Day 8 – On The Ocean

Saturday was the last day of the Kauri north island tour. We set off from Rotorua after breakfast, heading north to the bustling port city of Tauranga. As we neared the coast, the ubiquitous redwood forests gave way to mile after mile of well-kept orchards. Back home, the emergence of roadside fruit trucks (peaches, cherries, etc.) signals the arrival of summer. Not far from Tauranga, I saw one enterprising fellow selling avocados out of the back of his VW van for $2 a bag. That might just be the best deal I saw during my month-long tour of New Zealand. Everywhere you go it’s $4 for a Pepsi and $15 for a continental breakfast, but at Tauranga you can buy a week’s supply of guacamole for two bucks.

After a brief tour of town, we continued up the coast to Waihi Beach. The morning’s activity was a nature walk along the Pacific Ocean coastline. We didn’t have a lot of time, and the weather was pretty variable, but I wanted to finish the 6.6 km out-and-back hike to the beach at Orokawa Bay. So I walked briskly through the pohutukawa forest, stopping occasionally to enjoy the expansive ocean views.

Orokawa Bay - Pacific Ocean

There’s a lovely Blue Rodeo song from the mid-1990s called “5 Days In May”. Principal tunesmith Jim Cuddy has explained that the song is an amalgam of two romantic stories. In one of the stories, Blue Rodeo was on a tour of New Zealand, enjoying a day off at the beach. Cuddy noticed the band’s sound engineer writing a name in the sand, and asked him why. The sound engineer said that he wrote his wife’s name in the sand wherever he went as a way of paying tribute to her while he was away on tour. In a world of overpriced flowers and chocolates and ribbon-wrapped Lexus SUVs, the simple gestures are still the most beautiful.

After scribing someone special’s name in the Orokawa sands, I stood back and watched the surf wash my scrawls away.

After lunch, we moved on to the Karangahake Gorge. We toured the ruins of a gold and silver mining operation, and learned a little bit about late 19th century extraction technology and railway engineering. Interpretive signs explained the McArthur-Forrest cyanide process, and some of the foundations for the massive ore crushing machines were still visible on the hillside.

We then climbed back into our mini-bus, recently christened ‘Billy T. James’, for the last leg of our tour. The five of us bid each other goodbye at Auckland airport, but we suspected it wasn’t for the last time. Our tour company was being slightly vague about details, but we were reasonably sure that we would cross paths again in Christchurch on Monday morning for the start of the Rimu (south island) tour.

I stayed at the airport hotel on Saturday night in order to catch a Sunday morning flight. The Novotel Auckland Airport is very modern and tastefully furnished. I had a nice view of the tarmac and the harbour, and whatever they did to soundproof the windows works like a charm. 747s and 777s came and went all night, but I didn’t hear a thing. The hotel restaurant looked a little posh for someone travelling in polyester slacks, so I indulged a curiosity and opted for a takeaway ‘Serious Lamb Burger’ from McDonald’s instead. It’s like the Kiwi version of the McRib – despite your better judgment you’re still compelled to try one. The burger was okay, but the Angus beef producers of the world won’t be laying awake at night worrying about losing market share to Mary’s little lambs.

Somewhat miraculously, my dinner from the Scottish fellow’s place paired well with a Mills Reef cabernet merlot that I picked up in Tauranga. With a little serenedipity, my north island tour ended on a high note.

Song of the Day: “On The Ocean” by Guster

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Dark Angel

It’s been stated previously in these pages that Greg Keelor is my favourite Canadian songwriter.  Keelor is one half of the twin-engine power plant that propels roots-rock institution Blue Rodeo.  His scruffy appearance and low-key demeanour are the perfect foil for certified double-platinum lady-killer Jim Cuddy.

Keelor writes songs that cut across many genres – from punk rock to folk, from country-soul to Brill Building pop.  But while he has the chops to write in practically any songwriting style, he is unquestionably a master at capturing late-night desolation and longing in words and music.  The classic example of this is a song called “Dark Angel”, from Blue Rodeo’s 1994 album Five Days in July.

