Tag Archives: travel

Keys, Shellfish, and Vikings (A Newfoundland Travelogue)

There was a blur preceding the steering wheel. I had been awake nearly thirty hours, with a toddler no less, and I was in and out of airport terminals and darkened airplane cabins from Alberta’s sunset to Newfoundland’s sunrise.

There isn’t a chance for me to do anything more than just sit in an airplane seat as restfully as my poor posture will allow. I obsess about design changes that could actually help me sleep. But I am in the wrong trade for having any influence on in-flight comfort—and I would probably involve a lot more hammock technology than airplane safety rules would allow.

My echo chamber flight was worsened by the fact that I dreaded our landing. Somewhere between securing my luggage at the drop-off and sitting down in my seat, I had lost the key to the luggage. We would land to about two-thirds of our luggage, held hostage by my idiocy (and the key, which probably fell out of my pocket when I dangled in the playground to amuse my child in the Edmonton airport.

Of course, that meant as soon as we landed, I got to get smashy. The regional airport we landed in, Deer Lake, was meant to get us as close to the kick-off of the itinerary I had planned. There are many benefits to flying into regional airports…their selection of TSA master keys, the codes for which are clearly marked on most commercial luggage locks, are not one of those benefits.

The key that best fit our suitcase was a flat-headed screwdriver.

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Smashing it against an iceberg would have also worked.

I had five hours to forget about the luggage that gaped open in the backseat of our rented minivan (I know: minivans are awful, and awfully practical). Despite my the thirty hour blur that preceded that steering wheel, the next few hours allowed the road to hypnotize me, as it’s done countless times—I was able to lock in, and read the landscape, and not make a chore out of driving but ribbon myself into the route like the gulls threaded in and out of the sea.

The road can do this to me—and Sadhguru put it better in a video published after I returned…I poorly paraphrase his words as my own: essentially, I didn’t need to possess anything to make it mine. (The possessive at the end sounds malicious, but in context, making it mine means capturing it within the boundary of what I consider myself—i.e. oneness. I think I’ve over-explained it now).

The cautious guest

who comes to the table

speaks sparingly.

Listens with ears

learns with eyes.

Such is the seeker of knowledge.

            – Havamal

It took a mere four hours to time travel from bustling industrial Newfoundland, to days-gone-by-b’y coastal coves, to the tundra-esque north where my wife swore she saw an albino moose until we reached service and could definitively say we saw a caribou—then finally to Vinland, on the Northern Peninsula’s tip nub (that’s a geological term, I think).

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Caribou on the Northern Peninsula (Newfoundland, Canada).

That tip nub was long home to the ancestors of the people we now call First Nations. For a brief time, it fooled the Vikings into thinking it was a promised land, all to themselves. For a while after that, the English and French argued in Versailles over it. Now, it’s hard to say who lives there, because the sea ice was thick and within a week of me standing on an ice floe off the Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve the Canadian government would announce $5M in support for fisherpeople and other seafolks who were held up or even trapped by atypical ice conditions.

The newcomer

needs fire

his knees are numb.

A man who has made

his way over mountains

needs food and fresh linens.

            – Havamal

The few people I did encounter were the nicest people I could have encountered after too many hours awake and too many kilometers and a hankering for the slimmest chance to lay horizontally and forget about everything. When we reached our cabin in Raleigh, Nanny & Poppy Hedderson were ready to offer us the comforts of home.

Between the drizzling day, the freezing wind that never fucking stopped, and my third or fourth wind that was threatening to stop at any point, I was just giddy to be able to parade on the roads of Raleigh and fall down if I so pleased, without driving my family into a rocky ditch.

So of course, I didn’t even hesitate when Poppy told me that the LIVE LOBSTER sign out front wasn’t even LIVE so much as it was STRAIGHT FROM THE OCEAN, which wasn’t so passive as it sounded. Poppy drove us out to the dock with a Dutch couple so that we could harvest our very own lobster.

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“Would you care to sit in my parlour?”  – My Dinner Lobster

The tourist theatrics were so regular for Poppy that my ego wasn’t stroked when he asked me to help him haul the lobster cage out of the water. But it was hella fun. After the cage was opened, we fished through for the right lobster for each person, like we were fishing Valentine heart candies out of a bowl.

The lobster went straight from the ocean to a pot, and eventually to my plate with the oft-encountered pairing of garlic bread and Caesar salad. A little cod tongue to start, and some Iceberg beer to wash it down, and this is a recipe for making one sleep-deprived dude enter a semi-conscious state.

When I came to the next morning, we ate oatmeal and oranges and tea with a little cannabis honey before heading out to the Viking encampment beside a black beach. More formally, the camp is a National Historic Site. It was just above freezing, with ice stretching out to the horizon. It was surprisingly busy, but then again, national park sites like L’Anse-Aux-Meadows were free for Canadians to celebrate the sesquicentennial [Note: There were more international tourists than Canadians].

