Post Road Magazine #15

Conquest, Tourism, and Eternal Canadian Rapture

by Stephen Ausherman

Part One

The Gaspé: A Report from the Committee of Patriots for Truthful Intelligence

Americans are at a loss to explain Canadian superiority. We invaded in 1775 and 1812, failing in both efforts to conquer our northern enemies. They seem not only indestructible, but also interminably cheerful, able to tolerate a host of woes in the most dismal times.

In 1934, five years into the Great Depression, an unlikely tourist attraction rose from the farmland near North Bay, Ontario. The jaunty draw was a hospital, Dafoe Hospital, also known as Quintland. Built to accommodate the Dionne quintuplets, this medical facility soon grew into Canada’s most popular destination, raking in half a billion dollars from its three million visitors. And for the better part of a decade five bundles of joy supplied their fellow countrymen with infectious bliss.

Also in 1934, two Connecticuters set out to explore the Gaspé, Quebec’s rugged tongue of land between the Saint Lawrence River and Chaleur Bay. Artist Putnam Brinley and his wife, Kathrine Gordon Brinley, traveled for two months on this peninsula, where the neck bones of the mighty Appalachians bow into the frigid gulf waters.

Kathrine recounts the minutiae of their jaunt in her odd travelogue, Away to the Gaspé. Throughout the book she repeats one detail with chilling regularity: Gaspesians are totally gay. Again, the year is 1934, so of course she means gay in the jolly and exuberant sense of the word. The Quebec maritime is not a land of queer wanton lust, but rather the happiest place on Earth.

Seventy years after the Brinleys’ tour of the Gaspé, I began mine and sensed at once an inexplicable aura of complete joy. But the eerie similarities don’t end there, as I would discover months later when I compared her travelogue with my own journal.

.           .           .

Brinley, pages 66–67: There are many legends and stories about Bic, and particularly about the two islands in the river. One is known as Massacre Island, because of a bloody Indian battle between the Hurons and the Iroquois. . . . Even recently human bones have been dug up in the rock quarries on this fateful island.

Ausherman, June 24, parc national du Bic: Jean-François struggles with his English to convince us that his kayak expeditions are completely safe. “We are prepared for casualties,” he says in his charming Quebecois accent. He thinks a moment, then adds: “Casualties is the correct word, no?”

Um, no. At least I hope not.

He apologizes for the limits of his English, but then quickly reminds us that today is Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, the Fête nationale du Québec. “We must all speak French today,” he jokes.

French, my ass. The Gauls wouldn’t tolerate his amiable charade for two minutes.

We launch our kayaks into the calm, chilly Saint Lawrence off the coast of Bic National Park . . . and paddle out past Massacre Island, where the water turns choppy, then toward Cape Enrage, where curious seals join our tour. I’m inclined to explore more unusual names on the map—such as le Chocolat and baie du Ha-ha!—but eight miles are about all the others can manage for a morning paddle.

Brinley, page 100: Suddenly I saw a long red fox sneaking among the charred stumps and logs. He was headed for the road, but sensing us, he turned and ran. There was no time to shoot him, camera-wise.

Ausherman, June 25, réserve faunique de Matane: The trail is a spongy shag of moss and tangles of tree roots. It bridges salmon rivers and twists past waterfalls. Evidence of big game is in the air and on the ground. The Matane Wildlife Reserve is home to the greatest concentration of moose in Quebec, with nearly four large cervids for every square mile. We spy two of them sloshing down a muddy road. I take aim and shoot repeatedly. I also shoot hares, woodchucks, spruce grouse, and white-tailed deer, but the results are disastrous. I need a better camera.

Brinley, pages 94–95: M. Blanchette was there with pretty, seventeen-year-old Thérèse and gay little Madeleine. . . . Thérèse took the chair next to the gramophone. She put on a disk. . . . Then the music began; dance music. . . . I could stand it no longer and since everyone was in a jolly state of mind, I got up. . . .

“Come, Thérèse,” said I, “let us dance.”

Ausherman, June 25 (cont.): Our group has succumbed to a strange giddiness. Maybe jouncing along a forty-five-mile dirt road through the Matane has addled our brains. Or it could be the traditional Quebec maritime music: chanteys that evoke images of francophone pirates jamming on accordions, fiddles, and washboards. Whatever the reason, we feel younger and charged with inexplicable energy.

Brinley, pages 132–33: The sea disappeared and we were in country that might have been Switzerland. . . . We rounded a turn and passed a little steep-roofed and towered English church on a knoll, surrounded by spruce trees and looking as though it had been dropped there out of Norway.

Ausherman, June 27–28, parc national de la Gaspésie: We hike to a glacial cirque that appears to belong to another mountain range. The snow-patched granite peak on the far side of a crystalline lake looks like a chunk of the French Alps gone AWOL. I check my map to confirm we’re still in the Appalachians. We are. And the lake is clearly marked as lac aux Américains. We’re still on the right side of the ocean.

