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.

 

 

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How the Light Gets In: Louise Penny’s latest

At the beginning of her new novel, Louise Penny thanks Leonard Cohen for generously allowing her to use a line from his song “Anthem”. Cohen tells us in that song that “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” I have read all nine of Penny’s novels, so, presumably, I must have enjoyed them. And those lines by Cohen struck me from the first time I heard them as a neat summation of how good comes out of bad. Why, then, do I dislike their use as the title of her ninth and latest Armand Gomache mystery, How the Light Gets In?

Reviews, including one in the New York Times ranged from very positive to rhapsodic. Fans told of staying up half the night, of being totally emotionally engaged, of how they had waited breathlessly since the dire conclusion of book 8, The Beautiful Mystery for the resolution of this book. My goodness, I thought, and here I’ve been sleeping soundly oblivious to Gomache’s terrible suffering. I was so cold-hearted that I plodded through the book in my usual three days, closing it up at my regular bedtime.

How the Light Gets In, unlike The Beautiful Mystery, is set once again in the village of Three Pines, a place that cannot be found on any map, hidden and sheltered by wooded mountains where cell phone towers and internet connections cannot penetrate. And, despite its high body count over the years, an idyllic place with its village green, its outdoor rink, its used bookstore, its gourmet bistro with two fireplaces and its eccentric but helpful villagers. When he isn’t solving the latest murder there, Gomache retreats to it for solace, something he greatly needs now that his department in Quebec’s Sureté has been dismantled, his reputation is in decline and his good friend Jean-Guy Beauvoir is a drug addict.

Three Pines is south-east of Montreal in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.  I am familiar with this area. More or less. I recently made a sentimental journey back there to my birthplace. (See https://115journals.com/2013/09/11/septuagenarians-on-the-road-3/) While I was there, I stayed at Auberge Ayres Cliff (https://115journals.com/2013/09/14/septuagenarians-on-the-road-5/ ),an excellent hotel, every bit as cozy as the one in Three Pines, although much more on the beaten path.

When it comes to the willing suspension of disbelief, I’m a hard case. I spent my first five years freezing and starving in the hills of the Eastern Townships, albeit in a place that couldn’t be found except by those who had been there. True we were on a hill farm which produced a bumper crop of stones every year. Over the hill and down the valley, there was rich land with fat herds of dairy cows. Presumably, the hilltop soil had been scraped off our high land and deposited there. One of those farmers held the mortgage on our place. In the end, it seemed better to move to town.

But okay, I’ll go along with this Brigadoon-like village. I’d even like to sit by one of those two fire places drinking hot chocolate and eating hot buttered croissants. (No wait I’m gluten intolerant.)

Something I won’t dispute is fear of the Champlain Bridge. Too long, too high, too confusing with those changeable lane markings and too prone to traffic jams. In the opening chapter, a woman driving across that bridge comes undone. Some time later, her body is discovered dashed against the rocks beneath. It used to be the bridge that took you from Montreal across the wide St. Lawrence to Auto Route 20 and so into Les Cantons Est. Imagine my delight when I discovered this past summer that a new bridge allowed me to cross the river without going near Montreal.

Another thing I won’t dispute is the corrupt reputation of Quebec’s construction industry and its bureaucrats or some of them at least. Whether it is believable that they could be quite so dastardly or that the dastardliness could reach quite so high is a stretch. (Whoops – I seem to have lifted “dastardly” from Marilyn Stasio’s New York Times review.)

Nevertheless, the mystery of why a 77 year-old visitor to Three Pines is murdered on her return home to Montreal is intriguing. What does her murder have to do with her siblings? And, of course, there is the ongoing question of whether Gomache is going down to defeat as some terrible act of terrorism befalls La Belle Province.

Why do I resent Penny’s appropriation of Leonard Cohen’s line? I think it’s because Cohen’s idea belongs to the real world, which, let’s face it, is fraught with suffering and hard-earned insight. Penny’s world, on the other hand, is a fantasy, an imagined place of cozy friendship and monstrous villainy. It is the dissonance that bothers me.

Septuagenarians on the Road: #3

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASo Georgia and I decided to take a sentimental journey, back to our roots. We started out on her birthday, the day after Labour Day (See https://115journals.com/2013/08/31/labour-day-weekend-reflections/)

We didn’t make the decision lightly. We divided hip stiffness into the mileage and arrived at a two day trip. We reserved a hotel room at the Waterfront Holiday Inn in Kingston Ontario, which we thought was half way from Toronto to Ayres Cliff, Quebec. We were wrong. It was more like a third of the way there, but when we got to KIngson, we realized that factoring in the fatigue of packing and hefting bags made it a good choice.

