This photo of Ungava Bay Road I took a few years ago up in Nunavik, doesn't resemble where the following story took place, but it happened to be a photo at hand. The story is about the last time I had breakfast with Grandfather Woodlot, a ninety-eight year old hermit in the coastal mountains.
Grandfather Woodlot lived near the top of a mountain, in a shack overlooking a meadow just above sub-alpine forest. I happened to be in the neighborhood and decided to drop in.
I didn’t think the pickup truck would make it; the road was so steep. Those sharp turns, the sheer drop off the edge set my teeth on edge. It was an old logging trail from decades ago when a logging crew cut down lodge-pole pine. Woodlot was part of the crew, but took an early retirement and stayed on and watched scrub forest grow in. Woodlot built a shack and lived alone there for ten years, off rice and beans.
This was back in the days when you could score a ten-dollar motel and a twenty-five-cent loaf of bread and a fair number of men wore hair down to the shoulder blades and women let skirts move dangerously above the knee. I parked next to a rock the size of a two-story house, lifted the hood to let the engine cool and then and walked over to the shack. He didn’t have a phone. There was no way of knowing if he’d be home, or off tracking animals or digging roots somewhere, or maybe lost in thought on the top of some ridge. Grandfather was nowhere to be seen.
That didn’t meant the drive up there was a waste of time. I went there for the sake of memories as much as anything. It brought back vivid memories of the last visit, Jane and I. We spent a few days gazing at the sky and enjoying solitude. Grandfather went off to stay in a cave, so Jane and I could have privacy. That was a romantic time, to be young and in love.
I wasn’t so young anymore. Grandfather was nearly a hundred years old. He wanted to die alone on the mountain. Maybe he was already a heap of bones, lying in the shade of some rock. I was half afraid to find him dead on the floor after pushing open the door. Hot embers in the bottom of the oil barrel stove and a pot half full of coffee indicated he was around. It look like he’d burned a pot of potatoes. The blackened pot sat in a steel dishpan, gray water inside, and a heap of burned potatoes on a metal plate on top of a wooden crate that he used as a counter. I lay down on the sleeping bag spread on top of a sheet of plywood to wait and began dreaming about breakfast.
I dreamed about watching a glutton sit down at the next table to a plate of raw oysters and a side order of stewed prunes smothered in boiled raisin sauce, with brown sugar sprinkled on top and a maraschino cherry. The man had just finished eating a bowl of clam chowder and a plate of chop suey. I ordered soft buttered toast, strawberry jam and coffee, while a stream of people hurried in and out of the truck stop restaurant, which provided spacious parking.
This was the time Bob and I drove into the interior to do research on the effect of running barefoot through pine forest and soaking in black, silt bottomed bogs. After a narrow encounter with a grizzly, we decided to play it safe and drive to Grandfather Woodlot’s shack way up some mountain ridge. He made me promise to never give away the whereabouts of his private mountain road. Even though he died a while ago, I’ll respect his wishes.
He died six months after this last visit. That’s a story in itself. I had a vivid dream of grandfather one night. The spirit of the old man told me he was dead. I went up there with Jack and sure enough, we found his bones scattered about. He’d been dead for a while. Maybe he didn’t want a funeral. It looked like birds and small animals ate his flesh.
That’s what sparked this memory of the last visit, the thought of death. I woke up this morning and had an overwhelming sense of mortality. I hadn’t thought about the last breakfast before. It came rushing back into mind, a buried memory coming to live.
I don’t know how long I slept, but the clatter of pots woke me up as grandfather scoured the burned pot. I gave the old man a hug and then told him I was there to take him for that promised breakfast at the Jolly Sea Side Restaurant off highway 666, near Devils Gorge. Last time Grandfather had wanted to treat Jane and I to breakfast there, even though it was a two-hour drive away. There wasn’t time, but I promised to return and take him there for breakfast.
The old man liked the idea. His dropping body perked up. We dropped everything, hopped in the truck and eased the truck down the mountain. If you’re ever down Highway 666, you’ll recognize the truck stop by the huge stuffed moose outside and the petting zoo with goats, sheep, pigs and a donkey.
Grandfather wouldn’t go into the restaurant until we each bought a bag of feed in order to pet one goat, one sheep one pig and one donkey. He walked zigzag over to the animals and fed them out of his hand. He once told me only city folk walked in straight lines, because sidewalks allowed it. In the bush, one was forever walking around rocks, hopping streams, climbing over deadfall. There wasn’t a straight stretch of level ground on that mountain to be had.
No sooner did we get seated at a table by the window, when he began talking about the digestive model of existence, the three-step process of consumption, digestion and exhaust. There was no point telling him there were other people in the restaurant, who might not want to overhear such talk.
Ok, this episode is long enough. There’s no time to delve into supernatural overtones or metaphysical connotations. Grandfather did ask me to remind people about the importance of flossing the teeth.