So here’s the scene: It was Montreal in late December 1993, and Jeff and I –two young indestructible studs who had barely reached the legal drinking age– were taking refuge from the weather in a bar on Rue Ste. Catherine. We came north of the border because we needed a brief road fix during a visit at my mother’s house in New Hampshire, and Montreal is a place we know and love. Our vehicle was an unnamed Mitsubishi Mirage (in our youthful naïveté, we didn’t realize the importance of a vehicle’s name, a mistake we’d never make again). According to our contract with Enterprise Rent-a-Car, it wasn’t supposed to leave the United States, but we figured that didn’t really matter, since it was just a Mirage.
Now you can bet dollars to Tim Horton’s donuts that on any given December day in Quebec, it will be cold, right? Bundle up a bit, eh? I mean, we had been there together that same year during Jeff’s spring break, when the centigrade averaged a balmy -10, so how much worse could it be just after Christmas?
Well, for the days that we chose to make this journey, it just so happened that southeastern Canada was locked in a storm system that saw the collision of arctic air and Atlantic moisture –a classic winter Nor’easter as we call it stateside. The temperature in Montreal was so severe that it was the lead TV news story and on the front page of the papers every day, and though we hadn’t seen any snow ourselves yet, they said it was falling in piles throughout the maritime provinces.
As if the weather reports alone weren’t a bad enough omen, other perils had descended upon us, some of a very grave nature indeed. The Girl With The Perfect Smile had not been working this time at the Ben-n-Jerry’s ice cream shop back in Vermont, and since we never knew her original name, and there is no oral equivalent to Cinderella’s glass slipper, we were resigned to continuing the trip without her. My attempt to convince the sandwich artist at Subway to take her place in the economy-class rental car was extremely and comically ill-fated. (“But you don’t understand, this vehicle gets 45 miles per gallon!”) She must have been holding out for a sedan.
Then we learned that our favorite Indian restaurant had gone out of business. The best bagels this side of Brooklyn were still there for us, but you know what they say about man living on bread alone –it can’t be done. Even the occult bookstore down the street had lost some panache the second time around. With nothing but Molsons and McPizza to console us, the evening looked bleak.
That’s when it hit us, and the source of our malaise became grimly apparent. We were committing one of the cardinal sins of roadtripping: we were following our own footsteps. We were trying to recreate a dreamtrip experience. Uh-uh. Magic doesn’t work that way. It can’t be preordained or reproduced. Life cannot be photocopied.
Now an orchestra can play the same symphony night after night and still deliver the goods each time; a well-written book can be read several times and unveil different nuances and intricacies with every reading. Likewise, it can be fun to visit a place where you’ve already been to see other sides and get a new perspective. But spontaneity is the key. A quality roadtrip always rides the cutting edge of experience. Our attempt at a Montreal redux was like reading a week-old newspaper –too old to be current, too new to be history. Stale and dull.
Having grasped this lesson, we did what any intrepid vagabond types would do: we pulled out the map and searched for a new destination. Somewhere completely off the radar screen. We needed absolute unfamiliarity.
I don’t know why I allowed my eyes to go further north. It was one of those monumental lapses in judgment, the kind that turned Columbus and Custer into household names. I’m good for at least one of these per trip, but interesting as they’ve been, I haven’t found my New World or my Little Bighorn yet, so I keep trying. This time, I found St-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha!, a tiny hamlet with 758 inhabitants, just above the northernmost tip of Maine (it’s a real place, look it up in a road atlas if you don’t believe me; I couldn’t fictionalize something this strange). No need to look any further. The name jumped right off the map and into the Mirage. This had the stuff of a genuine pilgrimage. I mean, there is a spiritual undercurrent in the pulse of every trip, but such overt religious overtones as these are very rare and not to be taken lightly. We may have been on the verge of uncovering the holy land for a whole new religion, one that had learned the arcane secrets of eternal good humor, and we could receive the Funny News and preach unto the soreheads and curmudgeons and woebegone folks of the world. And if not, we’d start one ourselves; if anyone on earth were worthy of being worshipped, it was a French-Canadian saint named Ha! Ha!
