Monday, July 09, 2007

Whoa, Canada — Part I: Red Money, Red Braids, Red Dirt, and Red Faces

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I have a grandmother who lives in Canada, a cute little Portuguese Vavó who after three decades still sends me money for my birthday and Christmas. Twice a year, she sends cards, and money that’s blue and red and violet. On the bills are faces of Canadians who I’m guessing are famous for some reason or other.

For years, I’ve been keeping the money in an envelope locked inside a fireproof safe in a closet, next to my funeral shoes.

It occurred to me one day recently that I should count it, on the theory that in case Mitt Romney wins the presidency I’ll know how long my wife and I can live in Canada before we need to find an ATM. I had no idea how much was in my stash — I assumed maybe $300.

I dug out the envelope. It smelled like an attic trunk. I weighed in my palm an inch-thick wad of colorful bills.

All told, it came to $867.

Most of it was in greenish-beige $20s with Queen Elizabeth II’s face on them.

I strewed them across the bedspread and rolled on them for a while, like a dog on squirrel shit.

I called my wife in. She peeked her head through the door.

“Let’s go to Canada!” I said.



Gable-ready

My wife and I decided to spend a week on Prince Edward Island, which is Canada’s smallest and, therefore, cutest province. Go to New Brunswick, swim east and you can’t miss it.

We chose PEI for two reasons:

(1) My wife and I like to ride bikes. The island contains almost 200 kilometers of bicycle trails with spectacular vistas of rolling green hills, farmland, seashore and quaint villages; and,

(2) The “Anne of Green Gables” books take place there.

My wife has read the books. I haven’t myself, but PBS plays the movies every so often on rainy Saturday afternoons. In the series of young adult novels by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne is a young, headstrong, redheaded, adopted farm girl fond of straw hats. She becomes a writer, but her work is often rejected. I watch the movies and get pointedly emotional, marveling at how they could have gotten my life story so right. Also, the scenery looks nice.

My wife and I were oiling up our bike chains for the trip.

“Do you suppose they welcome you like they do in Hawaii — except when you get to the island, some lady in red braids greets you and puts a straw hat on your head?” I said.

“They could,” she said.

“With fake red braids attached to it?”

“That’d just be silly.”

“Yeah,” I said, looking away quickly with a catch in my voice. “I guess so.”



The road

So we sent the dogs to a kennel, packed up our bikes, and early one morning prepared to make the 11-hour drive from Fall River, north and east through Maine and New Brunswick.

We were incredibly excited about this part of the trip. For snacks, my wife and I bought $30 worth of chips and $2 worth of bananas. I loaded up the car’s CD changer with jazz. And the scenery! We got to cross the Zakim Bridge in Boston! We saw a store in New Hampshire where you can buy booze and fireworks! With no sales tax! Cool road signs! “Watch For Falling Rocks”!

We were all chatty.

“You never see any falling rocks, though,” I said to my wife. “Just once, it’d be nice to.”

“Keep the camera ready in case!” she said. She stuck out her tongue while she drove. I put a chip on it.

Five hours later, we were still slogging through Maine, through some of the loneliest, most slack-jawed country we’d ever seen. We were becoming nauseated from the chips and sleepy from the jazz. The only stops along miles of hilly, empty Maine road were gas stations with a single rusty 1950s-era pump, near dilapidated shacks looking like they housed serial killers or militia groups or inbred survivalists living off mung beans and distilled rainwater. Our enthusiasm for the road congealed into a thick, numbing gravy that I imagined I could hear sloshing around inside our skulls.

“Ub,” I said somewhere around Hour Six.

“Mmpf,” my wife said.

Three hours after that, at an indeterminate point inside New Brunswick, I saw some kind of animal by the roadside. I couldn’t be bothered to focus my eyes. I tried to raise the camera but found I’d become far, far too sluggish.

“Bluh,” my wife said.

“Fffh,” I said.



The colors of PEI

Eventually, we came to the 8-mile-long Confederation Bridge that leads to PEI. We became chatty again while we crossed, looking out over the water, and then we drove along the Trans-Canada Highway to our hotel.

“Wow!” I said, snapping a picture of a vast, breathtaking field of PEI’s unique orange-red soil.

Potatoes were growing there. Potatoes, we would soon find out, grow everywhere there.

“I’ve never seen anything like it!” my wife said. “It’s so beautiful!”

The colors seemed extra bright after half a day spent staring at forest, tarmac and marshland. The soil’s deep reds! The foliage’s lush greens! The sky’s rich ceruleans! The potato-processing factory’s magnificent beiges! The mobile homes’ imposing beiges!

But I couldn’t get over the soil. Acres and acres of tilled bright red earth stretched before us, looking uncannily like those NASA images of the Martian surface, except with more pickup trucks parked out front.

“I’ve got to grab some shots of these landscapes!” I said to my wife. “I want to always remember seeing this for the first time!”

I like to use an old manual camera, and went berserk focusing and refocusing on the horizon. I used every f-stop on my lens. Sweat pooled around my temples in the rush of creation. I became slightly deranged, zooming and finding dramatic angles and snapping off a whole roll of film.

“Got everything?” my wife said, traffic having slowed to a crawl behind our car.

I couldn’t speak, still awed by the colorful vistas I had captured. Then I rewound the camera, popped open the back, and removed the film. I’d been shooting in black and white.



Life all around us

PEI is the kind of place where, all around you, you can feel life teeming. On the streets of the capital, Charlottetown, everyone seemed to know everyone else, greeting each other in that Canadian accent where all sentences end in a question mark. The air is clean and crisp, and plants flourish on almost every spare surface. Every farm smells hearty, and they’re all bustling with cows and horses and colts.

A long and gorgeous bike trail snakes through most of PEI. My wife and I decided to see PEI up close for ourselves.

To get to the bike trail from our hotel, we had to cross about a half-mile of hot mall parking lot, during which several Canadians tried to drive over us for points. Then, we had to run across a four-lane highway. After that, we rode through an industrial park or something. There were concrete ingots.

But after that, it was smooth riding! My wife and I rode for hours along the gravel-paved trail, past potato farms on one side and potato farms on the other, and once, a large dump truck full of potatoes.

“I like kilometers,” my wife said as we passed the 25th kilometer sign. “They go much faster than miles. Why don’t we use kilometers again?”

“Because Americans are stupid,” I said, just as we pulled into the quaint village of Hunter River. We’d ridden about 16 miles — it was shaping up to be the longest ride I’d ever taken, and I felt fantastic. My allergies were gone, I felt strong, and I had gone several days in Canada without hijacking even a single ketchup chip delivery truck.

We stopped our bikes and enjoyed the view. An old Canadian guy walked past us and we both said, “Nice day.”

“Let’s go back,” my wife said.

About a mile heading back, my wife’s bike got a flat tire. We pulled over and she inspected the tire tube. There was no hole in it. We also hadn’t brought a spare.

“Crap. I think the air valve is leaking,” my wife said.

I saw that it was bent. “I’ll pump it a little to see if I can get some air in there,” I said.

I put the pump on the air valve and it snapped off. The tire farted contentedly and then sat there, empty.

“Boy,” I said.

We stared at each other for a while, sweating, and did some quick, silent calculations. It immediately became very, very hot.

“It’s 15 miles back,” I said.

We glanced up and down the bike trail. Suddenly, nobody was around. No one at all.

“I have to pee,” my wife said.


Read the second half of Dan’s Canadian adventure next week.

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