When asked if we need help with our bags, my macho sister says no. Being older, I know better. Imagine the most awkward grocery cart you have ever tried to steer, turn it into a luggage cart, top-heavy with a hanging bar, add a tiny elevator and thick pile on the hall carpet.

Still it is a beautiful room that looks out over the ferry docks and one of the six squat, round Martello towers that guarded Upper Canada from the American invaders.

Martello Tower, KingstonWe stayed in a similar room 4 years ago when we last made this trip. The place is not much changed. The question is are we?

We rest. Resting will be a recurring theme in this blog post as it is in our lives. I would say ‘in the lives of septuagenarians in general’, but Blake (see http://115journals.com/2012/05/26/septuagenarians-on-the-road-part-1/ and https://115journals.com/2012/05/27/septuagenarians-on-the-road-part-2/ ) doesn’t rest much. Resting like Archemedes’ lever makes all things possible.

Then it is time to pop the cork on the Veuve Cliquot. It is a birthday after all.

It seems wise to find a restaurant within walking distance, so we search through the available literature and come up with Olivia, an Italian restaurant two short blocks away. As it turns out there is live jazz from the Dave Barton trio with Amanda Balysy on vocals. Amanda has a retro look, blouse and skirt out of the 50s and songs to match. So the ambience is delightful. The day’s special of wild boar sausage seems too demanding for my digestion and I willfully ignore the black cod and order risotto. As soon as I lay eyes on it, I know I have been wrong. I’m used to risotto at Marcellos in Toronto where they don’t even add cheese. This dish is swimming in cheese and oil. But the optimism of the moment prevails and I take the risk.

As evening falls, the Kingston City Hall across the square becomes ever more beautiful (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kingston_City_Hall_Andrew_pmk.JPG). Its limestone glows silver and its lovely dome stands etched against the sky. After dinner, we sit in the park at the water’s edge and enjoy its beauty.

Kingston_City_Hall__#3All in all, the day has gone well, we think. Georgia settles down to watch Netflix on my Mac Air Book and I lie down to sleep. To no avail. Yes, I am tired enough to sleep, but my body has other ideas. I am aching all over. The pillows labelled soft are so soft, I feel smothered. The ones labelled hard hurt my head but don’t support my neck. But most of all I blame the risotto. Years ago, in this same town, I spent the night sitting on the bathroom floor reading John Irving’s The World According to Garp.I might have been better to spend this night there as well.

I’ve had considerable experience with insomnia – who hasn’t at this age?- and developed strategies to deal with it. In between bathroom trips, I try them all. First, I roll up a bath towel and put it under my long neck, a softer version of the wooden Japanese head rest. I do my three part deep breathing exercise over and over. I take a sleep aid. I put in my ear buds and hit the white noise App on my iPhone. Even the continuous swish of heavy rain doesn’t send me off. By now, Georgia is soundly asleep, or so it seems for she is very softly snoring. At what seems like 2 a.m, but is actually much earlier, I get up to do tai chi exercises in the dark. That seems to calm my system down. Then just as I begin to slip into sleep, someone hammers on the door next to us and calls out in a aggrieved voice, “Come on Michael, I forgot my key.” Apparently that is just the ticket. I am gone. I don’t even wake up when Georgia spends an hour reading at 3 a.m. Of course, in the morning, she maintains not only that I had kept her awake, but also that I was groaning. Perhaps she is right.

So unrefreshed, we find our way to the complimentary breakfast with a view of the water. I am unenthusiastic about eating but I need to take on fuel. Fortunately, Georgia is able to enjoy the free meal, which we have earned by being members of the Canadian Automobile Association.

There is one more little hiccup. I neglected to bring down our parking stub. There is no attendant. Fortunately, someone from the bar across the street yells out instructions on what button to push to contact the office and my car is finally released. That is one drawback to this particular hotel. We call them parking Nazis.

So we set out on the second lap of our journey and a very long lap it turns out to be. It begins with a Google Map gaff -you have surely experienced at least one of those. Instructions are to head north on Princess St, which is, as luck would have it, one way, going south. We do what we can and find ourselves crossing bridges we’ve never seen before and confronting signs to west bound 401. We reason that east bound 401 has to be in approximately the same place, but the west bound signs proliferate and get larger. Just a little kick of adrenaline from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. Once we have achieved the elusive east bound highway, we feel as if it can only get easier.