The trip looked easy, about 300 miles, mostly by “autoroute,” the quebecois version of our interstates. If we left right away, we could make it by midnight, then check into a local manger, er, motel, and explore in the morning.
But what about the weather? Every media outlet in two languages was calling for the apocalypse. They said a major system from the Great Lakes was planning to meet our Nor’easter in the skies above Quebec and turn the fair province into a winter wasteland. But Jeff and I were natural skeptics, so we knew better. We knew they make up those stories just to sell newspapers. Like I said, we hadn’t seen a single airborne flake for several days. There weren’t even many clouds up there. This big bad blizzard was starting to feel as scary as a wild herd of stampeding unicorns. Surely it was all an elaborate hoax; someone didn’t want us to leave Montreal. Someone with enough clout to manipulate every newspaper, TV and radio station in Canada’s second largest market. In order to keep the Gospel of Ha! Ha! tucked away safely in an isolated northwoods village –thus keeping the rest of the world grumpy and forlorn– they were pitting our rational minds against our intuitive sense of adventure.
These are the typical psycho-bully tactics used by the enemies of Ha! Ha!, but to us they were as flimsy and ineffective as a cobweb to a kangaroo. Whatever humorless scoundrels were behind this plot, they obviously hadn’t done their homework on us. The whole charade only fortified our resolve. If someone were willing to pull this many strings to scare us into staying put, imagine what treasures we would find, what revelations awaited us in this peculiar burg! And on the slight chance that the weather reports were legitimate, well, perhaps the other kind of Revelations lay ahead for us. Keep in mind that we were twenty-one years old, and we had a whole lot to learn about how this game is played. But even at that tender age, we understood the idea that as human beings, when it comes to matter of the spirit, ours is not to ask why, only to come when called.
There was no discussion. By 7:00PM we were heading in a northeasterly direction out of the city on Autoroute 40, Jeff at the wheel. A sultry French gal was purring something light and bouncy through the dual speakers on the FM dial. The Mirage sailed with ease down the divided highway at 110 kph, churning out enough heat to keep us toasty. A nearly full moon guided the way, hanging diligently in the upper right corner of the windshield. Its light cast a purple radiance across the night landscape, glimmering upon the fallen snow and the still surface waters of the St. Lawrence River. We couldn’t have asked for a better nighttime cruise. We went along in this carefree manner for about an hour-and-a-half.
Then, somewhere past Trois-Rivieres, the moon disappeared. Just like that. The scenery went dark too, as though someone flipped a switch. Jeff looked visibly bothered. It was there a second ago, he told me, and then it was gone. I looked all around, but I couldn’t find it either. I rolled down my window and stuck my head out to get a better view directly above, but I put it back in immediately. Bad idea. I’d forgotten how cold it was on the outside.
This was indeed a disturbing development. While nothing in my belief system precluded the idea that an individual or organization could have enough power to control the airwaves and presses of a major city, and use that power to carry out its dastardly schemes on an unsuspecting public, I doubt a lunar eclipse could be so easily arranged. The only plausible explanation was that a thick bank of clouds had come between us and the moon. I scanned the radio for new weather reports, but we were deep in the francophone heart of Quebec, and none of the local stations broadcast in English (Jeff’s French was very spotty, and mine didn’t exist).
The situation held steady as we rolled into Quebec City, the only walled community left standing from the colonial Americas. It is also the most European city I’d ever visited. Go there and you will feel transported by the narrow, winding, stone-paved streets, Old World architecture and sidewalk cafes (and, in some cases, the transparent imitation of Parisian snobbery). I’ve been to Quebec City in the spring, when people are coming out of hibernation and joie de vivre is in the air. You can tell that there is a special joy in living in a city that is somehow delightfully out of step with the rest of the continent.
That night, however, the streets were deserted, and it was ominously quiet. People weren’t just staying indoors to escape the cold –they seemed to be hunkering down, as if in fear. It felt like the Luftwaffe was coming. I half-expected to hear an air raid siren at any moment.
