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Sports Lit

By barbaramcveigh
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Literary sports and adventure books Here are some out of print titles that could be included on this list. I've been able to buy some of them online: SHOELESS JOE by WP Kinsella INSIDE THE POSTAL BUS by Michael Barry LE METIER by Michael Barry BLACK TIGHTS: WOMEN, SPORT AND SEXUALITY by Laura Robinson CROSSING THE LINE: SEXUAL ASSAULT IN CANADA'S NATIONAL SPORT by Laura Robinson COLD OCEANS by Jon Turk FAIL BETTER by Mark Kingwell For more about my interest in Sports Lit copy & paste this link:
Bone Cage, The
Why it's on the list ...
Perfect pre-Olympic preparation reading.
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Amazon Extreme

Amazon Extreme

Three Ordinary Guys, One Rubber Raft, and the Most Dangerous River on Earth
tagged : adventure

The hair-raising true story of the first team to raft the entire length of the Amazon.

To a trio of twenty-something adrenaline junkies, it sounded like an irresistible challenge: Tackle the Amazon with nothing more than a rubber raft between them and fate.

In Amazon Extreme Colin Angus provides a you-are-there account of his expedition’s terrors and triumphs. In spite of Shining Path gunmen, mosquito-laden drinking water, and, of course, the terrifying rapids themselves, his crew also found a r …

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September 11, 1999

We arrived by bus late in the day at Camana, a tiny town north of the Chilean border. The famed Nazca Lines, those massive and inscrutable geometric patterns carved by some ancient civilization, are a few hundred miles to the north. I was looking forward to seeing the area's famous beaches.

Camana is set back from the water about 3 miles, so visiting the sea immediately after our ride was not possible. Instead, we booked into a cheap hotel and went exploring.

Western tourists and even Peruvians are said to flock to this town during the searing summer heat, but they were nowhere to be seen. We were the only gringos in town, and there didn't appear to be many native Peruvians holidaying there. Market stalls lined many of the streets as vendors hawked everything: balls of twine, avocados, bananas, oranges, slabs of beef, planks of ribs, chicken feet, pineapples, fish, gewgaws, and spices. Fowl, pigs, and donkeys rooted everywhere and were as numerous as people. To our eyes, imported merchandise was fairly expensive; local products cheap.

We had to carry enough food for about a week. After that, we figured we would reach Corire, a town where we could resupply. We stocked up on rice, dried beans, lentils, oatmeal, salt, flour, a kilo of rank-smelling cheese, some equally redolent salted meat, onions, potatoes, garlic, peppers, powdered milk, sugar, spices, and some Nescafe coffee.

Across from our hotel a young boy sat beside a blanket displaying multicolored combs. I watched him for a long time. No one gave him a glance. In the evening I bought a bright-orange comb. The boy grabbed the money wordlessly with a dirty, scabby hand--the blank expression on his face did not change even though I gave him five times the price and declined change. His cold indifference saddened me. Later, I gave the comb to a crazy old woman with thick, matted hair who was delighted with it and smiled with tea-colored teeth. Welcome to Peru--a country so grindingly poor that teachers officially earn about US 2 dollars a day.

Peru is the third-largest country in South America. Lima is as sophisticated and spectacular as any European capital, yet the country has been an economic and social mess for more than a century. Two guerrilla groups intent on revolution refuse to die. Millions live in abject poverty, and the entire institutional infrastructure is decrepit. The senior political and intellectual elite is corrupt or complicit. To me, it is unfathomable how a nation can survive like this. But government never was my strong suit.

Day 1: September 13, 1999

Outside the hostal a beat-up 1970s Toyota Corona presented itself in a cloud of dust, just after sunrise. We loaded our packs in the lidless trunk, and the decrepit automobile lurched to life. The driver did everything at top speed, and we arrived at our destination within minutes.

My visions of a Hawaiian-style beach were shattered by the long stretch of dirty, foul-smelling sand that greeted us. The driver grinned, exposing a row of yellow, rotting teeth as we unloaded our gear.

"La Punta Bonita!" he gestured at the sand, cackling at the incredulity pasted on our faces.

Garbage spilled across the sand like dirty socks strewn about a dormitory. The air was clammy under a canopy of high haze, a reminder of the foggy weather that guidebooks warned us plagued the area. Numerous buildings lined the beach, but they were not the holiday homes I had envisioned. Some were roofless, and the walls of others were crumbling.

At first it seemed as though we were on the edge of a ghost town. But soon I noticed an urchin slipping among the apparent ruins and, far in the distance, two men dragging a gnarled dead tree. It was as if we'd walked into a set for Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

"I guess we won't be having that beer in a seaside bar to celebrate our departure," Scott said.

"What on earth brings the tourists here in high season?" I asked.

"Let's test the stove and get on the road," Ben retorted.

We had not been able to find naphtha the day before, so we bought gasoline as a substitute, hoping it might work. We didn't want to test it in the hotel room in case it erupted in a fireball. I turned so Ben could get the small Coleman from my pack.

He pulled out the stove, gingerly filled it with the fuel, and tightened the cap. Scott anxiously primed the pump with a few quick motions, opened the jet, sparked the lighter, and jumped back, anticipating an explosion.

