“Space!” thundered Gordon, as he threw his arm out in a great sweeping arc like the swing of a scythe blade to gather in the Ottawa River and all the vast hinterland of the Valley for miles above the Chaudiere Falls. “Canadians have vast space,” he went on as we marched towards the Portage Bridge on our interprovincial walk to Place du Portage in Hull. “So,” Gordon continued, “Tell me, why in the name of heaven do Canadians flock together like silly turkeys, content to live with featherbrains, cooped up in the city?”
I couldn’t speak for all of ‘homo canadensis’, nor even for that richly-endowed sub-species who dwelt in the principality of Lanark. Gordon had succumbed to the call of the wild, and I knew that his thundering about space was pure rhetoric: when the winds of rhetoric had him by the throat, he was a true space enthusiast. His residence on the Pakenham Mountain, when the vernacular was in season, was his “digs”; other times, influenced by literary formality or artistic style, his residence became transmogrified into a ‘chalet’.
Our space odyssey arose from a bureaucratic phase-in. The department abandoned its location in the shadow of the Peace Tower and, in October, moved to a new federal complex across the Portage Bridge in downtown Hull. Gordon and I opted to do the interprovincial leg on foot.
He had come from Rhodesia. Of British stock. Colonists, dry land farmers with Africans, uncertainties of weather, markets, and politics. At age nineteen, the lure of travel struck Gordon, and he struck out, expecting adventure to show up along the way.
He oiled both gears and chain of his Raleigh standard bicycle, a sturdy and reliable bicycle, British-built, and ready, like its owner, for adventure too. In shirt and shorts, a haversack over his back, Gordon set off north. Of course, north. The Raleigh, with two changes of tires, covered the entire length of the dark continent, down the Nile, through the valley of the Pharaohs, into Cairo, and on to Alexandria. A Greek coaster brought both to Marseilles. From there they kept on, still northward, through the Rhone valley, past far-famed Carcassonne and the haunts of the Crusaders, until they arrived at Paris and the Seine.
The Raleigh paused only momentarily to gaze at the gargoyles of Notre Dame. Caesar had written ‘Omnis Gallia in tres partes divisa est’. (All Gaul is divided into three parts) and the third part only remained on Gordon’s odyssey, the same part that had been Napoleon’s dream, and Hitler’s worry, the invasion route to Britain. After pedaling the length of Africa, and two-thirds of France, Gordon and the Raleigh were both showing symptoms of a virus as old as the pyramids, a hankering for home. They left Paris, took the high road to Calais, the cross-Channel ferry to Dover, and made a hard landing under the frowning walls of Dover Castle.
Glory be! In the ‘Old Country’ they found the old language, the old ways. In the Queen’s domain, however, Gordon also found a need for cash money. Using the language, he discovered in use at Dover, he flogged the Raleigh for seven quid, and set out to seek for the Guards Depot at Camberley, seeking adventure in the infantry. His enquiry about membership raised a spate of ‘grande hauteur’ reserved for colonials. “Gawds, suh!” an immaculate corporal declared, “Gen’lmen only sah! On the other hand, if the military’s the life you seek, young man like you, you might try the Highland Brigade. They seem not overly particular at Inverness.”
To the outermost crags of Britannia at Inverness went Gordon. The Brigade’s reputation for hospitality flagged not. Gordon was invited in, and into his love of adventure the Brigade crowded enough of ‘la vie militaire’ commissioned a lieutenant and posted as a subaltern to Malaysia.
Peace, order, and good government in that part of the Queen’s domain had been seriously compromised: the territory lay under assault from infiltrators, whose tactics in the jungle reminded Gordon of a lioness in long grass in the veldt eyeing the luncheon menu, antelope.
Two and a half years later Gordon returned to Inverness, turned his kit in to stores, and left Her Majesty’s Service with a warrant to any destination in any of Her Majesty’s other parts. He chose touchdown at Mirabel and Victoria as destination. From there, he hedge-hopped eastward until he came to Ottawa, and again succumbed to the lure of Her Majesty’s Service, a billet as graphic illustrator, and for his residence, he chose space, and a chalet on the Pakenham Mountain.
“By the way,” Gordon swung away from the far-off vistas of the Ottawa Valley to toss me a puzzler on a chilly pre-Christmas day as we came to the boundary marker mid-way across the Portage Bridge that said “Ontario” on one side and ”Quebec” on the other, “You’re acquainted more with the customs of people in Lanark than I am. So, tell me, how would you go about getting a cat?”
“Every farm in the Valley has a cat in the barn,” said I. “In fact, most have more than one. Adults. And wherever you find adult cats, you can expect kittens. Supply is secure. Shouldn’t be any trouble to get a cat, a tomcat especially..”