We followed the signs to Old Town and parked for a spell at an overlook by the edge of the wall. The visuals from there were stunning, with the city all lit up and reflecting in the river, which flows right by below. This was where it widens enough to be considered an appendage of the Atlantic Ocean. It would have been nice to linger here a while and take it all in, but the wind was brutalizing us as we stood outside the Mirage. Another bad sign –the air had been extremely cold in Montreal, but it was calm, Now there was a steady, pounding wind, and it was absolutely frigid. Freeze-the-air-inside-your-lungs-type weather. Some giant vacuum must have come and sucked all the density out of the atmosphere as well. If we’d had a barometer, it probably would have blacked out from the precipitous drop.
Jeff couldn’t stand it for more than a minute. He hopped back in and started her up. I grew up in harsh winters and have a decent tolerance for cold, but this was obscene. I joined him after a few prayerful moments, taking over behind the wheel. We pumped a few litres of petrol to top off the tank, then we were on our way.
Heading out of town, we passed a few motels that had vacancies. If either of us were thinking about staying there for the night instead of going on, we didn’t mention it. Looking back from the present day for a moment, I don’t recall having any such feelings, and that seems odd, even to me. There was little doubt as to what we were getting into at that point –no more media tycoon delusions to keep me warm. From there on out, it would be pure man versus nature.
So why didn’t we think to stop? All I can really say about that is I remember a conversation that Jeff and I were having after the moon disappeared. It was one of our long, intense, highly involved rap sessions on God and spirituality, one of many that formed an ongoing road dialogue back in the day. This time we were discussing faith, and how true faith is by definition a radical departure from anything known or even knowable. Many premises were brought forth to come to this conclusion, perhaps material for another volume, but I can sum it up with a single Biblical verse, the only one I know by heart, Romans 12:2: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.” All knowledge is conformity. To know God is to forsake worldly knowledge and transform the mind to receive understanding from another source.
I consider that to be a universal truth –it applies not just to Christianity but to any religion. But what brings about this transformation and the “renewing” of the mind? That’s where we all tend to differ. Buddhists have their own answer, as do Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Mormons, Zoroastrians, Gnostics, Satanists, Discordians etc. As a baptized Roman Catholic (they got me when I was a few weeks old, too small to defend myself), my nearly inborn response is that the act of faith itself (or better yet, the action of faith; remember, truth is a verb) is what transforms us. Protestants are taught that it is not by our acts but by our belief that we attain salvation (supplemented by a steady diet of acts that varies by denomination, of course), and there are a number of ways you can paint that, but faith is the key ingredient.
“Yes, that’s all fine and good,” saith the layperson, “but what is the action of faith you describe? How does it work?” That’s a damn good question, and there is no single answer. Consult with your preferred place of worship for starters. Jeff and I didn’t really have one at the time, so we were forced to come up with our own ideas.
That night, as sort of a culmination of our discussion, Jeff, who refuses to speak in anything other than metaphor, put forth a picture of the action of faith that I’ve always liked. He described it as leaping backwards off of a cliff into the darkness. Buddhists call it the Void; to mystic Christians (which is closer to what I became in the years that followed), it is the Cloud of Unknowing, wherein the Holy Ghost dwells. By leaping blindly, you surrender. You enter the Ghost, and the Ghost enters you. You suspend in midair. You are saved.
Or so they say. Solemnly, we agreed that we had never made such a leap, and that we’d like to do it sometime, presumably at our convenience. Upon saying the words though, I recall, something inside me felt downright spooked, as the Quebec night grew ever darker. I don’t think either of us realized at the time how close we were to the edge of the cliff…..
So we were driving, continuing northeast, when maybe fifteen minutes outside the city –while we could still see the glow of its lights in the rearview mirror– it started to snow.
Yeah. And Noah ran into a little rain while taking the ark out for a spin.
Folks, I wish I could tell you that the following scene is a scrap of fiction that I threw in for dramatic effect, or even an exaggerated version of what happens next, but I can’t. It is neither. These are the facts. I understand that Jeff and I run the risk of shocking people who care about us, and damaging their estimation of us as sane people who can be trusted with their own lives. But I remind these dear people that this is happening almost seven years before Albuquerque [setting of the story of which this is an excerpt–and it is almost nineteen years ago now] so the statute of limitations for determining soundness of mind must have elapsed by now. Anyway, we lived to tell and that’s what counts. Any story is worth its weight in being told, and this is one heavy mother of a tale.
