Thursday, October 28, 2010

Size matters

Sheryl plays like a dream; Nelson hurries to join the show

“It’s AH—HUGE. AH—HUGE!!!”
That was our introduction to Steve. He’d come over at Happy Holiday RV Village to introduce himself, pointing to a Casita, another of the fibreglass trailers at this Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia gathering in Cherokee, N.C.
Then he asked if he could see inside our 17-foot, wide-body Burro, otherwise known as Harley, since he’d never seen one.
He was the first of many wandering by, wanting to see our little home of nine weeks. It was a very welcoming crowd. We think they also wanted to see just what British Columbians were like. In both cases, we think they liked what they saw.
Steve, the class clown, quickly saw us as the butt of the jokes, not that we minded but somehow the weekend ended with Ian calling Vicki the Possum Queen. There were a lot of possum/roadkill jokes and since neither of us had even seen a possum until they started appearing, lying dead along the roadside a few days ago, some of the jokes were actually educational.
Both the trailer, a foot longer and a foot wider than his Casita, and Harley’s bathroom were the subjects of Steve’s “huge” comment. Those extra feet make a big difference in the feel of the space.
All we could think of was our family the week before, looking at Harley as a tiny little thing.
Everything’s relative.
Our neighbours for the weekend were in Casitas and Scamps, plus one 13-foot Burro, happy to see Harley roll in on Friday, the second day of the weekend gathering. By then, most campers had met each other, were wearing their name tags and knew this was a musical event.
Once Steve got over “huge” Harley, he wanted to know if we had any musical instruments aboard. Vicki’s flute came out, with her insisting that playing by ear was not something she does. She’s willing to try, but not any good at it.
By the time the group had gathered in a common room Friday evening, Steve was determined she would play with others. After one number, she knew she was way, way over her head.
So did Steve.
So did the others.
But all were very helpful, letting Vicki know keys and chords. And when all else failed, she sang if she knew the words.
It was great fun, and that’s what this group does. Many of the musicians use their fibreglass trailers to go from one music festival to another, weekend after weekend. This gathering had the extra bonus of almost all having the same type of trailer.
That’s almost all because some of the musicians kind of stumbled on the group. Jeff, strumming guitar and mandolin at various points, happened to be in the same park, in his stickey (a somewhat derogatory term used by the fibreglass crowd to describe conventionally built trailers). Suzette, on auto harp and vocals, came with her husband Chance, on guitar, to meet his long-lost cousin Nelson, on guitar, for the first time. She and Chance made reference each night to going home to the big house (a hotel) for the night. Nelson went back to his Scamp fifth wheel.
Sheryl, a master of the fiddle when she isn’t playing violin in a symphony, came along with husband Chris in their Scamp. John, on Banjo, calls a Casita his temporary home.
And then there’s Steve, who uses his Casita for his work as a musician and storyteller as he designs programs for schools, all skills he brought to this event as well, not to mention his play of multiple instruments. His case of harmonicas was put to good use but only after he’d dealt with the cookie crumbs left behind by his tribe of grandchildren. His jokes, many focusing on the possum or the Canadians, kept smiles on faces between bluegrass songs and tunes reflecting the roots of country music.
We have been to many gatherings in B.C., Washington and Oregon. All have focused on the trailers and what people have done to customize their rigs to make them work better for their needs. This was our first gathering where music took centre stage. And it was the first time these three states had gathered together.
It was also a really good time. Ray and Cindy did the work of organizing, while Steve took over class clown leadership. It was a successful combination.
Steve, a large, boisterous man, has eight children, some of whom think he was the model for the current entertainment of Larry the Cable Guy.
He told us of the wedding of one of his daughters, a woman who spent seven years as a nun and who Steve says is drill-sergeant material. When he found himself overcome by emotion as the moment neared to walk his petite daughter down the aisle, she looked up at her father and told him to suck it up, stop bawling and walk.
“Man up,” she said sternly. “Man up.”
Laughing, he says he did what he was told.
But after Steve made the Canadians the butt of many jokes, we kept telling him we could get him back. He didn’t know about the blog, but he did by the time he left Cherokee.
We promised him he’d be on it.

