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Gasping in Gaspé

Posted in Adventures With Humans

If this had happened in P.E.I., I wouldn’t have been half as anxious–someone would have approached me, pointed out the trouble, and knitted me a new engine while I sat drinking tea at their kitchen table. I probably would have gotten another week on the island as the family that saved me insisted that I meet all of their relatives.

Travelling solo takes some doing. There are benefits, like being able to listen to Rosemary Clooney over, and over again if you damn well want to, but when challenges arise, things can feel ridiculously stressful. There is nobody else to talk you down, or impress a different perspective; it’s all you. There have been times, along my route across the country, where I have had to remind myself that the point of the trip was to experience the country and the people that live in it. Simply driving through–racing from on point to the next without any interactions–wasn’t going to offer much in the way of thrilling dinner conversation.  The universe has ways of slowing me down when I lose this focus. 

After departing P.E.I., I drove north and then east along the southern edge of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. My plan was to spend a few days camping in Forillon National Park, at the tip of the peninsula. The route was straight forward on my map, but I was not prepared for how busy, and how slowly traffic moved through on this summer Friday.

There were no bypasses, forty towns to go through before Forillon, and nothing I could do about it unless I decided to abandon this effort and turn back.  So on we went–me and Rosemary. We kept a good clip, as much as possible because I was looking forward to setting up camp, relaxing in the trees, and not driving. The towns along the way were nice–some nicer than others. There were a few towns that seemed to feel the need to offer carnival-like attractions, as if they had forgotten that there was, you know, the water right there! 

After a few hours on this route, I kept noticing the sound of someone’s terrible exhaust system on their car. Sometimes I thought the sound was coming from the car ahead of me, and other times I figured the grumbler was behind. It wasn’t until I stopped for gas that I realized that the sound of trouble was coming from my own van. I was horrified–the sound unmistakeable, as if there was a stow-away demon hidden deep under the engine. I sat parked for a few moments, listening. My stomach flipped and I could feel my heart beating in my ears

If this had happened in P.E.I., I wouldn’t have been half as anxious–someone would have approached me, pointed out the trouble, and knitted me a new engine while I sat drinking tea at their kitchen table. I probably would have gotten another week on the island as the family that saved me insisted that I meet all of their relatives. I would have been asked back for Christmas. Here in Quebec, I felt quite on my own. I’ve always felt this here, like an intruder.

My French isn’t terrible, but when you’re feeling like an idiot, the words don’t exactly flow, plus I hadn’t heard much French spoken in a while, so my ear was not acclimatized. I wished I had had someone with me at that moment. 

I wished Rosemary was real. I was past the half-way point to Forillon, so I decided to just keep going, hoping that the engine would not be reduced to a pile of iron filings five kilometres out. Other people drive with terrible sounding exhaust systems, right? I’ve heard them. Now I would be one of them. There, now I had people.

The stress never abated completely for the rest of the drive, but simmered in the background. When I arrived at Forillon, things ramped up and I figured that I might just have a big, old heart attack, or stroke, because according to the agent at the park desk, there was no space for me. The park was completely full. Merde! The sun was getting ready to kip, and I was wishing, more than anything that I had not decided to do this part of the trip, and that I was, instead, at home in bed. The agent, who was kind enough, directed me to a small, private campground close by. I drove past and saw that it was chock full of R. V.’s, which meant generators and likely boom-boxes, and I was just not in the mood. I turned and decided to make a run for it–drive all the way home. “Screw this,” I thought.  

On the way out, I decided that I had better fill up with gas. I stopped at a small, independent gas station just outside of the town of Gaspé, in the middle of nowhere. An older man, the owner, I assumed, came out and I asked him to listen to the engine.  I popped the hood. He looked, and listened to the demon yowling and grumbling from the depths.

In his broken, but wonderful English, he said, “Oh, my girl you should not drive this home.” 

He went on to explain that the problem was that the issue, whatever it was, was close to the manifold and therefore there might be a risk of fire. Anything farther back might not have mattered so much. He explained that he was sorry but that he could not fix it, as he was closing up, this being a Friday night, and suggested I find a place to stay in town. I liked him. He reminded me of some Frank Capra angel. I shook his enormous, grease-covered hand, then drove into Gaspé.

To be honest, I was feeling as if I had gotten myself into a predicament and I was quite unsettled, but knowing that I couldn’t head for home was, in a way, some kind of relief. At least I had a parameter from an objective party.  

Now, if Rosemary Clooney had been my mother, here’s where she might have said,“Listen, you gorgeous doll, let’s get a swell room and go have ourselves a drink. I’ll give you a shoulder rub and we’ll call the cavalry in to sort this out. This day has been long enough, don’t you think?”

I knew I was overreacting, so tried to clock towards a better perspective. Besides, who was the damn cavalry that was going to deal with this for me? “Put your adult pants on. You can do this,” I told myself.

Gaspé was damn close to being full. The look on the desk clerk’s face when I pleaded for a room did not fill me with hope, but she found one and I was grateful. Later on, when I learned that there were no mechanics working during the weekend, I asked to extend my stay to the Monday night at least. I figured that on Monday, I would find someone to properly assess the demon issue so I would have an idea of how all of this was going to play out. The clerk gave me another look, but found that I could, indeed, have the room for the time I needed.  So? There I was, stuck in a pretty beautiful part of the world for longer than I had planned. Yes, I was preparing myself for what I was imagining to be an enormous repair bill, for the attention of a specialized mechanic using parts that he needed to order from Pluto, and you try getting anything shipped from Pluto on a Monday! There was nothing I could do about it. Not a thing, so I decided to try to let this trouble go and resigned myself to exploring for the weekend. 

