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Chronicles of the Extraordinary. The tale of a never-ending journey, for two.
Chronicles of the Extraordinary. The tale of a never-ending journey, for two.
Cape Town, on a sunny day after a sunny day and before another.
Rainy Vancouver and chilly New York are now mere memories and South Africa is once again spinning around us her fine web of sunshine, wind, mountains and sea. Life has slowed down to an almost lazy rhythm punctuated by langourous coffees, hearty lunches and candlelight dinners, with the ocean ever-present even if out of sight, in all directions and behind every landmass, in our minds and hearts and ears.
The inbound flights on South African Airways were uneventful; 7:30 hours from New York JFK across the Atlantic to Dakar where we waited aboard the aircraft on the tarmac for almost an hour, a ritual culminating in the fumigation of the cabin, a comical attempt to kill some hypothetical evil spirit that would have boarded under the appearance of a mosquito. It might have missed the mosquito but it sure got us.
Then on to Johannesburg, another 8 hours or so of flight time. Upon arrival, we cleared customs after spending an eternity in line, Africa making a point to brief its visitors thoroughly on the local time and pace changes. We got our luggage back even though it had been tagged all the way to our destination, and checked it back in, double measure meant to ensure double guaranties of success. Everything seemed peachy. The flight to Cape Town took another hour and a half. We landed almost on time, headed for the now familiar Domestic Arrivals hall and waited for our luggage to arrive.
Almost everybody else’s did, but not ours. After a long and decreasingly patient wait, we had to accept that our three suitcases had gone missing. Our hand luggage contained laptops, cameras and the like. But no clothes, no clothes, no clothes. Sigh. Paperwork was hastily filled and then duly stamped by a representative with doubtful English language skills. And we left at midnight with Marie’s dad who had kindly come to pick us up. We figured we might have a lot of curative shopping to do.
But the next morning, around 11:00 am for the first two and again maybe by 1:00 pm for the last, our lost suitcases arrived, dropped off at home by an airline representative. Mine had been opened and shuffled through. A jacket was missing, either chosen by a stranger for its sheer black beauty and unsurpassed warmth, or left by myself in NYC. I’ll find out in 2 months. Who cares. Clothing is once again a delight we can contemplate with confidence.
Many delicious lunches and dinners have now already happened, the green belt playground has been reopened and beaches are being revisited. Hikes will soon follow. A trip to the Namib is brewing. And this morning I went flying with Marie’s brother François in his microlight (the local name for an ultralight or ULM for the Frenchies), a wonderful flight over the northwest coastline – post and pictures coming soon.
She’s putting up a last fight. Right before I am scheduled to leave her behind, the city of glass is attempting to steal my heart again. After a seemingly endless – but normal – stretch of rain and grey weather, this morning shines like a single jewel on a forgotten crown.
It started as I was leaving home. About to turn right towards the bus stop, I spotted a flock of birds on the beach and a closer look revealed crows harassing a beautiful bald eagle. The bird of prey eventually landed just by the water and the crows having given up, it just sat there, prince of the sand and king of the moment.
I forgot about my bus and hurried to the beach for a closer look. The eagle was the size of four seagulls, perfect white head on an ink-black body. Just as I stared, a harbour seal popped up a mere 15 feet away from the bird, stared at it calmly for a while and then went on with his bouncing morning swim. Up, down, up, down.
A fog bank was receding offshore, revealing the freighters at anchor one after another but still hiding the opposite landmass in a dark menacing shroud. And behind me, to the east, the sun was beginning to sip through the clouds. The mountains were standing out in all their glory and I took a deep breath.
"Nice try," I said to the city, "but no luck. I love you very much, but no matter what you do to impress me, next week at the same time I will be be visiting your long lost sister Cape Town, a half a world away and a hemisphere across. It will be summer, the table cloth will be clinging to its mountain, the wind might howl and time will take on a new dimension. I will have left beauty behind only to find it again ahead. And more important, I will be whole."
This is the stuff dreams are made of. A road trip from Cape Town to the Namib Desert. One border and 2000 kilometers on African roads in unknown conditions, in the peak of summertime, with no cell phone reception nor wi-fi hotspots, aiming for the oldest desert on Earth and the most incredible landscapes one can imagine.
Of course, the word dream implies many – still – loose ends, including securing the use of said vehicle, swallowing the cost of fuel, leaving loved ones behind when they thought they had finally been granted the luxury of our company, and finding the guts to actually hit the road.
