The Journey Back Upstream

As I headed to the hills every weekend for rest, relaxation and Sunday hikes, it finally occurred to me – these hills are my home. I realized it was time to head back upstream.

March 21, 2010 | | Back Issues | Community | Departments | Headwaters Nest | In Every Issue | Spring 2010

My blue, dust-covered ten-speed wobbled as I rode south down the concession. The cicadas buzzed in the trees above, mimicking the sound of boredom in my head. It was the dead end of August and teenage ennui had set in. What to do when there is seemingly nothing to do?

Frustrated with the rocks that forced my tires to spin uselessly, I headed toward town and picked up my friend on her bike. Quiet between us: a couple of months of hanging about with nothing to do, and two teen girls were actually silenced.

It must have been that summer that I decided: I needed to get out.

And so, like many teens approaching the end of high school, I found myself dreaming of a life far, far downstream. Soon, university acceptances were in hand and a decision was made. I was happily off.  Fast forward a decade to the nineties. I am engrossed in my life “in the city,” living close to downtown Toronto, the GO line, and within walking distance of at least five coffee shops, where trained baristas blink in confusion when an “outsider” attempts to order a “double-double.” Ah, heaven. Culture, amenities, food, accessibility.

On occasion, I would head “home” for family visits and to decompress. A nice cup of tea, taken on my parents’ back porch, horses grazing in full view, was indeed soothing to my soul.

As I grew a little older, those tea times with my mom and dad on their farm seemed to come more often – almost weekly. And our discussions turned toward real estate. The market was booming and it seemed like a good time to stop renting and invest in my future. I was soon a regular on MLS, scouring my trendy urban neighbourhood for a “find.”

But a find in the city turned out to be elusive. Prices were astronomical in comparison to what I knew was available just a little bit further upriver.

My circle widened to the suburbs. Line-ups for new developments saw clamouring suburbanites taking shifts at waiting in cars over weeks. I was unnerved. And the more I looked at tiny condos and lot sizes measured in feet and inches rather than acres, the more claustrophobic I became.

I realized that when I was growing up I always had the option to run out the back door to explore at will. I could spend a day constructing a most magnificent rock garden world, or skipping stones into a pond or stream, or digging around with a stick in an abandoned gravel pit. On several farms, my brother and I even found garbage dumps buried at the edge of the woods, where farmers from long ago had tossed their refuse. We uncovered milky glass bottles, rusty springs and broken tools from these archaeological digs. Our days were free-spirited, driven by the need to discover, build and then deconstruct using our hands.

As I continued to head for the hills every weekend for rest, relaxation and Sunday hikes followed by roast dinner, it finally occurred to me – these hills are my home. I consciously realized it was time to head back upstream in anticipation of my future child as well.

I found a house through information my parents discovered the old-fashioned way: word-of-mouth. A local lumber baron was renovating a century-old house and was planning to sell in the next few months. Did they know anyone interested? I did a drive-by immediately.

Even though the walls were crooked and the floors slanted very perceptibly, the structure and foundation weren’t my worry. What made my heart lurch slightly was the thought of my big, shiny gym where I attended classes every day in Toronto. I didn’t actually speak to the people there, but wouldn’t I miss them? What about restaurants? Where would I find my favourite veggie curry? Would there be high-speed internet? My parents were still on dial-up! What about the commute – it would be tolerable, I hoped.

I also wondered if my child would somehow miss out without the culture and amenities that I had become accustomed to – access to museums, public art displays, mass transit. I wanted my child to grow up hearing different languages. I wanted my child to be “worldly” and not “sheltered” as I had sometimes felt as a farm kid.

All of these questions had to be put aside when I signed the offer and became a homeowner for the first time. I trusted my community would surround me and it was all going to be okay.

As it turns out, my community didn’t embrace me, at least not right away. Friends had moved away. And those who hadn’t moved had just plain moved on. There was no big shiny gym, no curry and no high-speed to be had. I couldn’t find a doctor. City friends didn’t “get it” and wouldn’t come to visit. Now married and with my imagined child soon to be a reality, I felt stuck in an in-between world – alternating between feeling like a big fish in a little pond one day, and a little fish lost from its school the next.

Slowly over a period of years, we have settled in. I have connected with other parents who also decided to swim upstream to start family life. We agree upon a respect for the land, animals and simple pleasures. These connections have replaced the more artificial sense of community that I once had in my city digs.

We have found pockets of culture as well; we just had to seek them out. We walk to the market to pick up veggies and bread on Saturdays, and talk to artisanal cheese makers about their craft. We’re welcomed warmly by name at the independent bookstore, the coffee shops, and other small local stores we frequent. When my son was a toddler, his daycare provider cooked up some wicked roti and had him eating fish curry before we knew it.

Many of our activities now revolve around being outdoors. Early on, I purchased the rugged versions of baby back-packs and strollers so that we could hit the trails. As he grew, my son learned about mucking out a barn from his grandparents. For him and his buddies, rides in the wheelbarrow became de rigueur when family and friends gathered for Sunday work sessions in the garden.

I’m happy to report that my son now spends hours constructing his own little rock garden world, just as I did, and yet he is neither sheltered nor uncultured here in the hills.


About the Author More by Bethany Lee

Bethany Lee is a freelance writer who lives in Mono.

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