He chuckled--"See, nothing to it"--as small bright-blue flames flickered and the stove hissed contentedly.

We high-fived each other, shut it down, and repacked it. We were off. Suddenly, a little girl appeared.

"What are you guys doing?" she asked in Spanish.

"We are going to cross South America," I replied.

She stared at me for a while.

"My daddy sells cigarettes."

"Ciao," we nodded.

We left her standing there and went to dip our boots in the Pacific Ocean, a ritual to mark our departure.

There were enormous breakers. Trying to get the timing right, we ran after the receding water like three loaded camels, splashed momentarily in the water, and retreated. Scott was too slow and the wave caught him. He laughed, but that was before he knew of the blisters the wet leather would gnaw into his feet by lunchtime.

With that inelegant two-step, we strode down a misty dirt road, our journey begun. We were free. We were self-contained. We had only to follow the path far enough and we would cross a continent.

We had plotted our route using a series of topographical maps purchased in Lima, the colonial Spanish capital of the country. We spent hours poring over the detailed charts, trying to determine the most direct route to the continental divide from the coast. It was impossible to follow a straight path.

The topography of southwestern Peru is a washboard of mountain ranges. The landscape consists of hellishly deep canyons separated by mountain badlands and endless stretches of puna, the savage alpine desert. The mountain ranges are arrayed in a series of cordillera, or spines, running parallel to the coast from north to south. Each successive picket of peaks is higher than the last, until they crest and plunge into the Amazon jungle. We would ascend and cross every range until we reached the 5,900-yard divide.

The roar of the ocean faded as we walked into the R'o Camana Valley. The birdsong and insect drone provided a soft fluctuating hum of white noise. Occasionally the bark of an underfed, abused dog pierced the air. Viewed from above, the river valley was a green ribbon of irrigated farmland running across a strip of desert scrubland that extended up and down the coast. Virtually no rain falls here, and the water brought down from the mountains by the Majes River originates far away. Laborers paused from working the fields and watched us stroll past. They didn't often see three gringos with enormous bags on their backs.

My mind wandered as my legs settled into the routine. Everything seemed slightly unreal. I had dreamt about this day for so long that it was difficult to believe it was actually here. Every minute brought us closer to the Atlantic Ocean. I tried to imagine what obstacles we'd encounter, what kind of people we'd meet, what hardships we would endure. Would any of us bail? Ben's voice interrupted the thought.

"There's a picture opportunity that could speak a few thousand words," he said, pointing at a billboard for VISA that loomed over a wrinkled old man in tattered clothes hoeing corn with a bent stick. As we walked by, the campesino's eyes did not rise from the soil.

After a few miles, the 70-pound weight of my pack made my shoulders ache. I reassured myself that my muscles and joints would gradually adapt. The morning fog burned off, but a thick haze obscured the sun. Our conversation quickly became sporadic, each of us lost in his own thoughts as we passed rich fields of corn, melons, tomatoes, and onions. Occasionally, we saw lush jade-colored levees choked with rice.

As we got farther away from Camana, the small, self-contained farms gave way to sprawling ranches. We could see the makeshift bamboo-and-mud hovels of local farm workers clinging to the valley's encroaching gravel walls. The dirt road gradually became a rutted lane, skirting the edge of the fields, winding toward the head of the valley. The rich loamy earth smelled good, and clouds of gnats rode the breeze.

Periodically the lane stumbled upon a cluster of adobe-and-thatch shacks. Children paused, mouths agape, when they caught sight of us. Sometimes nervous mothers snatched the children up and ran inside. We could feel their eyes watch us as we passed. The men we encountered were inquisitive and less afraid. "Where do you come from? Where are you going? Why don't you go by bus?" We struggled to understand and answer in broken Spanish.

Toward mid-afternoon we met two women sifting corn in front of a home that squatted beside the lane. They warily watched us approach, but held their ground. They were native Peruvians wearing black bowler hats and sweaters of vivid blue and pink. I found it impossible to tell their age within a generation: one was older, and the other could have been her daughter.

"Hola," I said, smiling.

The twentysomething broke into a broad smile, but her elder companion maintained a businesslike tone: "Buenas tardes."

You could feel the tension. The two women spoke quickly to each other, the younger one apparently more inclined to be hospitable. After a moment she turned and asked us to excuse her friend. She explained that she was more familiar with gringos.

They wanted to know what brought us so far from the main highway and where were we going? We explained as best we could, but it was clear the older woman wanted nothing to do with us. "I'm surprised you are here," she said ominously. "No fear bandits?" Her rough, callused hands continued to sift the corn. "Many bandits up ahead," she said, "a-a-e-e . . ." She wailed and shook her head at the thought of some tragedy. She spoke rapidly to the younger woman.

"She's right--they did terrible things," the younger woman said. "You must be careful."


I looked at Ben and Scott. "Let's move," came the clear message from their eyes.

"Muchas gracias," I repeated.

We walked debating among ourselves how much credence to put in the woman's warning. We presumed she was exaggerating.

Soon we were on the lookout for a good spot to camp on our first night. We found a perfect place overlooking the river. Scrubby brush grew among the pebbles and sand. It was inconspicuous and invisible from the road. Although no one would acknowledge it, the old woman's cry still echoed in our minds.