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The bay which the Viking settlement overlooked at L’Anse-Aux-Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

On a given June day around 1000 CE, there were alien settlers on those shores. They built angular buildings with vented roofs and forged bog iron. Although tundra now, there’s understood to have been a historically warmer climate, so Leif Erikson and his crew would have found a peninsula rich with timber.

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A cozy tundra stroll to the seaside settlement, L’Anse-Aux-Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

They had already found an endless stretch of precious wood further north, and an endless beach which would later appear in Norse epics. These were men from societies who were spiralling into what we might call intellect—budding into pursuits like cartography, astronomy, literature, architecture, and metallurgy.

None of this was necessary for survival, which was proven by the people the Vikings encountered when they made the first European contact with North America. From Viking sagas we know that there were Native people who visited the Norse Vinland encampment. Trade ensued, although Leif refused to trade their weapons.

When passing

a door-post,

watch as you walk on,

inspect as you enter.

It is uncertain

where enemies lurk

or crouch in a dark corner.

            – Havamal

This is obviously where some sort of rift ensued—or at least, that was what the dramatic video at the National Historic Site insinuated. It’s not understood exactly why the Vikings built buildings, had a couple smelts (100-200 boat nails?), stayed for less than a decade, then burnt it all down and sailed into the sunrise.

My guess is that people lie. Leif had an accident in the rough waters off the North Atlantic and had to post up for a bit to make some nails and rebuild his boat. But the place was bountiful and they had enough grapes to make a lot of wine.

You have a friend

you hardly trust

in whom you cannot confide,

with fair smiles

and false words

repay cunning in kind.

            – Havamal

But then again, there were already people here. It was the same problem Christopher Columbus would face. Except he came from a more brutal time and a more brutal place. In the fifteenth century Christianity was reaching its most logical conclusion, the Inquisition, and it probably didn’t seem odd to anyone that there were some things that looked like people but were clearly beasts or demons and could be done away with or used to expand the empire.

Be your friend’s

true friend.

Return gift for gift.

Repay laughter

with laughter again

but betrayal with treachery.

            – Havamal

It is odd that the Vikings, otherwise known for slaughters and looting, bowed out from Vinland. The people of Christ who came later did not seem to have the same restraint. [I later learned that the Saga of Erik the Red describes Leif Erikson’s Vinland discovery as an accident while en route to introduce Christianity to Greenland.]

I never cared for the Viking stereotype, because like Mongolians or Berbers there are always exaggerations, no different than more recognizable stigmatization following more modern wars. The tales from the time do tell about violent clashes between the Kavdlunait (Inuit word for foreigner) and the Skraelings (Norse word for savage). Recognizing that a stable community cannot be built while under constant attack, the sagas tell us the Norse simply left.

The Vikings may have had some direction from their Norse philosophers—maybe even Odin himself, contrary to Leif’s new found messiah…or just good common sense, like the complimentary proverbs on respectively cultivating and preserving a friendship:

A true friend

whom you trust well

and wish for his good will:

go to him often

exchange gifts

and keep him company.

            – Havamal

 

Go you must.

No guest shall stay

in one place forever.

Love will be lost

if you sit too long

at a friend’s fire.

            – Havamal

It was warm inside the re-created halls that Leif and crew burned to the ground a thousand years ago. The site itself is on the tippliest nub of the tip nub—the very northern edge of Newfoundland. The wind carried the cold of the sea ice, and five-foot deep snowpack remained as a reminder of winter. It was near freezing outside, but within the six-foot thick sod walls, we were welcomed and warmed.

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Sounding in the fog at L’Anse-Aux-Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

Because admission was free and I have made a point of proselytizing why that’s stupid, I wanted to make a point to pay my way and ensure a place like this doesn’t become a red line item in the budget that might as well be cut. Politicians use these sites the way they use anything else in their self-proclaimed jurisdiction. The Norse would have used Leif’s leap of faith to Vinland as a testament to their courage and knowledge of the world—the Trudeau government is using L’Anse-Aux-Meadows National Historic Site as a golden carrot. In two more years, six more years, ten more years (or however the election cycle shifts)…who knows where this tip nub falls.

Anyway, that’s all to say that I bought some shit. And I came away with a treasure: the Havamal, or The Words of the High One (the book itself was titled The Sayings of the Vikings).

If you are a collector of sacred books, or of written wisdom, or of eclectic ancient poetry, this may be the book you are missing. I hadn’t heard of the Havamal, but it has the reputation of being a northern compliment to the Tao Te Ching or the Vedas—so much so that it’s considered the ‘Wisdom of the North’.

That titled could be respectfully matched by the wisdom of the Dene, Inuit, or Sami. I wished I could have found more about the deeper history of the island’s first peoples, but it was sparse and usually more about conflict following contact rather than the ongoing lives of everyday people.