Lasting legacy of tough times

The Great Depression, and this last recession, both generated some good things.
Skyline Drive, a national historic landmark leaving Front Royal, Va., and heading into Shenandoah National Park, is a prime example. The park exists because of the Great Depression. Since 1933, as a make-work project, through 1942, thousands of young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps worked to ready the parkland, developing its extensive trail system and overlooks at the magnificent viewpoints.
These days, there is much ongoing work, rebuilding the miles and miles of low stone walls that line the roadway, serving as barriers to ensure a wayward vehicle doesn’t make the long, long drop to wedge against a tree somewhere below. All are marked with signage saying Your Recovery Dollars at Work, in reference to government funds pumped into the faltering U.S. economy. Nearly $30 million of the dollars designed to jumpstart the U.S. economy have been earmarked for Shenandoah.
Leaving Front Royal, Va., drivers climb and climb some more to hit the Skyline Drive, eagerly paying the $15 toll to enter the national park. For the next 100 miles, drivers will stop again and again at the roadside pullouts, set up to maximize the views of far-off hillsides, multi-coloured in autumn, interspersed with valleys filled with farms and small communities.
Again and again, we comment on the roadway linking these viewpoints, saying the tree canopy is particularly beautiful as the sunlight sparkles its way through the leaves. Gusts of wind bring a shower of foliage down to the road. A glimpse off to the side reveals a forest with a canopy so thick there is little in the way of undergrowth below, just a carpet of brightly-coloured, newly-fallen leaves.
The national park comes to an end and the Blue Ridge Parkway, running along the ridge of the mountains, begins. Elevations of up to 3,600 feet bring cooler temperatures. The stonework of the Skyline Drive is gone, leaving one feeling abandoned to fate if making a wrong turn.
After hours of peering over the sides to the valleys below, we come down from the mountains at Roanoke, Va., as much because we like the sound of the city’s name as because of rave reviews from others who have made this trip.
The valleys, after driving the unpopulated areas above, offer a glimpse at everyday life.
It’s not much of a house in Virginia if it doesn’t boast white columns on the front facade.
And it probably is either white clapboard or red brick. There are lovely, manicured green lawns all around it. At this time of year, there will be an orange flame of a tree in the yard and a sweeping driveway leading up to the door.
On the same property, connected by similar colour scheme or additional driveway, there are other less-imposing abodes, smaller structures or mobile homes, likely housing family or farm workers.
Any town boasts many of these homes, possibly outnumbered by churches. Vicki’s Quebec upbringing says the largest, tallest church in town must be Catholic. Ian’s time in Victoria says it has to be Anglican.
Heaven forbid in Virginia.
Churches carry names but not denominations, although all are solidly Christian. Pastors are advertised on signage, as are upcoming events ranging from revival meetings to group breakfasts.
Every time a large building appears on another of the rolling green hillsides, it is indeed a place of worship.
Towns boast home cooking, from bakeries to BBQs. The area’s other religion, football, waits for it’s worshippers; Thursday night service is for the junior varsity, Friday it’s the varsity boys at high schools throughout the South, all surrounded by stands ready to seat half the town, cheering the kids on. Saturday the shrines shift to the college towns and Sunday, after church, it’s praise the Lord and pass the remote for NFL Sunday.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Happy holidaying

The highway running a few hundred yards from the first campsite is deceptive.
You’d think all those motorcycles rolling for their piece of the Blue Ridge Parkway would be interfering noise to would-be campers. But those who chance it, and cross the bridge over Soco Creek into Happy Holiday RV Village, don’t regret it,
The rushing rapids of Soco Creek easily drown out any noise from traffic on Wolfetown Road in Cherokee, N.C., leaving campers lulled to sleep by murmuring waters. If you’re not lucky enough to get a site backing onto the creek, where fishermen ply their hobby daily in search of trout a foot long or better, maybe your site backs onto the small man-made lake called home by countless Canada geese and mallard ducks.
The 365 sites of the campground, which has been open on Cherokee land since the late 1960s, will be open all winter this year for the first time. The Cherokee this year have taken over management of the facility, after letting a lease lapse with another management group. That means opening year round and bringing the facility, which currently doesn’t boast WiFi or reliable cable service, up to grade.
“They have a lot of poop,” says campground manager Vicki Cucumber of the pest known as Canada geese. “There’s a grape seed extract spray and the geese don’t like the smell. So we’re going to try that, spray it on the grass because it won’t hurt anything.”
Cucumber also asks if we, as Canadians, could just take the geese home with us. We share some of the universal complaints about the animals.
Nestled between hills of the Smoky Mountains, Cherokee and this campground are a jumping off point for any number of activities from touring Biltmore, the enormous Vanderbilt home near Asheville, to cruising the world-renowned parkway. There’s golf nearby at the Sequoyah National golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., grandson of golfer Bobby Jones, and native golfer Notah Begay III. You can see Santa year-round at a local amusement park or take a side trip to a working grist mill and pioneer village. And at this time of years, the deciduous trees covering the hillsides are dressed in their most colourful best.
All this activity means the average guest at Happy Holiday RV Village isn’t an overnight camper.
“The majority stay, I would say, four days to a week,” Cucumber says. “They come to see the mountains, and they come to see the Indians.”
The area, including the small store at the RV Village office, is flooded with native crafts.
The campground keeps campers comfortable for a longer stay by offering three large shower and washroom buildings, plus a games room topped by a room that can be used for any sort of meeting. It means larger groups, such as a recent gathering of fibreglass RV owners, can gather and play at the facility.
One recent gathering brought 70 or so motorcyclists, all making a fundraising ride to support one of their own, stricken with multiple sclerosis. They hope to pay for his CCSVI surgery, a new, as yet unproven treatment for the disease.
In the future, Masons will gather here.
Locals support the campground by leaving their RVs in the same site for the season, some living as close as 40 miles away. While their fees allow them hookups to power, water and sewer, they are not permitted to build anything in place, as happens in some other campgrounds.
Cucumber, and the Cherokee who own the campground, hope the winter brings more campers. Offering half-price camping will be an incentive for some.
And come March 31, they will start the high season yet again, gearing up for a couple of bluegrass festivals among other things.
And then the small town of Cherokee will be chock full of tourists, keeping the economy humming.