Like the other songs on the record, “Dark Angel” was recorded at Keelor’s farmhouse retreat.  Freed from the omnipresent glow of Toronto’s city lights, you can hear the rural darkness creeping in around the edges of this haunting ballad.  The album version of “Dark Angel” is very stripped down – just Keelor and special guest Sarah McLachlan singing, underpinned by piano.  In concert, Keelor often rearranges the song for solo guitar, as featured in this link.  Regardless of the accompaniment, the vocal melody and relaxed vibe have a way of burrowing into your soul and taking up residence forever.  The lyric also manages to be relatively specific, while still being open-ended enough for the listener to superimpose his or her own meaning.

The first half of the song is ostensibly about a special lady friend that crossed paths with Keelor.  He recalls how everything that she said to him made perfect sense, and how he was hypnotized by her presence.  He sounds like he’s loitering in that state of semi-consciousness between being awake and falling asleep, when abstract thoughts sometimes occur to you with profound clarity.  It’s a lyrical sentiment that is reinforced by the languid pace of the music.

My dark angel, she gave me diamonds for eyes
She walked by – now I’m hypnotized
By this dream that just won’t stop
And I feel like I’ve always been lost in this dream

In the second half of the song, Keelor tips his hand and admits that his muse is sadly just a figment of his imagination.  To me, the lyric is about yearning and loneliness and the restless, universal search for something more.  There is no literal Dark Angel in his past – he simply hopes to walk this earth long enough to finally find her.  He’s melancholic, but he clings to the faint hope that it’s just a matter of time.

My dark angel shine your light on my curse
You are the other that I have to find
Until I do I guess I’ll see you ’round in my mind

The metaphysical dreamscape of isolation is revisited in the final refrain:

‘Cause there is this face that I know that I’ve never seen
Sometimes I feel I’m living in someone else’s dream
Still I thank you for stopping to talk
And I wonder just into whose dream did who walk

My favourite lines in the song are the ones where Keelor briefly shifts from dreaming to drafting a plan of action to finally find his special friend.  I consider myself to be a pragmatist with a quietly romantic streak, so this seems like a wonderful idea:

So Colorado is the place I have to go
I heard a rumour she loves the mountains and the snow

Once upon a time, those very same words were rolling around in my mind as I moved west to pursue my graduate studies.  I was hoping that a change of scenery would help to break me out of my carefully constructed shell.  By choosing to live in a co-ed dormitory, I was also hoping to develop an actual social life, something that was I sorely lacking back in ‘the 204’.

One wintry day about a year later, I thought I met my dark angel in (of all places) our dorm’s laundry room.  I was minding my own business, folding shirts and matching up pairs of socks, when she walked in with a hamper full of clothes.  As a straight, unattached male I’m pretty much guaranteed to notice whenever a pretty woman walks into a room.  But on this particular day, what really got my Spidey senses tingling was her operatic, perfectly pitched voice.  She hummed quietly to no one in particular while she loaded a washing machine then cracked open a book.  I was smitten.

After some initial awkwardness (my specialty), we became friends.  We would chat in the hallway, swap CDs and musical recommendations, things like that.  I lent her some Smashing Pumpkins and Pink Floyd discs, she lent me some Bowie.  I know my league and she wasn’t in it, but I was simply transfixed by that wonderful voice.  It turns out she was also a fantastic person – intelligent and compassionate and pragmatic and good-natured.  No small wonder that she excelled at nursing.

She went home for the summer while I stayed behind in the residence.  In theory I was working on my long-delayed thesis project, but most evenings and weekends I was pounding the hiking and biking trails, trying to make myself look and feel a little more presentable.

When the Lady of the Laundry reappeared in September, we picked up right where we’d left off.  We would head out for groceries or music stores on weekends, and we helped to plan a variety of events in the residence.  We even ended up at the Symphony Under the Sky together, where the local orchestra kicked off their fall season with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms in a grassy amphitheatre.  My Spidey sense peaked off the charts when she volunteered to stand up and sing that famous melodic motif from “Ode to Joy” for the concert master a cappella between performances.  It was all I could do to not propose to her on the spot, but trying to be the master of the ‘slow play’ I somehow kept it together.