Other vistas in the park resemble the barren hills of Wales or English lake country, only without the crowds. One peak, the tundra-topped mont Jacques-Cartier, appears to belong to another planet. Here on the windswept crest of rock immense beauty grows on a minuscule scale. The biggest flower blossoms are the size of a fly’s wingspan, and ancient trees imitate banzai masterpieces.

Brinley, pages 157–58: The Duchess drew out a bit of violet-colored stone. In it, lines of deeper color were indented in a design resembling the backbone of a fish.

“A trilobite, and a good one!” I exclaimed. . . . “This little fellow was about the earliest camper on earth, wasn’t he? Paleozoic, anyway.”

“I know,” [replied the Duchess], “. . . but I’m merely telling you the fun a simple-minded female can have wandering along South Beach.”

Ausherman, June 28, parc national de Miguasha: I lope along the estuary of the Restigouche River, smashing open rocks upon rocks like a caveman, all in a desperate attempt to find a fossil. Meanwhile, Theresa employs a small hammer to chip open a few stones and miraculously reveal perfect imprints of shrimp. They’re thoroughly unremarkable until our guide identifies them as something out of the Devonian era.

So just like that, Theresa has discovered further evidence of life far older than dinosaurs. And suddenly she’s strutting around like God’s gift to paleontology, while I’m still hoarding rocks like a covetous chimp. In the span of an hour I have become a perfect illustration of evolution in reverse.

Brinley, pages 137–38: Ever since our first trip to Bonaventure Island to see the bird colonies I had wanted to go back to make drawings of the rock formations of the cliffs. . . . The gulls soon discovered me and told me in emphatic language that they would not allow any intrusions of their island home. Hundreds of them flew screeching around me till I thought their cries would drive me crazy.

Ausherman, June 29, parc national de l’Île-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé: We’ve just stumbled across a colony of northern gannets, cottony seabirds with butterscotch heads and Egyptian eyes, six-foot wingspans and beaks like tin shears. They are big and fearless birds, the largest of the boobies, and two or three together in your path can pose a formidable obstacle. We’re now facing more than 70,000 of these winged beasts, with more in the air and over the horizon. Add to that an additional population of nearly 200,000 other seabirds, including razorbills, gulls, kittiwakes, and puffins, and you begin to get a sense of the crowd on the dizzying cliffs at the southeastern rim of the island. I feel like Tippi Hedren.

Brinley, page 114: Boiled potatoes, boiled dried codfish, home-baked bread and tea, made a good meal.

Ausherman, June 30, Gaspé: I passed on my last chance to try poutine, Quebec’s native concoction of french fries, turkey gravy, and cheese curds. Also passed on the KFC, known here as le PFK (Poulet Frit Kentucky). Lost appetite resulting from a recent diet of smoked salmon carpaccio, maple-glazed duck breast, pan-seared rabbit, caribou medallions, pan-fried cod tongue, sweetbread, and day after day of poissons frais, délicieux fruits de mers et savoureuses grillades.

Brinley, page 189: We gazed in silence across the Bay of Chaleur to the gray-blue headland. All the joy of our two months there swept over me as I watched the cloud shadows play upon it.

Ausherman, June 30, Gaspé Airport: I don’t understand why I’ve been so damn happy for the past eight days. It seems pathological, maniacal . . . except now the thought of leaving fills me with dread.

.           .           .

Kathrine Gordon Brinley returned to Canada to pen Away to Cape Breton, Away to the Canadian Rockies and British Columbia, and Away to Quebec: A Gay Journey to the Province. By all accounts, the entirety of Canada is totally gay—again, in the jolly and exuberant sense of the word.

It’s all too easy to equate their character with the happiness of idiots, but don’t be fooled. It goes beyond innocuous cheer. To complicate matters further, they seem immune to the severe giddiness of the Danes. Therefore, we cannot assume that the Canadian problem will resolve itself in the foreseeable future.

As my research demonstrates, the situation remains the same after seventy years, strongly suggesting that Canadians exist in a state of eternal rapture. Such a condition helps explain their high resistance to dismal situations and military invasions.

Conclusion: to conquer them, we must first find a way to sully their mood.

Part Two Cape Breton: Canadian Rapture

On a Cape Breton highway southeast of Mabou something seemed amiss, and neither Betsy nor I could pin it down. The road narrowed as it wound through rolling farmland, haunting in its darkness. Where the map indicated a major thoroughfare, asphalt gave way to gravel. We drove on.

In an instant headlights charged the rearview mirror; seconds later glaring red taillights blinked out in a dusty plume.