From godly comes greedy

Amish country, it said on the map in the area surrounding Berlin, Millersburg, Sugarcreek and Walnut Creek, Ohio.
Even before we had seen it, we had images in our heads — horse and buggy clip-clopping down the highway, guided by a stoic driver unsmiling behind long, probably white, beard, as he goes about his business (turns out the road’s shoulders are extra wide and sloped to suit the rigs), men and women in distinctive clothing marking their religion and way of life (saw them walking placidly down the highway or side by side in town, seemingly oblivious to the repeated stares they generated), farmyards without mechanized equipment (eight heavy horses grazing in a field so knew what kind of farm it was) and harvests in the fields (a crop gathered into stooks is a solid hint.)
What we didn’t expect was all the kitsch.
While the Amish aim for the roadside dollar in a quiet way with signs for their hand-made furniture or farm produce, their neighbours capitalize in full American style for the dollar generated by the mystique of yesterday’s way of life.
The black silhouette of a horse-drawn buggy is everywhere, on everything from cheese to ice cream.
Every birdhouse sold at a craft fair is tagged as handmade, even though it looks remarkably similar to any wooden birdhouse sold anywhere. McDonalds has its golden arches towering over a couple of flower-filled buggies, not to mention its buggy parking sign. It’s any excuse to make a tourist town out of any village near an Amish farm.
It cheapens what was built on a people’s belief.
The Ohio countryside is beautiful, fertile land. It gathers attention all on its own but it’s the way merchants attempt to get travellers to stop and spend their money that cheapens a beautiful area.
From our perspective, the trouble with all this is that it works. Streets are clogged with tourists eager to take home a souvenir of their travels. Stores are clogged with merchants eager to help them with that.
We drive on, holding on to the image of the Amish going about their daily business as we go about ours.

Two's company, three's a crowd


“Who is she?!?!?!?” Vicki yelped as we made that first left turn to leave her brother Warren’s Dexter, Mich.
It was her first words in the truck, as she purred “Turn left” that set Vicki off. Ian, sometime in their four days in Dexter for their nephew Ryan’s wedding, had changed the voice function on the Tom-Tom GPS system they borrowed for this trip. For some reason, after 13,000 kilometres, Ian had grown tired of the Miss Efficiency voice that had been cooing form the Tom-Tom.
Suddenly it was Tom-Tom as one of the Bond girls giving James instructions on how to please her.
Vicki just stared at the dashboard device. This hussy wasn’t going to be the third person on this trip.
Ian changed the voice function at the next gas stop. We call this guy Skippy, Vicki’s brother’s favourite salutation to all and sundry.
As we roll through the Irish Hills of Michigan, with autumn leaves everywhere and the abandoned resorts of summer lining the road, we contemplate the technology of this trip.
For one thing, there’s a laptop in the lap of the only passenger as the blog is written. It’s plugged into a inverter to use the DC power supplied by the running vehicle. The Tom-Tom sits on the console between the seats, next to the iPod Touch to provide our home CD roster when we tire of the available radio. (Country at the moment, we’ll tire soon.) The iPod plugs into the truck’s stereo system to provide good sound.
The laptop is the news source, a communication device for family and friends and sometimes a family reunion. Last night, in Vicki’s brother’s kitchen, their daughter Robyn, in Winnipeg, had a face-to-face Skype chat with her cousin, Keenan, seated at the island in the kitchen of his Michigan home.
In the trailer there’s more. The Bose docking station for the iPod Touch means wonderful music, something Vicki and Ian couldn’t travel without. Harley, the trailer, was originally equipped with mountings for a television. That’s gone, since Ian and Vicki don’t watch TV at home let alone on the road, leaving only an alien-looking antenna on Harley’s roof.
The convection/toaster oven means there might be a pork tenderloin roasted tomorrow night, or maybe we’ll cook up those Pop N Fresh biscuits for breakfast.
The cell phone parked in Vicki’s purse rarely rings and is put to use even less often. It really is only for emergencies and thankfully, there have been few as we hit the halfway point of this trip.
We wonder how we would have managed without all this nifty technology. We might not have been quite as comfortable and not in touch with friends and family, but we would have been rolling down another small highway between cornfields in Ohio, done with their work for this season.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Weeping at the wedding