Not long after, I had finally resolved to dive head-first into the abyss and ask her out.  I spent all week summoning every ounce of courage I had, preparing for the Saturday night party downstairs.  But my vaunted ‘slow play’ was my undoing.  By the time the party got rolling, I couldn’t help but notice that my dark angel had taken up relations with some Australian douchebag.  Some knob with all the charm and charisma of a sack of wet mice.  My waking dream had become a nightmare.  To this day my blood pressure STILL spikes every time I hear that ridiculous Aussie accent.

I stayed friends with my operatic acquaintance for a few years, which was cool.  But after she moved away permanently, I was haunted by the idea of what might have been.  In a way, the experience made me appreciate Greg Keelor’s songs even more.  I often hear the echoes of two ships passing in the night, or tales of star-crossed lovers that were never meant to be, in songs like “Dark Angel”.  And though it sucks when you can’t be with someone that you’re profoundly attracted to, it’s somewhat comforting to know that you’re not alone in your moment of quiet desperation.

This weekend, I’m jetting off to Denver to do some shopping, go on a couple of mountain hikes, and attend a concert at the stunning Red Rocks Amphitheatre.  Stay tuned for photographs and more stories from the road.  By the time you read this, I should be rolling through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  And who knows – maybe Colorado truly is the place I have to go. 

Day 2 – Western Skies

Well I’d rather be walking through the tall pine trees
High up above Lake Louise
And I’d rather be chasing after shooting stars than
Waiting for this dumb 503 TTC

I’d like to see the sun set behind Saddle Mountain
And listen to the wind whisper my name
Yeah this world and me don’t fit –
One of us is gonna have to quit
Oh how I miss those western skies

“Western Skies”, by Blue Rodeo, 1992

I’ve had the good fortune of seeing Blue Rodeo in concert something like ten times.  For those who aren’t familiar with them, Blue Rodeo is a Canadian roots-rock institution.  From album to album they mix in combinations of psychedelic, country, Stax soul, and adult alternative influences, but the basic blueprint is rootsy jangle-rock.  Imagine Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks cross-pollinated with Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever and Wilco’s Being There and you’ll be in the right ballpark.

My first Blue Rodeo show was in Winnipeg in the early 1990s, on tour to promote their album Casino.  It was one of my first-ever live gigs and I was a concert newbie, but I remember being blown away by the dynamics of the melodies and the way that Jim Cuddy’s and Greg Keelor’s vocals fused together into a glorious roar.  Since then, the band has experienced numerous lineup changes, but the core of Cuddy, Keelor, and bassist Bazil Donovan remain intact to this day.

Over the years, I’ve seen Blue Rodeo play shows at ballparks, folk festivals, and soft-seat theatres.  They likely hold some sort of record for playing the Northern and Southern Jubilee Auditoriums more than any other touring rock act.  While they never quite broke through into the mainstream anywhere outside of Canada, you can always count on having a great time at a Blue Rodeo gig.  My favourite show was probably the one they put on in Banff in the early part of 2000, on the mid-winter tour for The Days In Between.  The band was tight, the audience was chillaxed after a long day of skiing (or, in my case, winter hiking), and midway through the gig they played “Western Skies” to rapturous applause.

Blue Rodeo have remained popular for a quarter century because of the strength of the Cuddy and Keelor songwriting team.  In some ways, they parallel the McCartney/Lennon writing tandem that propelled the Beatles.  McCartney and Lennon each went on to reasonably successful solo careers, but there was definitely an indescribable “greater than the sum of the parts” synergy when they worked together.  Blue Rodeo’s principal songwriters seem to work the same way – they push each other to be great.

Jim Cuddy tends to write two kinds of songs – bouncy upbeat radio-friendly numbers and slower mid-tempo ‘sad cowboy’ type songs.  Some of his songs are brilliant (including “After the Rain”, “Cinema Song”, “5 Days In May”, “What You Want”, “Sky”, “Trust Yourself”, “Try” and “Rain Down On Me”), but stylistic variety isn’t really his stock in trade.  Cuddy sticks to what he’s good at, which is fine.

