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Archive for the ‘General Chatter’ Category

Soupe a l’oignon ou rondelles d’oignon? (The moral of this story is, be careful what you ask for)

I’m sad to say this is our last night in Quebec. In addition to an amazing and inspirational reunion with a classmate from 46 years ago, the journey through Gaspesie has given me much to think about as a planner. Seeing how little Gaspe managed to take back Main Street in a way that obviously works for everyone – the small businesses, walkers, bicyclists, drivers, visitors, and so on – simply reinforces that cooperation from stakeholders and publicly funded capital improvements can turn a tired downtown into a great one. 

We left the campground at Taylor Pointe this morning and drove all around the Chaleur Bay (Route 132 never strays far from the water all the way round the Gaspesie peninsula). The route back to the Saint Lawrence River towns can skirt the New Brunswick boundary or cross part of New Brunswick; we did the latter. The change in landscape was unmistakable. You know you’re getting close to the river towns when the land rolls and rolls and boulders pop out of hillsides and the tree cover is increasingly coniferous. Robin, the far more adventurous member of this duo, had reserved a campsite for us in a riverfront preserve just outside of Riviere-du-Loup. I say “adventurous” because to her, having a campsite without electricity and water is escaping civilization and to me, it’s how will I charge my iPhone? Truth is, it’s a fabulous place and we’d probably love to stay here longer if the killer mosquitoes went away. 😃 You could almost touch the river from where we’re sleeping tonight.  

The downside of Taylor Point was that we froze last night. I was afraid to go to sleep because I seriously wondered if I’d wake up again. In the middle of the night, I discovered that the ladies room had a hot air dryer installed on the wall about seven feet high just outside the showers, presumably to help someone dry off. Well, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I could stand under it to warm up. I did that twice during the night. That was enough to convince me I needed a really warm sleeping bag, so we went shopping in Riviere-du-Loup this evening and yes, I confess: I went to Walmart. I am now swaddled in a sleeping bag meant for the arctic. 

While at the shopping center we decided to find a place for dinner, as neither of us had the strength to cook once we reached our destination. (Did I mention that the water at this campground isn’t safe to drink? Gorgeous location, but don’t drink the water!) ) McDonald’s was out; the high-end restaurant we found was too high end for a couple of old ladies in sweat pants. We settled on a small pizza shop, figuring we’d find something there. Robin ordered some sort of chicken meal in a box and I confidently ordered French onion soup, or so I thought. The dear lady at the counter did her best to communicate with me and Lord knows, I did my best to communicate with her. Fail! As it turned out, I actually ordered onion rings. 

It must be time to go home! 

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I’m pretty sure he’s wandered into someone else’s campsite by now, but he was here less than a stone’s throw from my tent a few minutes ago. We saw him earlier, too, as he shuffled across the way to a neighbor’s tent and sized up the vicinity for leftovers. I get it about love thy neighbor, but I seriously hope I don’t have to love thy skunk. 

Robin and I made it to Baie-des-Chaleurs, the place that for me was a close second to Gaspe/Perce as the whole reason for this trip. The bay is every bit as beautiful as the travel literature suggests. It should be on everyone’s must-see list because once you’ve been here, just about any other coastal location that comes to mind will seem pretty ho-hum. We lucked out with today’s stop. At the Pointe Taylor campground, we have the tent site closest to the bay (literally a few steps from our tents). We’ve walked out there a couple of times and stood on the shore, mesmerized. 