I made a dinner of rice, veggies, and dried beef while Ben pitched the tent. Scott went to the riverside to pump water through our filter into empty plastic Coke bottles. We were true neophytes, fumbling and hesitant with the new equipment.

Soon after it got dark, we turned off our lights so we were invisible to anyone coming along the lane. We sat under a starless sky, the firmament obscured by the high haze, talking softly. The gnats, which had devoured us throughout the day, vanished with the setting sun. We sat peacefully for an hour. Then, while I was brushing my teeth, I spotted the flickering light of two lanterns drawing near. I held my breath nervously, as they grew larger, passed by, and finally winked out.

Day 2: September 14, 1999

The morning was gray, thick with haze. Shortly after leaving camp we passed through a small village--if that's what you call a scrum of shacks in a dust bowl. The villagers stared warily when we appeared, and kept their distance as we walked past.

About five minutes after passing the settlement, Scott noticed a large bone sticking out of the sand. We looked closer. There were clumps of mealy white flesh clinging to the jawbone. I nudged at the sand with my foot, scraping to expose more of the clearly human remains. Scott coughed uneasily. "Take a look back," he said in a whisper.

About twenty men clutching hoes and scythes had followed us along the trail and were watching us intently. It was a Hitchcock moment--the gloomy light, the remains, and the silent, stone-faced sentinels.

"Maybe we should get a move on," I said.

"Yeah," Ben and Scott muttered in tandem, and we began to stroll away.

It was difficult not to bolt, but we maintained our usual pace. I glanced back a few times, nervous that the villagers might be following us like demented Children of the Corn. They weren't.

"Where did that old lady say the banditos were?" Scott asked.

"I'm not sure," Ben replied. "Somewhere up the valley."

"How far up?"

"I don't know."

"Maybe here."

We fell into silence. We were only about 18 miles from Camana, the closest police office.

"I say we forget about it," I ventured after a while. "None of our business."

We walked in silence. I felt nauseated. I didn't want to think about what had happened back there. It wasn't pretty, it sure wasn't lawful, and we didn't want any part of it.

The haze created a greenhouse effect, turning the valley into a sweaty sauna. The gnats swarmed and feasted on any bit of exposed skin. The bug repellant worked for only a few minutes before it was washed away by the waves of sweat that rolled off us.

In the early afternoon we came upon another village at the end of the lane. Only a footpath continued beyond. We met up with a few people around the huts and they treated us in a friendlier manner. They smiled when we approached and were gracious when we asked directions in our limited Spanish.

It was late in the day when we encountered steep cliffs that cut across the trail in the narrowing valley. The only way to continue was to ford the river and walk along the other bank. But the river was 100 yards wide, the current swift, and, as far as we could tell, the water at least waist deep. There was no way we could carry our packs across.

Leaving Ben and Scott with the gear, I scrambled up the cliff to see if there was any way to continue on the same side of the river. The angled granite rose into a vertical wall. With our gear, we could never hope to scale it.

I returned to find Ben and Scott with two teenaged boys. I understood only bits and pieces of what they were saying. Scott said they were offering to get us across the river. We nodded dumbly and the boys disappeared.

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Beyond the Horizon

Beyond the Horizon

The Great Race to Finish the First Human-Powered Circumnavigation of the Planet
tagged : adventure
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Taking the Plunge

A year after my Google discovery, in 2002, I was feeling philosophical. Like so many people, I was struck by the paradox that the human struggle for advancement was killing the planet that sustains us. The scientific community agreed that global temperatures were rising as a direct result of human intervention. If this pattern continued, within decades climatic conditions on our planet would change at an unprecedented rate. Coastal cities would flood from the rising oceans, lush agricultural land would turn into desert, and storms would increase in both strength and number. Millions would die from displacement and starvation.

Despite this apocalyptic forecast, the solution remains simple. Humans need to reduce their emissions of ­so-­called greenhouse gases. The one hitch: such conservation may result in a ­short-­term dip in the global economy. Quality of life–as defined by economists–might decline, especially for those who prefer driving their SUV to fetch a carton of milk rather than walk or ride a bicycle. The immediate benefits, however, would be less air pollution, a healthier population and a rise in innovative technologies and industries that cater to a less destructive society. Most important, a reduction of emissions would ensure atmospheric equilibrium and ultimately benefit all of our children, and their children, and their children’s children.

These are the facts.

Although the appropriate course of action is clear, our society has chosen a different route. Total ­greenhouse-­gas emissions increased by 50 per cent between 1970 and 2000. This trend is not changing.

Like many socially conscious citizens, I did what I could. I used my bicycle or public transit for almost all my transportation needs. I kept the heat low in my home. I tried to minimize my reliance on the power grid. It was frustrating, however, that despite the changes and efforts made by a few, overall greenhouse emissions steadily continued to rise. What else could I do to make a difference?