As we crested a hill, an ancient stand of trees to our left gave way to open fields. At that moment a single light flashed in the corner of my eye. It was round and bright, about how I imagine an oncoming locomotive would look in the last moment before broadside impact.

A moment later I realized it was only the moon. Though two nights past full, it shined brighter than any I’d seen, illuminating silos and farmhouses at the far edges of hayfields. It shimmered in the vales. It didn’t seem to follow us so much as stalk circles around us. It dipped behind the treetops only to reemerge in the dell. Sometimes it appeared to lope across the road before us, like a wild animal that waits to cross a lonely highway by the light of oncoming traffic.

The moon’s behavior that night was a testament to the twisted nature of the road we traveled. Without so much as a sign or change in width or grade, it forked off and dead-ended at darkened barns and farmhouses. We backtracked and doubled back and wondered if we’d been driving in circles.

Up ahead a light on a utility pole cast a green fluorescent glow over the graveyard of an anonymous church, and that’s where our dirt highway ended. We paused at a T-bone junction in the penumbra of cemetery light. On the far side of the crossroad stood the landmark we’d been told to look out for: a parking lot full of cars. We’d expected to find maybe a dozen or so, but close to a hundred vehicles jammed the lot.

The evening’s attraction: a square dance. Here in Glencoe Mills that’s a major attraction. Two public buildings occupy Glencoe Mills, three if there is an actual mill in the vicinity. Perhaps there was one long ago. It seemed like the kind of place where the elderly grieved for loved ones lost in a great mill fire. Once upon a time they also had a schoolhouse. That single-room structure now functioned as a dance hall.

We joined a procession prowling down the road for a space alongside a weedy ditch. Back in the lot, men gathered in the shadows, a wisp of whisky and murmurs of drought buzzing about them. Children ran free and shrieking. A teenage boy, shy fifty cents of the $5.50 admission, implored his mother for half a loon.

The wooden schoolhouse steamed and rumbled. Betsy and I sidewinded through the damp crowd and pressed up to a bar that served pop and snacks. We ordered a Sprite, then braced our backs against a wall near the exit.

The music gained momentum. The girl on stage couldn’t have been older than twelve, but she rubbed her fiddle like she wanted to start a fire. She moved people. They danced in unison, as though responding to a caller we couldn’t hear. They knew when to bow to their partner and when to promenade. The scuffed wooden floor buckled under the stomp and clobber of their boots and basketball shoes.

They danced, they clapped. Young and old alike, mixing and mingling without shame. They sweated and laughed and whooped in rhapsody. I’d never seen a crowd so jacked up on fiddles and pop. An ecstatic vibe swept through their souls as though, any moment now, they might speak in tongues or sprout fangs and shift into werewolves.

Betsy and I waited for someone to draw us out. I wondered how we’d keep from getting trampled, when, obeying signals we still couldn’t detect, the dancing regiment changed directions. I worried about how awkward we’d feel searching for the rhythm, and how long they’d try to keep us out there, if they’d be insulted when we gave up trying.

But it didn’t happen like that. Nobody talked to us. Nobody even looked our way.

Perhaps, in the throes of ecstasy, they’d lost certain senses of hospitality. I might say they were impolite. Something was more than amiss that night. We’d entered an alternate reality, a disturbing world where the moon runs in unpredictable circles and Canadians are slightly rude.

Ostensibly, they appropriated Disney’s christening formula, except that the first brick in the Magic Kingdom had yet to be laid. In that respect they beat us by exactly twenty years.

The author poses a bit of a sex mystery for unsuspecting readers. I presumed the author was male. The name appears on the book as Gordon Brinley, and the narrator assumes the persona of an unnamed artist with a vaguely romantic interest in his traveling companion, “the Duchess.” Intrigued, I poked around Trinity College archives and discovered the records of Kathrine Gordon Brinley, a Chaucerian drag king and outspoken advocate for women’s rights. This led me to the immediate conclusion that her deliberate vagueness on romance was a subversive device to cloak a torrid lesbian affair. This theory soon shriveled in light of her marriage to artist Putnam Brinley. It then became clear that she’d assumed his identity for the first-person narrator and portrayed herself in the third person as the so-called Duchess. Letters from her publishers, all addressed to Mr. Gordon Brinley, further implicate her in additional incidents of identity/gender swapping. Apparently her elaborate charade was necessary because few in the book industry at the time regarded women as capable authors of travel guides.

Denmark leads the world in per capita deaths caused by giddiness. Canadians, however, have so far survived all known cases stemming from giddiness-related complications. (Source: World Health Organization Mortality Database, 2005)

 

Stephen Ausherman is the author of Fountains of Youth, a novel, and Restless Tribes, an award-winning collection of travel stories. He was the 2005 Writer-in-Residence for Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming and Buffalo National River in Arkansas. Visit his site at restlesstribes.com

 

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