Monday, May 31, 1999
Canada didn’t herald our return. In fact, it was delayed for an hour while three minor Mounties took apart Tom’s truck. “Is this because we’ve been going in and out of the States?” I asked.
“Nope. Just random. And could you keep that dog away from us?”
That dog was sleeping on the sidewalk.
We’d planned to stay in Sault Saint Marie, but though it sounded provincial and French, it was barren and industrial. Still, Thessalon, 50 kilometers east, was great. At least, the motel was. Oh, hell, the sunset was—one of those golden-orange, blue lake, black tree dazzlers they sell on postcards. After that, what’s it matter if a bed’s too short?
Dinner was funny, in a ridiculous little diner even the motel manager couldn’t recommend. But it was open all night. Except it wasn’t yet, though it would be once the summer folk arrived. At the moment, the ancient duo who ran the place said there just weren’t enough “live ones around, staying up late.”
The old lady was really in charge. She must have been a hundred-and-five. But cracklin’. Her husband was less alert, slower even than their dog, which could have been Thurber cast iron. I’m not sure it moved the whole time we were eating, though it was talked to steadily by both its owners. And prodded.
The food didn’t fit any known category, and the open kitchen wasn’t exactly clean as a lab. Faced with possible poisoning, I took my usual defense and ordered a sandwich. Except they were out of bread. And chicken. And mayonnaise. By default, I had something that might have been turkey, on something that use to be a roll. Plus, it wasn’t processed meat: it was hacked off a grey frozen block, then deep fried. And the old lady nicely gave us extra—to feed our dog (Tom had mentioned it while paying respect to theirs).
“It’s just goin’ to waste,” she grinned. “Been around too long.”
Oh, sure. Kill the Yankee mutt.
I don’t know what Tom ate. I didn’t want to look. But his fries came with thick brown gravy.
The other customers were X-Files extras, first as teenagers, then shadowed by their toothless Doppelgangers. (It must be scary to look around a tiny room and see your decaying future.) The young ones were mainly stubbled, in torn jeans, worn plaid shirts, holey T’s, and backwards hunters’ caps. They all seemed horny/lackadaisical. As they thickened in nearby booths, their clothes turned to creased polyester, their faces dropped but were clean-shaven, their hair shortened, and they all seemed partnered to as-lumpen women. Then the guys got skinny again, their presumed-wives disappeared, and they nursed canned beers, wearing twisted wool caps, overthick jackets, and unraveling gloves. (Okay, it was Canada. But it was also seconds from being June.)
The next morning, breakfast was less cartooned, with family tourists and proper local women crowding the more traditional restaurant that adjoined our motel. From photos on the instructive place mats, we learned the site had been owned by a single family for almost forty years, though before that, it had been a burnt-out mill. And for a long time earlier, it had been central to the Canadian logging industry.
Soon after, when we should have been scooting towards Toronto, for dinner with one of Tom’s former L.A. friends, we were stopped at The Round Barn. Why? Because I’d never seen one before. And because Tom was as curious. And because it was billed as The Largest of Its Type In All Canada. All Canada. Built in 1928, to store loose, as opposed to baled, hay—ain’t we learnin’ somethin’—it still seemed in great shape. But what did I know about barns?
It was now a gift shop.
“Why round?” I asked the present owner, a quiet woman in her late twenties, busy with crafts.
“They take less lumber,” she said, gluing.
“Then why aren’t all barns round?”
“They fall down.”
She seemed to hesitate. I waited politely.
“Once the roof goes,” she finally went on, “the whole thing’s firewood.”
A universal truth.
The gift shop was heavy on what-not, and though the exchange rate was excellent—a double loonie (the Canadian two-dollar coin) for every crumpled George Washington—only Tom bought trinkets. I settled on taking atmospheric photos of the weedy garden. (Oh, sure, he shoots one foolproof sunset, and suddenly he’s Ansel Adams.)
Next, we were stalled by pigs. Well, fake pigs. At Lake Louise, Tom had seen a small chain-saw-cut bear and wondered if he could find something like it in a hog. (His sister either collects them, or has them well-meaningly forced upon her.) Sighting a small rustic wood shop, of course we had to stop.
No pigs. No chopped animals of any sort. But the American woman who ran the place—with her requisite-long-haired carpenter-husband—was terrifically friendly. In fact, we had mutual friends—kind of: three women I knew had studied with someone who’d taught at the same university as this woman’s father. In rural Canada, that was close enough.
I’m not sure how we’d made that connection, maybe a tangent off the fact that while she was growing up, the woman’s American grandparents had a summer home in the area. And just across the road was a house with three Canadian grandsons. And the woman had two sisters. So it was probably inevitable that one of the boys would marry, or at least seasonally pursue, one of the granddaughters.
The woman had also been a nurse for a dozen years, but the Canadian government bitterly helped her out of that career. “Why?” I asked carefully, and she explained. She also told me why so many more Canadians seemed to complain about their government than Americans.
“Because Americans are so rich. And so close by. And all we see here is wasted opportunity.”
She was hoping the upcoming elections would change that. And though everything seemed dense and green, and Tom and I thought we were having amazing luck with the weather, she was also praying for rain. In reality, there’d been a four-year drought.
“That’s why we can’t let you use the bathroom,” the woman had apologized when I’d asked. “The shop is stream fed, and we don’t even have running water.”
Not surprisingly, we were two hours late reaching Toronto, though not from side trips. There were huge thunderstorms.