I revisited my daydream about a ­human-­powered circumnavigation of the planet from a more serious perspective. Such a journey would garner much publicity, and this media attention could be leveraged to promote ­zero-­emissions travel. If I could make it around the entire planet using my own muscles, it might inspire others to ride their bikes to work or walk to school. Suddenly, I realized that this expedition would be more than just a ­once-­in-­anyone’s-­lifetime adventure. It could also be a loud and clear statement about the urgency of climate change, an action that would speak louder than mere rhetoric about the issue. I could chronicle the expedition in a book to convey the message to a wide audience.

I ran my finger over the surface of a globe. I tried to imagine the easiest route and how I might traverse the various regions. By the middle of 2002, I had decided that I would do it. I would attempt the first ­muscle-­powered journey around our planet.


I felt somewhat like a child who declares he is going to fly to the moon. Although I had stated to myself that I would do it, and had every intention of carrying through, I still struggled to believe I would be successful. As the child starts clearing toys from the launching area, I began tapping on the computer, doing Google searches to glean some rudimentary information about what I was up against.

Because of these extreme nagging doubts, my initial preparations weren’t accompanied by the usual enthusiasm I feel when striving for a more simple and achievable goal such as building a small boat or planting a vegetable garden. Instead, I laboured on the project simply because I said I would. It felt as though I were begrudgingly working for the small part of my brain that felt success was a possibility.

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Why it's on the list ...
Shows that it can be done: solely self-propelled travel. Also, you've got to admire a guy who rides a bike through the winter.
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Lost in Mongolia

Lost in Mongolia

Rafting the World's Last Unchallenged River

From the Yenisey’s headwaters in the wild heart of central Asia to its mouth on the Arctic Ocean, Colin Angus and his fellow adventurers travel 5,500 kilometres of one of the world’s most dangerous rivers through remotest Mongolia and Siberia, and live to tell about it.

Exploration is Colin Angus’ calling. It is not only the tug of excitement and challenge that keeps sending him on death-defying journeys down some of the world’s most powerful waterways, it is a desire to know a place mor …

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The water roiled and bucked in large waves as the river was squeezed between the sheer walls. The air was a haze of cool mist, and a persistent roar filled my ears. I saw the raft teeter on a huge standing wave just inside the canyon as Ben struggled, pulling madly on the oars.
My kayak was incredibly maneuverable, but I had to be careful about some of the bigger rocks. I slid off a two-yard wave and down into a great recirculating hole. The gaping mouth of the vortex boiled and sucked at my tiny vessel, and I dug frantically to escape its grasp. My heart pounded from exertion. Where were Ben and the raft? I had lost him somewhere in the white fog of spray.
My lungs burned as the merciless river pushed me hard toward the canyon wall, threatening to pin the kayak to the jagged rocks. I struggled to get turned back downriver. A large hole appeared that was impossible to avoid -- its swirling, circular current swallowed nearly the entire river. I dug hard with my paddle, hoping to generate enough speed to propel the kayak across the boil.
Dig! Dig! Dig! I screamed at myself. Pull! PULL!
I had barely made it to the middle of the hole when the rotating maelstrom pulled me backward and then under.
Everything went black.
I held my breath as the current battered and pulled at me, as if some malevolent force wanted to rip me from the kayak's cockpit and consume me. It pummeled my chest like a boxer. My lungs ached for oxygen as I spun around upside down. I was helpless, a plaything of the river god. The kayak did numerous cartwheels and then, as quickly as I had been pulled under, I was spat out downstream. I was wet, cold, out of breath, and chastened.
But I was alive.

August 22, 1999
"The Nile, the Amazon, the Yangtze, and then the Mississippi."

"So what's number five then?" I asked.

Ben looked up from the National Geographic Atlas. "The Yenisey River."

I'd never heard of the Yenisey, yet it was listed as the fifth-longest river in the world. According to the map, the Yenisey's headwaters were in the heart of central Asia and its mouth was 3,450 miles to the north, on the Arctic Ocean. Had anyone ever traveled its full length? Through what kind of landscape did it flow? My imagination conjured up scenes of a thunderous whitewater torrent on its way to the sea, dashing down the flanks of the Hangayn Mountains, roaring through steep-sided canyons, and cutting across expanses of frozen tundra peopled with nomads who lived in tepees.

"It looks like Camana, on the coast of Peru, would be the best place to start," Ben said.

We were in the Banff Public Library researching our upcoming expedition down the Amazon River. We were due to leave in two weeks, and it was no time to be daydreaming about other rivers.

Ben's face was tanned from the weeks we'd spent honing our whitewater rafting skills in the Rocky Mountains. Underneath the healthy glow, though, a world-weary tiredness had set in. His curly hair was slightly greasy and hung listlessly across his forehead and over his ears. Large, dark bags hung below his bloodshot eyes -- the result of too much worry. I knew my own face looked about the same.

We were about to run one of the world's greatest rivers, and we were counting pennies and budgeting beyond belief.

I filed the Yenisey River in the back of my mind and devoted my attention to the maps of South America in front of me. Still, a seed had been planted.

February 28, 2001
More than a year later, after we'd run the Amazon, Terry Spence, the radio host at CFAX in Victoria, B.C., leaned closer to his microphone and said, "Tell me now, Colin, why is it that you want to travel a river -- which nobody has ever heard of -- that flows through remotest Mongolia and Siberia? Wasn't the Amazon enough for you? I mean, you guys were almost killed in South America. Haven't you heard of gardening or cricket?"