picture by Evan Martin

The groom knew his mother had chosen The Man You’ve Become as the song.
He’d heard it before, knew the lyrics (see below). He thought he was prepared for the sentimental moment, after dancing with his bride of a couple of hours, when he would take to the dance floor with his mother. He knew it would be a moment when he would feel for what he was leaving behind, when he would remember the hugs and kisses of a childhood when this woman put him before everything else.
He knew it would be emotional.
He didn’t know he would cry like an infant.
Nor did he realize half the people in the crowd would cry with him.
At an event that was planned down to the minute, it was completely spontaneous and unexpected.
Yes, the lyrics are tender and heart-wrenching but that wasn’t what prompted the flood of tears.
It was the moment each of those soon-to-be crying people realized his mother was singing as she swayed to the music in his awkward arms.
It was the moment when he looked down at this woman he towers above, hardly able to see more than the top of her head, and realized she was singing the words of this song to him.
She hadn’t planned it that way. The words just seemed to come naturally.
The father of the groom, seated at a table nearby, thought it was a touching moment until he swung around to point out to his sister that his wife was singing the words to their son.
The tears streaming down his sister’s cheeks put the father over the edge. He had maintained control until he realized his sister was crying. Looking around, desperately, he saw another sister-in-law weeping, and she was not alone.
That’s when he joined the rest.
It was an unexpected emotional moment in what had already been an emotional day. The bride wept tears of joy as she recited her vows and listened as the groom spoke his.
The parents of the bride were seen to wipe their eyes, a moment expected by all the guests.
But that mental image of mother singing one more tribute to her son as they danced will linger in guests’ minds for years to come.
Congratulations to our nephew, Ryan, and his bride, Erin, on the occasion of their wedding.
To Christine Martin, mother of the groom, thank you.

Lyrics: The Man You've Become - Molly Pasutti
Big wheels, hot wheels

Little trucks and cars

Skinned knees, climbing trees

Wishing on the stars

Moments may be lost somewhere in time

But the sweetest memories are never left behind

Now you’ve grown so fine

And come so far…


I’m so proud of who you are

The man you’ve become

Thrilled to share your deepest joy

To know you’ve found the one

For the great things you will do

I’ll be blessed ‘cause you’re my son

But I’ll always see the boy

In the man you’ve become

School days, sleep-aways

Driving all alone

Phone calls, shopping malls

Late coming home

It was hard to know when to let you spread your wings

When to let you go to face the challenges life brings

But you’ve grown so fine

And come so far…


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ian's version of hell on earth

