Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum. Come to the Cabaret


Georgia celebrated her birthday this week. I had bought tickets to Cabaret at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada. I told her where to find them in my apartment in Toronto. They weren’t where I thought they were, but she called me on my land line and I told her to look under the paper weight and there they were. I had invited Blake to go with us. He had agreed to drive. And Georgia asked her daughter to go with them on my ticket.

When I bought the tickets in May, I thought to myself that it would be a treat to compensate me for the end of summer, as well as a good way to celebrate my younger sister’s birthday. Blake, my ex-husband, has known us since we were 16 and 10 respectively and we three always enjoy each others’ company.

Only problem – I am here where summer seems never to end and a typical morning greeting is “another beautiful day in paradise”. You hear that a lot in Southern California, but never more than here high in the mountains, a place which the  Chumash called the Center of the World. It is a town built around a golf club and its sole industry is leisure. Some people actually set out at 5 a.m. to drive down to work in the cities, even as far as Los Angeles, but many more do not. They get up early to play a round of golf and only then do they eat breakfast at the club house. They are resolutely friendly, waving as they pass you in their golf carts.

Others are economic refugees, here because you can buy a house for less than a hundred thousand or rent one for less than a thousand. There are many musicians and many free musical events. They will insist on playing without as much as free beer for their reward. There are talented writers and artists as well and festivals and events that showcase their work.

There are weekenders with big houses, executives, movie people, we suppose. We don’t meet them really.

And yet I missed Cabaret.

Georgia reported that it was wonderful, the set amazing. Blake took them to a good, untouristy restaurant for lunch.

I am suddenly struck by homesickness.

The maple tree across the street from the duplex where I live will have turned red by now. The one in front will soon turn yellow. The swallows will have left on or about August 28th. The geranium on the front porch -did anyone water it?- will be dying back even if they did. Tall grasses beside the bike path will be dead. Crows will be calling more than usual. Perhaps like the swallows, they are coming south.

It goes down below 60 F here at night. The cool air comes down from the heights above as soon as the sun goes down. I close the window before dawn. But by the time I go out the door, it is beginning to get hot, reaching the upper 80s by afternoon. And it is dusty. That’s the nature of a desert climate, even a high desert with pine forest. It’s rained once in the three months I’ve been here. A short trip on the golf cart leaves me, the cart and whatever I have with me -groceries, my laptop, my laundry caked in dust. In Bakersfield, an hour north, the valley floor kicks up so much dust that the mountains beyond look misty.

My Grandpa Munn couldn’t bear to leave his home, a farm in the mountains in Quebec. He would pine away when he did, growing more silent and pale as time wore on. The longest he was ever away was a week, but to him it felt like eternity. I’m not that homesick. I didn’t even notice it until I missed Cabaret. And these mountains are very like his mountains,so they are like that early home of mine.

Besides I’ve had the good fortune of having to be here amidst such beauty and in the middle of my family. Why complain?

The north seems to built into my bones. I miss the quickening of fall.

Offa This Mountain: an anti-Shangri-la moment

the bandWhen I get offa this mountain, you know where I’m wanna go
Straight down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico
To Lake Charles Louisiana Little Bessie girl I once knew
She told me just to come on by if there was anything she could do…

The prospect of an uninterrupted three weeks on this mountain, three weeks of sun, pure air and altitude is taking its toll. I’ve put in two already, but now I crave exhaust fumes, crowds, bookstores, freeways at a standstill, lunch at a noisy curbside.

I distract myself listening to the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” its raunchy message offsetting the unbearable niceness of life here at the village centre.

I distract myself by driving a golf cart. Turn the switch on. Press the pedal. Silently, it moves off, leaning over as it turns. Yes, it has an a go-pedal and a brake. No rear view mirrors. No directional signals. It has a governor. Which on down-hill runs kicks in later than I think it should. Once you put the brake on, it locks. The only way to unlock it s to press the accelerator. Stopping at stop signs is entirely absorbing. Turning on a hill causes a lean that is entirely exciting. Did I mention I’m a septuagenarian?

I feel like crying “Hi ho, Silver!” although it keeps turning into “Hi ho Silverwear. Don’t forget your underwear!”

Ah, little red Yaris, 2000 miles away in Toronto.

I come romping home to the small hotel in the dark, grab my Elizabeth George novel, take myself upstairs next door to Madd Bailey’s bar, order a Guinness and read. The bar is mine and mine alone.

