Reprint: I’ve Got the One-More-Map Vacation Blues

–OK, OK, so I’m about to unleash the blogging equivalent of forcing the readership to watch the vacation slides. Just be grateful I’ve kept in the cute cat stories this far, yeah? Besides, I want a chance to test-drive the photo capabilities on this thing, and the opportunity is perfect.

Without further ado, then, let us return to a certain sunny Labor Day week of earlier this year. A tiny Kia, some Wet Wipes, and two middle-aged women riding the ragged edge of the Maritime highway…primarily because we kept missing the exits. Or, as the family insists on calling it, ‘Thelma & Louise, so when does Brad Pitt show up already?!’

(Helpful photo-ID note: I’m the one with the glasses. Unfortunately, neither of us photographs well [insert crack about fashion sense not helping here])

Day One: Arrive on the outskirts of Montreal. Find ourselves facing a wholly unexpected new! and exciting! fun-park ride: French Freeway World. Seriously, those Wonderland dudes? Amateurs. Am translating on-the-fly between grade six and the present while Shoemom frantically twirls the wheel, freaking out at random intervals.
Broadening travel moment #1: I did not know she had a thing about driving through tunnels. ‘You realise, we’re under the bloody St.-Lawrence right now?!’ she shrieks at one point. I’m pretty sure we’re not, but am too busy trying to remember whether ‘Ouest’ means ‘west’ or ‘no U-turn’ to argue right then.

Anyway. Finally convince her that heading for ‘Centre-ville’ will not, in fact, land her in the river. Nous arrivons a Montreal. Immediately fall under the spell of this amazing city, with its Old-World beauty all comfortably scuffed over, by residents who are far too chic to care that any one of their windows alone is enough to make a grown GTA native cry. When they do go all out, for instance Notre-Dame…ahhhhh [kisses fingertips reminiscently, Gallic-fashion]. Spend entire afternoon (when not taking typical-tourist photographs of ‘Toujours Frais’ signs outside the Tim Hortons) planning to go back again, soon.

momtims

mefountain

Day One-Point-Five: Leave Montreal about six pm. Nota bene: this is the Saturday before Labour Day. Yes, yes, we have been told to book the motel room in advance. However, we are Torontonians, thus essentially incapable of conceiving a situation in which our every need will not go ungratified. Besides, sister’s latest romantic crisis needs sorting out if we’re going to have any relaxation at all. Room goes unbooked.

So here we are, a week later. As you might imagine, ungratified needs become much, much easier to visualise as the twilight hours roll on, plunging us deeper and deeper into the dark backwoods. Note to entrepreneurial readers: there is a major untapped hospitality market along the highways between Montreal and Riviere-du-Loup.

Broadening travel moment #2: The only scrap we come away with – after a six-klick detour – is the knowledge that, despite reassuring ‘lodging’ signs along the highway, ‘Auberge’ is actually French for ‘So not happening, you sweatshirt-wearing Anglo.’
Oh, and Shoemom’s second unsuspected vehicular phobia – can I just mention here, this is the woman who insists she ‘drives to relax?’. Turns out Shoedad had once passed the time on this same lonely stretch of highway by telling her all about what happens during an auto/moose collision. “What you gotta do,” I can just hear him saying, cheerily, “is make sure you duck, otherwise they’ll cut your head right off!’

Day Two: Arrive in Riviere-du-Loup. It is now twelve-thirty Sunday morning. I have exhausted my supply of extremely helpful moose calls, also most of everything else. But lo, what is this we see on the top of the hill? An inn! 125 rooms! Colour TV!…
You ever notice how you can putter along through life, meeting perfectly normal front-desk clerks, and the one time you’re literally not sure if you’re hallucinating or not you meet the one with the white-guy Afro? Yeah. Vote For Pedro here informs me that there’s no room at the inn. Behind him, I can see the reason: a wedding reception in full swing. Hoping the vibrating bed seizes up just as she starts drizzling the candle wax, I stomp out.

Miserable and spent, we pull out of the parking lot…and what to our wondering [wandering?] eyes should appear, neatly tucked into the curve of the hill, but: a Kingdom Hall! Aka, the local Jehovah’s Witnesses. Our faith is not big on the divine-intervention angle – at least not in secular matters – but boy are we not arguing now. One quick turn into the parking lot, flip back the seats, and we’re…well, sort of cozy. At least, pretty sure those noises in the woods aren’t bobcats. Or moose.

1:00: Heater working nicely. Turn off car, snuggle down.

1:30: Wake up freezing. Turn on car, wait patiently for heater to function, turn car off, snuggle back down.

2:30-4:30: Repeat.

