What can a derelict cabin the woods teach us that Hollywood can't? The joie de vivre, my friends, that can only come from a sacred hiatus of criticality.
Also: how I keep fit.
To Summarize My Tendency
I get thirsty in my inner insides when it's gone too long between holy meanders.
(Thirsty is used here metaphorically, because my inner insides do not actually require fluidic maintenance beyond the normal drinking I do with my mouth and peeing I do with my)
((Inner insides is meant to convey a kind of intimate psychological space, such as a more supernaturally-inclined (or merely more concise) fellow would brand "the))
(((Holy in this context (the context of a man without a literal belief in owning a magical ghost self who obeys metaphysical rather than physical laws) is essentially a theatrical way of saying "really special" in a world where exaggeration of so casually abused that saying anything is really anything risks misinterpretation as)))
((((Meander is meant to support a lot of weight in this sentence, including a hint of definitions literal (both formal and informal) and figurative (both precise and poetic). Since such an aura of quadruple-entendre cannot be reproduced with any kind of fidelity in simple text without resorting to drawing in the margins with crayons, one must explore additional ways to convey (parenthetical amplification, drill down hyperlinks) the basic))))
wiener. soul." understatement. idear.
Geography & Case History
The backyards in the little pocket of Leaside in which I grew up backed onto a forested ravine connected to the Don Valley, an intermittently green many-fingered ditch that is gouged through the metropoloid mush of Toronto from north to south.
This murky watershed is born in the lush Oak Ridges Moraine (near which I live today), splits and wanders through the checkered neighbourhood of Don Mills (where I lived as a teenager), and dies ignobly in a concrete trough that bifurcates Riverdale (where I lived as a young man) and then, stinking, yellow and iridescent, scattered with condoms and grocery store bags, it drools out sadly between the thighs of two artificial spits heavy with industry at the rim of fetid Lake Ontario.
Thus, my holy meanders have often taken me along the river. (Lots of people like to take walks through cities, but that's too much wildlife for me.)
The time when I liked the ravine best was when it had no borders. When I was eight years old I could wander carelessly and find no fence. It was a land apart from adults in which one might stumble upon marvels (abandoned objects, dead animals, spooky glades lit by weird light) or adventures (erecting forts, playing war, running along broken trees to ford rocky gullies) or drama (conflicts without intervention).
The ravine was limitless. It might have been Oz.
One day during a game of hide and seek I pushed far enough through the bush to arrive at the river. On the other side was Sunnybrook Park: joggers with Walkmen, cars sussing out illegal picnic parking, whizzing bicycles carrying fluorescent riders. A water fountain. A peeing dog.
A border. I was chagrined. The ravine lost its magic.
And then, with a friend who lived further north, a great fort was built in the Bayview Glen. We dug a hole and lined it with stones, raised a roof of thatched dried vine on wooden poles, cleared the underbrush around it and surveyed the green world from our perch high on a ridge overlooking a swamp, the source of Wilket Creek.
My friend and I lost touch but I always remembered the fort, and when I was ten I set out to rediscover it. I knew where Wilket Creek joined the river. I believed I could find the way.
Canteen, knapsack, granola bar, gum: I set out upon my quest.
By following the river I found it. The roof had fallen in but I sat in the hole and ate my granola bar, washing it down with tinny, lukewarm water from the canteen. I took a certain male mammal's delight in peeing beside the fort's remains to make my territory marked.
I reflected: though the river had pissed me off by showing me the ends of Leaside's ravine, I recognized that by following it either way were open-ended journeys that would never bring me to another dead-end since the city splayed apart to admit the water. Quests without end, to find what may be found.
Everything makes way for the river, therefore everything would make way for me.
I could walk and forget the world.
A Sampling of Untold River Adventures
CheeseburgerBrown and the Abandoned Factory; CheeseburgerBrown Explores the Brickworks; CheeseburgerBrown and the Woods Behind the Substance-Abuse Rehabilitation Institute; CheeseburgerBrown and the Trespassing Mistake; CheeseburgerBrown and the Scary Mansion; CheeseburgerBrown Gets Trapped on a Roof; CheeseburgerBrown and the Sewer Pipe of Doom; CheeseburgerBrown Wipes with Leaves; CheeseburgerBrown Versus the Naturists; You're a Blockhead, CheeseburgerBrown.