For my money, the wildcard ruminations of Greg Keelor are what make Blue Rodeo a great band.  Keelor is much more apt to follow his muse down shadowy side streets, so you never quite know what you’re going to get.  Sometimes his experiments land on the floor with a thud, but his frequent moments of brilliance are well worth being patient.  Keelor has a gift for putting indignation (“God and Country”), manic energy (“Restless”), frustration (“What Am I Doing Here”), disillusionment (“Side of the Road”), and characters on the fringe of society (“Rage”) into words and music.  That’s without even listing his stone-cold Canadian classics, like “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet”, “Lost Together” and “Diamond Mine”.  And nobody, anywhere, quite captures romantic, late-night vignettes of isolation (“Dark Angel”, “Know Where You Go”, “Is It You”, “Stage Door”) the way he does.

Luminaries like Ron Sexsmith, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen are venerated as Canada’s greatest songwriters, and deservedly so.  But I think when Greg Keelor is on his game, nobody can touch him.

And so it was with Blue Rodeo cued up to shuffle on the ol’ iPod that I set out on Friday morning for another day of hiking.  First up was a quick side trip to Moraine Lake.  The plains up above Moraine Lake are my favourite place on earth.  In September, after the first killing frost, the needles of the larch trees go yellow.  Imagine golden forests framed by ten stoic, rocky peaks and crystal blue skies – if there’s a more beautiful place on the planet, I haven’t found it.  Unfortunately, late July is buffalo berry season, so the grizzly bears are out and about.  During bear season, hikers need to move through the trails in Larch Valley in groups of four.  Since I was hiking solo on this trip, I had to console myself with sticking to the lakeshore.  The rock pile at the east end of Moraine Lake offers a spectacular view of the lake and the peaks.  Get there early enough in the morning and, not only will you avoid the crowds, but the light falls on the mountains and water in spectacular fashion.

Side trip completed, I slipped back down the valley for one of my favourite day hikes.  Like Greg Keelor before me, it was time to once again walk through the tall pine trees high up above Lake Louise.  The Plain of the Six Glaciers Teahouse trail starts by wrapping around the north shore of Lake Louise, then climbs the valleys and lateral moraines toward the Victoria Glacier and the peaks of the continental divide.  The bussed-in hordes of tourists quickly dissipate as you make your way down the lakeshore.  Along the way, you’re treated to scenes of red canoes slipping through the icy waters of Lake Louise, climbers scaling the cliffs at the west end of the lake, and magnificent views up and down the valley as you gradually climb the moraine.

The Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse is situated 2100 metres above sea level.  The bulk of the supplies (flour, sugar, preserved goods) are brought into the teahouse by helicopter once per season, and the servers and cooks bring everything else up in their backpacks.  After ascending the six kilometre hike from the Lake Louise parking lot, with a total elevation change of 350 metres, you get to take a seat at the rustic teahouse and enjoy the views of Mounts Lefroy, Victoria, Aberdeen, and the Mitre.  A slice of hearth-baked apple pie and a cup of tea is a fine reward for the effort.

After my snack, I continued on the trail to the west of the teahouse.  It’s possible to pick out a trail along the top of the moraine for about two more kilometres, climbing higher and higher.  If you keep going beyond the ‘official’ end of the trail for another 800 metres or so, you get to a point where you can see what mountaineers call ‘The Death Trap’ beneath Abbot Pass.  This approach to the pass is prone to rock falls and requires traversing deeply crevassed glaciers, so it is almost always climbed from the Lake O’Hara side in B.C.

Right at the top of the 2,922 metre pass, perched on the Alberta – British Columbia border, is the Abbot Pass Hut.  The ‘hut’ is actually a 90-year-old stone structure with room for up to 24 alpinists to sleep, and is the second-highest habitable structure in Canada.

A room with a view if ever there was one!  After snapping this photo, I retraced my steps back down the valley and reveled in the adrenaline rush that comes from accomplishing a physical goal.  The trip down is always easier on the cardio than the ascent, but perhaps a little tougher on the knee joints.  When your heart isn’t pounding away, it’s easier to listen for the multitude of languages and regional accents being spoken on the trails.  On any given day it’s fun to pick out Swiss, German, Dutch, French, and the thirty-one flavours of the English language (Queen’s, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Australian, and the many different American and Canadian regional dialects).  Originally confined to the lakeshore, you can even hear Japanese and Mandarin high up above Lake Louise these days.  Greg Keelor would envy them all.