Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Narrow Road to the Great White North

Autumn came on slow. The sky has been clear, blue, flawless, and the sun comes down and keeps the temperature high. It's been the perfect weather for driving in, passing from shadow to shadow of the trees doing their annual magic act.

One afternoon, my aunt and I drove around northwest Connecticut. As we passed certain lakes and towns, she told me the part these places played in the family history. After a nice lunch outside, we dropped by a farm to get pumpkins and fruit. The hills beyond rolled away toward Canada. So the next day I followed them. A straight line northeast, into a Massachusetts looking more worn than the rest of New England. The larger towns seemed overwhelmed by a changing world where history no longer mattered. Many of their churches seemed in the throes of desperation, with signboards bearing weird slogans like "October 14th, 30 hour famine," or "The ten commandments aren't multiple choice." By contrast, further out in the country, the churches were still holding the centers of smaller villages, the town green extending toward the obligatory single street lined with old wooden shops. Between these villages were large swathes of forest hiding immense houses with immense lawns, and lakes to maintain the color.

By late afternoon, I had made it to Portland, Maine. I had lunch in the waterfront, with trendy shops and galleries where tourists could walk off the meals had in old taverns and converted restaurants long tied to a historical fishing industry. I followed the back alleys down the piers lined with stacked lobster traps and boats finished for the season. The smaller streets were still paved with brick, which made me think a little of Seattle. I got back to my car and realized that I had forgot to put money in the meter, but even after an hour I hadn't been ticketed. Lucky. I drove east. I went through Freeport, crowded with people on pilgrimage to LL Bean, which has made autumn into a lifestyle. Further out, the towns grew more spaced and the rivers wider, more wild. Crossing one, I looked back to see the sun touching the hilltops out west. Turning back to the road, I saw a group of cottages lining the Sheepscot River. Again, luck was with me as I could get one for the night cheaply. Mine was a small cottage, and much bigger the the apartment of my friend back in NY. The living room and the bed both had views of the sun setting over the sailboats tied up in the bay. I went down to the water's edge watching the tide swirl the kelp until it grew too dark to see anymore.

The next morning I set off early. I stopped for an hour or so in Searsport, a small village which used to have quite a large shipbuilding industry. The maritime museum was a small lane containing seven buildings and a church. I walked around, drawn to the old oil paintings of seascapes and tall masted ships. I thought of the different faces travel has taken in different times. Whereas in the old days a person would be drawn to the sea, to months and years away from home, while a person of the same character today might set out today on a roadtrip, or an extended backpacking jaunt across a continent. Kindred spirits, though admittedly with different risks. Today the town was having some kind of festival, with elaborately decorated pumpkins and scarecrows, and horse-drawn carriage rides. I pulled out just as the police closed the main road for the parade. A couple hours later I was in Bar Harbor. A cruise ship was in port and the town, normally sleepy this time of year was crawling with Brits. Parking was surprisingly easy to find since everyone came by sea. Had Paul Revere repeated his wild ride last night, calling out to Robert Newman to hang two lanterns from the town church? I had lunch at the waterfront, wandered town a bit, then drove toward Acadia Park. It dawned on me that as a boy I'd seen this place in an old photo book and had been floored by the scenery. Dense, dense forests tangled in a mess of wind weathered trunks opened to give glimpses of perfectly shaped bays of shimmering sun and sailboats. I was almost a cliche in its magic. Around every turn a view that topped the last. After a couple hours, I was spent so went back up to Bar Harbor to sit in the village square and read in the grass. My friend Jen finished working late afternoon, so I drove out to her place in the woods. It was a small house unseen by the main road and surrounded by more of that thick density of trees. Her dogs needed a walk, so we took them through the woods toward the beach. They'd been in the house all day and simply tore through the trees at high speed, nipping at each others face and ears in play. They darted on and off the trail at high speed, one time even passing through my legs as I jumped up, my feet connecting with their backs so that for a moment, I was dog surfing. Jen and I had met in Vermont in June but hadn't talked since then. We caught up, walking the stones and stepping over tree trunks. A bald eagle landed in a tree across the bay. She told me how humbling she finds these woods and is happy to have put down roots here. Me, ever wandering, envy this. We had dinner later, but she'd made plans she couldn't escape, which made me dogsitter for the night. The first rain began to fall, but I sat warm inside, with tea at my side, dogs at my feet, and trees absolutely everywhere. My sleep was dreamless, filled with shadow...