Corn Flakes on the Water
When I was twenty-one years old I stood at the mouth of the Don River and felt blue: it was over. For eleven years I had walked the banks and now I had seen the end: a rectilinear anus of concrete shaping the last curdy whorls of swill into a neat column to mux with the green harbour like a Julia Set parfait, something vaguely resembling Corn Flakes floating on its surface.
I had no gum. I lit a smoke. (Like the noble savage, tobacco carried me on my spirit walks.)
Traffic moaned above me on the overpass, the wind husking and huffing with wake. Seagulls dove at the harbour's swells to rescue bits of garbage and edible offal, squealing and wheeling. It was sunny. The air smelled like somebody else's fart.
I doffed my hat and bowed my head a bit, in recognition of the river's terminus, then squinched out my cigarette and turned around to go home. I figured the river was exhausted for me now. A child's thing, maybe. No longer open-ended, certainly.
The River As Dildo
I was not able to shake the habit. When I was twenty-seven my wife and I moved into a cute little house I despised in North York (we moved out none too long thereafter, but that is another story and has already been told), which was situated in a sea of other little houses cross-hatched with busy avenues and low-storey businesses.
Our landlords told us that if we didn't keep the grass as green as everyone else's we would be charged penalty fees. They were dicks.
We were nowhere near the Don Valley. The best thing I could find was a corridor of hydroelectric towers that crossed our neighbourhood, ferrying Pickering's atomic glory deeper into the megalopolis. That was my river substitute.
(The only trees were periodic, self-same, metal. They hummed.)
The path was too linear to be ideal and the only treasure came from the strange ways the people living on either side of the corridor encroached on the Crown land, building patios and erecting sheds and even planting little farms. (Who expects to find cornfields in North York?) None the less I needed it.
Using the limits of my powers I could barely just imagine that the corridor might lead somewhere unexpected, and thus lose myself in the rubber journey.
Once free, I would dream of my usual vices: teetering civilizations and the robots who love them; jokes to say when I'm nervous; whistling Scheherazade and thinking about galaxies. The best things in life.
Les voyages de tortillard
Trains are exciting and mysterious.
When I was a kid I was dismayed that the red subways and the silver subways did not stick to a single direction (red southbound, silver northbound or red northbound, silver southbound) but rather arrived at Eglinton Station in random order. At a hobby shop I learned that sometimes grown men had model train sets which really moved. I was told that real trains could squish me and I should never play near tracks. On Sesame Street I saw a skit about a menacing train which bore down on poor Grover from behind a closed door. I knew that in the olden days trains had smoke coming out of them.
And then there was Les voyages de tortillard, otherwise known as The Secret Railroad, an animated series from Québec founded on the premise that children weren't being exposed to enough psychedelia. Every kid I knew watched it religiously.
In the series a boy named Simon flew a magic train around a strange universe with an old man, a girl with star-shaped hair and a cat whose yawns caused reality to buckle.
I enjoyed the idea of a railway whose tracks originated in a mundane place (like the basement of an apartment building) but proceeded to a weirder space (like the dreamy, looped-pulse cosmos Simon explored). I liked the idea that a passenger lulled into complacency might miss the transition.
(I hoped to one day miss such a transition myself, or at least to let myself believe so for a precious hour.)
A lot of people feel romantic about trains for various reasons. I feel romantic about them because I like imagine they can travel along unusual dimensions.
The Abandoned Railway
Politicians argue a lot. In my town they argue about making a deal with the provincial government to re-open the railway, closed a decade ago by Mike Harris' fiscal revolution. When they finish arguing they'll order erected a glass train-station with bilingual signs and free wi-fi and maybe even a Tim Hortons.
(And then the abandoned railway that runs through my village with rumble with passenger freight once more: meat-wagons to and from the megalopolis, striped green by default but occasionally painted more garishly by advertisers hawking razors or tampons or Hollywood movies.)
But for now the politicians just argue. For now the railway is just a weed-grown path through the bush, its gullies thoroughfares for beavers.
So this is where I meander, nowadays, when the urge strikes.
