Why Such a Long Road Trip: An Introduction
Ever since the invention of the automobile, families have taken road trips across our beautiful, wide continent, be it from Chicago to Los Angeles on the famous one-lane Route 66 to cross-country adventures spanning miles of rugged and not-so-rugged terrain. (One could even argue that members of pioneer handcart parties were among the first to experience the great American road trip, if only on foot and in the direst circumstances.)
Having completed a wild-west style, knock-‘em-dead-with-sightseeing tour of the United States two years ago that featured stops at seven national parks, five state parks, and just as many national forests, and a more modest, though equally enjoyable jaunt around Virginia’s historic and natural landmarks last summer, we—the slightly intrepid and somewhat naive Demartins—decided to go back to my Eastern Canadian roots in what I would qualify as our most geographically exhaustive and emotionally exhausting road trip yet.
I believe that a small case of simple-mindedness and a smidge of courage are necessary to undertake an odyssey with children that entails bouts of fatigue, large doses of whining, arguing and counter-arguing, and the dreaded though inevitable question, “Are we there, yet?”
The children asked us this repeatedly (the first hint of it came somewhere around Delaware, mere hours after we departed Lake Ridge on the afternoon of August 16). We sighed, in turn drumming fingers on the steering wheel while giving them the best are-you-kidding-me look of exasperation that ever graced a rear-view mirror.
As I contemplated going back to the places that marked my childhood, I could only come up with rhetorical answers beyond their impatient comprehension: isn’t getting there somehow a little more thrilling than actually being there and aren’t we forever homeward bound?
Much like Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort (spoiler alert for those who haven’t read book seven of the series) I’ve always felt that I left little pieces of soul in those spots that meant the most to me. In a way, this trip is a recollection of those pieces while defining what it means to leave home and to find home.
Our journey began going up I-95 and then I-91, crossing the border into Stanstead, Quebec, the small town where my father is buried. West we drove to Montreal and north to Quebec City. Our route then took dizzying turns to Rimouski, the city where I grew up, and east through New Brunswick and the Bay of Fundy, currently vying for a spot as one of seven natural world wonders, the only Canadian finalist in the most weirdly patriotic contest I’ve come across (see the upcoming “Vote Fundy!” chronicle).
And here I am—not quite there yet—looking out to sea through the glassed double doors of a well-restored 1930s nautical cottage on Prince Edward Island, feeling like Anne Shirley, writing on the kitchen table simple chronicles that will hopefully entertain and interest readers.
You Can Cry or You Can Have P’tits Gâteaux Vachon
The town of Stanstead is quaint and neat even if bisected by a frontier line that makes most of it Canadian and some of it American, one of the only towns governed efficiently by two countries. The greater area of the Eastern Townships, including Stanstead, was colonized by New Englanders searching for large tracts of farming land in the late eighteenth century. A few decades before this, American loyalists from the Mid-Atlantic States had come to this part of Canada to seek political reprieve for their allegiances to England.
The Townships are a strange mix of French, English, and American influences, its citizens forever straddling geopolitical and cultural boundaries. [I interrupt this rather didactic and boorish analysis of Stanstead to declare that I’ve just seen a whale. My husband called from the front porch and looking up in time, I saw the beast “leaping” onto its side and showing us its tail before diving under for good. And, really, does anyone need a historical lesson on colonialism? The whale is a reminder that I am avoiding the reality of the subject at hand: a few days ago, I returned to a cemetery I haven’t visited in nearly twenty years. Let’s say it’s the “whale in the room,” the memory I most dread writing about. So, onwards I go.]
The last time I visited the cemetery I was sixteen years old. My late Belgian grandfather and my father’s eldest sister were with me, making this visit bittersweet (the only “sweetness” was my grandfather’s gentle, affectionate manner). The circumstances of my father’s death years before—a car accident followed by three months of quadriplegic paralysis—pale in comparison with the memories of a man who loved nature so thoroughly as to be buried in a sloping cemetery overlooking a lake in a setting resembling a wildlife refuge.
We arrived at the cemetery on the morning of August 17, having spent the night in Brattleboro, Vermont. A thick fog carpeted the road until we crossed the border into a sunny, clear-skied dawn in the Townships.
Everything was as I’d remembered: the gravel road branching in many directions; flowers, cypress trees, and willows; and the lake, smaller than in memory, with a distant canoe shed on the opposite shore. We walked the grounds, our children surprisingly quiet. I will not speak of the following moments, which, though a fragment of the odyssey, belong to only us.
Instead of giving in to sadness, grief having long passed, I gave in to one of Quebec’s guiltiest pleasures: I bought two boxes of p’tits gâteaux Vachon cakes and shared them with the family. Little Debbie has nothing on these, which range from better-than-moon pies to flaky pastries and caramel delicacies. I grew up eating these formerly sugar-and-lard laden treats and in that particular moment, it was exactly what we needed. There’s a reason we call it comfort food, after all.
[Author’s Note: The subsequent chronicles will be far lighter in tone, “Me & Sidney Crosby,” “Vote Fundy!” and “The Gates of Hell or the Lice-Head Motel?” As always, please feel free to leave your comments and stay “tuned” for the next installment of The Homeward Bound Chronicles.]