I leave really early into the gloomy morning. Getting coffee in a small village on the south of the island, I saw one woman looking at the flyers in the window of a real estate office. I know that feeling well, of falling in love with a place so deeply that you begin to fantasize about moving in. A street over, a local with a screwed up Popeye face scrutinized me with one eye as I move past. I drove the perimeter of the island, eventually joining highway 1 again, which I followed east for most of the morning, sometimes taking smaller roads in an attempt to stay with the coastline. The day began to clear, but the wind stayed strong, making this the first true first day of fall. I moved ever east. The number of cars grew thin as the road led toward the border. Houses gave way to trees and those occasional moose crossing signs disappeared altogether. I image the woods are thick with them up here. But it felt like I was alone as I counted off the miles to Canada. I love this feeling, this 'fin-de-seicle' of geography, of moving toward a point that is an extreme. Near Lubec, it is just that, being the easternmost point in the US. The grass at that corner of the yard is worn thin by the feet of visitors. I too stand there, take my photos, then move on. In Lubec itself, I find a village deserted this Sunday, all these buildings stand empty, the Canadian winds blowing from across the river have made their blue-grey paint go almost turquoise. I stand and look across, but then get in the car and drive up to the crossing at Calais.

It's a breeze going across, but I still get that weird guilt and worry even though I have nothing to hide. At the border, I'm thrilled to find a moneychanger, since this is Sunday and I completely spaced out those logistics. Worse still, I think that tomorrow may be Canadian Thanksgiving and banks may not be open, hotels may be full. The first thing I see in Canada is a group of right to lifers picketing some place. Behind them is a grocery store called "Choice." This seems to have turned some tumblers in my head. I can't explain it, but I feel really confused for the next first half hour or so. I'm often overwhelmed at new cultures and countries but this is Canada, for godssake. I calm down and then realize that my speedometer doesn't have the markings for kilometers. A minute later I decide to think in multiples of six and after that, I'm fine. On to Saint John.

I arrive to find a city completely devoid of people. I mean no one, no cars, no people. I'm still not sure if tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and a moment ago I passed a clock that was an hour ahead of my watch. I can see myself running the Saint John streets like Jimmy Stewart, shaking people as asking, "What day is this?", "What time is it?" But there is no one to be seen, and I make a leap from "It's a Wonderful Life" to "28 Days Later." I walk the empty streets awhile, then sit in the sun in an ancient graveyard. The stone nearest to me is for an 8 month old child who died in 1825. Unbelievably, someone has left a single yellow rose. I'm sick of Saint John already and want to go. I've said many times that a city's beauty depends on whether it has embraced it's waterfront. A few blocks south, the city just ends at a fenced in lot. The sea is about 30 meters beyond. On the way back to my car, I decide to get a cup of coffee at Tim Horton's, which appears to be a chain shop. Inside, I talk with my first Canadian. The conversation goes:
"One medium French Vanilla coffee and that (pointing) chocolate glazed."
"You want a donut?"
The million Canadian jokes I've heard (or told) simultaneously rush into my head.

A short drive brings me to St. Martin, which is the most beautiful place I've seen in NB so far. As feared, one B&B turns me away because they are full--of family. The smell of turkey coming from the door behind this sweet old woman is killing me. Luckily, I find a place nearby, in a large pretentious house on a hill. The room is large, but there are far too many flowers on the wallpaper. Here too, I get a turkey dinner, and I sit happily wondering what it is that Canadians have to be thankful for. It's a happiness steeped in confusion since my watch, room clock, and clock over the dining room all show different times. I know it's not important, I'll merely eat, then read, then sleep, but having absolutely no idea what time it is is unbelievably disorienting. Is this why we look at the clock first thing if we awaken in the middle of the night, even if it is full dark?

The next morning, the roads leading out of town are deserted, and I have the Bay of Fundy drive all to myself. I stop at the various turnoffs, take photos, hike around a little. The ground here is moist, the moss-covered trails almost squishy. Here too, the woods are dense and thick, a far cry from the overgroomed forests of Japan. I continue on to the national park itself. I am running dangerously low on gas, but luckily, the last few kilometers into Alma are steep hills. I fill up, then walk the beach, listening to the local fishermen talk in a dialect I've never heard. At nearby Hopewell, I hike to the rocks, but the tide is high and I can't get down to the beach. I keep driving. It's a beautiful fall day, and I'm giddy. New Brunswick is a truly bilingual province, and I read the French words out loud in the voice of Cajun Man, from that old SNL skit. I follow the bay as it funnels toward Moncton. The tide is falling now, and each bridge I cross looks down on multiple shades of brown left high by the receding water. The tide differences here in the Bay of Fundy are the highest in the world, and I image that mud must play a large part in the lives of the people here.

Outside Moncton, I find Magnetic Hill, a weird place where your car, if left in neutral, will roll backwards uphill. I wonder how my brainwaves are affected, as I cross into Nova Scotia...

On the turntable: Robert Mirabal, "Taos Tales"
On the nighttable: W. Somerset Maugham, "Far Eastern Tales"

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