We went from Boyd's Lake in Quebec to Hwy. 401 in Ontario

Ian swore he wasn’t going to drive that four-oh-one through Toronto.
He’d cross into the States at Cornwall, take the southern scenic route around Lake Ontario on the U.S. side.
That was before our trip started, before we knew we’d be heading out from Dunany, Que. on the Sunday of a long weekend. How bad could Toronto be?
At one point, Ian looked at the roadway stretching ahead of him and said, “I can see more cars from here that there are on Pender Island at any one time.”
It was a day where we went from the sublime to the ridiculous. Leaving Dunany at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, there was no one else on the twisting, winding country road. That meant we could crawl along at 40 kilometres an hour to ensure Sidney, the cat, didn’t spill his breakfast. That road had done him in on Friday night about a mile before we arrived at Vicki’s cousin’s place.
It was a sunny, very crisp fall morning, with leaves showing all their brilliant colours as we left near freezing temperatures for the warmer climes of southern Ontario. The cats basked in bright sunshine in their cat carrier, sleeping contentedly until we reached the asphalt jungle of Toronto.
The vast expanse of pavement is unimaginable to a Westerner. There isn’t anything like it in Vancouver or Calgary. There are up to 18 lanes of traffic, and even on a holiday long weekend, they’re full as vehicles tear along at 120 kilometres an hour or more, weaving in and out of various lanes.
There we were, permanently in the slow lane, tugging Harley along behind us.
We didn’t fit in.
Nor do we want to, ever.
The highrise office towers and residences that line the highway are impressive, especially when you realize this isn’t downtown Toronto you can see. It’s just part of the apparently never-ending sprawl that is now urban Toronto.
Since we were headed out the other side, beyond Hamilton, we also got a feel for just how far Toronto reaches. There was a time, in Vicki’s memory, when there was farmland between Toronto and Oakville, and again between Oakville and Hamilton.
Not any more.
We know people live happily in their neighbourhoods in the Toronto area, but to get away from home, to go anywhere, they have to tackle the asphalt jungle.
We’d rather live in the wilds than take on the city.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Cousins catch up

Boyd's Lake, Dunany, Que.

Eight weeks into our trip, and 10 of Vicki’s cousins.
It’s kind of pathetic when you think that’s only a quarter of the tally. There are 40 people out there, first cousins to Vicki, all on her mother’s side. Her dad, thankfully, is an only child. Her mother’s eight siblings produced anywhere from two to 11 children each, hence the vast expanse of cousins.
The cousin part of the trip started with a fishing stop in Nipawin, Sask., when we met up with Vicki’s cousin Robyn Hamann, namesake for our daughter. Vicki and Robyn were each raised in smaller communities fringing Brownsburg, Que., went through school together, stood beside each other at their respective weddings. It’s been a long road, always together and means trips between B.C. and Robyn’s farm near Regina, Sask., as often as possible.
The next cousin, fittingly, was Robyn’s eldest brother, Glenn, now owner of the cottage where Vicki spent her childhood summers. Being in the “home” area means spending time with some of the other cousins. Billy, now grown up as William Gauley, and his sister Marion. Then there was a trip to Lachute to meet cousin Patricia Elliot, who Vicki only knew as a little kid way behind her in school. (Turns out it was only a few years but at the time an important few years.)
A day trip to Ottawa led us to more cousins, with Wendy, Bernice and Betty stealing some time out of their daily lives for us.
After Thanksgiving dinner on the Saturday of the long weekend, at a table with Glenn, Billy and Marion plus Vicki’s Auntie Mike (known by her childhood nickname because two of Vicki’s uncles married women named Dorothy), we rolled off to Welland, Ont. There lives Vicki’s Auntie Margaret, her mom’s twin sister. Margaret this summer moved into a suite in her son’s Barry’s house. There, Vicki connected with a cousin she hadn’t seen in 35 years. Barry, for a variety of reasons, hasn’t been close with many of the cousins, and as we left, he said how wonderful it was that we had reached out to be back in touch.
At his table, we ate Thanksgiving leftovers on the Monday with another of Margaret’s sons, Robbie, now known as Bob.
And somewhere in that couple of days, there was a trip to see Auntie Elva and Uncle Charlie, Vicki’s mom’s baby sister and her husband in St. Catharines, Ont.
We’re all very different people, leading quite different lives in different parts of the country and yet we can walk into a room and connect. After a few minutes we find something more than blood that we have in common. We find ground for friendship with cousins and with their spouses as we come to know them just a little better.
As we head down a windy, wet highway aiming for a ferry at Sombra, Ont. to cross the St. Clair River into Marine City, Mich., we think of the rest of the family we’ll see this weekend. We’ll be at Ryan Martin’s wedding to Erin Cozart in Dexter, Mich. He’s Vicki’s nephew, son of her brother Warren. We’ll see Warren’s family, her brother Ian and his family, plus her parents who are flying in from Sooke, B.C.
It’s been a Thanksgiving week in the middle of a trip all about family.
To the other 30 cousins, sorry we didn’t connect on this trip. Maybe next time.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Happy camping cats

