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July 15, 2022

My trip to Gaspésie: On the road to Sainte-Flavie, Travel letter no. 2

I am not exaggerating when I say my Gaspésie journey is exceptional. Goodbye Paris, London and Istanbul. I went there, I loved it, and yet, this current return to my roots is unrivalled. Having left the Notre-Dame-du-Portage inn around noon, I started looking for the wolf of Rivière-du-Loup (loup is “wolf” in French). The poor thing is certainly hiding somewhere in the 138.4 square kilometers that make up the territory. I passed the Hôtel Universel, the Hôtel Lévesque, the Comfort Inn and the Auberge de la Pointe, but no wolf, anywhere. Looking beyond the pasture fences, I learned that the town’s name might come from the presence of seals, also called “sea wolves” in French, which would have once been numerous at the mouth of the river. It is said that the maritime explorer Jacques Cartier, during an expedition, named the town because he had seen many seals on the river’s bank. So it seems that a wolf is not always a wolf and the hunt for the male animal that haunts my dreams is an adventure that’s not without false tracks.

Fortunately, the beautiful Cacouna next door was able to console me. With its magnificent houses overlooking the river, the Pub d'Antan restaurant, a huge flour mill, antique stores and hundreds of lilacs that fill the town with their scent, Cacouna is a well-hidden treasure. I walked through it as gently as if I were licking a soft ice cream cone. Even the dazzling sun was trying to convince me to sleep there one night. To appear beautiful and unique in others’ eyes, we must first be beautiful and unique to ourselves. To have the courage to show our uniqueness, our colours, the flower wreath crowning our heads and our eccentric style. Daring is not a game, but a declaration of courage. My courage and beautiful Cacouna’s.

Still on 132 East, the Mini Cooper sputters. It's enough to drive you crazy with the jumble of pamphlets inside. Maps here, brochures there, notebooks, half-open books, bills in disarray – the interior looks like a tourist kiosk that has been hit by a nuclear attack.

“RIMOUSKI,” announces a green sign. In the distance, the Île Verte plunges into the river. Cyclists are pedalling towards tomorrow. Two women in a convertible wave to me as they pass by. All along the way, the ghost of Highway 20 threatens me. I see it reaching out to me at each clearing. Such is the case since the horse and buggy disappeared. Convenience tugs at our sleeves; speed is queen!

12:26 p.m.: For a long time, I cross farm land more fertile than hope itself. I resist the temptation to take the ferry to go shake hands with Île Verte. Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs offers solace. The poor parish tells the story of the Virgin following her son step by step to Golgotha. Lord, how sad it is. Did she know that He would rise from the dead?

1:32 p.m.: Another green sign appears, this time announcing TROIS-PISTOLES. Why three? And not four or eight? Are we dealing with a duel to settle a score between priests? Perhaps I should ask the famous author Victor-Lévy Beaulieu? He is still alive and very prolific. Perhaps he will encourage me to continue writing? On my left, the Fromagerie des Basques seems to be the town’s main attraction. I stop there. I think about it. I forgot my cooler. Foolish me! I wanted to bring my granddaughter back a fresh lobster. And now, no cheese either.

About 2:00 pm. Should I take the ferry to Les Escoumins? Look there, a museum on the horizon, a collection of old cars from the Maurice Duplessis era. On the other side of the road, Marcel Plourde’s workshop, a cabinetmaker. And just next door, a small business called Ballons en Folie. I stop my Mini, roll down the driver’s window and ask an elderly woman why the place is called Trois-Pistoles. Believe it or not, she doesn't know. She tells me she’s sorry, almost tearing up.

I'm back on the road. I love my country, its lands and seas, its benevolent sky and its warm people. I am happy. Then what on earth do I see? A hearse parked alongside a cemetery’s fence and many shiny cars parked nearby. Who died? The mayor? A big shot? A well-healed man, as Victor-Lévy would say? Who owns the shiny red Jag? Curiosity takes hold of me. Then as luck would have it, a small bookshop comes into view through my windshield further down the road. I park the Mini, open my window, take off my sunglasses and see a big CLOSED TODAY. Closed for what? For the funeral for the deceased man whose name I don't know?

I realize that while crisscrossing my beautiful Gaspé Peninsula, I am accumulating a lot of WHYs. Why exactly? With my right foot applied lightly to the gas pedal, I continue on my way. That's the way life goes, in Trois-Pistoles or elsewhere, I am comfortable with what I know. And I don't suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out). I am not the centre of the world, just a tiny beauty mark on my town’s cheek. With both feet planted firmly on the ground, I live in a connected world. I frequently miss things, but Radio-Canada and Saturday’s Le Devoir teach me the most important things to know.

And here is a magnificent big church. A masterpiece made of big field stones. I admire those builders of ancient cathedrals. I park and walk around the church. Just behind it, a small modern building is home to MALLETTE, chartered professional accountants. It's quite edifying to see how much Trois-Pistoles has to offer. Just next to Mallette's is the Cantine d'Amour. A clash of neurons occurs: I want to stay in Trois-Pistoles. At least until I discover why "three" pistols and not four or eight. Should I knock on Mallette's door? Or should I leave these mysterious places?

"On the road again," the famous Jack Kerouac would answer me. Nobody is waiting for me. So much the better. I don't even know where I'll sleep tonight. That's true freedom, don't you think? Could it simply be old age? Not promising anything and only revealing afterwards what really happened? The unvarnished truth?

I hit the road and am mesmerized by the wonders before me. Approaching Bic National Park, everything I see is beautiful and green; the lushness of the trees is transcendent. Is it the water, the temperature, a microclimate effect or the locals’ love? Even the birch trees in the Bic seem to put an effort into looking lovely. On my left, a ferry to the North Shore readies to leave. Visible perhaps from the boat: the Bic, a whale and her baby.

Have you ever noticed that birch trees are the ones who protect our country roads? They are slender, flexible and hardy. Polite, friendly and discreet, too. Elegantly dressed, they are the ones who stretch, bend and stoop to assist a little rabbit or mother groundhog. They are also the ally of drivers, who, when dusk falls, follow the light from their white outstretched arms home.

I finally arrive in Sainte-Flavie where I once lived for some three years. I find a bed for the night at the Gaspésiana Hotel and then rush to smell the sweet scent of the sea. I soak my feet for a few moments until they become numb. At 7 p.m., I finally taste a local lobster whose flavour sweeps me away. Dazzled by the moment, I dare to order 8 ounces of Jackson-Triggs Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. Fresh out of a pot of boiling water, the animal holds out its two claws to me, as if land and sea were finally to be reconciled. "Life is dangerous, dear friend. You must crack open the shell to taste the flesh," the great Bocuse would certainly have told me if he had been my dinner guest. This great chef, whose biography I have read, was a passionate man, full of enthusiasm and know-how. He died in his sleep on January 20, 2018.

Ouranos! First son of the Earth and master of the starry sky, hear me: This is the kind of departure I wish to have. To leave while dreaming of the next breakfast to be invented. To leave without regret, with the hand of an angel guiding me skyward. High above, where no annoyance can take root in my mind.

I fly, fly away. Who will I be tomorrow? A queen dishevelled by the swell? A mermaid approaching Bonaventure Island?

More next Sunday!