I can travel – by golf cart or on foot – to an internet connection and a phone. There are of course no actual public phones still extant and no kindly charity has stepped forward to protect the species. I can, however, sit outside the internet cafe even when it’s closed and get online where the miracle of Skype lets me make phone calls all over the world. Try to have a private conversation, though.

The television set in my room seems to be the last analogue receiver in service. I can get a very, very grainy CNN and if I’ve already seen the show, I listen to the sound -The Sixties, Music e.g.; otherwise, forget it.

Yes, I am reading. And reading. And reading. A book every three days. Right now I’m embarked on another Lee Child, a Jack Reacher thriller, Running Blind. Without Fail is waiting at my bedside.

And listening to the Band on my iPod. “I’m a lonely boy/Ain’t got no home.”

Ostensibly, my mission when I’m not involved in the family healing project, is to plan a mystery novel. But I feel like one of the wasted detectives I read about -Vera Stanhope, Wallender, Rebus. In off hours, I just want to retreat to oblivion and music.

But hey, it was distracting to have my hair cut very short and get a bracing Christian message, all for $45 and a very small tip.

“Acadian driftwood, Gypsy tailwind,/They call my home the land of snow/Canadian cold front moving in/ What a way to ride, oh what a way to go.”

Such was my midnight moan, but sitting outside the Bear Claw Bakery having breakfast the next morning, my octogenarian friend warily asked if I would go shopping with her in Santa Clarita. “Just hand me your car keys,” I said as I sprang to my feet. An hour later, down many mountains, we found the mall. She completed her outfits for her grand-daughter’s wedding and I added to my collection of Apple gear – a small iPad

Stillness in the High Desert

high desert pinesSomeone asked me this morning what I do to fill my days here at 5000 ft in the Sierra Mountains of Southern California. The answer is simple: I sit.

I don’t mean I sit and read. Mostly, the book lies face down on the arm of the chair, the computer closed on the foot stool. I start out with good intentions and the next thing I know I’m just sitting.

For one thing, it’s hot. Back home in Toronto, we cherish the idea that dry heat is bearable. The soup-like heat and humidity of the Great Lakes has driven most of us to air conditioning. Up here, few houses have it. In my naiveté, I thought the mountain breezes would take care of that. Not so. And I have given up on the idea that dry heat is better. Parched is not better. Drinking liters of water is not better.

Today, July 4th, 2014, we are having inclement weather. There are small white fluffy clouds drifting between us and the sun. Usually there is snow on Mt Pinos until June or early July. This year it was gone by April. There is a river bed with high gravel banks indicating that torrents of water have smashed through them. Now it looks like a long, narrow gravel pit. Smokey the Bear stands with his upturned shovel warning us the risk of fire is high. There will be no fire works tonight.

I spent an hour earlier today sitting on a rock under a willow tree at the edge of what is optimistically called a lake, really a pond. The water does come down from the mountain but is tightly monitored. It has to be at a certain level – for fire fighting – but it is dangerously low.

Last week an ingenious machine mowed the algae and the cat tales so there is more open water now, but the red wing black birds have taken it in their stride even though their population density is astounding. I didn’t realize they were such a social breed. Each family’s territory must be small. It’s a small pond. But they get along, defending their nests together. I saw 8 or 10 chasing a hawk with a fledgling in its mouth. On the sidelines, another 20 or 30 cried out in protest.

Sitting in the leafy shade with a breeze ruffling the water and cooling me, I disappeared into the background. A mother coot or mud hen with two babies kept diving under water as if to demonstrate the technique, but the baby coots just kept chirping, so she started bringing up bits and feeding the nearest one.

American Coot

American Coot

Ducks were calling from the other side of the pond and every so often, an unseen frog seemed to answer. Eventually, two ducks swam around the reeds and into the little bay at the foot of the tree. One was much larger than the other, but both seemed to have adult colours.

mallardA red wing landed in the branches above me and began whistling its fat whistle. There was no mistaking the song but he didn’t seem to have his red epaulets yet. The next thing I knew he was gone and a Stellar’s Jay was scolding there.

The breeze was fragrant with cedar from the chips on the path, with the smell of mud and  pine needles.

Every so often, a vehicle drove into the small parking lot. Most sat briefly and moved back out. The town was curiously empty on this holiday, but those still here seemed to be doing auto tours. One guy stayed, dragged out a big ice chest and a fishing rod and bade me, “Good afternoon” as he made for the picnic tables farther along the shore. Afternoon? I thought. Another couple made for the archery range armed accordingly.

Every so often, a fish jumped.

