his customary monologues and improvisation, but his energy level was at its peak, as was his voice.  He didn't hold anything back, pouring everything into his singing. Maybe that's what he wanted to do. Maybe the time of improvisation was over, maybe his work was done and it was time to present it, faithful to its source.  The band as usual was amazing, hovering like bees around the songs’ familiar frameworks. At the start of the show, they all seemed to play no less than 6/7 feet away from Gord, all facing him like they were playing the small bar as they played when they were just starting out, or maybe they were all just playing for him, circling him like a wagon train under attack. When they reached one of their intermissions,  they hugged him and even kissed him before they all filed off the stage. There were three intermissions that night, and before leaving for each one, Gord lingered after the band and just waved to the crowd  to share a few moments with us.  He always had a smile as he did this. I don't know whether he was putting on a brave face for us or if he wanted to give us a positive experience rather than a morbid one. There was no morbidity in the show, just heartfelt gratitude and love.  That said though, there was that moment while he was singing the part of Nautical Disaster before he was supposed to drop a word, when he stopped over the natural pause of the song and hovered over it tentatively for just the briefest moment, then shrugged and said the word, Death. He said it, all with a smile like he was accepting it, like there was no other way to get around it. Such is the inevitability of death. The word is not even in the official lyrics of the song, but it’s in the recording and all live versions of it.  It is unmentioned but resides as a natural part of the song, dropped like a dirty job that had to be done.  The show then drove on, with pitstops and resurrections until its climax, Ahead by a Century, ending with Gord lingering again on stage, smiling, nodding, waving to the crowd, even once in a while giving a cheeky wink to a few, until he left us behind on the stage, to a place where it will take a hundred years or more for us to catch up.

We took the subway back to the hotel.  In the station, a musician was playing an synthesized  musak version of Auld Lang Syne that irked me with its sense of apropos. After a restless night, I still got up at 5:30 the next morning to take my brother down to Union Station so he could catch a train. Driving down, we passed by horrible wreck on the highway; the hull of a semi completely burned out, with nothing left to it but charred metal. Someone had died last night somewhere in the city. Gord was hopefully somewhere, far off, peaceful, sleeping that morning and not conscious of this.  Later, having breakfast at the Airport Gate diner, I saw on CP24 News that a 69 year old man was killed getting out of his car on the on ramp to 427 near Dixon this morning, which was very close to my hotel.  I remembered the woman I’d seen doing that very same thing the day before as I was coming into Toronto.   How precariousness is life, really?  Am I beating the inevitability of death to death just a little bit?

Heading back home to Ottawa, I decided to take Highway 7, which at the start I found to be a big mistake.  A torrential rain had finally come, but the traffic, still linked to the suburbs of Toronto, was congested with an overabundance of humanity.  Everything moved at a sickening crawl and I began to sink into a brooding misanthropic mood.  I was tempted to take Yonge Street north to its alterego of Highway 11, where it could take me as far as the James Bay Basin if I wanted.  But no, instead I moved through that battery of thick rain, inching east in the stop and go of urban Greater Toronto, past boxes of commerce as far as the eye could see; the ugliest part of an ugly industrial sprawl.  I began to think that we, as humans, collectively, are ugly. When we congeal en masse to assume one entity, we are ugly, amoral and soulless. En masse, we are corporations and mobs. It's the individuals that are beautiful,  that stand out, beautiful and cherubic and righteous and worthy of praise. Just like Gordon Downie. A total nutcase, a total eccentric, he may seem like a madman muttering to himself  but if you listen closely to him you will hear his genius and perhaps your life will be changed forever.  I remembered the last night when the crowd did not want to let him go. You could tell he was tired.  His eyes were puffy and he walked with a slight hunch.  He probably just wanted to go crash on a couch somewhere but we, the greedy palace just kept keeping him up.  He complied and still delivered 100%. What a wonderful man. What a giving man. What an artist. What a gracious man. The way he lifted his arm to give us that heavy wave. Good bye and thank you.

Finally, my strained patience paid off and the speed limit jumped from 50 to 70, then finally 80 km/h, while the congestion was relieved and I could relax behind the wheel.  The highway goes down to one lane at Little Rouge Creek and I start passing little parishes with their 200 year old cemeteries. There are patches of light and blue sky in the canopy of cloud though the rain still falls, a little softer now.  Somebody had a rainbow somewhere.  Eventually, I reached the Land of the Lakes;  Lennox and Addington county, where the rains stopped and I could finally feel quiet.  I rolled the windows down to find that I was in a new climate that was much cooler.  Thankfully, the worst was over and I was closer to home.  I had wanted to do this drive for a long while and it was nice to finally be there, in communication with the rocks, lakes and trees. Even with all the urban memory in The Hip’s songs, the bottom line is this landscape, which is truly Canadian, not the neurotypical repetition of commercial colonialism; the box stores and franchises you can find anywhere on the North American continent.  Here, each rock and root is feral and native, in and of itself.  Sovereign.  You hear this place in the lonely loon call at the beginning of Wheat Kings, the asserting lyrics in the zenith of Lake Fever and the musky cottage comfort of Bobcaygeon.  This is where Gord lives when he thinks, where he transcends us to when he sings.  A distance sign passes me by which envigourates me. Wayward ho! I am just an hour away from home, though I already feel like I am there already.