Friday, August 20, 2010

Cape Breton Sojourn

This summer has been magical: a much needed mental, spiritual, emotional and physical break from the crazy, run-around spin cycle of my life for the previous nine months. I love my life, don't get me wrong. I am lucky as peachy pie to be able to spend every day with my kids, to experience their childhoods up-close like I do. But it has been very nice indeed to step off the homeschool treadmill for a couple of months and breathe.

Brian is home for the summer. He spends his days re-modeling the basement (the only cool room in the house) and preparing for the upcoming school year. The kids are home, too. But they are a bit bigger this year. They are largely entertaining themselves. I don't have to watch them every second, which is good for everyone. When we go to the beach, for example, I now make sure to pack a book. This feels like a small miracle. The idea that I can read a book at the beach while the kids are with damn, I have arrived!

I am back to reading the contemplative authors I used to love before these teeming little bundles of energy came into my life. I am reading (or, more to the point, re-reading) Annie Dillard, Sue Hubbell, Thomas Merton, even David Foster Wallace. Dani Shapiro's new book, Devotion, is becoming a new friend. Spaces in my brain are opening wide. All the dangling ganglia are getting a good stretch.

I'm also getting back to the earth. I put in four big raised beds in the back yard (a huge job of hacking up the ground with a pick) and put in a fall crop. I'm hoping to start a flock of chickens in the spring. I'm thinking about bees. I'm reading about urban farmers on the side. Things are looking up.

And running, of course. Lots of long, lovely runs with my friends. Summer is the time to re-connect with my running friends. The beautiful women who used to come over and help push the jogging strollers when the kids were babies. Summer is the time I can get out.

The crowing glory of this wonderful summer, hands down, was our just-returned-from journey to the wilds of northern Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Just to give you and idea of the beauty I lived with every day for two weeks, all of the photos to follow were taken during my daily run from Capstick to Meat Cove and back, a very hilly, enormously scenic 15 km jaunt.

I found our rental house way up on Cape Breton on a whim last winter while scrolling through VRBO, dreaming up carefree summer days. I booked it right away because it was relatively cheap and it looked so perfect. Off the tourist path, smack dab between the mountains and the sea.

Little did I know how perfect it would turn out to be. We were on a dirt road well north of the famed Cabot Trail in a little fishing village called Capstick, Nova Scotia. Except that the fishing has largely dried up. What was once a little town large enough to field a little league baseball team, large enough just two generations ago to have it's own school, is now down to two year-round inhabitants and a smattering of eight or ten houses only lived-in during the summer.

We made good friends with the two guys who stay through the winter, a father and son, both fisherman, both with stories to tell. Just about every day we would do some sort of morning activity -- usually a hike -- and then we would pile onto our bikes in the late afternoon and ride the mile or so of hills to the little Capstick beach, a sand and mostly rock affair with a feeding stream over the beach and lots of little lobster molting in the crystal clear water under our goggles.

The old fisherman, Sonny, lives right about the beach and he sits on his porch in the evenings to have his supper and chat with passers-by. I always stopped to chat. Sonny and I got to be friends. We sat on that porch and got right down to business like two old souls who have been around for centuries: this suburban mom from Connecticut and a man who grew up with no electricity or running water, born to fish and hunt in this remote place.

We talked about books. He gave me lovely books to read about life on Cape Breton when he was growing up. We talked about family. The best years of his life, he said, were the years I'm in now. (But I rarely get much time to myself, I told him. Forget that, he said. Enjoy every minute. I had all of that, and now I'm down to this -- indicating the cottage where he lives alone. And very alone indeed once the tourists like me depart for the winter.)

I tend to romanticize solitude. I have grand visions of living for a season or a year in a cabin somewhere far from civilization, all alone. I read books by the dozens by people who cultivate solitude. I have none of it in my life. None. I put solitude on a pedestal, I know I do. Because here is a man who has all of the solitude he can handle. And he is the kind of man who can deal with being alone. His waters run deep. But he hates it. He lives in his memories. He lives with ghosts.

Living here for two weeks was an escape. No tv, no internet, no cell phone. There was no shopping whatsoever, save a small convenience store ten minutes away and a few gift shops spread over the northern part of the Cabot Trail. We had to travel and hour and a half to a grocery store. All very quaint for a vacation, but how do people live here all the time? It snows like the dickens and the bay ices up. Heaven, for sure, but definitely cut off.

Nell, Simon and Ben did surprisingly well considering I put a sheet over the television and there were no other kids to play with at all. They read, they drew on their huge sketch pad, they made their own board games and played them as well as Yatzee and Backgammon. They rose to the occasion and for that I am grateful to them.

This place would be paradise, except for the coyotes. They are starting to attack people. They killed a woman last year in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, on a trail we took on clear. blue day. This year they tried to pull a teenager out of her sleeping back at one of the park's campsites. People are getting freaked out. I was very much on edge during my runs every morning. I saw a big coyote in the yard one evening, and we heard them many nights.

Run with a stick, everyone told me. One morning I saw what turned out to be a fox on the road. At first I thought it was a coyote and it nearly gave me a heart attack. This is it, I thought. This is it.

But I kept running. Every morning. Why??

By the time the two weeks were up, the kids were ready to go home and I think Brian was, too. I'm not sure if I was or not. It was so nice to be up and away. Cut off. I wonder how long it would have taken me to want to go home. Another week? Another month? A year?

This campground was the turnaround point on my run. This shed underneath is the office. A shed. You have to love this place.

Our last day was clear blue and warm. (Warm being relative -- the temperatures ranged between 65 and 75. Local people though I was crazy to run in the "heat.")

On the last day we drove the 8 km into Meat Cove and did a sublime hike through the woods out to a grassy headland leading steeply down to a cliff over the water. Of course, we didn't have the camera with us. We took surprisingly few photos here. It's like we were doing our best to be in present in each moment without memorializing, without turning our days into memories before their time.

The mental image of Nell and Simon running down that grassy headland full of wildflowers, well ahead of the rest of us, their heads disappearing down the hill, the water stretching to a perfect horizontal line in front of them: that will stay with me for a long time.

We knew the drive home was going to be a marathon, and it was. 20 hours from start to finish. I guess that would have to make it an ultra. But everyone was good. Blissed out, tired and ready for a long sit.

We left at four in the morning and our route took us back through the highlands, where we had spent some lovely days hiking through the remote barrens. I knew I was in moose territory, because we had seen moose on the trails. And sure enough, as I poked my way along, there ahead was a moose right in the road.

I slowed to and tried to pass him on the left, but he was having none of it. He sped up and tried to cut me off the road. So I slowed even more and followed him down the right lane. We followed him for about half a mile, this moose loping through the darkness, backlit by our headlights. His rump was at eye level and his gait was mesmerizing. It was like a mirage, this moose. Like a hallucination at mile 95 in a hundred mile ultra. We were all quiet, attentive. We were all together in this dreamscape.

Much later, hours and hours later, when I thought I could not stand to be in the car one more instant, could not concentrate on the road for even another second, Brian said, "Remember the moose."

And the dream moose got us home safe and sound.

Here are a few more random photos. We have been back for several days now, but in my head I'm still half in Capstick, Nova Scotia.