Tuesday, August 22, 2006

In the Company of Strangers, by Lisa Mitchell

(Originally published in "The Age" newspaper, Melbourne, Australia, January 2004).

It was a magical place of gentle repute tucked so inconveniently within the folding mountains of British Columbia that only backpackers with slabs of time might find it. It would take a bus, two ferries, a motor boat and a muddy walk to reach Fiddlehead Farm in the lake-fed hinterland off Vancouver’s north-west coast.

Claudia steered the motorboat along deep green Lake Powell between a range of movie star mountains, a silvery V rippling in our wake. She was one of an itinerant bunch helping Linda, the owner, run the property in exchange for living expenses and a rewarding experience.
For the next five days, she said, there would be no electricity, three-minute showers every second day, communal meals at set times (no exceptions), and no special boat trips back to Powell River, the nearest township, for anyone at odds with their surrounds. A personality clash here might be fatal.

“It’s heaven,” Kirsten at work had said. I pictured a scene from a childhood story book, Enid Blyton’s The Children of Willow Farm, adding some fir-clad mountains. “There’s this cute little meditation hut over a pretty stream. You’ll love it.”

Five of us trudged 30 minutes behind Claudia up a rugged forest path lined with Douglas fir. Our backpacks would arrive by tractor later, she said. There were exactly eight children under nine screeching about the claret-coloured timber farmhouse as we arrived.

“Oh,” I ummed, wondering if the meditation hut had been commandeered for more important things like a cubby house. “They arrived today too,” Claudia offered. Bugger, I thought, and it wasn’t even shower night.

I would share my hut with two sixty-somethings and their unlikely friendship: Pat, a garrulous, opinionated and outgoing adventurer and Val, a kindly soul too frail for her age and devoted to guru Osho. Together we would spend the following nights gasping for air as we slowly gassed ourselves. Fiddlehead’s pulse-heavy vegetarian diet shocked most lazy bowels into protest, and Val refused to open windows lest the chill nights launch her bronchitis.

What was missing from my vision of Willow Farm was a more obvious selection of potential friends and travel buddies. In their place was this crowd mostly under 10 and over 40. At 31, I had yet to realise age as a state of mind, and the understanding that people are often drawn together under the guise of chance, by ties that bind.

By day we’d radiate in the few separate directions available to us. At night, we’d gather awkwardly around the campfire until Oscar the guitar-playing Chilean and his gifted soprano wife, Mariella, would bravely conduct our discordant choir in singsong – the children, David, Erik, Cliff, Kathy, Pat, Val, Claudia, Rachael and me.

Somewhere, between evening saunas and midnight rolls in the icy stream, three enormous “family” meals a day, and lazy afternoons on the farmhouse deck, time began to pass, but my restlessness did not. The tiny meditation hut, built over a babbling stream, was everything Kirsten had promised. I sat impatiently within it at least once a day, forcing tumbling thoughts to scurry.

If we spent one more afternoon with Val and Mariella gathering “the healing vibrations of nature” with crystal wands, Pat’s eyes might roll out the back of her head and my smile might harden. Pat and I walked several times to nearby lakes in hope of a serene canoe or swim, but the kiddies always arrived earlier and stayed late.

“I’m heading up Tin Hat. Coming?” said Pat. Perhaps a hike would help me surrender to this idyllic retreat, with its rolling grounds littered with animals and vegetable patches and chickens that laid eggs when they felt like it.

“It only takes four hours,” Claudia nudged, though I suspected her lean thighs were no match for my marshmallow ones. Still, if Pat was up for it just 12 months after her double-hip replacement, I could hardly decline.

It was disturbingly silent in this dark mountain forest of giant fir and red cedar. The gradient climbed far too quickly and we stumbled perpetually over knobbly roots hidden by refuse, no ankle or knee was safe. Where in hell where the trail markers? A ratty piece of plastic here and there hardly heralded the way.

In the shape of bearded trees and creepy hunched rocks, the fallen trunks and grasping branches, I spied `wild animals’ ready to pounce, none of which had ever existed in this part of the world, save the brown bear. “Pat? Paaaat? Paaaat!” At her pace we’d never peak, I grizzled impatiently. “Where the hell is she?” Now I’d gone and lost her, and me.

So fierce was the exertion and so irrational my fear that my bowling-ball heart ricocheted about my chest. I was in no shape to sensibly assess the six-foot high impasse of bracken and fern ahead but launched myself through it anyway - thwack, scratch, jab – emerging half an hour later a sweaty, pummelled mess.