The trip here from Perce was an eye-opener.  The entire drive up the Saint Lawrence river from Ville de Quebec to Gaspe is just one small village after another interspersed with extremely hilly, rocky terrain, and at the center of every village stands a tall, beautifully kept and obviously loved Catholic church. I would have to say some of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever laid eyes on are in those villages (well, almost – there’s really nothing like Riverside Church, but then again, there’s nothing like New York – another blog for another time). Once you leave Perce heading west on Route 132 toward this bay and the Province of New Brunswick, you’ve crossed into yet another world. There are still lots of Catholic churches, but the closer we got to New Brunswick the more we saw Anglican churches in every village and an occasional Presbyterian church, too. This is also a much wealthier area. The homes are larger and more expensive, the retail mix is more suburban, and there are far fewer campgrounds (the land is much more valuable). I knew I was in a cultural no-man’s-land when Robin and I stopped for lunch at a little restaurant along the way – 45 minutes or so from here – and my order of poutine came with crinkle-cut french fries. No Canuck in his right mind would ever make poutine with crinkle-cut fries! A sacrilege! Worse still, when Robin asked the restaurant owner about the history of this area, the woman said she didn’t know anything except a bunch of Irish people had settled here at some point. Well, yeh, a bunch of Irish people settled in Boston at some point, too . . .

We have a 5.5-hour trip ahead of us tomorrow to Riviere-du-Loup. Much more to see, and so little time left to see it all. 

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It was I, not Robin, who suggested a whale watch before leaving Gaspe tomorrow. 

I, with many whale watch excursions in my past, thought we’d have a great time, especially since my traveling companion seemed to be on the mend from a bad fall at a Rimouski campground last weekend. (After three fruitless hours in the emergency room last night, we knew things couldn’t possibly be worse today, oui?) We found an afternoon whale watch cruise at the Grande-Grave Heritage Site in the Forillon National Park, Gaspe, so after getting the car reorganized once more, we headed west on QC-132. 

At Forillon, we had a lovely poolside lunch and enjoyed the afternoon’s all-too-perfect weather. My hamburger was so-so, yet typical for a recreation center snack bar. I considered the poutine, but declined. For reasons that will soon become clear, it’s best that I chose the nothing-to-write-home-about hamburger. 

Opposite the dock where the whale watch boat was tied up, long racks of yellow rain coats awaited the next batch of eager tourists (including us). The park issues a rain coat to each passenger. Hmmm. I’ve done a lot of whale watches in Cape Cod Bay, but no one ever handed me a raincoat. I shrugged, took one from the tour guide, and stepped onto the boat. She advised me to sit toward the back of the boat  because it’s more stable (such prescient words!) than the bow. Robin and I took our seats along with 35 or so others. Most spoke French, but Robin and I and some English-only tour organizers from Toronto prompted the park to put a bilingual marine naturalist on this cruise. 

The horn blasted from the captain’s deck at 4:30, and off we went for a 2.5-hour journey in the bay. Gorgeous day: sunny, clear, a sailor’s delight. Not far out into the water, I sensed that this whale watch would be like none other (again: prescient words!). Soon, water splashed over the sides of the boat and waves like I hope I never see again attacked mercilessly from all directions. I buttoned up the rain coat, holding my camera bag and sweatshirt close at hand, and hoped LL Bean told the truth when they described my new travel pack as water resistant. Those damn waves just wouldn’t stop. I started to feel not so great, not so great … definitely not so great. I must have looked not so great as well because the tour guide offered me some saltine crackers. (Isn’t that what the labor and delivery nurses used to give us in the birthing room, too?) Now, I’m pretty fearless and determined, and I wasn’t about to embarrass myself in front of a classmate from 46 years ago, so I braced myself for the ride. I closed my eyes (bad idea!) and tried to picture the sweet faces of my eleven grandchildren. Everything was under control until someone saw a minke whale at the 3:00 position (port side). Suddenly all eyes looked south – and their bodies and weight followed. My stomach said, um, no. 

I won’t detail the circumstances that followed. I remember Robin handing me a dark plastic bag from the tour guide. You know that feeling you get when everyone is looking at you? The only saving grace was that I knew a guy on the other side of the boat had been sick to his stomach, too. (I bet he felt like everyone gawked at him as well.) What’s the saying? Misery loves company? I assure you: this misery did not love company. At one point I know I tried to figure out the time, hoping that perhaps we’d be heading back to shore any minute now. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see anything on my fitbit and I didn’t dare open my travel pack to peek at my phone. I thought perhaps I should nap for the rest of the trip, i.e., sleep might keep the death gods away, and in any case I could retreat from my role as starboard spectacle. Well, I didn’t get my wish. In fact, I was gearing up for another close encounter with the barf bag. By the time we were back to the marina, that little dark plastic bag had become my best friend and confidante. There was nothing left in my old-and-overtaxed stomach by 6:30. 