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An inukshuk in the Tablelands, probably left unceremoniously by tourists for a selfie (Newfoundland, Canada)

The Vikings made a point to be remembered. I guess that’s why they burned shit down. You know, for posterity.

There is something in the Havamal that goes beyond ethnicity—the blunt, pragmatic proverbs speak to a philosophy coloured by self-reliance, exploration, and presence. It is a philosophy that I may as well have heard from a rig hand in some remote northern camp. The Icelandic literary critic Matthias Vidar Saemundsson summarizes it better than I can:

“The ethics of the Havamal are above all rooted in belief in the value of the individual, who is nonetheless not alone in the world but tied by inextricable bonds to nature and society; to adherents of such a philosophy, the cycle of life was single and indivisible, the living world in all its manifestations formed a harmonious whole. Infringement upon nature struck at the root of a man’s own existence. In the old philosophy of the North, each individual was responsible for his own life, shaped his own fortune or misfortune, and created a life for himself from his own resources.”

This is not to say that Vikings were self-sustaining saints. They were brutal in their expansion efforts and enslaved people and generally made use of Europe’s most outstanding gift to humanity, their institutional inability to give a fuck, as long as they were getting what they felt entitled to. But the weather is brutal too. At these northern climates, it’s a challenge for naked apes. We all bow to the wind.

As I continued exploring Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, I was reminded of the philosophy of the North that Saemundsson refers to. I’ve seen it across Canada…progressively more pronounced as you get away from the southern centres that measure their success by looking further southward.

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Old fishing dock in Raleigh (Newfoundland, Canada)

Nanny & Poppy Hedderson knew that philosophy without ever having to crack open a book. It’s writ in the way the wind cuts through you. Or in the way that no one hears you scream out at sea. Or in the way that snow doesn’t care what you consider driveway or ditch. Or the way a stomach growls if the roads are closed and the grocery truck can’t visit your hamlet.

I am no Viking. I am native to nowhere. I can’t smelt bog iron and I can’t skin a caribou with nothing more than a sliver of rock. We are in a blessed time when so many of our survival needs are taken care of. We live in comfort, and as a result, we have time to quibble about identity politics. Which is fine on certain levels—however, the North reminds me that identity in itself is useless. You have to simply be capable and present. Anything else is a luxury.

The only luxury item I had was the broken suitcase in the van’s back seat. Not even realizing it until later, we approached this minor setback with the same fundamental approach used to get on when life was hard by the Natives, and the Vikings, and seemingly everyone before the most recent generations.

Back in Deer Lake the night before our flight, I made a trip to a hardware store to buy nylon rope and Gorilla tape. Like the Viking smelter who sat over the bog fire in Vinland, I sweated over my suitcase, reviewing my bondage knots and generously applying the tape like a cast.

2017-07-10 - Luggage Conclusion
The note read, “The clasps on this suitcase are BROKEN. If you need to open for security purposes, *please* secure it closed again.”

It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. At the luggage carousel upon our return, as others impatiently huffed and begrudgingly hoisted their luggage off the conveyor, I jumped in joy that my suitcase emerged in one piece. It was the smallest, most privileged victory for self-reliance. No one else cared.

He is truly wise

who’s travelled far

and knows the ways of the world.

He who has travelled

can tell what spirit

governs the man he meets.

            – Havamal

I Only Looked (James Bay, Victoria, B.C.)

There’s a house

that calls itself Superior

somewhere near Menzies Street—

 

It’s setback from the road,

a cold huff stuck in its lungs and

vines gnarled up the cedars that guard its Western false front—

 

Overgrown with weeds, maybe

a missed paint job or two (goddamn sea breeze),

it looked to me like the house from Jumanji—

 

They leave

the door

wide                              open

like an invite

but unspoken

 

And the soft steps

that I took

brought me                                      closer

but after all

I only looked

 

Canada 150 – Coast to Boundless Coast

I know patriot comes loaded with whatever hero narrative your country or culture loves and/or hates. For me, it’s somewhat of a slander. It comes with the kind of fanaticism that tears apart populations and upholds borders for the sake of a population’s “purity”.

But I guess in some vague definitions, I am a patriot. Don’t hold it against me. It doesn’t singularly define me—it just happens that I enjoy the expanse of land within the boundaries which enclose my country.

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Inukshuk stands on guard for thee (Northwest Territories)

The entire planet is equally beautiful (obv).  But the way humans have overlapped a political net over the globe, access to that entire planet isn’t always easy and is definitely never free. But for me, within Canada, it’s far easier and accessible (besides airfare, which everyone knows is the country’s biggest scam).

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A little less accessible part of Canada (Alberta Rockies)

It took a calendar and some serious pencil-and-eraser sketching to help me realize that over the two months straddling Canada’s 150th anniversary (July 1), a series of happenstances and conveniences will give me the opportunity to take in five provinces.