4:45: Back out on the road to…er…well, Shoemom insists that she missed the Edmunston (NB) cutoff deliberately, and she’s the morning person. So I sit back, fascinated by the red and gold threads that are just starting to stitch the horizon together. “That’s what you call a sunrise, huh?” I ask. “Shut up and help me look for a gas station!” is all the reply I get. Morning people sure are smug, for total slavering caffeine addicts, is all I’m saying.

Broadening travel moment #3: I have to say that, contrary to accepted Ontario wisdom, every single Quebecois we dealt with was unfailingly patient, friendly and helpful. You get a whole new perspective on these qualities, when you stumble into a gas station (sign outside every one: ‘Cigarettes, Biere et Vin’) at five-thirty in the morning.

Anyway, we eventually land up in Rimouski, principal seat of the Gaspe Peninsula (or, in the cuter French, the Gaspesie). A very likeable town, this, with a calmly unspoiled waterfront. I know it well, because owing to various navigational errors we spent the next few hours checking it out from every angle possible.
The previous evening Shoemom had been upset that (among other things) I was missing the view of the ‘mighty St Lawrence’; that morning, she merely turned to me each time and said “So anyway, in case you were wondering, that would be the…” “Yes, very mighty,” I agreed. After about the fourth tour, it became an official running gag.

All kidding aside…the area we entered now was all but calculated to heal scruffed-up souls. The Gaspesie is endlessly, exquisitely, almost Edenically beautiful. Lush rolling farmland cupped by high wooded mountains leading down to shallow, sparkling rivers. For once I made no protest when Shoemom insisted on the classical CDs.

shoecanoe

Your usual tourist tat would be an obscenity in such a setting, and the natives, with what I am now recognising as typical sophistication, know it. They don’t even make you pay to go through the cute l’il covered bridge…although I’d fork across any amount to take Shoemom through it again. (“Built in 18-when?! What was I thinking?! What am I doing?!”)

1:00pm: We reach Campbellton, NB, home of the world’s cleanest motel. Head out along the scrappy main drag to buy a couple random frozen dinners for supper. Make scornful jokes about ‘hilbillies’. Later than evening, drive a little ways behind the town to a lookout point…to our mingled chagrin and horror look out onto a huge, elegant – and very closed – Loblaws SuperCentre. Right next to the Wal-Mart. Are cured permanently of our Torontonian-ness, at least until we see the cruise ship in Saint John harbour.

momriver

Days Three-Four: For those of you who’ve always wanted to visit the Maritime interior, I offer this no-fail budget method: Visualise a whole lot of trees. Now, visualise some more trees. Now, keep that up for five hours dead straight, breaking off occasionally to visit your local ‘Craft Shoppe’.

catme

Congratulations! Other than pictures nobody wants to see anyway because they all know what a tree looks like, you can cross that experience off your life list. Head out to the coast, instead, which continues infinitely lovely. The sensation of air and light and…space, is almost overwhelming this city girl.

Eventually, of course, arrive in Saint John. Fall into waiting arms of loving family, yada yada reunion-cakes. Catch up on all the news from home – Ontario, I mean. Confirming that the capital region is in fact a mean, nasty place filled with stressed-out mugging victims is something of a regional hobby, down East. It would drive you nuts, except they’re way too nice and laid-back to argue with.

Day Five: En route to Prince Edward Island. Hey, check it out – trees! Seriously…this is a Very Important Moment for me, as I grew up cherishing L.M. Montgomery’s novels to the point where a massive chunk of my fantasy life is about to materialise whole. Half-way over the Confederation Bridge there it is. This delicate little storybook island is spread out before me, calm, welcoming, and I basically lose it totally.

Thank goodness for goofy tourist paphernalia, is all I can say. Snarking on stuff like ‘Dress Yourself Up as Anne!, $35 a picture!’ is about all that keeps me from dissolving into a perpetual puddle of wistful. (Thankfully the COWs store, which specialises in bovine send-ups of pop culture, is in on the gag: I bought a bookmark there that reads ‘Common [red-wigged] cow immersed in Green Gables story’.)

We tour Green Gables and surrounding sites; including the upcoming ‘Anne of Green Gables Golf Course’, to the construction of which I do not think the interpretive centre was referring when they invited us to ‘get to know Montgomery and her world’. I do think, though,she would’ve appreciated the aforementioned COWs ice creamery. (One of the incidental pleasures of travel in September: all summer souvenirs now half-price.)

ggables

anneroom

Broadening travel moment #4: I now have a deep, and rather wistful, understanding of Montgomery’s writing credo, expressed by a character in Emily Climbs: “Pine woods are just as real as pigsties, and a darn sight pleasanter to be in.” I feel as though gentle Maud somehow managed to hang on to things I have outgrown, become too sophisticated for. I’m not sorry, exactly…more a little shamefaced, as recognising the value of something long – and likely unjustly – neglected.

