The Gaspé Peninsula

“Will I ever wear my black dress again?” Emily asked as she crammed her panniers the next morning.

“Good question, Em.” Hilda was grunting over her panniers, too. “It may be time to ship some things home, if we’re planning to return from Campbellton.” 

“Besides, we never could get the blood and stains from the woods out of it. Maybe a professional back in Charlottesville can do something about it.”

“Or maybe you need a new dress,” said Jack. Both women gave him an icy stare. “After we get back, not now.”

They rolled out of the campground by eight am and were soon riding into the sun along the Route Verte on Highway 132. To their left, the Saint Lawrence gradually spread out until it was 22 km across by mid-afternoon. To their right the farms continued to dominate, but slowly the tall forests behind the fields crept closer and closer to the road. They stopped in Rivière-du-Loup, because Hilda remembered that they had a post office downtown. They crossed the bridge over the river and turned to the Camping du Quai on the water.

“It’s kind of ugly,” Emily said, “another RV Park with water slides.”

“The tent sites are in the back. Not very scenic, but quiet.” Hilda said. “We can shop here for supplies, but we can also take out what we want to ship and get down to the post office before it closes. There’s a lovely park with a trail. We can come back that way.”

They pitched camp, went through their bags and assembled about five pounds of things each, which could go home. With that in a pannier, they rode into town, bought a box at the Canada Post office and sent it off. Emily emailed her mother the tracking data. Then they rode out to the park by the rapids. The trail let them out just south of the campground. They picked up some fresh fish and other things at a grocery store and went back to the campground to fix supper.

“Tomorrow may be our last check-in for a few days,” Hilda said as they prepared to call home. “There are no cell towers in some parts, so on any given day, we may not get a signal.”

“My kind of place,” said Emily with a smile.

“You’re not much of a city girl, are you?” Jack asked.

“I thought I was – until I came out here with you guys.” Emily tested a roast potato on the grill with a fork. “I love the woods and the mountains and the quiet.”

“Even when you were running from bad guys and bears?”

Emily thought for a moment. “I was scared, especially at first, when I was in the tree watching them look for me. But once I got into the woods, I felt at home. I mean, I had what I needed to survive, and I knew that I couldn’t be more than a couple of days from civilization if I followed the water downhill. The bears were more predictable than the people.”

“You’re a remarkable young woman, Em.”

“I don’t think so. What about you two? Country or city?”

Hilda and Jack exchanged glances.

“Personally, I prefer the country, too,” said Jack. “That’s why I ride solo most of the time and far away from the beaten path.”

“I always think of you two riding everywhere together.”

“Only since Hilda retired from the Army. We didn’t know each other until her last tour.”

“What about you, Hilda?”

“I like both. That’s why I ride from city to city through the country.”

“I think I could live like the Gordon-Smythe’s or the Langlais’ very easily.”

“Tomorrow, we’ll cross into the Gaspésie,” said Hilda. “You’ll love it.”

The next day, Hilda’s words came into focus, as they rode up the south shore of the Saint Lawrence and the towns thinned out. By midday, Hilda was signalling a left turn into the Parc National du Bic. They had to wait for a half-dozen logging trucks and several RVs to pass before crossing the highway.

“Where did all this traffic come from?” Emily asked.

“The autoroute 20 ended 20 km back, so all the east-bound traffic gets on the 132 with us.”

“Good thing we have this bike lane,” said Jack.

They checked in at the gatehouse. Beyond the reception center, RV’s were parked in neat rows. Hilda noticed the sag in Emily’s shoulders.

“Isn’t it kind of early to stop for the day?” Emily asked.

“Don’t worry about the RVs. Wait till you see the tent camping. This park is worth stopping for and spending some time hiking around. Tonight, we shouldn’t hear the traffic.”

They found a campsite off the road, deep in the park on a hill. Pines trees hid them from the campers on the lower level. The washroom was down there, but it was worth it to have the privacy and be able to hear the water on the rocks. They hiked out to the flats and took pictures and selfies on the shore.

As they were finishing supper, a pair of motorcycles roared into the site. Emily’s hackles went up, but the riders immediately shut off their engines and waved a friendly salute. From their beards and gang-looking leathers, Emily had been ready for the worst. The two bikers quickly set up their camp, just as the sun set, and turned in. Emily slapped herself mentally for judging them so quickly.