But as with any dream, anything is possible. The three or four cameras invited on the trip would go nuts and ample material would be collected for later publishing.
And most of all, the limits of a daily reality would be stretched yet a little further and deeper than once thought possible. The envelope would be pushed a step closer to the edge and souls would soar a little higher, stoned by freedom, inebriated by raw beauty and hardened by a tougher commitment.
Wishful thinking? Not quite. A lot remains to be evaluated and probed but it’s feasible. It’s actually quite possible. Heck, it’s almost tangible.
To be continued…
When the alarm rings at 7:00 am, I’ve been battling with a strange dream and welcome the eruption of reality into my foggy mind as I sit up and yawn. The angel sleeping next to me acknowledges the dreadful sound and its meaning by turning over in her sleep and resolutely burying her face into the pillow. Her little observette is wide awake, however, sitting on a corner of the bed with her legs crossed and blowing rings of smoke towards the ceiling while she stares at me. Everybody knows observers have all the bad habits and we have none. It must be noted that observer smoking is none-polluting and doesn’t cause cancer. It’s merely a way for them to annoy us (A well known fact of life being that counseling annoys.)
That cute observette is new to me. I find it fascinating to compare her behaviour with that of mine. They are as different as Marie and I are. And as very much alike. Speaking of my own little observer, he’s rubbing sleep away from his eyes, perched on my left shoulder as always. He mumbles in a grumpy tone that I should hurry up and make coffee. He never drinks it but the smell cheers him up and he loves the sound of the small Bialetti espresso maker finishing to brew – the galloping horses as Marie calls it.
So I get up and fumble for a pair of shorts and cross the apartment, all 20 feet of it, to go busy myself preparing breakfast. My Bialetti is too small for 2 people and forces me to brew twice, but I use the wait toasting Safeway’s surprising Good Heaven baguette and preparing the usual croissants, butter and jam. "Hurry up, insists my observer, we’re on a schedule here. We must be at the border crossing by nine o’clock." He pulls on my ears wildly as if steering a horse and I have no choice but to comply. It’s just that today all four of us are going to Washington. We’ve decided to go have a closer look at Mount Baker.
10778 feet or 3285 meters high, Mt. Baker is an impressive dormant volcano, northernmost of its kind in the Cascades range which also claims Mount Rainier, Hood, Logan, St. Helens, etc. The mountain isn’t very far from Vancouver; a few articles on the web describe the drive there as a 2-hour expedition. I’ve adjusted that to 3 hours, allowing for unpredictable customs delays and photo – and pit – stops. I figure that if we can make it to the Sumas border crossing – south of Abbotsford, BC – by 9:00 am, we’ll stand a good chance of getting through relatively fast.
"The horses! Your Bialetti is hissing, warns my observer, get it off the stove now! You don’t want to burn your coffee." There is no point explaining to him that coffee can’t burn, besides he has a point: it would seem that avoiding brewing a pot all the way to dryness spares a little bitterness. I usually try to stop when the frothing begins. "Yeah, yeah, I simply tell him, keep your pantyhose on." It’s from the movie The Abyss. It annoys the hell out of him.
When Marie joins me for breakfast at a corner of my computer table, I’ve booted the machine up and confirm with disbelief that the forecast is still perfect. Grand beau temps as it is called in French. We are incredibly lucky. It sucks driving to another country to see a mountain which is hopelessly hidden in clouds. Uh-uh, seems to grin the observette. I think she was hoping for rain and a day inside. Not this time, dear.
We hit the road at 8:15 am in a little rental car which, to my surprise, I only spent 20 minutes parking last night; that must have been a record. The West End is very unfriendly to visiting cars and if you don’t have a resident sticker, you’re left with maybe 5% of all parking space to choose from, often having to drift many blocks away from home. The engine roars to life, I engage the thrusters and prepare for warp speed. Both cameras are on board, excited and trying to see out the windows. I take Pacific down to the end of False Creek, and Terminal to Clark, then Hastings all the way to East Vancouver where I jump on Highway 1, the Transcanadian.