It really is necessary to see the Island by sunlight, preferably early in the morning when the play of rich red soil and crystalline sea is at its height – seriously, the water looks exactly as though you could ‘ping’ it with a fingernail.

watersky

Barring one unfortunate traffic jam in Charlottetown (which, yes, has all of one main square) that can be chalked up to the universe’s ongoing need to drive Shoemom insane, the entire place has the distinct look and feel of a dollhouse-miniature version of the Atlantic coast. Suitable for sale in its own gift shops.

Day Six: And it’s ho for the Nova Scotia coast! Ho ho ho ho ho, as it turns out, as we get hopelessly lost in Halifax (or was it Dartmouth?) harbour and in the ensuing argument about my navigational skills narrowly escape driving into one more cruise liner. Otherwise, it’s a case of another day, another ridiculously engaging landscape.

mahonebay

NS is basically what happens when you smoosh rugged New Brunswick together with dainty PEI; a series of small fishing villages, all done up (or at least restored) in the best Victorian English tradition; tidy blue or yellow houses, each with its crisp white front porch, surrounded by gay little flower patches. I’m not sure how much of it is for tourist benefit and how much actually day-to-day functionality, but there’s nothing self-conscious about the whole at all.

Day Seven: Bid good-bye to the young friend who put us up in another friend’s cozy 1914-built home, after a morning’s shell-gathering on the beach. Shoemom is by now openly making plans to retire down here, the embodiment of all her literary fantasies – which are fueled by such as Rosamund Pilcher and Catherine Cookson, with a healthy dose of Jane Austen thrown in. All she needs are a few whales to materialise on the ferry back to Saint John, and her life will be complete.

Alas, it is too late in the season for the whales themselves, although we do attend a highly entertaining lecture that features (among other things) a pass-it-around box of whale lice. The genial young guide makes jokes about the sea mammals ‘never returning his calls’. Given that most of our fellow passengers appear to have taken advantage of the off-season special at Gert’s Geriatric Travel Shoppe, probably not too much disappointment overall.

Most of our time is spent on deck, buffeted by the sea air – I’m pleased to note that it is every bit as fresh and bracing as reported. Shoemom is enthralled, not least by the fact that somebody else is driving for a change; also by the opportunity to heap scorn on modern civilization, always a favourite hobbyhorse.

ferry

Broadening travel note #5: This is, I think, the reality of all those 18th-century novels in which characters were always running off to sea. Spend awhile envisioning that life…wet and cold and salt-crusted…totally dependent not only for wants but needs on a few crude provisions. Fundamental isolation from everything comfortably familiar, cast free of all but dreams, with no place to turn if they were destroyed. These men – these dreamers and adventurers and brave, bold, daring buccaneers – these heroes of my youth, I realised now with deep and profound certainty, were total idiots.

Days 8-9: Drive home through Maine/New Hampshire/Vermont/NY state. This is basically my first adult excursion into a place in which people turn their heads in curiosity when I speak, and I am both more and less conscious of it than I had expected.
Things look exactly the same (there are even Tim Hortons), except less…finished. There is a distinct sense of ‘you’re on your own, buddy’ running throughout. In the countryside exquisite homes sit side-by-side with outright shacks, bustling shops and boarded-over hotels…wealth and poverty uncompromising, none of the comparatively genteel mingling that a socialist state affords. Despite all the natural beauty around me…also, it must be said, the truly ridiculous array of American junk food not available here…I’m steadily more glad to have a place to be that isn’t the USA.

And so…home at last. Tired and happy and still speaking to each other. Each, in our own way, the better for realising there’s a larger world out there. Not much more you can say for a vacation, is there?

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shing_
    Nov 15, 2007 @ 15:47:34

    You & your mom slept in the car for one night?! You’re hardcore 😉

    My family did basically that exact same trip when we were young (before the bridge was built!) and the one distinct memory I have is absolutely loving PEI. We didn’t head down into Halifax though (Dad didn’t want to do the extra driving).

    Seeing all your great pictures makes me want to go back and throw in Nfld in the mix this time. So many places to see, so little time (and money).

  2. shoebox2
    Nov 15, 2007 @ 23:27:12

    ***You & your mom slept in the car for one night?! You’re hardcore ;)***

    Thanks much. It helps to have a really good story to tell, that ensures we never, EVER have to do it again. Seriously…the night was ungood, but the next morning – once we got all cleaned up and caffeinated and so on – was so amazing. I was prepared to love PEI, and I did, but the Gaspesie was just an unexpected gift.

    Glad you liked the pics, too. More photography coming shortly, as I just got the Niagara CD back…

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