“I saw your face when they pulled in,” said Hilda. “Surprised?”

Emily blushed and looked down. “Yes. It makes me think of the way Mom would avoid bicycle tourists when we lived in Newton.”

“What did you observe?”

Emily was surprised to get another test on observing.

“First, their beards and leather jackets, and the fact that they rode Harley Davidsons.”

“And?”

Emily thought. “They had panniers for their gear. They also set up their tent like they were really used to camping. I guess they had supper somewhere before getting here.”

“Colors?”

“One redhead, one brown. Beards going grey. The gang patch on the back – if that is what it was – seemed to be a red octopus or something.”

“Not bad. Anything to add, Jack?”

“I’d say they’ve been married a long time and are comfortable with themselves.”

Emily’s jaw dropped. “You mean they’re gay?” Jack nodded. “How can you tell?”

“Same as any married couple. Smooth familiarity with the routine. Don’t need to talk to one another. Two guys that big sleeping in a tent that small? What do you think?”

Hilda winked at Jack and grinned.

“So much for first impressions,” said Emily. “I need to watch what people do and don’t do, too.”

That night Emily thought about how she and her mother had changed over the last year, before drifting off with the gentle night sounds of the forest.

After breakfast, they rode back out to the 132 and headed east. They quickly got used to the traffic, because the cars and trucks both gave them a wide berth, even if they didn’t slow down.

The forest had completely overtaken the farms by the time they approached Matane. Pine trees grew right by the highway. The north shore of the river had long ago dropped below the horizon.

“The air smells different here,” said Emily as they stopped at a picnic area for a water break.

“I think that’s what Jerry was talking about – how you can smell the change when you get to the Atlantic Ocean,” said Jack. “The dead things on the shore now are salt-water creatures and seaweed.”

In town, they stopped at a supermarket to buy supplies for supper and breakfast, then the followed the Matane River into the forest. They settled into a secluded campground. The RV’s were well separated and hidden by the trees. Their tent site was close to the river, which took some climbing and dropping to find.

“Tomorrow, we’ll use the bicycle bridge at the south exit of the campground to cross the Matane and go back on the other side,” said Hilda. “That way, we won’t have to climb out of here in the morning.”

They grilled some fish and roasted corn for supper, then sat around the campfire ring enjoying the evening as the sun went down. The nearest other campers were well out of sight. When the fire was done, they buried the embers and turned in. They slept the sleep of the peaceful.

The next day the coast road began to go up over promontories as often as it went around them, creating a long series of steep climbs and dizzying descents into the next coastal village. At Les Mechins, they noticed that the water was turning a different colour, becoming the greenish blue of the Atlantic. The mountains beyond the north shore of the Saint Lawrence had disappeared from view, so the effect was that of a coastline on the ocean.

Their destination was in the town of Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, about 100 km from Matane. They parked outside a supermarket and went inside for groceries, and to ask for directions. In the checkout line, Hilda noticed that they were the only shoppers, so she asked the cashier about the camping, in French.

“You must mean the Sea Shack,” she answered, “That’s in Tourelle. It’s where all the young people are tonight.” She smiled at Emily. Clearly not a cycling fan, thought Jack.

“But we thought it was in Saint-Anne-des-Monts,” said Hilda.

“It is, madame. There are four villages in Sainte-Anne. Tourelle is the last one, about 18 km up the road.” Jack rolled his eyes.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course, I’m sure. My daughter will be there, too. A big concert tonight.”

They bought some food that they would not need to cook, some extra bottles of water, and mounted up.

“I just noticed the sign for Tourelle,” said Emily. “And see, that one says Sainte-Anne-des-Monts with Mont-Albert in parentheses.”

“That’s the first village,” said Hilda. “OK, now we know how to read the place names.” Sure enough, 16 km along the road, the sign for Sainte-Anne-des-Monts (Tourelle) appeared. By the time they found the Sea Shack, the sun had dipped below the woods.