It’s so Canadian, you may call it a simple plan (I channeled Steve Patterson for that pun) (I’m also sorry). Two months split amongst British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and (the one I’ve yet to visit) Newfoundland.

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Newfoundland Police File Photo (Credit TV Tropes)

The itinerary isn’t sequential, of course. It’s haphazard enough to keep the suspense tuned to exhilaration. I live and work in two of the provinces regularly, so there is some mediocrity within the timeframe, but I’m on the road enough I can consider any week a trip.

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I can see right through Alberta to Saskatchewan

Winter is the hardest and most unreliable time to get around Canada, so it always makes sense that summers crush in a lot of regional tourist time. If I had my way, I would criss-cross the country in those two months behind the wheel. What’s ¬18,000 km between friends?

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Land of living daydreams (Saskatchewan)

I don’t have my way, which is probably a good thing in this case. Whether I get to see it kilometer by kilometer or not, I still value the freedom I have to travel so vastly, so freely. I know many people do not have that freedom. Some people reading this may not be able to escape beyond what you can search on the internet.

And those traps come from so many different fall-outs of that political netting, and some come from the fall-out of being human. Some people can’t leave their bedrooms because of what is happening within their own skull. Some people can’t leave their home because otherwise they would step into an urban warzone.

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Why leave your bedroom if you had a view like this? (Vancouver Island, B.C.)

With all this talk about boundaries in the news, I can appreciate why so many people cherish boundaries. It is the most practical way to conduct international relations in such a diverse planet. More than that, without the boundaries of the body or the mind, life in its most general sense likely would not persist.

Although I agree with Alan Watt’s aphorism that “Nature is always undifferentiated unity, not unified differences”, humanity’s perception tends towards the latter easier than the former. And that is where boundaries become so potent in the political sense. There is such emotion, such fear, because even if your skin becomes breached, you could be dead.

But being able to travel so widely and so freely—to be able to take in so many different cultures under the guise of one flag—belittles the notion of nationalist protectionism, for me. Many regions or provinces within Canada, as many other countries, have threatened to rise up and succeed, and rightfully so in certain cases. In the end, squabbles are put aside because anyone who experiences the value in being able to rove a mari usque ad mare (from the sea to sea) eventually figures out that fence lines are technicalities more than realities.

 

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Moss covered stone fence on the Eradour Path (Scotland)

 

I think the Scottish have a good sense of this. From what locals proudly told me, tramping across the countryside is perfectly legit as long as you’re respectful.

Which is perfectly respectable. Contrary to popular American myth, there are not droves of gypsies strung out across fields and city parks, waiting to steal jobs or blow up buildings, whichever comes faster.

The nefarious aside, I think all of us strives to break boundaries. Yogi and mystic Sadhguru often speaks about humanity’s calling to break boundaries—and how that possibility can so often become a pitfall.

The mystic in me agrees with Sadhguru. I prefer the boundless. I say, drop all the political, cultural, and personal boundaries. Then we might have the proper perspective to construct and manage these limitations.

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I lay my head alongside your rocky spine

Anyway, I am just super-appreciative that I get to roam from the Atlantic to the Arctic to the Pacific seas. There are enough thresholds to cross already—time zones, jurisdictional boundaries, cultural regions, language barriers, climate zones. But at least there are no walls in my way.

I want to know: Do you have the opportunity to experience your region, country, continent, planet? Is it important for you to be able to move freely?

What I want to know even more: What boundaries do you enjoy breaking? What boundaries do you cherish?

Break the boundary of space & time and comment below!

 

Somewhere Up Meander River Way

For the past couple weeks, in my part of the world, there has been a disheartening deep freeze. That damn “polar vortex”. Or for those whose memories stretch past this decade’s latest fad, or don’t care about feigning a peripheral knowledge of meteorology, it’s more cozily known as a “Canadian winter”.

Nationalities aside, we are talking about temperatures that are unfriendly to a hairless ape. At -25⁰C (-13⁰F) to -40⁰C (-40⁰F), the outside becomes intolerable very quickly. At the bottom of the range, the inside of your nostrils freeze, your eyelids feel cold, and your fingers become utterly useless unless they are bound in mitts or gloves.

The coldest wind chill I personally experienced was just below -50⁰C. But you don’t need to get to those extremes to empathize. The experiential difference between -25⁰C and -50⁰C is often negligible. It’s the difference of a few minutes of toleration. It’s fucking cold.

So when I am out, unable to feel my face, I often wonder what the hell all those pioneers were thinking. Who thought Europeanized “civilization” belonged in a place where the air hurts your skin?

And I think even more fundamentally about all the people who called the northernmost reaches of Turtle Island home for millennia.

For many First Nations, centuries of oppression and white-washing have rendered them not all that different than the paler naked apes who have flung their shit all over the place. Biologically speaking, it is difficult to discern whether aboriginal peoples are better equipped than any other human from any other continent to manage the cold. I am sure there are some epigenetic triggers from living in the northern environment generation after generation.

