Wordcarpenter Books
 Road Sailors

31

"The gentleman understands what is moral.

The small man understands what is profitable." - Confucius

I'm winded by the massacre and butchery by Inge, perhaps spooked by some spiritual force or medicine. Nothing I can do about it and I remind myself that it was Remy's idea to put my dog in his camper. Now facing the task of finding my writer's cabin on my own, I pick up my rig and arrange to go see an old friend. He tells me to come over and that another old friend of mine will be there.

When I arrive I think I'm at the wrong house because it's so massive. My guess is that he lives with his wife and two children only on one floor of the 5000 square-foot home. I knock on the front door and out comes Byers, much bigger around the waistline.

"Trapp! Too long old buddy." I can tell from the quick scan of his eyes that he's surprised by the way I look. I haven't seen him since his wedding twelve years ago. Images of past hockey games on the shinny rink roll between my ears, ankles crooked in inherited skates.

"Back from China! Where does the time go?"

The house is immaculate. Alison, the picture of hospitality, tall and thin and a seasoned hostess. She is mostly busy with her youngest boy as Byers and I settle in the kitchen. 

"Umm, it's about the size of your house. You have the entire house?" A look of fatigue and stress overcomes his features. Dark bags under his eyes like flower pots left unattended and dry, blousy and loose. He is far away from the rhythms of nature.

 "It's big enough. We won't be moving for a while. It's probably big for you after Hong Kong and Tokyo where everything is so small."

"Small apartments are the norm over there. Nothing like this."

We're still in the kitchen when the doorbell rings. I follow him to the foyer and Byers opens the door. Standing on the threshold is one of my oldest friends: Rob Tribiniverius. When he looks at me he has a double take. His eyes dissect my face, trying again to confirm that it's me. I feel like telling him that it's different over in China but I don't think it will do any good because China for Torontonians is a kingdom of quaint hutongs and palaces surrounded by old stonewalls but for me was like living among mobilized peasants in an industrial revolution who still retain their peasantness. Anything from frayed cuffs and hay in their hair to scuffed pants from their scooter, it's more down to earth than the over manicured business suits, clean-shaven faces and big wallets with lots of plastic. I had lived in a different world from them and I had to forgive them for their ignorance.

"Lost your shaver on the road?" he says once he recognizes me. I rub my hand over my flaxen beard.

"I've let it go, like Remy's."

"Didn't see a barber on your travels?" I can see him glance at the turquoise rock around my neck.

"First ponytail I've ever had Tribby. I never found a Chinese barber I could trust." He recovers from the shock and settles down in the living room with a beer trying to figure me out.

"I like to look at my time in China as enlightening," I say. "I've stretched a bit since I last saw you." I'm deadpan but Tribby seems to get my point, haughty disposition softening, plumage descending.

"Knowing you, I'm sure you stretched with a purpose." The old playful grin I knew in childhood, a homecoming from my friends.

 

The next day, after picking up my rig and having lunch with my mother, I leave for Owen Sound and the Bruce Peninsula and learn the prices are beyond my budget that is quickly dwindling from petrol costs. Moving over through Parry Sound to north of Huntsville near Algonquin Park I spend a couple of weeks looking at properties that are too big, too expensive and too remote. Soon a month flies by with no word from Remy and the November cold is upon me - the uninvited guest. Hope that buoys the spirit is waning and I'm afraid I'll have to spend the winter in Toronto renting. For the first time I consider failure is a real possibility.

I've been able to continue my streak of not paying for accommodation but the cold is becoming increasingly tough to endure. I'm still not used to the below-zero temperatures after so many years among palm trees and maybe that why it's difficult to convey the experience of sleeping overnight in my camper when it's five below zero with no heat. Your hands must be positioned inside the sleeping bag or else the deep throbbing of fire in your digits wakes you up. Wool socks are the only solution to keeping feet warm - the more the better - and the hat: the most important item outside the sleeping bag. I have learned from experience that a hood is preferable than a hat to keep in all your well-earned heat. A hat will fall off during the night and without a hat your body cannot stay warm and the cold becomes a danger. Once the chill enters your bones sleep is simply unattainable, shivering involuntary and voluntary, the only means to increase temperature. When I woke up this morning to find my bottle of water beside my head frozen solid, only physical movement and hot coffee could restore my normal temperature and alleviate the tremors of frost down my spine.

I learned that Remy has rented a cabin near Parry Sound. Being close to Parry Sound I found out exactly where the cabins are from my mother. Along Highway 69 I drop by Key River, an hour north of Parry Sound. When I find cabins beside the river I spot his brown and white road buggy beside a red log cabin covered with snow, smoke billowing from the chimney into the darkening sky. Already half buried in the early snowfall. A deer hanging upside down from a tree at the cabin beside him, blood stains in the snow below it.

When I knock on the door there is no response until I knock a second time, shivering. The door opens and I see Remy with tangled hair wearing his moccasins and his Thunderbird vest.