I laughed. What could I say?

It was true. We had successfully completed our voyage down the Amazon, facing death on numerous occasions. Many people believed that it was blind luck that had carried us across South America from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe, but we accomplished what we had set out to do: We had traveled the length of one of the most famous rivers in the world. We had voyaged every inch of it, from its source in the remote mountains of Peru to the northeastern shoulder of Brazil, where it finally empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

In spite of the pain, the rot, the smell, the arguments, the gunshots, and the altitude sickness, I had never felt so alive or engaged. You cannot capture that feeling in a photograph or on videotape, or adequately convey it in words -- much less experience it on one of those tourist bus excursion trips. It wasn't just the dramatic scenery and the fascinating people that had left their mark on me. It was the unique way in which, the more I shared time with the river -- five months in total -- the more I came to feel and respect its spirit and energy. That is what was tattooed on my soul.

For me the Amazon offered a view of the world that could never be re-created by a textbook or a documentary. The river ran past both the squalid and the sublime with indifference, offering to each a constant but ever-changing face. Old man river truly rolled along -- a mile wide sometimes, swollen with the runoff of a continent. It was both creator and destroyer, depending on its mood. Its banks were testament to its generosity and its rage. It carried us through folded, rugged countryside, its currents sweeping us along like riders on the back of some giant, serpentine beast.

A river is the lifeblood of the land it flows through. Few parts of the earth are untouched by the sculpting force of water. Every organism is part of an intricately woven network of life that is nurtured by a watershed. The sap that rises in the trunk of a eucalyptus tree and the blood that pumps in the heart of an iguana are essentially the same fluid that permeates and flows across the landscape, that saturates the atmosphere and falls from the sky.

Rivers have always been key to the development of complex societies and the rise of civilizations. Irrigation, transportation, hydroelectric power, and food are a few of the gifts a river offers. That is why they fascinate me. Whether they are mythical rivers such as the Styx, historic rivers such as the Rubicon, or the mighty rivers of my homeland, such as the Fraser, I am compelled to learn all I can about them and experience them as fully as possible. From the moment it occurred to me that nothing was holding me back, I had to live and breathe the Amazon River, not just learn about it from books.

When I read Steinbeck's Cannery Row as a boy, I envied the idle lives of the indigent characters. Sitting on a dock, feet dangling in the water, tippling on a jug of wine -- to my young mind it seemed the perfect lifestyle. That was before I felt the pull to explore and achieve. Whether this drive is conditioned or genetic, I have come to believe that in life you must strive to achieve -- or your spirit will fade.

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Rowed Trip

Rowed Trip

also available: Paperback
tagged : adventure
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My family tree is not lush and bountiful. Instead, its branches have been savagely pruned; sometimes entire limbs were sheared off by the Darwinian forces at play in Scotland's far north. Traditionally, whisky production and fishing were the main livelihoods, meaning that those who didn't succumb to the sea were liable to drink themselves to death. When I was a young boy, my mother would tell me stories about her homeland. My eyes opened wide as she regaled me with tales of hairy cows, vast moors of mist-drenched heather and men who wore skirts yet had the fortitude to stare down the Romans.

I was intrigued by this distant nation, awed by my mother's stories, and I knew that, through my heritage, I was indelibly connected to Scotland. Along with the tales of Robert Louis Stevenson told to me as I drifted to sleep, my mother's Scotland was filed in the part of my memory reserved for fiction, fantasy and folklore. And like the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I felt I had a secret connection to another world. I was sure that one day I would make that journey.

That day arrived in early March 2008. My wife, Julie, and I slipped over the border from England in a rental Dodge Caravan with two homemade rowboats strapped to the roof. The interior of the vehicle was in shambles, jammed to the ceiling with camping gear, bicycles, cameras, oars and a miscellany of other equipment. As we ventured farther north, following single-track lanes through unpopulated moors, horizontal rain and gale-force winds buffeted our top-heavy vehicle. Dark clouds scudded towards the elongated black hole of a horizon, and sodden sheep stood with their rumps to the wind.

"It was a really gay day, wasn't it?" Julie said, breaking an extended period of silence.

"What was a gay day?"

"The day we decided to do this trip."

I wasn't sure if she meant it was a happy day, which it was, or if the decision we made that day, which led to committing ourselves to a desolate, freezing world with only a tent for shelter and 7,000 kilometres to travel using only our arms and legs, was a dumb idea. A South Park kind of gay.

I slowed the vehicle to allow a mass of soggy wool to cross the road. The trailing shepherd nodded to us, his face lost in the shadowy folds of a black poncho.

"I suppose so," I said. "I'm sure this weather will clear up shortly."

We'd come up with the idea for this journey two years earlier on a sunny day in Germany. At that time, Julie and I were engaged and were inadvertently testing the bonds of our relationship by travelling together from Moscow to Vancouver solely by human power. The crux of the expedition was a 10,000-kilometre row (yes, row, as in propelling a tippy little boat on a pond) across the Atlantic Ocean. As we cycled across Europe, most of our thoughts were focused on the maritime challenge ahead, instead of the rich cultures, landscapes and architecture around us. And because of the urgency of reaching the Atlantic Ocean ahead of the stormy season, our route was mainly confined to busy highways.