The newly renovated ONroute service centres are a plus, clean and up-to-date. You can take your own lunch in and eat it at the tables or make one up from Tim Hortons and Subway or Burger King. I carry in my rice crackers and home-made salad dressing, and manage to scrounge up salad and chicken to go with them. We take turns driving, trading off every hour or so. Some time after lunch, we cross the provincial border into Quebec. I recall that there used to be a lovely stone building in the old style, which served as an information centre. A few of those stones seemed to have been recycled into the service centre that has replaced it. I line up at the counter to ask the same question as everyone else. Google had told me to take exit 29 to new highway 30, but the maps show no bridge there. What gives? The bilingual receptionist has the interesting skill of being able to write on a map upside down and she assures me that there is now a bridge, which will cost me $1.50 to cross. If you have ever had to drive into the city Montreal to cross the St. Lawrence River on the Champlain Bridge, you may understand what a cause for rejoicing that is. As we discover the bridge is really two bridges, the first one low to the water and the second soaring up over the widest part of the river to let the ships pass up the St Lawrence Seaway.

So we skirt Montreal in that low level river land, which is fertile but also being eaten up by industry as time passes. Now all signs are exclusively in French. Sud and nord are simple enough and easy to figure out as south and north. Est and ouest are trickier. I keep reciting “est” as a clue to finding the right exit to #15, which will take us toward Sherbrooke. “Traveaux” is pretty clear, including as it does miles of orange cones and on occasion, actual workers and machines. The sign that orders us to respect the security zone or so it seems, puzzles me, until I realize that I am to pull out into the left lane when I see someone stopped on the shoulder. Then there is an urgent LED sign that absolutely eludes me. I can not catch even one word. We fly by oblivious.

Like all Canadian children, I have studied French, in my case until I was in grade 12. Moreover, I have a brother who lives in Belgium and speaks French most of the time. I have spent long holidays there and in France. I just finished watching Spiral on Netflix, a made-in-France police drama, with  sub-titles, it must be said. I’m more than willing to give it my all, but really! Nothing but French. The stop signs say “Arret”. Even in Europe, they say “Stop”. When I am flying along at 110 km, I could use a little help.

We can just glimpse Mount Royal over the river on the horizon. Then a solitary mountain rises from the plain, a volcanic cone. The country grows more rural. The road begins to rise and curve and finally, we begin to see the soul-soothing mountains of our childhood, the northern-most Appalachians.

By the time, we round the corner into Ayres Cliff, we have been on the road for six hours. I seem to think I know where the Auberge Ayres Cliff is and I am not wrong, although I hadn’t realized it was right in the middle of town, a quiet tourist town of one main street and side streets leading down to Lake Massawippi. I stayed somewhere near here 16 years ago, but it takes me a full 24 hours to realize it was the same place and when I do, I seriously wonder if senility has crept up on me. It is a hard place to forget. It is said to be 200 years old and while that may not be an exact number, it is certainly very old. (www.aubergeayrescliff)

It has a huge patio at the side, full of expensive wicker seating and those outdoor heaters and little canvas-covered nooks, all on wooden decking. It also has seating on the veranda. We check in at the bar where some of the locals are having lively conversations. I’d like to join them, but we have to go up to see our room. Up is the operative word. We are the only guests, but we have booked two adjoining rooms, which are on the third floor. The second flight of stairs is made up of a large number of steps -each one 14 inches high.

The rooms are furnished with a double bed each, with good mattresses and dressers in a VIctorian style. And a  fan. There are no chairs. There certainly is no television set. No mention is made of this but apparently we were warned on the website. I give Georgia the room that has a more or less level floor, it being her birthday, and allot myself the one that slopes so dramatically that it takes all my tai chi balance to walk across it.

And yes, we want to have our bags brought up, a task that falls to the slim bartender/receptionist/ farmer’s daughter and a guy who gets up from dinner with his family to help her.

It is clear that we would not have got much sleep if we had come a few days before, on Labour Day weekend, but summer is over, the temperature has fallen, the tourists have left.