Please allow me to introduce for you, then, a typical moment in the remainder of this night’s journey: Jeff and I, in our unnamed subcompact rental car, trudging north on Autoroute 20, farther into the wilderness. We had no insurance –we lied on our contract to avoid the extortionary coverage fee– and we were way beyond the geographical confines of our agreement. It was well after midnight, and there was no one else out on the highway besides the occasional plow, but they couldn’t keep up with the snow that appeared to be accumulating at roughly a foot per hour. As far as I could tell, it was still falling horizontally, directly into the windshield. But it was hard to know for sure, because the roaring windblasts from our left were pushing the snowdrifts across the freeway like Saharan sand dunes. I had slowed to about 20 kph because I could hardly see what was 15 feet in front of us at any given moment. I was also hesitant to use the brakes because I sensed more than once that there wasn’t much traction beneath our “all-weather” radials and a vehicle that weighed about 200 pounds. I had the steering wheel cocked about a quarter-turn left to offset the wind and keep us proceeding in a straight line. There was nothing I could do about the noise however; it sounded like someone was jackhammering in the backseat. The heat was running on full blast, but it did nothing to cut the deep arctic freeze that was pouring through the windows and taking over the entire car. We were both wearing every item of clothing we brought with us, and it still wasn’t enough. Fortunately the windshield wipers were holding up, creating momentary tunnels of clear vision between near blindness. But we started to face a new problem: a layer of frost was forming on the windshield. On the inside.
Just as we were starting to think about having to eat each other, a vision appeared, in the form of a road sign. There was a rest area in two kilometres. We prayed out loud that it would somehow be accessible, that the people in charge of snow removal on Quebec’s highways had forseen that two foolhardy Americans, who had never known the pleasure of frostbite, would be caught in the midst of frozen hell with an unnamed economy-class rental car. It seemed to take a half-hour to reach it, but when we did, miraculously, the ramp was clear (and mind you, by “clear” I mean less than a full foot of snow on top of the pavement) and the building was open.
We staggered against the ferocious wind to the door. All of my joints refused to work properly, so my gait was still and full of pain. Inside the cinder block building, there was a very spartan arrangement –no tourist maps or guides to roadside attractions, just a long wooden bench, stationed above a powerful active heating unit. Couldn’t have been more welcome if it were grandma’s fireplace. Jeff’s hands were numb; he knelt before the holy warmth. I could only lie down and shut my eyes. My nerves were completely shot. I could still see the snow rushing straight at me in torrents, like in a fever dream.
Jeff adjourned to the rest room to continue the thawing process over some steaming water. Lying alone on the hard bench, I felt like one of those movie characters who doesn’t know if he’d survived a tremendous ordeal, or if he didn’t and this is what the afterlife looks like. At the moment, it felt like a toss-up; I could have gone either way. I mean, we could only guess how that French road sign actually translates. It isn’t too much of a stretch to conceive of another meaning for “rest area.” Could this be the fabled waiting room? Was this where we were to bide our time until our deeds were properly evaluated by our superiors and our next destination was determined? Or was this the beginning of a more Sarte-like eternity for Jeff and me? Maybe we were soon to be joined by an insurance agent and a highway safety expert, gay and lesbian respectively, both of whom were very chatty and once lived to share their years of acquired knowledge and expertise with random strangers.
No. Too many choices. In times like those, when the alternatives are getting complicated, it is best to simply be alive. No guesswork, just breathing, in and out, in…..and…..out…..Blood, running through the veins. Ah, yeah. I could feel it in my extremities again. It’s funny how you never notice your blood circulation until it stops, then it feels so good once it resumes. Yes, I thought, this is definitely my favorite option now, to be alive. I wasn’t sure my wish had been granted yet, but at least I knew that was my wish.