Beyond the bracken, Tin Hat’s summit made of monster boulders and flat granite faces beckoned. On top, I could see Dave and Erik whistling and waving. With no path in sight, I scrambled up a steep, prickling fern face desperate to reach them and got horribly stuck. “Oh shit,” I mumbled tight lipped, feeling my chest and throat constrict in panic. Upwards was vertical and fern-free, downwards was a slippery, slide beyond my control.

About an hour later, Pat wrestled herself free of the bracken and threw a rather sharper voice my way so that I might track her. I slid and grappled on my back and bum in a trembling heap to the ground. Pat may have been 61 with plastic hips but she lead me to the summit with sensible assurance, her dignity well in tact and no grudges held - no humbler a hare was me.

On top of Tin Hat, surrounded by glinting jade lakes and majestic peaks spearheading a vibrant sky in every direction, was the tranquillity the meditation hut promised and the soothing reassurance Val’s crystal wand had captured. Here the four of us, so separate in age and attitude, celebrated our climb in wide-smiling, silent reverie.

Too tired to chew our dinners, we watched shooting stars by the campfire that night, the eclectic guests of Fiddlehead Farm all huddled together over tales of Tin Hat.
All these years later, I know the best holidays are the ones where you abandon your expectations entirely and arrive in the present to appreciate the intriguing company of strangers. Why ever would you journey to find more of the same?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Porchsitting and other things to do.

Somehow I never got around to climbing Tin Hat.

I came to Fiddlehead for the first time in 1994, because the prior year I had been intrigued in a Vancouver hostel by a hand-made poster that listed “walking the pig” under “things to do”, warned me that it was in an isolated location in the rainforest, and advised that I wait for the radiophone to ring at least ten times. After I became a regular guest, my favourite thing to do was porchsitting. Out there I used to listen through the open kitchen window to phone conversations (punctuated by the word “over”) with prospective guests. Before a first-timer was allowed to book, they were warned that they were expected to commit to staying three or four days until the next town-trip, be ready to do dishes, have meals cooked by staff and eat family style at big tables, have hot water only on sauna nights, and porchsit.

Amazingly, in all those years, only a few guests didn't stay till the boat day, but instead fled early back to Powell River -- an all-day hike. There were many more travellers who, having risked a significant chunk of the British Columbia leg of their Grand Tour on this one spot, came to consider that their arrival at the handmade farm gate had been a personal turning point. A number abandoned the rest of their itinerary in favour of camping in the orchard. They swapped work for food and for a sense of belonging. In fact, it was a bit of a joke how many people booked the minimum stay, and ended up, months later, reluctantly saying goodbye -- leaving heartfelt goodbyes and their addresses in the guest book.

I came to savour my arrival experience of climbing into "the Eden Express" at the marina with a bunch of strangers. The talk would flow around anticipated hikes, walks in the woods, lake swims and canoe paddles. Most visitors did do all that, but we also found ourselves enthusiastically weeding the tomatoes, playing Charades and Parcheesi, washing our clothes in buckets, sitting naked in the wood-fired sauna, and signing up on the job board. For me, there always seemed to be lots of time left over to swap stories on the porch.

For reasons to be explained elsewhere, those log benches, the iron "time to eat" triangle that children took turns ringing, the humming bird feeder, and the guest book are now gone. This blog is an attempt to create a story space for those like me, who always intended to go back there some day and climb the mountain -- and now cannot. Perhaps we can still do some more porchsitting here.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Fiddlehead Linda --

I am coming out of mourning and feel able to answer your wonderful emails and let you know where I am now. Outside Duncan BC, on Vancouver Island is the small seaside village of Cowichan Bay. I have a small house, in a new neighbourhood with lots of children, cats and dogs on the street. My two sons are ten minutes away and I enjoy being near my grandchildren. My daughter and her husband run a large dairy farm in New Zealand, where I go for three months of the year. With the grandchildren on my quad I herd cows, make muffins and grow huge cucumbers and tomatoes. In my tiny backyard in Cow Bay I'm building a ceramics studio, and will be taking a sculpture course this fall. I am part of an active Quaker meeting in Duncan. This spring I put in a large garden at my son's house. Once again I grow enough vegetables to support the hungry in the world. I have not been able to return to the Fiddlehead land, but I cherish the memories and hope to gather your anecdotes for a complete picture. Please keep in touch with me with your stories and photos.