When we told people the two of us were going to spend four months together in 98 square feet of trailer, their eyebrows went up.
When we told them we were also taking our two cats, their eyebrows started doing the lambada.
Many people believe that, unlike dogs, cats are aloof, happy on their own, animals who only pay attention to their “owners” when their dish is empty or their litter needs changing. That’s never been true for the half-dozen cats we’ve shared in our married life, and it’s certainly not true of Luther and Sidney, our current travelling companions.
When we were considering our epic voyage, one of the questions was, “What do we do with the cats?”
But after a few minutes reflection, there really wasn’t any other choice. The animals regard us as part of their herd, sort of clumsy, stupid cats who don’t sleep the required 20 hours a day, and want to sleep when real cats are most active. Leaving them at home would have been cruel, and would have made us miserable.
Any regrets?
None . . . . well, hardly any.
Seven weeks in, the cats have settled into a routine. They go into their cat carrier reluctantly, but they do walk in, then settle down almost immediately and are asleep by the time we hit the highway.
The only exception is Sid. He has always engaged in an extended, very vocal and demonstrative puke session when we first leave home. Within the first kilometre he has blotted his copybook and soiled the towel in the bottom of the cat carrier in spectacular fashion, sending Luther crowding to the back of the enclosure with a look of distaste on his face.
Then we get to the ferry, change the towel, and Sid is as good as gold for the next however many kilometres of the trip.
Sid of course started our trip in his usual fashion. But imagine our surprise as we travelled from Winnipeg to LacLu. Two hours into the trip, we hit the winding Minaki road that takes us from the main highway to the lake. We heard the old familiar noises, Luther headed for the back of the cat carrier to get out of the way and Sid shared half-digested kibble with us once more.
That has not been the end of it and we can tell you every twisting road we’ve taken. But Sidney has always restrained himself to just one hurl per day, expressing his displeasure with our chosen roadway.
Fear not. This isn’t hurting him in any way, other than a few minutes of discomfort. Earlier this year, we worried about his drastic weight loss as he shifted from winter camp to spring hunter and lost four pounds.
Outdoor cats at home, they are now confined to the confines and immediate vicinity of the trailer with Sidney quickly regaining that lost weight, and then some. They have harnesses that are never removed, and 10-foot leashes that we attach to them and to the trailer whenever we are going in and out the door. Their outings are at the end of the leash and for Luther, extend as far as the front step. Sidney, a trifle more adventurous, is exploring on his leash with a human in tow, a guide and bodyguard combined.
The only other time the cats’ behaviour has been an issue has been at dawn. Sid, now two years old, started the expedition thinking that, like other cats, we should greet every new day with a feline Indy 500 around the trailer, from one end to the other and back again, with reckless disregard for life, limb and sleeping humans.
Luther, three years old but a sedate middle-age from birth, regards Sid as an aberrant teenager until the younger beast decides it’s time to switch from NASCAR to WWE and needs a wrestling partner – and Luther’s it.
But that’s only for a half-hour or so and only every few days, and when the fun’s over the cats are content to cuddle up against us on the bed, the single largest item in the trailer, and everyone catches a few more winks.
And what could be better, on the cold, damp nights we’ve waited through this fall in various parts of the country than a toasty electric heater, a good book and a cat curled up in your lap?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Back, again and again and again, to basics

She’s been coming to the same beach cabin for 20 years, all the way from New York City, and plans to keep on doing it.
Others come from New Hampshire, and there are those, home grown, who come from Nova Scotia.
What they have in common is Inverness Beach Campground.
The 41 campsites and 41 cabins may not look like much but their view of open ocean plus three miles of Cape Breton beach at Inverness are plenty to get your attention.
Anything else, the MacLeod owners will do for you. The campsites are kept simple, deliberately, but offer water and electricity, plus WiFi. The cabins, while extremely well maintained, on the outside appear pretty basic, all cut from the same mould.
But a trip inside reveals utilitarian space, maximized by a decorator’s touch.
Anita MacLeod, one of 12 children, was raised on this place after her parents bought it in 1969.. Four of the siblings now operate this campground plus MacLeod Beach, with its 170 campsites, which was added to the roster in 1980, not to mention the MacLeod Inn for the non-campers. They’re a hospitable family and it shows.
Anita, a seamstress, makes all the draperies for the cottages, each of them different. She prides herself on natural fabrics, which she says clean much better. The cottages gleam, even toward the end of season as the MacLeods prepare to close in November.
Her brother, Ivan, points out that all it takes for their clean cottages to smell wonderful is to open a window on the ocean side and another on the back. The breeze blows through a scent like no other. And Anita points out they use natural cleaners.
The unassuming campground offers everything you might want: WiFi, laundry, tennis and basketball courts, a playground plus all that nature has to offer. Its clientele boasts returnees of many years, some of them with recognizable names, CBC radio host Shelagh Rogers among them. She once thought she might have to wear a floppy hat and sunglasses as a disguise until Anita pointed out all she need do is keep her mouth shut. It’s that voice and laugh that are recognizable.
Rogers also knows the place through author Alistair MacLeod, Anita’s cousin. Anita proudly points to a new book in the house, Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod, Alistair’s son.
“I think I have the best job in the world,” Anita says with a smile, although she admits all who work at this place, up to 20 in the summer months, are now looking forward to November. “My mother always got depressed at this time of year because she wouldn’t get to meet people for a while.”
People flock to the area because it is near the start of the Cabot Trail, world famous for its majestic scenery. Inverness Beach is a great place to park the trailer before making the Cabot Trail loop as a day trip.
But the second trail on which Inverness sits, the Ceilidh Trail, brings them back again and again for the music. The Rankin family calls Mabou, just down the road, home and two of the sisters operate the Red Shoe Pub, featuring of course Celtic music The tourist season winds up here with the Celtic Colours International Festival, Oct 8-16, as the leaves turn their brilliance on.
Anita points out there’s much more work to be done, even after the gates close. That’s when all the bookkeeping is sorted out, then it’s Christmas and before you know it, it”s February.
“We start taking reservations on the first of February,” she says with a smile. “Then it’s crazy. We’ll get hundreds of calls.”
They keep coming back.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Cookin' in the kitchen