On occasion, these vast ribbons of fumy asphalt traversed rivers or canals, and we paused on the bridges to observe the scene below. River barges, rowboats and sailing dinghies plied murky waters bordered by orchards, farm fields and stone villages. Paths often flanked these waterways, and we watched enviously as cyclists followed meandering courses to nowhere.

We noticed the road atlas we were using to navigate across Europe also outlined the waterways, and closer examination revealed Europe' s labyrinth of water corridors. Julie traced a route of interconnected canals, rivers and coastlines that led from my parents' homeland of Scotland past her mother's home in Germany and on to Syria, where her father comes from. We could paddle all the way from Scotland to Syria and visit our relatives, she said half-seriously.

Whether this comment was made in jest or not, a seed was planted. Over the following months, we researched the possibility of paddling or rowing from Britain to the Middle East. My family comes from Caithness in Scotland's most northeastern corner, so this was where we would start. From there, we could follow a network of canals, lakes, rivers and shorelines all the way through Britain to Dover. We'd row across the English Channel, then journey into Europe's interior by paddling up the Rhine River or navigating France's extensive network of canals. The European continental divide would be crossed on the manmade Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, which connects the Rhine River and the Danube. And once the headwaters of the Danube were reached, it would be possible to voyage downstream to the Black Sea, through the Bosporus and finally on the Mediterranean to Syria.

The plan appealed to our sense of adventure, but more importantly it promised to be a journey that would allow us to explore our roots in a more compelling fashion than a quick online genealogy search followed by a two-week tour package being bused to tourist shops selling stuffed Loch Ness monsters, Middle Eastern rugs and the made-in-China American Indian knick-knacks. No, this would be a seat-of-your-pants adventure that would immerse Julie and me into the cultural and physical forces that had shaped our families and made us who we are. It would give us greater perspective not only on our heritage but also on the distances and lands separating the regions we come from.

The more we researched, though, the more we unearthed questions we could not answer. Would we be able to make our way against the swift current of the Rhine River? Would a human-powered craft be allowed to navigate the canal locks that are normally used by power boats? How difficult would voyaging the British coast be in late winter?

There was too much uncertainty, and although it was theoretically possible to travel on water for every inch of the journey, we felt an efficient portage system was required. Julie and I pondered the various possibilities, from lightweight canoes with padded yokes to sea kayaks and rugged dollies. We came to the conclusion that nothing on the market met our needs.

"Maybe we could tow our boats behind bicycles," Julie said, thinking of the trailer she uses for cycling home with a heavy load of groceries.

It seemed like a practical idea except for one thing: what would we do with the bikes and trailers while on the water? A sea kayak doesn't have the cargo capacity to carry such a load. While a canoe could easily carry a bicycle, it lacks the seaworthiness to cope with some of the rougher coastlines we planned on paddling. We considered using a dory, which is seaworthy and has sufficient cargo capacity, but decided the weight would be prohibitive. Eventually, we realized the ideal boats had yet to be made. We would have to make them ourselves.

We designed the boats and built them in the backyard with plywood and fibreglass. They looked like large sea kayaks, but had sufficient cargo space to carry our bicycles, trailers and all our camping gear within sealed compartments. The boats were shaped so that in the event they capsized, all the water would drain from the cockpit when they were righted. They were also decked with watertight hatches, ensuring the equipment would stay dry in big waves or in the event of a capsize. As a finishing touch, we created a system that would allow them to be joined together as a catamaran with a platform large enough to erect the tent on. This arrangement would allow us to camp in urban areas where conventional tenting was not an option.

We chose a sliding-seat rowing set-up because it provides much more power than paddling and would allow us to propel our burdened boats easily and quickly through the water. It also offers a full-body workout, exercising not just the arms and shoulders but also the back, stomach, buttocks and legs. If we were going to spend six months in a boat, we reasoned, we might as well get fit in the process.

The trailers were custom made by Tony Hoar, a Vancouver Islander who specializes in making unique bicycle trailers. They were designed to disassemble and fit in the boats' centre compartment along with the bicycle. But despite our best efforts to build quality vessels, we worried that our amateur-built craft might not be up to a 7,000-kilometre journey.

Now, as Julie and I drove in inky darkness with the boats on the roof of the van shifting dangerously in the heavy winds, I prayed our homemade contraptions would be able to withstand the rigours ahead. The vulnerability of their thin plywood bodies was accentuated in a world where stone seemed to offer the only true defence against the North Atlantic's wrath. As if to further emphasize the point, the crosswinds intensified, and we were forced to stop the van in the middle of nowhere to avoid losing our rooftop cargo. We had no choice but to wait for the weather to improve, and so we spread our sleeping bags in the back and fell asleep in the violently shaking vehicle.

The following morning, we reached our destination, Castletown, a village of about three thousand located six kilometres from mainland Britain's northernmost point. The surrounding landscape was a rocky moor with occasional stunted trees and pastureland. Swollen steel-grey waves collapsed onto a jagged shoreline next to the town, and wind snaked through the streets, lifting dust and rattling windows. The flagstone buildings were indifferent to gusts that almost bowled us over.