For the purposes of being equitable form the perspective of the overall energy system we consider an individual human being—there is biological adaptation, but no super-human difference (I am open to compelling evidence otherwise). Particularly after any cultural techniques to bear the cold were forcefully rubbed out by residential schools. Particularly after the environment that influenced those genetics for so long changed so quickly.

But where Wasichu have high-efficiency natural gas furnaces and pink insulation, First Nations often have woodstoves and plywood walls.

segó͔łį gots’ę jo͔ deneilé

“I lived here since I was born”

So my mind, detached from my frostbitten senses, goes to a Dene Tha’ community in northern Alberta, where earlier this year I was wandering around with hurt in my heart and a chill in my bones (my cold tolerance was lower then, the freezing point felt brutal).

I had Meander River, AB specifically marked as a stop on our road trip to the Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada. If you are travelling through Alberta, there are two ways into the Territories. The more travelled is Highway 35. Also known as the Mackenzie Highway, it heads north from High Level, AB (once poised as the new capital city of Canada II), until it turns into Highway 1 at the border but maintains its moniker until Fort Simpson, NWT.

Even Wikipedia notes Meander River, AB is a highway service centre on that route. Otherwise, there is a stretch of ~175 km (109 mi) between the gas stations in High Level and the gas station at Indian Cabins, which is the last stop for gas before Enterprise, ~100 km (62 mi) north.

If we could gas up in Meander River, we could get to our campsite in the NWT for the night, and gas up in nearby Enterprise the next morning. It was all set.

Dark was a few hours away, but it had been dim all day. Rained steady the day before. We woke to more of the same. As we crossed degrees of latitude the air became chillier and some of the rain became sleet. I fueled up in Fort Vermilion, AB and passed clean through bustling High Level.

It started raining again as soon as we hitched off the highway around bridge construction, through the red clay that lay underneath the dense forest we were starting to see more regularly. I knew I had 151 km (94 mi) to Meander River. Right around the sign that said 1 km Up Ahead I prepared myself.

And then I saw the 1 km Up Ahead sign again, in my sideview mirror. We passed no gas station, no highway service centre. I pulled over on an approach, rocking our 1973 Boler as I cranked us around to head south. I drove slower this time, and passed both signs for Meander River again without seeing so much as another vehicle on the highway.

I made another U-turn and decided to take the first unmarked road after the sign. There was another unmarked road further north. They were the only access points on the town’s side of the highway. I took us on a loop, trying to keep my bearings and hoping I didn’t run into any dead ends–turning the Boler around was a pain in the ass.

Behind an outcrop of trees we started seeing houses. They were large and spaced out. They weren’t surveyed on proper streets, it seemed, but their placements seemed to work. There were outcroppings of the town, undulating westwards to the Meander River.

This reserve was not unlike other reserves I had been on. It appeared neglected, with a noticeable need for up-keep. Siding was missing, windows were busted, shingles peeled, cars rusted, garbage clumped in tall grasses. There were cars at almost all the houses, but it felt like a ghost town.

The road I took looped us back to the Mackenzie Highway. At this northern access, there was the service centre. But where there would have been pavement or gravel or something to drive on, there was grass and weeds. The pumps stood in the middle of the clearing, white and shiny.

I parked on the road and took a walk around the abandoned gas station. The door to the store was locked. The windows were covered with plywood, except one. The interior was gutted. I checked the pumps. Their Measurement Canada inspection was still valid. The pumps looked hardly used.

The cold was making me paranoid. This was no place to spend the night, mostly because it would be below zero that night and we would feel it inside the un-insulated Boler. We would later find out from a woman in Hay River that they didn’t ever want to end up stranded on the Mackenzie Highway. Too many anecdotes of sexual assaults on that long, lonesome highway [Note: I wasn’t able to find anyway to link, though].

No gas at Meander River made this leg of the journey ~250 km (155 mi). That doesn’t sound so bad, but on a loaded crossover’s 55 L tank hauling a 1000 lb Boler with headwinds on the western jogs, it was cutting it a little closer than I liked. If there were troubles at Indian Cabins getting gas, we would have another ~100 km (62 mi) to Enterprise which we probably would not make.

Cell coverage was spotty. I could load a map, but not do much with it. I have done most of my travelling without the crutch of everything a Google search away, so it didn’t bother me. I was in a town and there was bound to be someone around that could help me.

So I left the car parked and went for a walk into Meander River. I could go north and check out some houses, but there were some on the same road I was on. So I started for the first house. There were four vehicles parked in front of the house. There was no noise from inside but I knocked anyway. When no one came to the door, I started to the next house.

On my way a black pick-up truck was coming down the road. I made eye contact with the driver and waved to him. He took a corner and disappeared.