Gaspé is a beautiful town, perched along Gaspé Bay (Baie de Gaspé) which leads out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There are gobs of history displayed about the area in the Gaspé Museum, and throngs of plaques laid along the boardwalk, but there’s only so much history I can absorb.  

Frankly, what thrilled me was the discovery of Café des Artistes, and the fact that their coffee was some of the best I had had during this whole cross Canada journey.  

The staff seemed nice, tolerant. One fella offered me an English menu after I described my weekend predicament. I know he meant well, but I was crestfallen. I thought I was doing well with my French, unless, without knowing it, I had ordered a grilled cheese sandwich with a snow shovel on the side. I quieted down and concentrated on listening to the overall chatter in the room to see what I could pick up. Yes, I imagined them all rolling their eyes over the English, but, again, there was nothing I could do about it.

There was a pair of clerks in an outdoor clothing store called, Chlorophylle, that were by far, the nicest in Gaspé and helped me with my French.  After a time, one of the clerks went on a rant that I tried to follow. It sounded like she was talking at warp speed. When I signaled that I had completely lost the thread, she laughed. “Yes, we use a lot of slang.” 

My saviour, over the whole weekend, was a woman named, Marie Gaudet. I had gone into her shop of the same name, to look around and buy some post cards. When I explained my vehicular woe, she gave me her mechanic’s number with assurance that he would come through for me. I was thrilled! The idea of not having to find a mechanic on my own was a relief. I didn’t want to end up committing my repair job to some bastard–Charles, le Requin(shark) du Gaspé, whom I had pictured in my mind’s eye–the archetypal smooth swindler. Not this time, Charles! I had a connection. Someone had my back! 

I decided to put on my big girl pants and call Gaudet’s mechanic, Roger Dubé, on the Saturday. I figured that I could leave a message and at least, start the process. I was hoping that he would not answer the phone because then I would not have to struggle to understand him. He did answer though, but in his pretty good English, suggested that I do my best to explain the situation. He would understand what he could and we would go from there. I ended up with an appointment on the Monday at 1pm and felt as if this might all turn out okay.  Maybe I wasn’t going to have a stroke after all. Dubé sounded nice on the phone, and I was astounded to get a slot so quickly. I was still preparing for a giant bill, and possibly a day or two waiting for parts. So be it. 

I spent the rest of the weekend hiking and watching people. While standing at a cross walk waiting for the light to change, a couple in the nearest car rolled down the window and asked me, in French, for directions! They had mistaken me for a villager and I couldn’t have been happier, but I explained that I was only a tourist.

I didn’t want to risk giving bad directions; “Yes, go left at the slice of bread and continue on until your grandmother sues the cattle.”  

The town lunatic wasn’t unsettling me anymore. He was a harmless fella, all dressed in black, pacing and muttering to himself and kept on his way as long as I didn’t make eye contact. There was another odd man, a fixture almost, on the balcony of my motel building. He seemed to always be sitting out when I passed, no matter what time of day. We nodded to each other. I have no idea what his story was. 

Gaspé seemed to ebb and flow with groups of middle-aged men on very expensive motorcycles. They would arrive, park their bikes in front of their room doors, and then spend the evenings sitting out, staring at them. Most of these bikes were enormous, reminding me of something out of Star Wars: The Middle-Aged Crisis. I’ve never understood motorcycles. I rode dirt bikes as a kid and grok the concept of going fast, but for me, the idea of driving on a highway and not being able to hold a cup of coffee is still an idea that belongs only in a nightmare. 

Generally, I found people in Gaspé to be the same as anywhere else. Some were quick to return a wave. Others gave nothing. Some were full of themselves, and others were just the nicest people you could imagine. Yes, the language thing adds a bit of a wrench, but I think, only if you let it.   

I found a glorious beach, La Plage Haldimand, on the way to Dubé’s garage, and spent a couple hours watching people out enjoying themselves. I felt like I was in a Jacques Tati movie–dialogue not necessary, body language was everything. This was good. C'etait bon.

I found the garage and met M. Dubé. He was gracious, and offered me a swinging seat under the trees to wait in while my van was being worked on. I could see the back of the van through the open door of the garage bay, and watched it go up on the hoist, and then down, then up again. Then down. Up once more, before the final lowering and triumphant backing out, her engine singing like it used to, without the demonic yowling. “Ah, good. It’s over,” I thought.

I went into the garage and met Sebastian, who had done the work. He gave me the bill. It was just over $56.48! I couldn’t believe it! Apparently there was just a tube that needed a bolt. I explained that I was shocked, and that I was ready for something way up in the hundreds, or even thousands, for the repair. He smiled the smile of a saint. 

Yes, my repair bill was $56.48, but my motel bill, here at the height of the season, was $566.48! I would rather not have spent that much on a motel room, but I think the universe was trying to find a way to get me to stay in Gaspé. I know it might not seem like a big deal; I wasn’t in an accident, and there was no crime involved, but it was, for me, a challenge.

I felt completely alone and uncomfortable. Yes, I was overreacting, but I managed to eventually torque things into perspective, find a little self-confidence, and even enjoy myself a little! 

I went back to the beach after my van was fixed and spent a couple hours walking along the surf. I pulled out my binoculars and examined the cliffs, and watched the gannets arching and diving for their dinner. The smell of the sea was intoxicating, and the feeling of the sand on my feet–well, now I didn’t want to leave. 

Hey universe, I see what you did there!

- Suzanne Crone