At Home in Algonquin

Hello friends and family!

Ah, May in Algonquin! The blackflies aren’t yet awake and the hordes of May long-weekend revelers haven’t yet arrived. The woods are blanketed in the blossoms of trout lillies and red trilliums, which will die as soon as the sugar maple leaves bloom. The fiddleheads are emerging. The salamander tadpoles are hatching out of their jellied egg sacs, and the frogs keep me up half the night with their racket. Most exciting is that love in is the air! I spent a few days on the secluded shores of a little lake off a logging road, following the flirtation of a pair of loons. They sang duets – love songs, I assume, though everything a loon sings sounds mournful and elegiac – and spent hours gliding around the lake, diving in tandem for fish. I watched their mating ritual, which involved a lot of wing-beating and chest-swelling and conspicuous displays of their white breasts. At certain points they would disappear from the sight of my binoculars, presumably to mate on the shore.

Another sign of spring: fiddleheads pressing up from the duff

Yes, it felt a little lonely to be spying on a couple of lovebirds, like some sort of pervy voyeur. I just wanted to be part of their happiness! In the wake of a breakup, everything takes on a more freighted meaning: my first spring, my first trip to the cottage, my first Kawartha Dairy ice cream cone without him. There are places still so suffused with memories of married life that I find it hard to be there, which in part is why I left Toronto. So I’m striking out into new places and taking joy where I can find it. I’m making memories for and with myself, alone.

I find that staying busy helps with malaise. Reading helps. I recently devoured Nomadland, the book by Jessica Bruder that explores the subculture of “workampers” in America. The movie based on this book just won Best Picture at the Oscars. Bruder follows several people as they roam the country in their RVs and vans, working precarious and grueling seasonal jobs at amusement parks and spring training camps and campgrounds and Amazon factories. They’re mostly of retirement age, people who lost their jobs and houses during the 2009 recession and never managed to find their financial footing again; people who decided that driving away from underwater mortgages and humiliating dead-end job hunts was a better alternative than experiencing homelessness and poverty. They buy shitty RVs and winter in the Arizona desert and eke out enough money to pay for gas, food and pet food – but the comfortable retirement that many of them, once members of a stable middle class, were promised 35 years ago has entirely evaporated. They’ll always have to work. They’ll die working. Some of them are 80 years old and walking 15 miles a day in an Amazon warehouse, putting their bodies through hell, just so they can put fuel in the tank.

It’s an interesting flipside to the whole #vanlife Instagram aesthetic of hot young professionals living in $100,000 vans and working graphic design jobs from the comforts of their van-offices. I don’t feel I fit into either category, but it’s obvious my lifestyle is different from that of the nomads in Bruder’s book. Notably, I have great privileges that these people do not: I have savings, I have a place to live in my parents’ basement if I needed it, and I am more employable than a 65-year old woman. But the trials and tribulations they experience – the lack of washroom access, the cold nights, the ever-present fear of law enforcement, the sponge baths – dovetail neatly with my own. The restlessness, the call of the road, I get that too. Most of all I relate to those nomads who say they’re deliberately rebelling against the concept of homeownership as a mark of success and against an economic system that’s stacked against regular people. I think that dropping out of a culture of never-ending acquisition and accumulation is an appropriate and logical act – except for me it is a choice I’ve made, and for many nomads it’s a corner they’ve been backed into.

Not quite #vanlife, but still quite lovely

A constant refrain in the book is the nomads asserting that they’re houseless, not homeless. I like that notion. I certainly do feel like the van is my home now, though I know that to many I appear to be homeless. A woman approached me in a parking lot a few days ago and said she knew it was a hard time to be homeless. She invited me over so I went to her cottage, and she made tea and fed me cookies and we chatted for a few hours about life on the road. She offered me her driveway for the night and let me fill up my water jugs from her spigot – her kindness was a balm. I also recently had a run-in with a conservation officer who was enforcing the ban on Crown Land camping that has recently come into effect as Ontario attempts to mitigate the third wave of the pandemic. When he realized that I lived in the van, and was therefore technically homeless, his demeanour changed. He softened. “We don’t enforce the ban on people who are homeless,” he told me, “because we know it’s been a rough year for some people. We aren’t trying to displace anyone. Feel free to stay as long as you like.”

Such friendliness and understanding has been extended to me – though I am aware that I am treated differently than other “homeless” people. I think about the nomads in Bruder’s book, or about some of the guys I met down south, like one grizzled man who lived in beat-up marijuana-smoky van he’d painted himself with black housepaint. Would he be given such leeway by the authorities? Would a friendly woman invite him in, or would she politely ask him to leave?

Since my encounter with the conservation officer I’ve been living on some Crown Land just outside the western entrance to Algonquin Park. I’m parked in a spider-infested wood lot. People come here to have bonfires and ride dirtbikes and, to judge by the number of brightly coloured shell casings, shoot guns like Rambo in the jungle. It’s not particularly picturesque but it’s legal (ish) and has opened a door to the wonderful Highway 60 corridor of the park. Every day I wake up and do some (nude) sunbathing, weather permitting. I trundle down the potholed road and go drink my coffee by a lake. I do a hike, passing through spruce bogs and beaver meadows and maple forests and hemlock copses, and usually see a moose or two. I’ve become adept at listening for the sound of their great ungainly bodies crashing through the undergrowth, and each time I spot one I still marvel at how one creature can be simultaneously so elegant, so long-legged and regal, and yet so awkward, their bodies like a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together out of the odds and ends of other animals.

My logging road

But nothing gold and good can stay, so I’ll be moving on as soon as I feel the bite of a blackfly. To where, I don’t know. All I do know is that I’m happy to carry my house on my back like a turtle, and that I’ll always be “home,” no matter where I decide to park.

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