Although my mother and father were born in Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively, their roots lie here. Castletown was where my paternal grandfather lived, descended from a line of shipbuilders and fishermen, while my maternal grandfather came from Wick, a coastal town 20 kilometres away. Between these two communities in the tiny oceanside hamlet of Keiss reside the last of my known relatives in this region. We checked into the town's sole hotel, a Victorian-era stone building.

"Sinclair?" the proprietor said, noting my middle name in my passport. "I have a good friend, Peter Sinclair, in Keiss."

Of course. That's how it is in these tight-knit communities. Peter Sinclair is my second cousin, the son of my mother' s aunt. Coincidentally, the name Sinclair is my paternal grandmother's maiden name, but there is no known blood connection from my father's side. I would soon be meeting this branch of my family for the first time. As well, my half-sister Betti Angus would be joining us, making her way up from her home outside Glasgow. Betti and I are linked through paternal blood, but I had met her only once, when I was twenty-five. She was still an enigma. It has always seemed odd to me that I have a sister who speaks with a broad Scottish accent, and I was pleased that she had offered to join us as we sleuthed to understand our origins.

Our hotel, the St. Clair Arms, was surprisingly comfortable considering its modest price and remote location. Decorative wallpaper and colourful bedding created a welcome contrast to the cold world outside. As Julie and I sorted our equipment, a knock on the door announced Betti's arrival.

Betti was born two years before me, also in Victoria, British Columbia. Her parents divorced when she was an infant, and her mother had not been able bring up a child on her own. Our father, being a sea captain, could not look after Betti, so she was adopted by his childless sister and brother-in-law. Betti was raised an only child on the tiny Isle of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, a world away from her birthplace on Vancouver Island.

Julie opened the door and Betti welcomed us with bear hugs. As with the last time I saw her, I was struck by her resemblance to the man who sired us. She had his elfin features and sandy hair, but it was the shape of her sea-blue eyes that was most strikingly similar.

That evening my mother's cousin Helen, her son, Peter, and his wife and children made the short trip from Keiss to meet us in the cozy hotel pub. I'd never before met this branch of my family, and I wondered if they were the tougher ones–those who didn't flee the gales, rain and midges of Caithness.

Helen was rotund and kindly, while her son, Peter, in his mid-forties, had the robust build that comes from years of lobster-fishing in open boats. Over glasses of whisky, the stories began to flow.

"You've probably noticed there's a disproportionate number of Sinclairs in the ground to the ones alive today," Peter said, gesturing south towards the cemetery. "Aye, there were many scrapping clans around here, and we didn't always fare so well in battle. The last clan war involving our family took place over a hundred years ago with the Campbells."

The waiter paused by the table, eager to hear the story he probably already knew.

"They had a cunning plan to subdue us Sinclairs. A cask of whisky was dropped in the burn above our village. Of course, the Sinclairs fished it out, thinking it was a gift from the gods. The party began, the whisky was drunk, and . . . Well, that's when the Campbells came with swords raised.

"Only those already dropped by the drink were spared. Saved by the whisky!" Peter laughed, holding his glass high.

Only a Scotsman could draw this moral from a story where heavy drinking precipitated a family massacre. It seemed the natural laws of evolution here had been rewritten by the folks at the local distillery.

"Saved by the whisky," I said, toasting with another shot of its good self.

Before my grandparents' era, migration was limited, and so it can be assumed that my family was partially descended from tribes that settled this region around 3500—4000 BC. These Stone Age hunters, gatherers and rudimentary farmers migrated from Continental Europe following the retreat of the last Ice Age. Lower sea levels exposed a land bridge that connected what are now Britain and France, and which humans began crossing around 9500 BC.

On the nearby Orkney Islands, just 25 kilometres from where our family sat enjoying a meal of haggis, mashed turnips and roast beef, lay Europe's best-preserved neolithic village. Ten houses still stood in the settlement of Skara Brae, which was occupied from 3100 until 2500 BC. The homes were constructed of flagstone, driftwood, whalebone and turf-thatched roofs, and were partially built into the ground with mounds of dirt piled on top for protection from the gales. The islands are also home to four-thousand-year-old stone circles, which are thought to have been used for astrological observations and pagan ceremonies. The best-known in the region, the Ring of Brodgar, contains sixty stones in a 104-metre-diameter circle.

Eventually, the tribes of northern Britain formed a loose confederation and were known by the Romans as Picts, meaning tattooed or painted people. The Picts were fierce fighters and were successful in fending off many invading cultures, including the heavily disciplined Romans.

The next major wave of immigration wasn't until 500 AD, when the Celtic people came over from Ireland and settled in western Scotland. The Celts originated from Continental Europe in the lands north of the Alps (as portrayed in the famous Asterix cartoons), and two groups migrated to lower Britain and Ireland, but only those from Ireland made their way into Scotland. There, they intermarried with the local people, and Scotland became a mix of the original indigenous population and Celts.