"Trapp!"

"Hey brother."

"What are you doing here?"

"It's freezing out. I'm not used to the cold." He doesn't say anything. "I've been looking at properties around here but everything's too expensive. And it's too chilly to stay in my camper. I was hoping I could crash on your couch for a few nights." I see thoughts passing through his mind.

"I can't. Sorry man. You have your camper. You'll be all right. I stayed in Manitoba an entire winter. You can rough it man. I don't want that dog around here." I remove a glove and rub my face.

"I don't have any electricity in there. C'mon man. At night it's freezing. The dog can stay in the camper." I look at the sunken cheeks and the lines criss-crossing around his eyes, a face of overwhelming sadness.

"I have my medicines all over the place. I can't, man."

"How about a cup of coffee then? I'll hit the road but a java would be nice. It will warm me up." Remy sighs but goes into his cabin to make coffee but he doesn't let me come into his cabin, only returning when the water is boiled and the coffee is made. My feet are freezing in the snow when he hands me a mug of steaming coffee, my hands shaking.

"How's your rig?" I ask.

"I don't want to talk about it. Listen sorry man, but-"

"Good spread here," I say trying to change the subject but I know it's pointless. I hand him the coffee half full and see his hands shaking like mine. When Remy shuts the door I stand there for ten minutes not moving and not knowing where to go. It's a strange feeling not knowing where to go when you have no place to turn at the end of the road. I'm stunned standing there in the snow not knowing what to do, age 40, jobless, single and without a home. Dark, cold and no more candles. A profound loneliness hits me, a strange sensation as it dawns on me that I have nowhere else to go in the world.

 


 

32

"A man has no way of becoming a gentleman unless he understands Destiny." - Confucius 

Key River, Ontario

It's too cold to sleep after the aborted coffee so I decide to drive to Manitoulin Island. The idea of going to an island is comforting, away from the grid. Being back on the road is soothing, my real home now. I pat Inge as I drive through the LaCloche Mountains under a full moon, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. I reach the famous wooden swing bridge and pass over the North Shore waters into Little Current. As soon as I arrive I feel safe, as if I have crossed a moat onto an island castle built on rock.

Down the main street beside the docks and then around the town and still a few hours before last call, I hunt for a pub. Having honed my skills in finding the right pub across the country I have developed a keen sense of where the social centre of the town is so it doesn't take me long to find the old Anchor Inn, on the corner since 1888.

There are a few guys watching the hockey game. A short man walks out from behind the corner of the bar.

"What can I get you?" says the bartender, a gruff voice. I scan the beer on tap.

"A pint of Alex," I say. My voice is shaky, still wound up from my encounter with Remy.

"A pint of Alexander Pale?" he confirms. I nod. "Yes!" he says and pulls the beer. A few large beer signs on an exposed wall and a jukebox, rustic and laidback, I'm at home immediately.

"You want to shoot a game?" He introduces himself as Chas. His native friend is busy eating his chicken wings. "It's the second intermission in the hockey game. Lots of time for me to kick your ass."

"Sure."

As we play pool a group of natives sit near the billiards table and order pitchers of beer.

"Passing through?" Chas is thin as a rake. Pants dusty, dirt on his tight, sun-tanned face.

"Looking for a place to live actually. Just arrived."

"House?"

"More like a writer's cabin in the woods."

"Oh well there's a lot of ‘em around here. My brother just bought a place close by." Chas sinks the eight ball and then moves around the table to put back the cue and return to the hockey game. A serious-faced native looks at me curiously so I go over to him and offer him a cigarette. He takes it and tells me his name is Goat.

"I just arrived on the island today," I say. Goat nods and then leans back and speaks with his women friends. Flushed and feeling I'm in a different world, they look at me and then talk more.

"Where you from?" asks one of the women, the big-cheeked longhaired matriarch of the group.

"Tough to say. I'm returning from overseas after a long time." They all keep looking at me waiting for me to go on. "I'm Métis. My home is Canada. I'm just not sure where to live. That's why I'm here." I give them a tired smile and see acceptance.

"You want to come to a party?" asks Goat.

"Sure."

"Can you drive?" I tell him I can so we all leave the Anchor Inn with Goat coming with me in my truck. I drive behind the Indian woman who drives to the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve. Past the sign we drive for twenty minutes into the darkness through the forest until we hit a row of houses where we park. The home is surrounded by thick woods. As soon as I enter I see a girl under the living room light with long dark hair. She smiles when I introduce myself.

"I'm Val," she says. Her mouth is small but her eyes tell me she's happy.

"You live here?"

"My mother does, but I live close by." 

"I just arrived from the Yukon. Long road trip." I tell her a bit about my journey as she stands beside me blinking, bashful. The others have no trouble carrying on the party.

"Why are you on Manitoulin?" Val's long hair like a horse's mane parted in the center and combed smooth by a caring hand.

