A Room with a View

This morning I moved into my new office. We’ve been in our new home in Canmore, Alberta since December 10th, but during the time I’ve been here, which has been just shy of two weeks, I’ve been getting up early, and in the darkness making my way to the kitchen table to write. Yesterday I got my desk organized and this morning, around 6 a.m. started tapping away on a novel called Thicker Than Blood.

My pattern when working on a new project is to first map it out in broad strokes, usually on large pieces of “butcher” paper. This looks a lot like a story-board when its done. Yesterday afternoon I taped this outline up on the wall next to my desk so this morning, as I began chapter twelve, I could easily see the narrative arc of the book.

My office window faces south-east, and I had the curtains closed and hadn’t thought to open them when I began work. When working on a first draft, or any draft for that matter, I am often myopically focused on the characters and their troubles. The story unfolds in my head faster than I can write, and sometimes I get lost in a daydream where the plot of the book is as real as anything that is unfolding around me. I’m not always the best company during this time.

Around 8:00 a.m. I felt my way downstairs for a second cup of tea, and noticed a faint light through the blinds in the living room window. I opened them and was stunned by what I saw:

The view from my office window: Mount Peter Lougheed and Centenial Ridge

I watched spell-bound for the next forty five minutes as the moon crept across the sky and the sun emerged over Skogan Pass. The entire range was set ablaze in the rosy dawn. Mount Rundle,  Ehagay Nakoda, and The Three Sisters all turned red, then white as the morning progressed. The moon slipped behind the Middle Sister, and the sun became so bright it was hard to look in its direction.

An hour passed and I returned to my office, another cup of tea in hand, where I had to draw the curtains once more so I wouldn’t go blind. And so I could get some work done.

The Path through the Woods

For almost three years I felt as if I was saying farewell to Victoria. Given that I lived there for five and a half years, that’s a long goodbye. Shortly after Jenn and I realized that our lives were to be intertwined, we decided that they would not be rooted in Victoria, but back in the Rocky Mountains. For the last two years we’ve been actively planning this move. When we lugged the contents of Jenn’s condo over the Great Divide and Roger’s Pass on January 1st, 2009, we did so knowing we’d have to do it all again in the reverse order two years later. Nothing cheers the soul, while driving a U-Haul truck over snow and ice and winding mountain highways like the foreknowledge that you’ll get to do it again in such a short span of time.

The moment finally came and on the last day of November when we began to cram the contents of our Victoria home into the truck, and what seemed like several days later, finally closed the door on that chapter of our lives. I drove the U-Haul and Jenn piloted our aging but trust-worthy Nissan pick-up; the Subaru was left behind for another stage of the complex logistics. We made Canmore in two days of white-knuckle driving – including fishtailing the 45 foot long rental on black-ice on the west side of Golden – that had both of us swearing that we’d never do it again. We arrived in the Rockies under cold, clear skies.

The truck was unloaded with the help of friends working in shifts, and after three nights in our new home, I flew to Bozeman Montana, and then back to Victoria to pick up the kids after their last day of school. Then I did the drive again, this time minus the ass-heavy truck, and with clear and dry roads.

In between there were three days of final farewells in that coastal enclave that for five years we called home. It seemed appropriate that the days were heavy and overcast with rain coming in fits and spurts. On Thursday, however, the day dawned brightly, and after dropping the boys at school I made my way to Mount Doug for what would be my final run over that rocky hill’s forested slopes.

As I’ve said elsewhere, in the time I spent in Victoria, I’ve probably run over Mount Doug a thousand times; in all likelihood many more. As I wove my way up through the dense, perfumed cedar and Douglas fir forest, I recalled that during my first week in Victoria I was so sad for leaving the Mountain wilderness behind, and the discovery of tiny Mount Doug buoyed my flagging spirits. Here was a place that at least was natural, though by no means wild, and certainly not wilderness.

Mount Doug became my sanctuary. Like other urban woodlands before it – and here I think of the unintentional, but often appreciated forests behind my teenage home in Burlington, Ontario – it became a buffer between the madness of city life, and my own wild heart.

On Mount Doug I experienced some of my greatest insights over the last five years. While running through its sun-dappled woods I experienced – not just intellectually, but in actual practice – the dissolution of the boundary between myself and the world around me. I can recall the place on the trail where I first felt the sensation I describe as bliss: where I was no longer a man running through the woods, but merely one part of the universe passing through the other. I could see everything at once, feel everything, taste and hear everything; because, of course, I was everything at once. The feeling of peace washed over me and through me and carried me along the trail in an effortless glide that I’ve become addicted to, and seek to experience again and again. And I do.

Mount Doug was the place where I most often went to run with my best friend Josh. He’d push me as we ran up the steep rocky flanks of the hillside, talking all the way, circling through its Garry Oak forests, and racing down its egresses towards the sea. We covered hundreds of, maybe a thousand, kilometers, over the five years we ran there together, and built a friendship that will, no doubt, last a lifetime. Saying goodbye to Josh and his family the night before this run was, beyond a doubt, the hardest thing about leaving Victoria.

Mount Doug was also where, on a strange day in late July in 2006, that I experienced my darkness moments while in Victoria. It was while running through those woods that I cherish that I had my closest brush with mortality yet: it was there that I realized that I was in mortal danger if I didn’t make changes in my life, and so I did, and still am.

It has been a long trail. And a good one. And sometimes very hard. New life, and old fears and dark anger lay among the salmon and the cedar on the path from the sea to the summit. The discovery that life isn’t necessarily supposed to be sad, and that peace truly is, as the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, every step was made with each plodding footfall. I discovered too that that peace, in the heart and of the soul, must be rediscovered each day with a commitment to experiencing without fear the steep rises and rocky plunges on this path through the woods we call our sacred, ephemeral lives.

And at last I came once more to the summit of the bald round and looked again over the forested city of Victoria, and beyond it the circling sea and the chains of Mountains. It was a perfect, clear day: even Mount Baker, one hundred miles distant, and often shrouded in cloud on a sunny day, stood in sharp contrast against the azure sky. This place, this hill, these people have served my family well, and we have loved them, and now as we take our leave, I am grateful. I turned and bowed in the four directions, offering my heartfelt thanks to the earth, sea and sky, and to those who have blessed Rio, Silas, Jenn and I with their love and friendship this past half decade.

And lastly I bowed in the direction of my future; towards the east and the Rocky Mountains. I set off down the path at a fair clip, the way ahead unfurling at my feet, the long trail disappearing through the woods and toward a future alight with the promise of hope, of love and of peace.

The path through the woods on Mount Doug