Traffic is light on this Sunday morning. Crossing the Vancouver suburbs is never really interesting but it does remind me of how the city only spreads out towards the southeast. We’ll basically be driving through boring outskirts all the way to the border. ‘Greater Vancouver’ indeed…
At a quarter past nine, almost on schedule, we reach the Sumas crossing. The line-up seems very reasonable and as I am looking for the fastest lane, my observer wakes up from a nap and yells "Take the right lane, the right!" I give in and ignore a sign that mentioned something about ‘visitors on the left’. It turns out the right lane heads straight in while the left splits into 3, making it 3 times faster, or in other words, us 3 times slower. So much for observers. I should have left mine at home. I glance at Marie’s observette, riding shotgun; the two of them appear to be having an intense conversation, and I assume it must have to do with the border crossing. I don’t much like customs either, especially in light of our recent immigration trauma. My observer becomes quiet but agitated, nervously pulling on my seat belt as he watches cars go through the control ahead of us.
20 minutes later, we get to the little gate where a lady officer has just begun her shift. "How do you know each other?" she asks, noticing the different passports. "We’re married," I say with a smile. She looks up and arches a suspicious eyebrow. "How’s that working for you?" she asks. My observer snorts. "How do you think it’s working, you fat-ass uniformed bureaucrat bitch?" he lets out in disgust. I silence him and reply as humbly as I can. "Not too well."
Of course the officer’s alarm bells have gone off and she probes a little deeper, asking Marie when she arrived to Canada, if she is employed (duh) and when she will leave. Then she seems to see right through us and shifts her focus. "Are you carrying any food," she asks. I am floored. How could she have figured out who we are? I glance to my left and to my horror, the observette is eating a duck prosciutto sandwich. But I know that nobody else can see her and I answer that we’ll get lunch on the road. And just like that, the resistance yields. We are waved through. I think my observer just inked himself. Marie enters the United States by land for the first time. Then our observers forget about the tension and jump to the back seat and begin fighting about the prosciutto. We let them have at it. They’ll leave us alone for a while.
Sumas is a strange ghost town with somehow western looks. We push on south and soon turn inland on 547. Eventually we branch off onto 542, and suddenly, we are climbing. Mt. Baker has been towering above us, closer every minute, but we now lose it in the trees that line a very pretty river we’ll follow all the way to our destination. Its glacier origins are unmistakable as the water glows a pale blue-green color, running noisily on a large bed of rocks and pebbles.
Speaking of which, the small town of Glacier appears and we decide to stop for food; it’s not like us to hit the road without having packed a picnic and we are feeling a little naked. The first sign we home in on says "bakery" but our hopes are soon shattered, it’s a mere coffee shop selling muffins. It’s only much later, as we drive passed it again in the other direction that I realize it was an easy pun someone had to have tried, no matter what. The second spot, however, turns out to be a winner in the form of an attractive lost-near-the-end-of-the-world Italian restaurant where we order two sandwiches and a slice of cheesecake, which Marie will pass on, but not the observers. Then the grocery store across the road sells us a beer, water, an apple and ice. At the last minute, Marie’s observette pulls on my sleeve so hard she almost undresses me, pointing insistently at a bag of chips. "I know, I say, I know." I buy the chips.
We hit the road again, finally feeling like ourselves, and attack the final section of the road, winding and increasingly spectacular. The cameras are frantic inside their respective shelters but we have decided to get to the end of the road as early as possible and won’t let them out yet. My observer has gone quiet. He’s hanging on loosely to my left ear and staring at the scenery in awe. But when he notices I’m smiling at his weakness, he snaps out of it and reaches for a handful of the observette’s hair, pulling sharply to make her scream. Little devil. She fights back with a kick to the nose and we send them to the back seat again.
Finally, the road ends. We’ve paid the Park’s $5.00 access fee and passed the ski area. We are as far as a car will go up the slopes of Mt. Baker. A surprising number of people are already up here. We orient ourselves on a map and decide to first take a short walk to southeast-facing Artist Point that will grant us perfect views of both nearby Shuksan Peak and Baker itself, slightly further and to the southwest. Abetoo comes to life and so does Marie’s wonderful little Canon. As always, we immediately focus – pardon the pun – on our respective subject of predilection. She aims with amazing instinct and talent for the incredibly small – flowers, plants, insects – and I lose myself in the immensity of the panorama.