Kitchen party? In the kitchen?
Where we come from on the West Coast, wives complain when a house party crowd inevitably splits into male and female, with guys hanging out near the fridge and the women trying to be sociable in the living room.
But here, on the East Coast, we ended up at two kitchen parties in two days in Hubbards, N.S. and neither party was in the kitchen. One was in The Trellis Cafe and the other was a private affair where everyone gathered on the big front porch facing the ocean, marveling at the warmth of the first night of October.
Both nights were wonderful. A party, always, is made by its people and we met some great, fun, social, outgoing and most of all musical folks. A Maritime party means bring the instruments and they did. For some, it was 12 and six-string guitars, for others a variety of drums, another a teeny tiny squeeze box, and some wonderful voices, in all styles, ranges and harmonies. Out of pockets came a set of spoons and various shakers for percussion backup.
It was good fortune that brought us to this seaside hamlet, 50 kilometres out of Halifax. Vicki’s old friend, Andrew, who also holds Cushing cottage memories dear, insisted she visit his older sister Bonnie at her home in Hubbards.
Out came the maps to figure just where this hamlet is. Andrew insisted Bonnie would welcome us with open arms, which she did. But because it was her busiest day of the week as a piano teacher, she sandwiched us into her schedule using the local cafe, The Trellis, as a meeting place.
Once we figured out who the other was after an absence of 35 years or so, we were off and running. Bonnie’s enthusiasm for the home she has made with husband Bob McCuaig, where they raised their three children and where she nursed her mother until her death, is stronger than ever after 30 years. No regrets on moving from Montreal. Our chat is interrupted by her neighbours and friends stopping by to say hello.
She apologizes again and again for the fact she is busy and has to hurry home to more of her 40 or so piano students. She apologizes for the fact she is leaving the next evening for a wedding in Ottawa and cannot stay to show us a good time.
But she takes us to the campground, in town, and see us settled before rushing off. The campground, two-thirds full of permanent trailers that act as a cottage for their mostly-Halifax based owners, is not particularly our style but it has WiFi and laundry, and we’re in desperate need.
It also has us close to town and able to explore it easily so that evening we return to the Trellis for their usual Thursday evening open jam.
It’s a kitchen party.
Before long, they’re looking at us questioningly so when Ian starts taking pictures for the blog, he explains what we’re doing on our travels.
“Come on in, sit down,” someone says, and we’re part of the party.
When Earl McAllister stands to sing, and the guitar chords begin, Sean Avis puts his guitar down and says, “Close your eyes for this. C’mon, close them. It’ll all be clear in a minute.”
And he’s right because he’s seen this before.
“When it began, ooo, ahh, ooo, I can’t begin to knowin, but then I know it’s growing strong,” Earl sings, and we of the closed eyes are certain Neil Diamond has entered the crowded room.
Earl is well known locally for this routine. When he’s really serious about his performance, he dresses the part but tonight he’s in jeans and a shirt.
He’s not alone in holding the limelight. When Misha Mosher gets up, the house is quiet after her first note. Her bluesy voice commands attention and she gets it, whether she’s singing here or with Sean and James Nairn when they perform as Two Many Strings.
One after another, the women take a turn at singing the lead in some song they’ve enjoyed for years. Cindy Fahie likes to belt out Patsy Cline, her sister Susan Lethbridge, visiting from Flin Flon, Man., delivers a touching John Lennon tune written for Yoko Ono. Lethbridge sings it accompanied by her husband Brent on guitar when they realize that nice young couple, who have been sitting at a corner table for hours, are on their honeymoon.
The newlyweds will never forget this evening.
We learn later that this is an exceptional night when everyone seems to gel just perfectly. Carol Webb is flawless in her harmony and stirring when she sings lead. The guitar playing from Avis, Nairn, Pat Fahie, Gary Stephen and Dave Anderson accompany each other as each chooses a song to play.
They apologize that there isn’t the usual assortment of instruments. It’s just who happened to show up tonight.
We don’t see any need for apology. The music keeps us there until staff decide the night has to come to an end, long after the usual closing time.
But we’re heartened when Cindy approaches us as we get ready to leave.
She and Pat are having a house party the next night, and we’d be welcome if we’d like to come. She asks where we’re staying and then laughs. Her house is the yellow one — across the road from the campground.
So it’s not hard to find the next night when we meet more of their friends, and more musicians. Carol’s husband, Don, feels recovered sufficiently from bronchitis to join the party with his squeeze box.
Earlier in the day, we squeezed another visit with Bonnie into her tight schedule and told her how much fun we’d had the night before at the Trellis. As we described a voice or guitar playing, Bonnie, the small village resident, put names to our descriptions.
At the house party, Ian asked for names of all and sundry. They were quite keen to be on our blog.
And we were quite keen to have been included in their regular lives, if only for a couple of nights.
We’ll not forget Hubbards.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A fascinating bore