True to their hype, they have an excellent Angus beef fillet mignon. After dinner and the long slog back up the stairs, I get Georgia set up on the internet to watch Netflix: she is well into season 5 of Weeds and well fed with simple food, I fall fast asleep in my Alice in Wonderland room.

to be continued

Labour Day Weekend: reflections

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA(And yes, I can spell. It’s just that I follow a different tradition. Stubbornly, it seems.)

The dreaded weekend has come. The end of summer. A cacophony (strictly speaking a ‘murder’) of crows announced it this morning.

Oh, sure, we can assure ourselves that September can be the best of summer still, but that’s bravado, positive thinking gone rogue. Realistically, we know the light is failing. Vegetable gardens started telling us that weeks ago. Here at least, at 43.7° N. where the squash and cucumber vines have died back and the tomatoes are refusing to ripen. I can no longer count on light at 6 a.m. and the evening moves faster into night.

There were more swallows than ever sweeping across the sky two evenings ago, as they fatten up to cross the big lake and leave these shores. This evening, they may be gone. And it doesn’t help that I know they will come back to Capistrano on March 19th next year. It’s at 33° N and the swallows take another 40 days to get here.

Autumnal, that’s the word. ‘An early autumn walks the land/ And chills the breeze/And touches with her hand/The summer trees….’ etc. ( Courtesy Johnny Mercer) I would say it is all the more affecting because I am in the autumn of my life, but that would be false. The autumn of my life, I glimpse only in the rear view mirror. While I sometimes question how many more springs there are left, I never ask how many falls.

This weekend, the skies above are rent by low flying fighter jets, as the annual air show gets underway. While there are those who love the thrill of a group of jets roaring just above rooftop, I am not one of them, although I admit there is no need for coffee and the pumping adrenaline more than offsets the weary wintery-ness of age.

In the spirit of the occasion, let us consider Labour Day weekends past. Here in at 43.7° N., school begins on the Tuesday after Labour Day now as it did over 70 years ago when I started. My mother and I had planned that I would wear my sailor dress, light blue with a navy blue sailor’s collar and a narrow red stripe, and she would walk with me, holding my hand and teach me how to cross the street in our little town. The best laid plans and all that. Turned out my mother was far away in a maternity ward of the hospital that morning when I woke up. I was outraged. How could she? I was fed breakfast by my cousin next door and towed unwillingly to school by the grade 3-er across the street. Very early indeed, in case her friends saw her with my lowly grade 1-self, sailor dress or not.

The upside of this was that every Labour Day thereafter I got to celebrate my sister’s birthday. In addition, my mother’s betrayal led me to bond with Miss Graham, my teacher, to such an extent that I continued returning to school for the next 50 years, as student and teacher.

The year that I gave that up going back to school the day after Labour Day was so traumatic that I could deal with it only by setting out to drive across the continent to Los Angeles. Crossing the border in my heavy laden Tercel I was knocked sideways by the American border guard. (Metaphorically that is.) He was worried about whether I had green apples and where my ex-husband was at the moment. No and don’t know. He successfully banished all first-day-of-school nostalgia quite out of my head.

Driving across the continent by yourself takes a while, the sun streaming in through the driver’s side window, day after day. Mind boggled by the wide rivers and the deep canyons and the endless oppressive desert. Terrified of falling asleep at the wheel, of taking a wrong turn on a freeway. My expensive car phone without service most of the time. Then just so tired, I had to hole up and sleep in a well air-conditioned ‘better’ motel where the furniture wasn’t bolted to the floor. When I finally emerged and drove down off the Santa Monica Freeway to glimpse the Pacific, I had left my school self behind. But what did I discover in my daughter’s house? No not green apples! My ex-husband!  Just what the border guard feared. A reconstitution  of a family separated for 15 years for the purpose of defrauding the U.S. government. Somehow.

This year, I have other plans. My sister and I are going to return to the mountains of Quebec’s Eastern Townships where we were born. Her birthday treat. Not that there is family there any more. Well, maybe one. Eighty eight he’d be, if still extant. And the old house we loved isn’t tidy and white any more. The barn is just a heap, a mound of earth where the ramp to the haymow was. My grandfather’s fields, cleared with such killing effort, have been put back to trees. Unbelievably, actually planted with trees! You can barely see our slope-shouldered mountain for the woods. Nevertheless, we will drive the gravel roads and breathe the spruce air and feel our native earth beneath our feet.

And these two one-upon-a-time teachers will take solace in an excellent hotel on Lake Massawippi where the furniture is definitely not bolted to the floor.