"I'm looking to buy some property to settle down and finish a book. My brother said Manitoulin was a beautiful island so I thought I would check it out."

"Are you from here?"

"I'm a Métis Indian, part Ojibway and looking for my ancestral homeland."

"I'm Ojibway too. Manitoulin is mainly Ojibway so it's the right place. Have you found a home yet?"

"No. I only arrived today."

"Today!"

"Tonight actually."

"You must be one of very few strangers ever to come onto Manitoulin and end up in Wiki after only a few hours." She laughs, eyes dance in the light. I think for a moment of Alexa on the west coast poised to fly to Africa and all the frustrations I felt when I saw her, but as soon as she appeared in my mind's eye she was gone. By the end of the evening I'm wearing some new beads around my neck and unable to stop kissing her. It is as if Val had been waiting for me for years.

 

 

I leave Val the next morning and drive out of Wiki to the wide-open spaces of Manitoulin Island that feels like a playground. I pass parks, beaches, lakes, lighthouses, waterfalls, hiking trails, caves, harbours, homesteads, tepees, trading posts, heritage museums, Indian reservations, snake fences, handicraft shops and limestone churches. The old limestone church in Mindemoya looks like it doubled as a fortress. From the lay of the land I'm optimistic that I can find a sleepy old cabin in need of some tender-loving care. I pick up a newspaper with the real estate listings and make a list of places that are within my price range. I see one that looks like it's under priced from the photo so I decide to check it out.

I pass steep cliffs along the escarpment by the original Jesuit Mission founded in 1648 along THE GREAT SPIRIT CIRCLE TRAIL to the west of Lake Manitou. Red century farms mark the farmland between the escarpment and the road until the village of Sandfield. It's just past Manitou River and a fish hatchery when I see a sign that reads:

RAINBOW COUNTRY

An old general store that looks like it's been there since the nineteenth century, and mature cedar forests and cottages dot the road until I come to the turnoff. Past an old school house, I see some white-tailed deer running from the road when I spot the For Sale sign. The homestead is on the lip of a hill overseeing about 20 acres of rolling fields. It's a white house with chipping paint and a limestone chimney that's protected by a mix of cedar and maple trees, a classic A-frame with gables and a few wooden sheds falling down. Once I'm out of my camper Inge runs around the property with her tail wagging.

The two-story house is almost entirely obscured by two massive oak trees that flank the front and west side. Paint is chipping off the siding and the grass is running wild around the front porch covered by a weathered veranda. Lazy porch for reading under the protection of cedars and oak. I try the door but it's locked. Limestone base of the structure. Very solid. Picnic table on the back porch with a view of an open meadow with Lake Manitou through the trees. I know that this place has all the things necessary to qualify as my homestead, as if I had been here before in a dream.

I drive to the general store in Sandfield where I want to call the listing broker from a pay phone but I happen to see his name on a sign in the window. Walking into the store I inquire about the house for sale. A tall man hobbles on a bad knee behind the counter says that he's the listing broker. He extends his hand to me.

"Bill Watson," he says.

"Could I have a look at the property for sale down the road?" 

"Don't see why not. It's closing time." We leave for the house in separate vehicles and are soon walking through the front door.

"Nice open concept." I say.

"That used to be the bedroom but they put an extension on it about thirty years ago. The bedrooms are behind that wall." I can see that this house is grossly under priced because it doesn't show well without furniture or care. It's the lack of walls inside the house makes it ideal for writing, lots of space and no neighbours breathing down my neck. The general store a walk up the street.

"It had a septic tank installed in 1991," says Bill. "And it has a furnace, although you could switch to a woodstove if you want." I check out the bedrooms. There's an old bed frame and oak dresser. In the basement beside the furnace Bill shines his flashlight in the corner.

"What's that?" I ask.

"A cistern." Bill walks over to it. "With a water pump, you could get this working again. The previous tenants opened up this wall but if you filled it in you could have a working cistern. But there's now a drilled well."

"Why? Is it built on a water spring?"

"All these homes along this road are tapped into the spring water that feeds the lake." Timeless water supply! My long lost worked-in skate?

I ask Bill about the price.

"It's been reduced. They are looking to get rid of the property soon."

"Why?"

"Because it's being sold by the three kids after their mother passed away a year ago. Since no one is living here they want to sell it before it costs them too much more in property taxes."

"Did she pass away in this house?" Bill laughs.

"No, in the hospital."

"Well then I would like to make an offer."

"OK, let's go back to my office." As we climb into our trucks, Inge comes back with her white coat covered in blood.

"Looks like she found a poached deer," says Bill. "Hunting season just ended and sometimes hunters throw a deer carcass in the field where no one can find it except the wolves and the turkey vultures."

"Seem to be lots of deer here."

"Yes. There are also lots of Sandhill cranes."

"So she now has the taste of deer blood," I say flatly. "C'est la vie."

 
 
 
 
 
 

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