“Hold on,” said Gordon. “Not just any cat,” he emphasized. “Has to be a female. A hunter. The female’s got far sharper hunting instincts than the tom. Besides a tom’s only ambition is to loll around with mice. The female’s out to crush an invasion.”
“Well then,” said I, recalling the practical wisdom that my old corporal would offer in such a case, “Put an ad in the paper.”
“Oh,” said Gordon, delighted at a simple solution. “Smashing! Never would have thought of that. An advert. Interesting. Hmmm.”
In those days, Gordon was one of a handful of determined, self-reliant pioneers and adventurers who lived at the end of the Carabine Trail on the Pakenham Mountain. Thoreau, from his hideaway cabin at Walden Pond near Boston would have envied Gordon the chalet on Pakenham Mountain.
It had been erected on top of a rocky knoll. It may it had been a hermitage of oblique lineage, disguised from close scrutiny by leafed-out maple saplings and towering white spruce, which made a natural palisade against winter furies to come on the mountain.
December, however, arrived and Gordon’s water system hadn’t yet passed the litmus test of winter in the township. Other than that, Gordon’s delight in the wilderness remained unsullied by crass notions of pumps and plumbing.
Most of the township’s residents, like the rain in Spain, lived mainly in the plain. In the picturesque village of the same name were three churches to guard public morals, one bank to encourage licentiousness, a post office and a doctor’s office for joint damage control, all hugging the same shoreline of the Mississippi River. In addition, the village numbered some practitioners of practical wisdom too for that species of ‘homo canadensis’ called ‘man in motion’. These included a restaurant owner and chef, a dress-maker, a harness-maker, and a plumber.
Occasional sightings of mountain people in the village were reported in the post office, where the customs and the personalities of all residents of the township were regularly subjected to resolution, repair, and return to sender.
The electrics had just been extended into the forest primeval on the Mountain, and crags that had endured winters beyond counting since Noah’s voyage seemed to have become less forbidding. In fact it was rumoured that they were happily disposed toward human habitations, even with all those wires strung up there on poles.
In mid-January a crisis came at the chalet: pump frozen. Plumber called. Insulation around inlet unable to handle deep frosts. Hold on, that’s not all. Infiltrators! Evidence under the refrigerator! And no cat in the house. Nor a Pied Piper in the township! Time for crisis management!
Gordon recalled my old corporal’s practical wisdom: an ad in the paper. A call for creative talent. A discreet insert in the classifieds. Gordon worked it out and sent it to the paper just near Valentine Day when cabin fever in the county is at its worst.
Long streaks of winter sun had made shadowy mounds, drifted snow snugged up against cedar rail fences, chickadees and blue jays rejoiced, having the woods all to themselves with no noisy nestlings demanding grub. Peace, blessed peace, lurked in dark corners, and men without family responsibilities of their own sought it out, little knowing that peace too is a virus, like rabies, a fever of the blood that brings pressure on the brain. Others simply called it cabin fever.
Friday evening at our place in Almonte was quiet and peaceful. Suddenly, for better or worse, came a troubling query: “I don’t suppose you’ve seen this strange advertisement in the classified ads, but I can’t help wondering if it’s from that friend of yours out on the Pakenham Mountain, Gordon, what’s his name…?”
“Gordon Wilson. What on earth do you mean?” I asked.
The paper came waltzing over to my chair, and milady, with finger pointing to the text, said “What do you make of this?”
The ad said:
WANTED; Gentleman who enjoys solitude on the Pakenham mountain seeks lady of similar tastes to share chalet on Pakenham mountain, to listen to murmuring pines, and
enjoy the solitude by tranquil stream. Must be neat and attractive, good cook, interesting, amiable, ready to provide for the needs of the man of the house. This paragon (not necessarily of virtue) will enjoy the outdoors living, shoeing on snowshoes, tracking, hiking, wild-flower gathering etc. Apply in own handwriting, preferably with photograph to Gordon Wilson, Proprietor, Hunting Chalet, Pakenham Mountain, Telephone…………
I gaped, dumbstruck, disbelieving.
What words could I conspire to say Monday morning, marching across the Portage Bridge with the author of that ad in the paper? Gentlemen do not discuss such things amongst themselves, and certainly never with others.
Dreaded Monday arrived, blustery and cold. Gordon and I walked to Hull with parkas zipped up for protection, in hooded silence.
Tuesday came, bitterly cold. Gordon and I set out as if nothing out of the ordinary had been hatched, down to Wellington Street, cross over in front of the Public Archives, veer left to the Portage Bridge, and tuck head under against the wind.
Had my friend gone barmy? I wondered. Too long alone in winter in the outback? Was he in that mystical “change of life” that some people spoke of? Could that have prompted his ad for a female to share the chalet on Pakenham Mountain? What?