Before I reached the next house, I could hear people. That was promising. There were no windows on the top floor, so I could track down the voices to a corner room. There must have been about a half dozen people. They were shouting at each other. Screaming, and it didn’t sound like anyone was listening. The television played infomercials on full blast, filling in the space of what sounded like a party.

There was a thin bed sheet that looked like it was meant to cover the window, but it did nothing. Half of it hung out the window, the rest of it barely attached to the rod. The icy rain blew into the room, and still they all shouted like it was just another Saturday afternoon in Meander River.

I tried to outdo their roar. I shouted Hello! and Yo! and Can I get some help? and Anyone there?

That last question seemed stupid. No one was there. At least not for me.

I eventually found someone on a bicycle, who felt safest shouting at me across a patch of tall grass that was too wet for either of us to cross. She was perfectly fine with me not getting any closer. She was already on her bicycle and heading away before she finished explaining that I couldn’t get gas until Indian Cabins.

On my way back to the vehicle, I passed the house with no windows. They were no quieter. I tried to get their attention again. I wanted to ask them about the windows. If they were planning on replacing them. It was only fall, things would get colder. What would they do in January? What happened to all the snow that came in through the windows? Were they okay? Was there anything I could do?

That last question seemed stupid. Of course they were not okay. And there was nothing I could do.

Things became colder, of course. Like, 40⁰C colder. In that cold, when each icy breath rasps the back of my throat, and my hands became bricks, and frost starts to build on my eyelashes, I think back to that house with no windows in Meander River.

The memory doesn’t stop the cold. Doesn’t help my sunless mood, either. Whether I shunt reality or try to embrace it, I have to live through it all the same. And maybe that was what they were doing in that house that afternoon. They were living through it, all the same. Heat-trapping windows be damned.

On Where to Stick Your Free Parks Canada Discovery Pass

WARNING: This blog entry contains unapologetically elitist opinions. Reasonable arguments are included, but I’m going to make you read through my opinion first.

About a week ago, Canadian news reported that the Parks Canada website had crashed when traffic overwhelmed its servers. The reason for the traffic? The free Discovery Pass up for grabs in 2017.

The Liberal government announced that, as part of its platform and in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, national parks and historic sites would be free for every Canadian citizen. It was a very minor platform plank, something to tout Canadian heritage and maybe win over some newer Canadians who feel disconnected with the natural abundance of our great landscape.

A minor platform plank—but for me, this was a sticking point. And it still is.

Before the 2015 election, my father and I were standing in Banff National Park, waiting for the Canada Day parade. He offhandedly brought up this policy idea. I didn’t even have to tell him how stupid of a platform plank that was. He just had to look around.

For those not in the know, Canada Day is probably the worst time to visit the mountain parks. The crowds become mobs, drivers become the me-first-and-fuck-you-very-much kind of motorists you find in any city, and the roadside attractions become mere backdrops for narcissistic selfies. I put up with the parade for my parents. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be within earshot of the place.

In brief, the Banff townsite becomes a diorama of everything I find sad about modern society. And the Liberal government only wants to proliferate this tragic diorama.

Let me unpack that statement a little. I am no old stock Canadian, fearful of immigrants starting to infiltrate parks and historical sites. Despite that—or at least, despite the image propagated by the Liberal government—I am an avid outdoorsman, hopelessly devoted to the Canadian landscape.

That doesn’t mean I am the best at everything outdoors, or that I have fancy expensive equipment. In fact, I pack lo-fi gear as a rule. My friends ask for gear tips for the backcountry, and I have nothing to offer them.

Quite frankly, you only need two things to enjoy nature: the capacity to be present, and a will to survive.

And let’s face it. Our society has a massive attention deficit problem. As a culture, we do not have the capacity to be present. It’s just not a value that is promoted. Even the Lululemon aphorisms or optimistic Instagram quotes about ‘staying in the moment’ are bullshit lip service. The true capacity to remain focused, and to maintain that focus for a prolonged period, is very difficult.

I don’t claim to have this capacity any more than you. But I sure do value it. And our national parks, typically being the largest, wildest places a public citizen can visit, offer a brilliant opportunity to practice. There’s no better place to get in touch with your animalistic nature than being wildly unprepared in a place that offers no help, no comfort, no easy way out.

Trudeau sees—or so he says—an opportunity for new and old Canadians alike to get to know their country. What does that mean, in our current cultural mode, for a place like Banff National Park? It means more commercial properties, more roads so we don’t have to actually walk, more intrusion, more fragmented ecosystems, more big name brand stores so you can shop for the same shit you would buy in any suburban mall—but with a mountain in the background!

National Geographic had a lengthy look this year at how this same model operates in Yellowstone National Park. With the intent to try to infuse nature back into our lives, we impose our lives on that very nature and hope that seeing it in small glimpses out the side of a tour bus will be the placebo we need.