My biggest shock is the temperature. There is not a whisper of wind and an unusually warm sun is shining hard through the pure air, even at this modest 5100 feet elevation. Soon, my head is sizzling. I didn’t bring a hat. My observer taps me on the head. "You’re gonna fry, dude, he says with a perfectly content tone. I told you so." He didn’t. "No you did not, I reply. And I would advise taking your role a little more seriously and stopping all the flirting with Marie’s observette if you want to keep your place. There are many good observers out there. You’re not that special." There’s nothing like a sweet little threat now and then. It keeps him on his toes. "But I did tell you so, he insists. It was last January in South Africa. I warned you to listen to local advice and beware of the fierce sun. I recommended you covered that precious nugget of yours with suntan lotion. You ignored me. You burned. How many times do I have to repeat myself?"
The view is amazing. Both Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker are still almost completely snow covered and display immense glaciers. Baker is actually slightly further away from us than I had imagined, linked to our location by a long ridge along which a clearly visible trails seems to be calling my name. But not this time. We aren’t dressed for high altitude hiking and we are here on a vegetation mission. We came seeking Pacific Northwest alpine plants. So having walked to the view point and taken many pictures, we slowly head back, pausing to build a little cairn for Jay and Guy. "It should be higher," protests my little observer. He’s obsessed with size, being rather short himself. "It will do just fine, I reply, moving my hand like a Jedi Knight, it’s the intention and location that matter. You twit." I like having the last word. Marie’s observette exhorts her to keep adding small stones to the top on the cairn; the white one is a really nice touch.
Back at the car, all four of us decide to drive down to a beautiful small lake we saw on the way up, and to have our picnic there while looking at flowers. We’ll be further below the tree line and should fine even more interesting plants. The two tall ones among us are secretly hoping to be able to let the two small ones loose in this well contained playground. There is really no need for observers in such a perfect setting.
A trail loops around the circular valley and we launch into it counterclockwise, descending through magnificent fields of flowers towards the meadows surrounding our lake. There is water everywhere; streams are chanting through the grass, shining in the sun, and at the bottom of the small valley, the pristine lake’s water is emerald green and inviting. We settle down on a big rock two thirds of the way to the bottom and unpack our lunch. My observer stays close. He’s after the beer. One bottle for all of us, and less than half of it for the designated driver.
We eat in silence, staring around us, mesmerized. The scenery is postcard-perfect. Flowers are everywhere, in large beds of yellow and pink and white. The grass is incredibly green and large patches of moss thrive in the melting snow water coming from higher elevations. One thing is very strange, though, and I share my concern with Marie: there is no sign of life bigger than small birds. My observer laughs. "You always have to find a negative thing, he says. Just be content with the scenery." "It’s not negative, I answer him, it’s puzzling." Such a wild environment should be bustling with animal life. Rainier is very close to the south and has a similar geography and vegetation; there were marmots, deers and birds of prey everywhere. Hell, we also saw deers up at Grouse in the middle of the resort. But here, nothing. No movement. I don’t understand. It’s as if a giant eagle had just overflown the valley and scared every animal into their hiding places…
Our sandwiches gone, I manage to finish the cheesecake on my own, Marie not being much of a desert freak. The 2 observers, despite sticking their fingers repeatedly into the cake and licking them with delight, cannot actually affect its physical mass because they are in fact restricted to a parallel dimension from which they can communicate and be seen, but can’t actually interact with our own dimension’s matter. Sometimes I feel sorry for them. I often wish they could taste Marie’s cooking.
We head down to the meadows and wander around, following the trail to the end of the lake and climbing up on the opposite side, back towards the parking lot. Marie leaps over a stream and exclaims "A fish just jumped out of the water as I was in mid-air!" I’m incredulous but she has keen eyes. We look carefully at the clear water and suddenly, right at our feet, another one. Definitely a fish. I instantly vote for a mountain trout, she goes for a salmon. "Too small for a salmon," I say. "A baby salmon," she adds. "A troualmon?" suggests my observer, thinking himself so witty. The observette doesn’t add anything, lost in thoughts looking at her reflection in the water.
A couple of large boulders form a barrier at the downstream end of the lake and behind them, by a small bridge, we spot at least 20 more fish, hovering in the current. "Too small to catch," says my observer, disappointed. We climb back slowly to the parking lot and after a few more pictures and a last look at the valley, we get back in the car and start the drive back home.