I will eventually walk it to Bradford West Gwillimbury where the current station is, around the corner from KFC and Beaver Gas. That is the end of the line, where the abandoned railway becomes an active railroad. When I reach this point I will no longer be able to imagine that around the next bend in the railway's corridor through the trees lies something unexpected.
Until I get there and connect it to the busy world I know, the railway remains a land apart. I will savour it before it is chased out of the shadows and phase transitions to become mundane. I will relish it until every last drop of inflated mystery is gone.
The land on either side of the ties is marsh, punctuated by gnawed trees, dams, lodges, trails. Even when the country is dry these pockets remain wet. They are fed by the springs that feed our well, and which form the source of the Don River as it percolates out of the Oak Ridges Moraine and heads south so Toronto can wipe its ass on it.
I am still walking the river, in a way.
There are not so many mysteries along the sides of a railway as along the manifold twists of a river through the woods. Where a forest might give rise to a true maze the railway remains a labyrinth: one path, turning but continuous, inexorably leading one from one end to the other -- a narrative of space. Any waystations of note become familiar once visited, an item in a serial list of scenery revisited with every back and forth excursion.
("Loaf of bread; quart of milk; stick of butter.")
This is why I was so surprised to discover the scary cabin last week -- because I had passed the point by far in my explorations south, and yet in every other season or weather it had remained obscured from my view by leaves or snow or shadow or imaginary robots or whatever.
(The part of my mind most willing to suspend disbelief imagined that the cabin was always there but not always visible, a thing which revealed itself only when conditions in the world or in the stink of the witness were just so.)
Though I was all out of gum and granola bars and my fingers were cold from jotting down notes which would become the short story The Stars are Wonder I knew I had no choice but to stop to investigate the scary cabin: if this dildo river was willing to provide me a micro-adventure I would be a sorry snob to ignore it.
The cabin had clearly been abandoned for some time. It lay just off the Crown land, nestled in a ring of firs, one of which had fallen and smashed through half the roof. Scattered in the lumpy snow around the threshold were iron frying pans and bottles that looked about a century old. The air was very still and crisp. The only tracks in the snow were those of deer and birds.
I put away my notebook and climbed over the fence.
And then came my sweet moment: as I drew nearer to the smashed entrance to the derelict cabin I began to feel afraid. The cabin was a very lonely place and eerily silent. The inside was thick with gloom. Could an angry vagabond -- some kind of rural bum -- be making his home there? I wondered. Could it have been chosen as a base for hibernating fierce thing?
The undisturbed snow told me nothing lived inside, and I was about to dismiss my nervousness until I realized how precious it was.
You see, there was truly nothing inside the cabin but damp kipple, old leaves and garbage. But for a moment while I hesitated it could have been host to anything -- even ghosts. I might have walked inside and found a corpse. I might have disturbed a monster. I might have awakened something worse.
Before you know, anything is possible.
Well, not really. It was never any more likely that there was a cranky vagabond or a supernatural phantasm inside the abandoned cabin than it was that the abandoned railway might around the next bend lead to Neverland or Fantastica. Never the less, whom would I serve by disbelieving?
I hovered a while. I savoured it. I waited until I was unafraid and then stepped forward into the shadows to sample more spook. I convinced myself I was being watched by the cabin's unholy tenant, rasping breath held while it waited for me to make my move.
I almost bolted from the spot so convinced a part of me became.
The suspension of disbelief is not a virtue in the West, the imagined enemy of a defensive kind of scepticism that we use to shore up the argument for our own intelligence. But it should not be so.
In irrationality we can find treasure. I know because my three-year-old taught me so, and about things like this she is never wrong.
I drink my proof, poised at the threshold of a scary cabin, the bubble of improbable fear taut and ripe and full of potential drama. It would be just a building if I were more concerned with what is real.
(To any who were ever curious: this is where stories come from.)
On my way back to the rail I pause to thank the cabin for a good time. I am grateful to be reminded of the vitality of inspired ignorance. I am happy to be able to use being alive for fun. I have enjoyed myself more than I do at most movies, and I didn't even have to pay admission.
As I meander home in the twilight I keep a sharp lookout over my shoulder for phantom trains. Because you never know. (Or, at least, you shouldn't.)
Posted by Cheeseburger Brown at 21:22