I will say, from personal experience, this opera glass experience is useless. If you go into the wild and don’t break a sweat, or feel lost, or get the minutest sense that all your synthesized identities are a facade of the mind, to convince itself it is something other than nature—forgetting you are nature—well, you might as well throw in an episode of Planet Earth in between binge-watching the newest season of Fuller House.

That’s my elitism about it. No Kardashians allowed, basically.

Now for a little more reason.

It is easy to forget that little over a year ago, Canadians had a very different federal government. Not only was our national leader a lot less prone to selfies, he had a fundamentally different approach to our natural resources. For the Harper regime, Parks Canada was just another department that needed to cut its budget…you know, so Harper could spend money saving Christians and advertising about how great it is.

Since 2012, Parks Canada had its budget drastically cut, seeing 600 jobs lost, winter service suspended for many locations, and a doubling of entry rates. More than $27M was cut from the 2014/2015 budget, even though Parks Canada identified a $2.8B backlog of maintenance and repair work for its buildings in “poor and very poor” condition. At the same time, Parks Canada generated $3.3B for the economy, spread across 400 communities in the country. And still, Harper let it bleed out.

Now, after all these cuts, the Trudeau government is throwing open the gates. Harper starved the beast, and now Trudeau is putting it on display in a cage.

Revenues account for ~25%  of Parks Canada’s permanent budget, with approximately half of this revenue from entry fees. This ~12.5% will need to be accounted for by the federal government, so in a way, we’re all paying anyway. But what’s worse is that the use of government funding is notoriously inefficient. Generated revenues are probably the most carefully spent 25% of the budget. Will this be the same when it’s coming from government coffers?

That doesn’t matter to Trudeau and Catherine McKenna, because they obsess that the experience isn’t accessible. How is a decimated public service going to be any more accessible to people? How is overcrowding and development of a wild area going to help that? Should this experience be easily accessible?

Liberal MP John Aldag, formerly in parks management, put it best: “[…] when you do have crowding conditions, it impacts the entire visitor experience and it can have ecological or cultural integrity impacts.” The current visitor experience manager for Banff National Park echoed these concerns.

Aldag’s solution? “In some ways, it’s managing visitor experience.”

Oh ok, great. So in order to gain an experience of our national parks and historic sites, we have to compromise that experience. That makes a lot of sense.

Overall, this minor opinion won’t change a minor policy. So I am appealing to you, dear Reader.

Sure, take advantage of whatever bonus the government is providing. They are few and far between. But don’t be an asshole about it. Go to the parks, see the sites, but leave some of your civilization at home. Park your car (if you can find parking), leave behind your entitlement for comfort and convenience, and try to immerse yourself in our natural wonder.

Value that experience that can’t be had anywhere else. You can manage your own experience, without compromise, without the government patting you on the back and saying “You’re a real Canadian now!” Make this more than a reprise of a Black Friday sale.

 

Think radicals like me shouldn’t have so much to say about Parks Canada? Then get in on this federal consultation on the Parks Canada Agency Act, because you’re fucking right that I’m bringing my opinion: http://www.letstalkparkscanada.ca/

A Time for National Pride, Maybe (World Cup)

I

I am not a nationalist by any stretch. I used to be, when I was a kid. I would be like one of those over-happy actors in hockey play-off beer commercials, covered in gaudy maple leaf paraphernalia and swooning over anything remotely Canadian.

And, being the good bi-polarist I have been training to be my whole life, I was just as proud of being of Argentinian heritage. I waved the flag and was covered in sky blue-and-white when my mother and a number of other immigrants I only remember in photographs marched in some Toronto park during the final match of World Cup 1990, when Argentina was defeated by West Germany.

But I took leave of my nationalism, somewhere around the time when I became a psychedelic universal citizen, a human “in the world but not of the world”—an accumulation of star dust in this dimension of quantum vibrations. And I despised nationalism. I often quipped the quote I long thought was Freud’s, until I just looked it up to reference it now: “Nationalism is a form of collective narcissism” (Bryant McGill). And for a boy seeking egoless integration with the Void, narcissism was an enemy.

But now I am further integrating—as much as I am uncomfortable with Hegelian dialectic it keeps coming up in my thought, such as this one—the antipodes of my moods meet in the middle to synthesize a hybrid where I realize national borders are fundamentally bullshit…but in the same way I will small talk with a co-worker despite my dread clouding this empty talk, I will be a proud nationalist. I will wave a flag. I will swoon during Olympic hockey games and World Cup football games. I will get a maple leaf and an Argentine sun tattooed on my body. These are symbols of my identity that, no matter how far-out mystic I get, will always be a part of my unconscious symbology.

 

II

And what better time to become an ugly nationalist than World Cup? Argentina is poised to perform strongly in 2014, and in my opinion, will finish in the top four along with Brazil, Germany, and Spain.