They’ll call you dear, and with their kind of hospitality, they mean it.
We were warned by new Moncton friends, Theresa and Dennis, whom we first met on the Internet when talking about our fibreglass trailers, their’s an Outback and ours the Burro, that the salutation from anybody and everybody would be dear. It was one of the first things this formerly-Ontario couple noticed when they moved here.
It doesn’t matter how old anyone is in the exchange. That young woman –younger than our daughters – at the convenience store calls us dear as she gives the total for our purchases. It’s one way you know you’re in the Maritimes.
We had come to Moncton after a two-day stop in Saint John, a city that offers the tourist a great farmers’ market, the longest running in the country. It’s in the heart of the old downtown and operates six days a week, all but Sunday. The sights, sounds and smells catch your senses the minute you walk in the door. And the little bag of mixed fish and seafood for a chowder cooked up as a great dinner, not to mention the nearly-last corn on the cob of the season.
What Saint John does with spectacular thoroughness is show you the impossible, twice a day with unfailing regularity as the moon ensures the tide changes. At and around low tide, the Saint John River does what all rivers in this country do.
It flows downstream into the sea.
It’s a lovely sight, even in the dense morning fog that surrounded us for most of our two-day stay. Water tumbles and roils over rock long-since washed smooth and carves pathways around this island and that, as it follows its natural course. The white water is impressive but the tourists, disgorged at the railing from a steady stream of tour buses, taxis and private vehicles, begin to wonder why they’re here.
It’s when they come back for the hours surrounding the late afternoon’s high tide, when their buses and vehicles have been brought back to the same parking lot again, that they know why they came.
The white water of the morning pales in comparison since the afternoon waves are so much bigger, active and intense. But what defies all reason is these waves, this boiling current, is flowing up-river, away from the ocean.
While your brain follows the logic of a high, high tide – Bay of Fundy tides can reach 53 feet and are the highest in the world – meeting the flowing river with more than enough force to push it backward, your eyes remember what they saw this morning and say, “This can’t be.”
What humans find hard to understand is accepted by the animal kingdom. The cormorants perch on the islands, waiting for the waters to calm as the tide starts to turn yet again. It isn’t until there is some calmness that they descend to feed on fish caught up in the maelstrom and desperately trying to make it unscathed back to the ocean.
The harbour seals come in near the shore to feed undisturbed as things calm down, but not until the humans have had their fun with this tidal bore.
The jet boat operator promises thrill upon thrill on the ride as he takes one boatload after another out to rock and roll on impossible waters. He is quick to point out that all electronic equipment should be left dockside and while he dresses passengers in lovely slickers and pants, they are also warned to bring a change of clothes with them.
They will be soaked to the skin, and happy about it on a cool fall day, by the time they’re through. The boat operator, for all the world like a very young man getting his thrills and chills driving like a maniac, knows these waters so well that passengers will be frightened again and again that the large boat will lose its battle with current and turmoil, but it never does.
We watch and wait for the slack tide, wanting to see when these waters look no more harmless than a lake, when tide neither high nor low dominates and the waters are still.
The cormorants and seals feast on this time.
We head back to our campsite to feast on the farmers and fishers products.