What kept me from hurrying off was that I was waiting for a better hiker than me to return down the horse trail. A few days before on a cooler day, I stood waiting on the dusty trail under a pin oak with many trunks. I had learned not to sit out there for fear of ants. I stood there for half an hour, gazing at the mountains and studying the trees, enjoying the breeze that funneled down the hill. That taught me the joy of staying quiet and still and engaging all my senses.

It was my stomach that got me up today. It told me it was well past lunch time. I left my bower and started back up the sun-baked road home.

We sent out a search party on a golf cart to bring home the walker who had made it all the way to the creek and had been sitting with her feet in it.

Bulletin #2 from Shangri-La: altitude

The village I am visiting in the Sierras sits in a bowl, at about 5000 ft., surrounded by 9000 ft. mountains. The mountains I was born in are the northern end of the Appalachians in Quebec, Canada. Mt. Hereford is less than 3000 ft. high, but down the way in the New Hampshire, White Mountains, Mt. Washington rises to over 6000. I went up it once with my young children and had to fight the urge to crawl. My additional 5 ft. 4 in. were just too much. I had the same impulse on Mer de Glace in the French alps.

One summer, I went camping in Yosemite with my daughter and her family and my French brother. He joked about being the only member of a film crew on a mountain shoot that had to go down to sleep. Poor thing, I thought. Then I lay down in my tent at 9000 ft.

Half an hour later, I woke up suffocating. I got out of bed, unzipped the tent flap and walked around in the pitch dark. That got tiring. I crawled back into my sleeping bag. Repeat and repeat and repeat. Around 1 a.m., I ran into my brother, who was even worse off than me. He was babbling. My daughter emerged from the tent where she, her son and husband had been sleeping soundly. Being a health care professional, she questioned us about our symptoms. Her most alarming question was, “Are you hallucinating?”  She advised us to go down to sleep.”Don’t sleep in the car. The cops don’t like that,” her husband called out from inside their tent.

I’m not sure what happened next. Rob seems to have set out to walk to the car, some distance away. I must have gone back to my tent to get something. My next memory is of walking the long dark track wrapped in my sleeping bag. A figure up ahead suddenly came toward me.

“Joyce,” it cried out.”Is that you?” Rob walked up to me. His face in the moonlight was full of horror. “I thought you were a giant ninja turtle come to take my soul.”

This was hysterically funny to both of us. We staggered toward the car, laughing. We laughed and laughed until we started to cut down through Tioga Pass where a huge full moon hung in a velvet black sky. Then we both began to cry, convinced that no matter how difficult our lives had been and they certainly had, this moment made it all worthwhile.

It took some time to find a motel. Rob disappeared into reception and came out laughing and waving a key.

“I told her you were my sister,” he chortled. “And I think she believed me.”

There were five beds in the room. It took us an age to chose.

So I scratched vacation spots of 9000 ft. off my list. The town where I was able to sleep was 7000.

Peppermint Creek up the Kern River in Kern County qualified. We spent several vacations there camped under the redwoods beside the rock pools. No problem. Well, there was the time I was getting breakfast food out of the car trunk when something breathed down my neck. Something taller than me. I took a breath. I slowly turned to meet death by bear and found myself nose to nose with a cow.

Then came the year after I had had major surgery, a whole year after. Shouldn’t I be ready to camp up there?

Obviously not. This was my daughter’s dream vacation after a very hard year. Both sons-7 and 16-were there, the latter of whom lived with his father across the continent, her newish man, her best friend and me, old short-lunged me.

Suffice to say that I spent my nights sitting in a car seat, only slightly reclined, the only way I could breath. Well some of the night. The rest of it was devoted to taking the trenching tool and the flashlight and hying myself off into the bushes. This time, altitude sickness featured the runs. But rattle snakes hunt at night and we seemed to be camped in the middle of rattlesnake city. And the flashlight seemed to have a black spot in the middle of the beam. True I could see the bowl of heaven above me and it was absolutely dense with stars. I felt as if God were talking to me. During the day, I got more and more skittish. I was getting about 2 1/2 hours sleep a night. I didn’t want to spoil the holiday. Guess whether I did.

So now I am here at  5000, among pines and bird song. And sun. I’m Canadian, don’t forget, and we’ve had a cold, rainy spring. I  have taken two walks. All roads are uphill! I stop frequently. I aim for benches. Getting showered and ready for the day makes me breathless. I sit gazing out windows at the pines. I sit on the deck gazing at the pines. I sit and read. Once in a while, when I get rested, I do tai chi. Down at sea level, I am full of energy, all those new red blood cells racing around.

I want to stay of course.