They had to walk their bikes down a rutted dirt road to the beach. Cars and motor scooters were tightly packed on both sides. Rock music rolled up the hill at them. When they reached the auberge, they saw posters for the various local rock bands, with the Fish-monks scheduled that night.

“They must be popular,” said Emily, wide-eyed. “Everyone around must be here.”

“That’s what the lady at the supermarket said,” said Hilda.

“Let’s check in,” said Jack. “I hope we can find a spot.” He nodded to the beach. Hundreds of tents were pitched in the sand all the way to the rocky cliffs in the distance.

At reception, the staff told them to find whatever space they could but absolutely not to camp beyond the ropes indicating where the dunes were. About 100 metres from the main house, they found a patch of sand right up against the rope and made the best of it, sharing tent pegs where the two tents met. Emily’s tent opened toward the music coming from the auberge; the other tent opened to the east toward the cliffs.

They settled in quickly, but it was still dark when they made their way past their neighbors to the main house. Emily was getting excited about the idea of a rock concert on the beach.

“They’re good, too,” she exclaimed as the group carried off complicated covers of the most popular American bands. The venue turned out to be a very large wooden deck with hundreds of teenagers and twenty-somethings swaying and shouting in front of the stage. The bar ran along the east and south sides.

“I’m all for a beer and a place to sit,” said Jack. He bought three beers and found a spot on the steps to the main house. Hilda and Emily had joined him for less then two minutes, when a pair of excited teenagers came out of the dancing crowd and asked Emily for an autograph. She obliged, and then followed them out to the dance floor.

“She’s going to be OK,” said Hilda, smiling.

“In her element,” said Jack. “Makes me feel like an old man right now.”

“You want to dance, too?”

“Not now. No room and this is the best seat in the house.”

“You really are tired, aren’t you?”

“Now that I’m resting, I’m OK, but those hills really got to me today. It’s hotter than it’s been all week.” Jack stood up. “Let’s go see the rest of the place.”

He took Hilda’s hand as they climbed up to the lodge. It was a hostel and a restaurant normally, with a common area above reception (leave your shoes on the stairs). The rooms were filled, of course, but the owners let concert-goers pitch tents on the beach. Better that then having them driving home in the dark, drunk or high.

Jack and Hilda watched the crowd for a while. Emily was still dancing, clearly having a great time with her new friends and admirers.

“I am not sure whether she is a celebrity here or not,” said Jack.

“It looks to me like she has vanished in the crowd. Everyone is so wrapped up in the music and whatever, that they don’t notice who’s around them.”

They walked to the beach, then skirted the lapping waves as they made their way back to the tent. They missed it and had to follow the dune ropes back 50 metres to find their site. Two tents over towards the beach, two couples were singing around a guitar, but otherwise, the camping area was empty.

“I’m all for turning in,” said Jack, “but we should stay up for Emily.”

“I’m the guardian. You lie down. I’ll go back and check on her in a while.”

“OK.” Jack crawled into the tent carefully, leaving his shoes outside. Hilda removed hers, curled in behind him, shaking the sand off her feet before pulling her legs in. She nestled up against Jack and kissed his ear.

“Checking on Emily?”

“In a while, I said.”

Puis-je t’acheter une bière?” Can I buy you a beer? Emily’s current dance “partner” asked. He was tall, but not gigantic, slender like a cyclist, with the most intense eyes and dark eyebrows she had ever seen. His hair was jet black, with a curl that fell onto his forehead. Pale, clear skin and a strong chin.

Oui, merci.” Emily felt very happy and a little breathless. After dancing continuously, she was glad that the band was taking a break. She caught her breath while he ordered a pair of pilsners.

“Marcel Sabatier.” He held out her beer. “I know who you are now.” He had switched to English.

Emily reached up and put her finger on his lips. “Si tu le sais, ne dis rien, je t’en prie.”

“OK, but we can speak English, non?

“That’s fine, but I already signed some autographs and I am hoping to stay lost in the crowd here.”

“Then let’s get away from the bar and find a place where they won’t be looking around.” He led her out to the beach below the stage. There were couples making out, groups walking together to cool off, and some impromptu campfire singalongs scattered along the shore. The distinct smell of pot wafted up on the offshore breeze.

Marcel and Emily exchanged the usual introductory talk. He was an engineering student, home for the weekend.