Surely Robin assumed she’d be driving us back to Gaspe. However, I was back to normal by the time I dropped my raincoat in the special bucket the park service keeps on the dock for possibly-barfed-on-raingear that has to be sanitized before reuse. We hopped in the car, I whispered “I think I can, I think I can,” and off we went, east on QC-132, hoping to catch dinner at a cute little cafe in downtown Gaspe.  

That, friends, is the end of the story. 

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I don’t think we could have had a better day than today to reach Gaspe. I saw land like I’ve never seen and probably never will see again. We drove 310 km along the windiest river road known to man! Route 132E from Matane to Gaspe makes roller coasters at amusement parks look like a game of hopscotch. It was nothing to move from 10 to 11 to 15 percent grades in a matter of minutes while road signs warned of falling rock from enormous hillsides that had been blasted wide open to make way for human travel. Even more remarkable was the occasional bicyclist working his way through so much mountainous terrain. We saw them – crazy guys! (Yes: all men.) My little four-cylinder car must have been questioning my sanity by the time we pulled into the center of Gaspe around 5:30 this afternoon. 

Between these crazy-curvy stretches of road that made me grip the steering wheel like death was waiting for us right around the corner, we found little villages that seemed to have as many campgrounds as houses. Robin and I couldn’t help but wonder what people do for work living so far from regional employment centers. Certainly the campgrounds were not large enough or active enough to put food on the table for the families that ran them. There are scores of tributaries to the Saint Lawrence all along the route to Gaspe; are these villages of salmon fishermen? Who knows?! These tiny villages – I’d call them hamlets, actually – consisted of modest little houses, all nicely kept, a gas station or two, maybe a small store, and a stunning Catholic church in the foreground. And, for the record, the church steeples out here are peerless. Another noteworthy thing about the villages between Matane and Gaspe is that in most cases, they looked to be relatively new settlements. The outlying parts of the river valley have very large farms that have been there for a long time, but in the village centers along Route 132, the houses are all mid- to late-twentieth century buildings. 

What I find so remarkable about development in this region, from Ville de Quebec to Gaspe, is the abundance of flowers that adorn the storefronts of small businesses. You can’t walk down a street in Quebec without seeing flower boxes overflowing with bright flowers under the storefront windows and hanging flower pots by the doorways. I don’t mean manicured landscaping maintained by the public works department! I mean individual business owners putting lots of flowers out to decorate their property, and it isn’t just retail stores and restaurants. We saw flower pots hanging next to the bays of an auto body shop this afternoon. The blade signs all over downtown Quebec are cute, but they recede into the background compared with the visual impact of so many flowers and bushes. I noticed that even in the more suburban shopping centers, there are more flowers around windows and entrances than I ever see in the U.S. 

Robin is already asleep and I hope she can sleep all night. When she fell off the tent platform at the campground in Rimouski (the over-the-top torrential rain storm Satuday night) I’m afraid she really hurt herself. As we now realize, ice would have been much better for her than the hot tub at the hotel in Matane. As for me, I also should be snoozing by now. I worked until 4 AM and napped a little while before we had to leave Matane, plus I drove all afternoon. But, I’m almost wide awake. 😳 Between poutine with shrimp for dinner and Donald Trump’s speech (wait for Twitter to see what he really has to say), I’m not quite ready to crash for the night, plus I have work to do. Truth is, there’s always work to do, sort of like there’s miles to go before I sleep. This trip is work, too. Maybe I’ll have just a little more coffee … 

Tomorrow we leave at 7:30 for Perce so we can catch a boat to ile Bonaventure. We’ve been duly warned about The Smell. (Thousands of Gannets and Puffins = tons of Gannet and Puffin poop.) Whether we stay out there the whole day or half the day will depend, in part, on what the place actually smells like, but there’s also a Saint Lawrence boat tour in the offing. Needless to say, I’m packing as much productve time as possible into days with good weather. I’m absolutely certain that Wednesday night, Robin and I will be pitching tents in New Richmond (Chaleur Bay) in the pouring rain. Remember these words! 