Hard morning sunshine and bitter cold followed the two of us across the old timber slide where the Prince of Wales made his famous descent in 1860 when he had come in place of his illustrious mother to lay the cornerstone of the Parliament Buildings. Was Gordon on a slide?
Our converse covered trivial things that morning, weather, the wind’s ferocity, time of day, the almanac’s predictions. Wild torrents in the Chaudiere Falls ripped and roared over the rocks. Spray funneled through the gap, imitating the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Implacable cold tore at our parkas. Portage Bridge was no place for trivial pursuits.
But then and there, on impulse, Gordon stopped, only one quarter of the way across Portage Bridge.
I too came up short. “What’s up, Gordon?” I breathed out into the frosty air.
“John,” said my comrade, beaming with a smile from within the halo of his hood, his back to the north wind’s fury, “I put an advert in the paper.”
Glory be! The cat’s out of the bag. I had to face the fact.
“Gordon,” I replied, “It was you then!” My weak effort at dissimulation would have bent the patience of a pool hall cue master. “Someone asked me on the weekend if I’d seen an ad in the classifieds from a Gordon Wilson of the Pakenham Mountain hacienda, and wondered if that person would likely be a commuter to the city on John Kennedy’s bus.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Gordon beamed. “Strange to find how many people read the small print in the paper, isn’t it?”
We were now approaching the sign mid-way across that announced Ontario on one side of the board and free-thinking Quebec on the other.
“I’ve often wondered,” said I, “If a classified ad ever brings results.”
For the second time that morning on the bridge, Gordon pulled up short. Pulling off one glove he reached inside with a bare hand to his jacket’s inner pocket, and, like the magician who brings a white rabbit out of a stove-pipe hat, Gordon brought forth a packet of a dozen letters, in multi-coloured pastel envelopes, pink, mauve, beige, robin’s egg blue and turquoise, all wrapped round meaningfully with an elastic band. Triumphantly he waved the packet overhead, right in the face of the frigids.
A wave of lilac scent rolled over me, elbowing the furies out of the way, overwhelming the provincial boundary line. Lily of the valley tumbled after. My eyebrows lifted. Alarm bells rang. I struggled for breath. Instinct arose, the urge to reach for the gas mask with one hand and the gas rattle with the other.
“John,” the beaming Gordon proclaimed to the North Wind and to the Nation, “I want you to know! Happiness is a full mailbox! Just look at this! And this is only Tuesday!” And he thrust the packet towards my nose under my blinking eyes.
I recoiled from the assault, banging against the bridge railing before getting a hold of myself. You’ll understand that an officer and a gentleman whether by Act of Parliament or by nature, has an obligation to a brother officer, particularly a bridge-walker, to wrap himself in discretion should such a comrade be ever found to have strayed into toils or entanglements.
I murmured how pleased I was that Gordon’s advertisement had produced such speedy, and evidently heartfelt interest, and intimated that shortly there might be another person joining the neighbourhood circle on the mountain.
“Aha, not so fast, my friend,” said Gordon.
“But Gordon,” I laboured on, “Are you prepared to resist the inevitable?”
“I don’t need to resist at all,” replied the impresario.
‘What? No resistance? Gordon, I’m puzzled.”
We made landfall on the Quebec shore and waited for the Hull traffic to offer us a fighting chance to cross on the green light.
“My phone’s been leaping out of the cradle,” said Gordon. “Silly females,” he snorted. “Do you know what they want to know?”
“The distance back to the city?” I suggested.
“Not on your life. They ask ‘Do you have the indoor?’ Imagine! Silly things,” he continued as we crossed Avenue Laurier. “I say to them ‘Of course not. It’s only fifty or sixty yards to the biffy.’”
“I reckon that’d cool out their ardour,” said I.
“Entirely,” said Gordon.
I knew then the population on the mountain would remain stable at least until the flowers that bloom in the spring tra-la, the woods in scarlet, the creek, the woods at night.
“Think of it,” Gordon announced on the steps of Place du Portage where five thousand females labour on behalf of ‘homo canadensis’. “Do you have a shower? And then, “Do you have one or two bathrooms?”
“The call of the wild”, I commiserated
“Imagine!” Gordon attacked the steps two at a time, saying “Do I want some female sharing the chalet who is going to sit and preen her feathers all day long? Not me. The post office in the village knew I wanted a cat. The people there were on the watch for letters for me with cats’ paw imprints on the envelope. They knew what I was looking for, a good mouser, female, to fight the infiltrators at my chalet on the mountain. Females make the best hunters”.
There’s a six-day chunk left before the end of cabin fever season. Thumbs up, Gordon!
12 Jan 2000