My Pilgrimage: Birch Groves and Sand

Having had no access to wifi for over a week meant that I have a lot of unfinished blog posts – I still need to fact-check, hyperlink, and add images to those drafts. What follows in the meanwhile captures the thoughts I had which didn’t need googling or formatting.

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I come to this cottage home every summer, the place of my childhood, and now family, memories. The drive on the 400 weighs on me sometimes, but as soon as the rolling farm fields appear, this year predominantly covered in potatoes and powdered in sugary white flowers, I am connected. When the road begins to rumble and rattle underneath, I put the car in neutral and roll down and up the bendy hill as the endless corn fields, beans, and potatoes move past me, entice me, on the left. What’s bred in the bone and all that.

That is, until I turn to see the sky meet the water at the crest of the hill. And then I belong here. The road on the hill curves and the car coasts along, the bands of blues in the water, the blue sky, and Blue Mountain, all ahead of me and the road below feels like a roller coaster as we dip suddenly and slip past the regrettable cottages not near the water’s edge. The unfortunate ones are now on my right, with tennis courts and gates and cedar hedges and harsh new builds expanded to the limits of property boundaries and cleared of all trees, with only grass surrounding the artificial stone and siding. What I want is on my left. I catch snippets of the water between the lots as I sail past: there is the A-frame I longed for when I was eight—now the 1980s brick monstrosity with the stellar beach property—around the turn are the wooden cottages on cinder block bases, painted a fresh slate blue—one more rounded corner past Veronika’s ersatz villa and a thick line of trees turns up. From the road, driving straight, you can’t make out that there are any beachfront cottages except for the number signs, posted at eye level. The wheels turn, my foot lightly tapping the brake as the car is still in neutral, and I hear the crunch of the pine needle-covered gravel and sand underneath the sparse sprinkling of wispy weeds. The hemlock and the sapling birch branches brush against the windows of the car.

Those weeds on the driveway tickle my ankles as I walk to the stone path, past it to the sand, lined with juniper shrubs, towards the beach. The smell of sun, pine, juniper, and sand evoke years of memories; inosculation of space and time.

The water is so clear, the sky is so big, the sun and the stars are so close here. I look down at my toes curled in the gravelly sand as each flow of waves washes some of it away; I have to continually work to maintain my balance. The rocks ahead, mostly granite and quartz, ladled by the waves, gleam in a muted rainbow and texture of colours. They lose their lustre when I bring them back to my garden in the city, but even so, I cart a bucketful or two each year to add to my dry shoreline, next to the shed. I notice the water levels are high, as high as I remember them when I was small. This means no sitting on rocks at the point this year, watching the little waves lap over the kaleidoscope of rocks. I dig my fingers into the wet sand beneath the water near the shore and grab a fistful. I let it fall between my fingers, enjoying the squidgy sounds as wet lumps plop back into the water. I stay at the beach, staring at the horizon, until all the sand has fallen off my fingers and my hand is dry.

I swim, I float, I kayak, I walk, and I run, run, run. I can run farther here than anywhere else. I choose the sandy gravel along the road’s edge for my path and head for the forested areas which lead to farms. With Things Two and Three being more independent now, my time can be my own for a run, and that feels luxurious. The balance between revisiting my favourite route (birch saplings!) and discovering new paths is in a week’s work. My imagination churns as I pass the small place with the chain link vegetable garden at the edge of a cleared property; a metal barrier built with the intent to tame the edge of the forest with grass and agriculture. The garden looks unkempt this year; maybe a “for sale” sign will be planted next year as the forest closes in. I transition to the next concession and peer through windows that give way to the water’s view in the more tony cottage neighbourhood, laughing each time I pass this gem of a place, next to the abode which stables a horse below it:

It’ll Do by Anna Bartosik

Tea never tastes better than it does here. The outdoor shower surpasses any expensive battery head a magazine features. Local pickerel and lake trout and bass beckon; I choose fresh pickerel and well-smoked trout. I refuse to touch fish and chips anywhere else; this place has spoiled them for me.

I write as if I am the only one enchanted by the water and forest. Things One, Two, and Three have turned down a trip to Portugal twice because we would not be able to come here. Their favourites have become my favourites: picking blueberries, getting milk from a dairy, and renting movies. Buying farm eggs and supplying the farmer with egg cartons collected all year have become their tasks, not mine. They remind me when we are packing that we need to bring the empty buckets to visit the local apiary; six kilos of honey will do for the year, thank you.

The home owners next door have a breathtaking flower garden. Every year, we look forward to seeing the changes in colour and structure. One year, Thing One was encouraged by the homeowner to select some rocks from the beach and place them in the growing retaining wall. Last year, we arrived just as hundreds of butterflies were feeding before making their migration south.

This year, concrete is being poured to make paths – an inspiration from their trip to Spain in the spring, for some added architecture to the garden. She is Franco-Ontarienne and her hospitality is generous; we pick up our conversation where we left off last year. He is Métis and invites us each year to take part in a large bonfire. He bows to all four corners first, offering thanks, before inviting us all to dance and play music and tell stories. The deerskin drums are passed around to provide a steady beat for the dancers. We learn about the stars and the animals each year; if the story is one we’ve heard before, we revel in the storytelling. His words are measured and his mellifluous voice rises and drops at the appropriate moments; we are enthralled.

My writing sounds flowery and does not express the conflicts I also feel. It is lonely here, it is lovely here; I find it difficult to settle in the first few days, and excruciating when it’s time to leave; I wish for people to visit with me and a moment later I want to experience this place alone. I want to hear the silence and not be interrupted with lunch-making duties or requests for trips to catch some wifi but what would it be like if those things didn’t happen?

This place refuses to let me ignore my thoughts. I know the reckoning is coming as I make the drive here each year. If I’ve supressed something, if I’m struggling with decisions, if I’m ignoring loss and anger, I know that I will have to acknowledge once I’m here. I have no patience for current movements which encourage meditating on a raisin to heighten mindfulness. This place, however, brings unbidden bubbles to the surface.

My desk at work contains a jar of the sand and tiny shells I’ve carefully collected: the softest and lightest sand from the best bank on the beach, and the white, gray, pink, and blue-tinged shells of cute local crustaceans. It reminds me where I want to be all year.

There is no money to buy a place here. Would it feel as special if this cottage belonged to me? I worry each year that we will not be able to spend a week here and have bonfires. Where else will your teenage son drag you out at night to show you the sky and point out the constellations that he knows? Or ask if we can please check the calendar and come here during a waxing, not a waning, moon? How many more times will we gather here? We are comfortable in our silences, together. Once Things One, Two, and Three become too involved in their lives to find the time to be here, perhaps the magic will wear off.

The sign on a nearby beach says: “Take only pictures. Leave only footprints.” Maybe that warning is meant for me.

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