“This is more exciting than I expected on the Gaspé,” Emily admitted.

“It’s a quiet place, believe me. If it weren’t for these concerts, the young people would go crazy, and even more of them would leave for good.”

“So, the concerts are a retention initiative.”

“Probably not on purpose, but we don’t have the drain that some other areas of the Gaspé have. You will see some very poor and almost abandoned villages on the other side.”

The band returned to the stage. Marcel took their empty bottles to the recycle bin. Moments later they were lost in the music and dancing. Emily felt a buzz and gladly let herself go with the music and the dance. At the next intermission, she let a group of three that she was dancing with buy her another beer. When the band wrapped it up, she thought it was another intermission. She felt unsteady when she stopped dancing and tried to find the restrooms. She started toward the house, but there was such a crowd that she headed to the beach, to walk around the dance/bar complex to the main house with its restrooms on the ground floor. As she rounded the corner walking in the sand by the building, she felt the world spin and go dark.

She dreamed she was in a small boat just off the beach. The winds were buffeting the craft and howling. Every time the boat crested a swell, she felt a shuddering and her stomach rebelled. The scene fuzzed out and took a new shape.

“Emily! Wake up!” She opened her eyes and looked into the deep blue of Hilda’s. The shuddering was Hilda’s hands on her shoulders. Her head was still spinning. She twisted to the side and threw up. Before Hilda could catch her, she fell face down in the sand again and lay there.

“Don’ feel good.”

“I guess not. Em. Let’s roll away from that mess. C’mon.” Hilda pushed her until she rolled on her back. “Don’t try to get up. You’ll bump your head.”

“Wha’?” Emily sat up and cracked her head on a diagonal cross-beam. “Ow! Where’m I?”

“Under the dance floor, almost. You must have passed out here and rolled under the building.”

“I was going to the bathroom. I think.”

“Well, you took care of that already. Don’t move while I pull you out.”

Hilda backed out then reached in to grab Emily’s ankles. She pulled the girl through the sand until she was out in the open.

Emily rolled on her side. She was awake now and feeling very embarrassed. Her head was still spinning, but her stomach was calm. She tasted beer and vomit, but made herself swallow and hold it all down. She got up unsteadily and leaned on Hilda. She was covered with sand, and she could smell the urine on the front of her shorts.

“Oh, Hilda, I’m shorry.”

“Never mind that now. I’m sorry, too. I should have come back sooner.”

“Wha’ happened?”

“Jack fell asleep, and I was coming back for you, but I must have dozed off, too.”

“I mean, here.” Emily looked around. “Where’s everybody?”

“The concert’s over and everyone not staying on the beach went home.”

“Oh.” Emily looked around. Her vision was still fuzzy, but they were alone under a thick canopy of brilliant stars. She forced herself to focus and saw that the sky and the sea were the same black. Less than a half-dozen campfires were still going out on the beach. She could hear some off-tune singing with guitars or ukuleles.

“What time’zit?”

“After three.”

“I think I c’n walk now.”

“Good, let’s hit the washroom first.” They got Emily cleaned up as well as they could. “I’m sorry,” Emily said again as they made their way gingerly along the dune ropes.

“You said that already. You’ll have plenty of time to think about it tomorrow.”

Hilda gave Emily some fresh bread and made her drink most of a litre bottle of water.

“I’ll make you re-hydrate more tomorrow.” She helped Emily ease into the tent backwards, getting the sand off her feet. “You OK to turn in now, Em?”

“Yes. I think so. I’m not dizzy anymore.”

“Good, get a few hours of sleep. We’ll wake you.” Hilda leaned into the tent and kissed Emily on the forehead. “Good night.”

“Good night, Hilda. Thanks.”

Emily was asleep on top of her sleeping bag even before Hilda finished easing back out. Hilda zipped up the tent and walked around to her own entrance. Jack was still sleeping and did not stir as she eased out of her shirt and shorts. Hilda lay down next to him and looked up at the top of the tent for a while. She forced herself not to dwell on what might have happened, but she could not quell her anger with herself. Sleep was a long time coming.

===============

Until next time,

Smooth roads & tailwinds,

Jonathan

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