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Summer Fiction: The Way There

On the long road to Gaspé, journey trumps destination once again.

The Way There

Every summer, like many families, we’d cram our suitcases into the car and take off to the Gaspé for our vacation. Yet we wouldn’t circle the entire peninsula. While most tourists hopped from place to place we’d hunker down in the same spot, a little village battered by the wind where an old red-and-white lighthouse stood on a cliff and faced northward.

A river, a sandbank, waves and pebble beaches awaited us there, along with hollows filled with seawater, streams, small trout that darted around our feet, hayfields bathed in sunlight, and an old house with squeaky floors and a big red staircase. My mom would go fishing and fry up her catch; my dad would sit on the porch for hours watching the old rolling mountains slip imperceptibly into the sea. Summer meant experiencing all this again. Even better, I’d reconnect with my friends from the village, swim in lakes in the woods and build campfires on the shore in the evening. Summer meant absolute freedom.

But the drive out there took 10 hours, an eternity spent on the back seat with the dog and our pile of luggage. This one summer, I brought along games and comic books to keep me entertained. I was so eager to arrive, though, that I couldn’t concentrate. To kill time, I watched the scenery fly by and imagined some mysterious superhero dashing through the fields and forests as he followed our car. He leapt over rivers, swung from the branches of trees and power lines, magically cleared every obstacle in his path, bounced here and there, and then continued his journey alongside us, firmly intent on reaching our destination as fast as he could.

The Way There

Despite my excitement, the muffled sound of our moving car eventually made me drowsy, and I lost sight of my imaginary friend in the landscape that was forever whizzing by outside my window. I told myself that he’d found a shortcut or tripped over the root of a tree and taken a spill. Then I asked my mom and dad how much longer it would take to get there. “It’ll take as long as it takes,” they both called out. “And no longer.”

In the fields along the highway, corn had begun to grow, the pale green seedlings sprouting from the bare earth in endless rows. Unbelievably, the stalks would be taller than me on the trip home. Their long leaves, warmed by the sun, would bunch together by late summer to form perfect tunnels of blackish green. I didn’t want to think about our return. Instead, while the dog slobbered at my side and the radio crackled with the latest news, I thought of the smell of the sea on a windy day.

When I spied the first silvery glints of the St. Lawrence, I fidgeted excitedly in my seat, knowing that, farther on, the narrow river would open wider and wider till it spilled blindly into the sea. Once again, I asked my parents how far we had left to go. “We’re getting closer,” they said. “Closer every minute.” I pressed my forehead against the window, and though I sometimes envied the cars speeding past us on the highway, I took comfort in seeing huge ships that seemed motionless on the glistening river. The dog slept curled up in his usual spot. My mom and dad chatted up front. As for me, I felt my eyelids growing heavier.

The Way There

Oddly enough, when I awoke, I couldn’t be sure I’d really been asleep. But once my dad heard me stirring, he lowered his window and took a deep breath. The dog leapt right up and stuck his wet nose out the opening. My dad adjusted the rear-view mirror and glanced at my reflection. “You smell it? The salty air? Recognize that smell?” With a laugh, he said, “We told you we were getting closer.” We soon took a break to eat our sandwiches at a picnic table, and I noticed that the opposite riverbank had disappeared for good below the horizon.

A few hours later, when our car skirted the abraded cliffs, we could see layers of sedimentary rocks that stretched out, rippled and then tilted straight up. These rocks always reminded us how the mineral kingdom exists in another dimension. “Another age,” my father said. To me, this strip of highway at the foot of the capes was like a brief lull in the slow war pitting ruthless water against stubborn rock.

On the edge of the coves stood villages where square houses and small shops — grocery store, hardware store, garage — huddled together behind the curve of the mountains. Through the centre of each of these valleys, a stream flowed right into the sea, its fresh water mixing with the salt from the tides. In the calm of these bays, boats were gently rocked by the swell of the sea. A few brave souls were taking a dip in the cold water and then lying across the warm stones on the beach. We were on the final stretch, the last hour of our trip. My heart was bursting, the dog couldn’t keep still and my parents were trying to recall the name of each village before we reached it.

The Way There

Finally, we climbed one more hill, took a last turn and caught sight of our little village with its red-and-white lighthouse. I cheered and told my dad to step on the gas. As usual, he ignored my plea and just let the car coast toward the house, his foot barely on the gas pedal. I was dying to get there, the dog was barking his head off and my mom let out a sigh to chide my dad for making us wait. But my dad had tuned us out completely. It seemed that he’d become like the old mountains he was gazing at as he leaned toward the windshield. And that, unlike the rest of us, he had all the time in the world.

About the author

Christian Guay-Poliquin is a writer from Saint-Armand, Quebec. His second novel, Le poids de la neige, won the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award for French-language fiction.