And what better country to be a hard-headed patriot than Argentina? Their national character is inundated with pride. The greatest insult is to burn the flag, and it is high treason to suggest the Malvinas—or as those damn dirty English call it, the Falklands—are anyone’s but Argentina’s.

But beyond these easy surface stereotypes which can be found in any country, it occurred to me in my travels to my mother’s native land that pride is engrained in the social fabric. As gossipy and whiny as Argentines are of their politicos (what some call ‘political consciousness’), it is bad form to actually portray the country in negative light.

The government runs two news channels and continually portrays the country as the gem of the South American continent. “Lies and propaganda,” my Tio Beto told me. “If you want to see the real news, you watch the independent channel.”

Just one channel and it is a torrent of negative media covering anything from flooding to robberies to riots and rapes. A kiosquiero was robbed by gun point. Unmentioned by the state-run media, but covered like the greatest indignity by the independent channel.

“I can’t watch it,” my other Tio Jose Luis tells me of the independent channel, sitting back in the kitchen chair opposite the twenty-inch TV playing a River Plate game. Every few moments a government ad comes on the TV, spewing a slogan for one Ministry or another.

Sunday in the early afternoon as Tia Ana is preparing a hearty asado in the backyard, cousin Lily comes to visit for a few moments. There are about a dozen people milling around the kitchen, kissing, hugging and grabbing squares of pastafrola off the kitchen table while a maté makes its rounds. She hasn’t seen me for 20 years, like everyone else, and she asks about family first and foremost. But then she moves on—because, of course every is doing fine, they are in Canada.

“Why the hell would you come here?”

“Lily…” cousin Luis Emilio tries to temper her.

“No, but really. Everyone here would love to go there, and these kids come here. To see what? The crumbling concrete and the graffiti? What a disaster.”

“It’s not that bad…”

“Oh no? There are people living in rags and even if you make money you might as well burn it’s worth nothing. There are criminals running the street, and worse, they run the police too. You wake up one morning and your car is gone. Or worse, you get a bullet to the back of the head.”

“Ay! Lily! What the hell, you’re just telling these kids all these horror stories,” my cousin Rosanna says. And her sentiment is echoed throughout the room. Lily doesn’t stay long, she has to get back home. She is uncomfortable anywhere outside a security system, and even then, I can tell she is a nervous wreck. After she leaves they tell me she has been robbed three times in the last month. But they tell me hushedly, like saying it aloud would call the robbers to them.

But would the robbers get through the bars on the windows or the heavy ceramic vase positioned carefully behind the door? Would the retired police dogs in Tio Norberto’s yard scare away a stick-up kid?

Tia Matilde invites us over for supper on Sunday night. Her house is two or three blocks away. It’s warm by our Canadian standards and we would like to walk, but no one will let us. It’s getting dark. Tio Norberto comes just to drive us. On the way we circle to the house where my grandparents lived, where my mom grew up. About a block away from Tia Matilde’s, people crowd the street. A cop for decades, Norberto pulls up and asks one of his cousins what happened.

“That guy went to get in his car, and two guys came up behind him, smashed him on the head and stole his car.”

“Son of a bitch…” Norberto says. “And I was just telling the kids how tranquil this neighbourhood is.”

“But yeah. Of course!” this unnamed cousin insists, leaning into the car to shake my hand.

 

III

The only person who was straight-up with me was my Tio Beto. He is a retired butcher turned massage therapist to pay his bills. He drove us to the airport and we chatted for an hour over a café cortado before the check-in counter opened.

“Argentina had the opportunity to be great. It still has the opportunity to be great. But not when you have the negroes. And you know, my daughter gives me a hard time, because she thinks I am talking about black skin. But I’m not. I mean negro in here,” he holds a finger to his temple. “People are frustrated, but they don’t want to face the problems. They make a fix here, a patch there, and everything is fine. But the problems grow and grow. We need antiseptic, not a bandage. But people are too proud to actually change anything. They want to think that nothing is happening, that everything is going to be fine next year.”

There is a dark side to nationalistic pride, of course, beyond the narcissism. For Argentina, for now, it is ignorance. In Canada, it is a desperate grapple with a nebulous national identity, and on certain topics, that same ignorance (“If you don’t like it here, go somewhere else!” vs. “Yes, that’s a problem, let’s deal with it”).

There is a dark side, and not just in nationalism’s extreme, fascism. Even in something benign like the World Cup, there is something sinister about the Colombian defender Andres Escobar getting shot to death after an own-goal in the 1994 tournament. There is something surreal about people throwing bags of piss on the field. There is something downright absurd when the hundred or so people in Centennial Park stadium in quiet, affluent Etobicoke start to bubble into riot-mode as the two under-21 soccer teams representing Latino countries forget the match to rumble on the field.  And my Abuelo closes his hand over my head and guides me out of the stadium, telling me to forget the locos, the crazies, the people back there looking for trouble. “Eh chico? Come, Abuela will warm us up some empañadas.”

 

[ END ]