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The countdown app on my cell phone confirms that the Great Gaspesie Adventure is now less than three days away. With tents and sleeping bags packed and campground and hotel reservations lined up, I’ve turned my attention to “mundane” matters like getting my car serviced (that clean bill of health wasn’t cheap!), installing a cargo box on the roof rack (also not cheap!), and confronting the bane of my existence: laundry. In my almost-impossible-to-find spare moments, I’m amazed that I’ve mustered the wherewithal to make this trip happen. The fact is, I’m not a seasoned traveler (work trips don’t count, guys), and other than hazy childhood recall of my father’s Canuck reveries, I barely understand French. I certainly can’t speak it worth beans!

The Gaspesie Adventure is as much about needing to disconnect as it is about a long-overdue need to reconnect with a far-away place that’s deep in my soul.  I think the Germans call it Fernweh. I yearn for a place I’ve never been. I’m not satisfied gazing at photographs of the Northern Gannets or the Chaleur Bay anymore, and I haven’t been for a long time. I need to be with them, even if only for a couple of days.  If I’m lucky, I’ll get to see some Atlantic Puffins on île Bonaventure, too – and if you don’t know what they are, look on the internet because they’re funky and adorable and utterly not Cape Cod.

So, I really can’t wait to reach Logan Terminal B on Friday morning where I will meet my traveling companion and long-ago boarding school classmate, Robin Craig. What an experience, what a story, and what a blessing!

Gens du pays, c’est votre tour
De vous laisser parler d’amour
Gens du pays c’est votre tour
De vous laisser parler d’amour

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Robin and I have scoped out a workable itinerary for our Gaspesie Journey. She arrives in Boston on August 18 and from there, we drive to Quebec, arriving there Lord knows when! It’s a long drive! After not seeing each other for 46 years, I suspect we’ll have plenty to talk about in the car. Day 1 concludes in the heart of Quebec, the historic downtown, a place that has begun to feel like home to me. I love that city. From there, we travel up the Saint Lawrence to Riviere du Loop, a more manageable leg of the trip, and then on to Matane, where we hope to camp for the night in a nearby park Robin found out about online. After Matane, we reach Gaspe and Perce, the focus of this adventure. We’re going to try to stay in/around Gaspe for a couple of days, head for the national park at Ille Bonaventure, and visit the Northern Gannets that reside there. This trip would be incomplete without a stop at Chaleur Bay, then on to Rimouski, back to Quebec, and to our last stop in Canada, Sherbrooke, QC. Alas, Robin leaves on August 27. Both of us have classes to teach this fall; hers begins before Labor Day. I will make it home for my birthday after all (August 28). 

I do believe that things happen for a reason and that people are put in our lives for a reason, though often the reasons may not be obvious. I’ve decided that for now, I’m not going to try to decipher why this amazing turn of events has unfolded as it has, and how it is that the lives of a Presbyterian minister and an urban planner have crossed again after close to five decades. I simply accept that it’s a gift, and I’m extremely grateful for it. 

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How often does ANYONE get to take a 10-day road trip to Canada with a boarding school classmate from 46 years ago? That is the privilege I will have from Aug. 18 – 27, when I travel with the Rev. Robin Mary Craig to Gaspesie in search of the Gaspe Gannets and the Chaleur Bay. A trip I expected to do on my own has turned into an amazing reunion for two women whose paths last crossed in 1971 on a lovely all-girls’ campus overlooking the Connecticut River. I’m convinced that everything happens for a reason – and even more convinced that this will be the trip of a lifetime for me. It’s a Facebook success story, to be sure.

Robin – thank you.

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