Crossing the Canadian border is much quicker than this morning and we make good time despite a temporary slow down on the highway. Back in Vancouver, feeling lazy, we decide to look for a French-ie restaurant. Surprise. They all seem to be closed on Sundays. What the … is up with that? Marie ends up preparing divine mushrooms à la grecque while I find us some wine on Davie.
The observers are passed-out on the carpet. It was a long day filled with a lot of sun glare, pure rarefied air and many wonders. Tomorrow, half of us are getting back on a plane to New York while the other half stay behind. Good-byes will be tough. Our observers will probably cry. They’re just wimps. But they’ll also whisper to us that it’s all coming together, and all these sidesteps and momentary magical splashes are just part of the grand scheme that leads from A to B, from here to there, and from I to us.
I’ve rambled about it before, borrowing a pair of very pretty green eyes to look around me and rediscover my surroundings always yields much magic. It so happens that Marie was just in Vancouver for 10 days – such a long time according to our time-compressed standards and yet so very, very short a shot at making up for months of thirst and loneliness.
Her mind was hungry for our Pacific Northwest beauty and peace, so we walked and walked and walked, and explored and tested and tasted and watched and photographed, stopping and then stopped, picture after picture, from flower to flower, until our eyes were filled with wonders and our memory bank topped up. British Columbia was enjoying exceptional September weather and it could finally be said that Vancouver cooperated fully.
While I’ll only post these few pictures (it’s being chronicled extensively at 66 Square Feet), there were many trips to Stanley Park and its famed chickadees, seeds in Marie’s hand and all ears wide open, listening for the unmistakable call. There were idyllic sunsets on the beach next door, leaning against huge floated trunks that form as many first-row seats and lazily taking pictures as the light transmuted itself and our stealth drinks sank with the sun. There was a pilgrimage evening up on Grouse Mountain for a well deserved celebration, with a visit to the grizzly bears and many more special flowers found. There was a trip to ethereal Lynn Creek to further explore the canyon and follow the river for a while. There were Greygoose martinis, very dry, shaken, 2 garlic-stuffed olives, dirty. There were frequent crossings to Granville Island’s Public Market via the False Creek Ferries, resupplying ourselves in organic vegetables, various delicacies like Aji Amarillo and lemon leaves, and most of all gorgeous meat – including the extraordinary, best-in-world-never-matched duck prosciutto. There was much inspired cooking at home, masterfully orchestrated by the Chef and humbly observed by her apprentice. And there was a ritual evening at Chambar for their exquisite moule frite Coquette.
But in the end, the grand finale was stolen from Canada by Washington’s Mt. Baker. That, however, will be the subject of another post. For now, we hunker down, we tighten our belts and we clench our teeth as 5000 km once again team up against us, forming an immense chain that acts as both an ironic link between east and west and an immense fence, each kilometer clinging to the next, as many small measures that once considered as a whole, form a gigantic obstacle made up of space and bureaucracy.
It’s all right. I have endless energy for this.
I thought it might have been the sunset of the century. I rushed out and ran to the C-shuttle stop only to find a notice of route deviation. So I went to the False Creek Ferries’ landing but it was Sunday and they were no longer crossing to the bottom of False Creek. I ran back up the hill and caught a bus on Davie. But once on board I realized we were going the wrong way, north almost to Burrard Inlet before turning east and eventually back south on Main. It’s because of the Nike Race, the driver told me, apologetic. There are road blocks everywhere. It’s been a hell of day.
When I shot off the bus at the train station a fantastic storm cloud was towering to the east, but I had no clear line of sight and none of the obstacles were worth showing. I pressed on towards the water, looking behind me as I walked fast. By the time I got to a spot where I could catch my breath and setup, the cloud had pretty much died and my sunset had misfired.
I took the time to shoot a few "I was there, any way" pictures and a pano, but I shot at too wide a focal length and my verticals are distorted. Later, in Photoshop, having stitched the 10 shots into a 239 mb file, it took me 2 attempts to apply the superb "denoise" action of FFDD6; it’s highly processor-intensive and on such a large file, it tests the very limits of my poor laptop’s endurance.
But all this is just a hazy blur. My mind is elsewhere. Soon, once again, as it has for over a year now and always will, time is going to contract itself like a snake recoiling before a bite, and then it will explode in all directions, hours turning into mere seconds and a week into an eternity. East is visiting West, the Big Apple meets the City of Glass, a terrace vs a balcony, so much fun in perspective it’s hard to breathe and accept this will not be it. Yet.