A clock on the far wall read 2:30. That seemed real enough. None of the afterlife scenarios that I could conceive of leave room for the possibility of time. Jeff came back from the rest room, looking much better. He noted the lateness of the hour as well, but we were clearly in no hurry to leave this wonderful hospice, so he sat in a meditative position by the bench and listened to the wind whistle across the roof. I offered to let myself sleep, but try as I might, rest just would not come. My head was spinning too fast to let me drift off. It is a condition for which I honestly do not know the cause, nor whether it is common among other brain owners, but sometimes the slightest excitement or agitation of the neurons activates some looping screen saver-type program and I can’t shut the damn thing down, no matter how tired the rest of me is. It’s like a computer that you can’t turn off, even by pulling the plug out of the wall. Usually I curse this defect of mind-body relations, but that night I found it a bit comforting. Whatever the neurological culprit may be, I knew that a hyperactive consciousness was back there pulling the strings, so I could accept this as valid proof that I was still alive. I think too much, therefore I am.
After an hour or so of passing time in this bizarre manner, we decided to see how it looked out there. We had some legitimate concerns about being able to find the car, let alone drive it out of the parking lot. Fortunately, the snow seemed to have tapered off to a manageable squall. The wind had not let up, so drifting snow would still be a concern, but not nearly as bad. I passed the baton to Jeff, who said he felt invigorated, and brushed off the considerable pile of snow. A good eight inches had accumulated while it was parked, but it was an ultrafine powder that is atypical for a Nor’easter. The deep cold had helped us by crystalizing the moisture before it reached the ground. What this took away in visibility due to a greater windblown effect, it more than makes up for in better traction and overall manageability. I would take this over the usual tree-bending wet stuff any day. The Mirage eased back onto the autoroute, and we were Ha! Ha! bound again.
At this point it was just like driving through your garden variety blizzard. The going was slow and we started to feel like popsicles again, but we didn’t mind it as much. Something told us we’d been through the worst of it, and we were going to be all right. About two hours later, we reached the turnoff for the two-lane highway leading to St.-Louis. It was still well before dawn, so there seemed to be little sense in showing up then. We decided to go the few extra miles into the larger town of Riviere-du-Loup, in hopes of finding more shelter.
Sure enough, one of those ubiquitous Tim Horton’s donut shops was right off the first exit. Corporate civilization had never seemed so inviting! The air inside was dreamy and coated with confectionary sweetness, rich with fresh-brewed coffee. We both managed to sleep in a booth for a couple hours in the cozy warmth, until a cashier either kicked us out or offered us a job, according to Jeff’s translation. By then, daylight had arrived, and the onslaught had ceased. The clouds were parting, and the sun seemed ready to make an appearance. We could even see spots of pavement on some of the roads.
A delightful day it was becoming, as full of promise and possibilities as the dawn of Creation. Feeling divinely refreshed and full of a peace I’d never known before, we hopped in the Mirage with great vigor and headed south, back to the intersection. Crusing time. Only a half-hour left. We made St-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! by 8:00, in time for breakfast, just as we’d planned.
What followed was pure anticlimax. It was like enduring a tremendous climb up the steepest slope of a killer mountain, eyes constantly on a faraway peak that was our goal, only to find that once we’d topped the ridge and had a fairly easy walk to the final ascent, it wasn’t there. The peak had all along been, if you will, a mirage.
Needless to say, Ol’ Louie must have had a real deadpan sense of humor. We didn’t find any advanced religion or secret society in St.-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! We didn’t learn anything about this venerable prankster-saint character in fact. There was no chamber of commerce, no historical society. The post office was closed for some silly Canadian holiday that we didn’t know about. There wasn’t even a store where we could buy a lousy T-shirt saying “someone went to St.-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” Basically the town was little more than a small collection of boxy houses built into a hillside in the thick northern pines for no apparent reason. It was very pretty, especially with all the newfallen snow, but no more or less so than a hundred other villages across the Quebec countryside. I mean, you’d drive through town and appreciate simplicity, the lack of intrusion from the modern world, and move on to the next such village in a pleasant continuum of travel through a foreign realm. But as a destination, St.-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! had little to offer. I guess the joke was on us….
But that didn’t matter to us then, and it certainly doesn’t now. Heading back to the States as the sun shone upon us, upon the glimmering crystals of frozen water piled higher than the car, it was magical. We knew just what we’d seen. We knew it was something that had transcended the experience itself. Something had changed. We were not the same people who had left Montreal. Not completely different either perhaps, but the transformation had begun. We had leapt backwards….off a cliff…into the darkness….and we were there to tell about it. We had stared the Reaper in his steely dark eyes and said, “Ha! Ha!”