The Vikings were next on the scene, and these seafaring ruffians were a significant cultural influence in Caithness and the Orkney Islands. Beginning in 793 AD, Norwegian warriors launched a wave of invasions against Scotland and England. Amid their pillaging, they also established settlements, taking local women as their wives and farming the land. Caithness was the area most heavily populated by Vikings, and my family's names speak of these and other ethnic influences.

Swanson, my great-great-grandmother' s name, is Norwegian in origin (originally Svensson) and was introduced during the Viking conquests. Angus is an ancient Celtic name (originally Aonghus), meaning one choice. It is prevalent as a surname across Scotland, but most abundantly in Caithness. My mother's family name, Bremner, is Flemish (meaning weaver) and was possibly introduced when a group of Dutch settlers were invited to the region in the 1490s to operate the ferry service to the Orkney Islands. These settlers included the founder of the ferry system, Jan de Groot, after whom John o' Groats is named.

As I looked at my family members seated around our table, I pondered the complex chain of events that had brought us all here. I was snapped out of my historical reverie by a rather startling question from Peter.

"Do you know anything about our rampant cock?" he asked.

Helen frowned at her son.

"No, tell us about him," Julie said, her interest in my family history suddenly piqued.

"It's not a he, it's an it," Peter said. "An animal."

I groaned inwardly. This was it; Julie was going to start hearing sordid tales of what goes on in this remote region during the dark days of winter.

"It's part of our family crest, the rampant cock. The Sinclairs possess the same strength and grit as a tough old rooster. And the clan motto is Commit thy work to God."

The family profession of lobster-fishing certainly spoke of this fortitude. Peter's deceased father had been a full-time lobster fisherman, but dwindling stocks meant his son needed to augment the family trade with work on the North Sea oil rigs. Currently, the crustaceans were in reasonable supply, and early the next morning Peter would drop traps in the Pentland Firth, the body of water between the mainland and the Orkney Islands.

I asked him if he was concerned about the forecasted 70 kilometre an hour winds and 12-metre swells.

"Nay," he said casually. "It's always like that. You get used to it after a while. Besides, we look after each other. The biggest danger is blowing a motor and getting raked over the rocks, but most likely you'd get a tow from another boat before that'd happen."

In the past three days, the swell hadn't dropped below eight metres. Julie and I had watched in awe as liquid mountains exploded against rocky headlands, sending plumes of aerated water 30 metres into the sky. I was relieved our trailers and bicycles gave us the option of travelling overland on our own journey.

The following morning, while Peter braved the Pentland Firth, Betti, Julie and I went to visit the cemetery, just south of the village. The disused burial ground could have been a set from a Bela Lugosi movie. Crows eyed us from perches in skeletal branches of wind-sculpted trees as we walked between eroded tombstones. An abandoned church, its roof caved inwards, lay at one end of the property, and a disintegrating wall lined the premises. Dates on the legible stones ranged from the 1700s to the 1920s.

Betti pointed out the graves of distant relatives. I was struck by the prevalence of our family names; it seemed half the stones had Sinclair, Angus or Bremner etched into their pitted surfaces. I tiptoed gently over my long-decomposed family.

"What kind of stone are these made from?" I asked Betti, pointing to the roughly cut marker stones.

"Flagstone. The same as what the entire town is made of. It protects us in life and guards us when we fall."

"For a while," said Julie, eying a toppled stone with a weather-obliterated inscription.

Flagstone from this region wasn't used just for building around Castletown. During the 1800s, local quarries created a huge boost for the economy when the layered sedimentary rock became a popular building material in southern Britain. It is said that all the roads of London were paved with Castletown flagstone in the mid-1800s. Eventually, demand ceased, and now the quarries are silent, surrounded by rusting machinery and mounds of flat, cracked stone.

The local library contained a compilation of census and wedding records for the region. Through these statistics, and Betti' s earlier sleuthing, we traced my father's side of the family back to the 1700s. The records showed many marriages between the Sinclair and Angus families through the generations. "Da, na, na na na na . . ." As she studied the names, Julie hummed the banjo tune played by the inbred kid in Deliverance. "Look, I think they made a mistake here," she said. She was pointing to the marriage of William Angus to Margaret Angus in 1741. "They put her married name instead of her maiden name."

"I don't think it's a mistake," I said. "But that's how it worked with the clans. They all married each other. Otherwise they wouldn't be clans, would they? It doesn't mean they were brother and sister. There were probably more than a thousand Anguses in the clan."

"Da, na, na na na na na . . ." hummed Julie. "Can you play that tune on the bagpipes? Or were your clan members too busy playing with each other's rampant roosters to learn any instruments?"

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Why it's on the list ...
Newly married Julie and Colin build their own boats, bike trailers and travel from Colin's ancestral homeland, Scotland to Julie's, Syria. Slow travel provides a chance for a different sort of discoveries.
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In the spring of 2002, Dave Bidini set off for Nettuno, Italy, with his wife, Janet, and their two small children, in search of his favourite summer game, baseball. Nettuno was his destination because this town, south of Rome, has been the baseball capital of Italy since 1944, when the game was introduced by the American GIs who liberated the region. Bidini wanted to spend time in a town where everyone is as nuts about the game as he is, and in Nettuno, they love the game so much that they hand …

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During a pre­game workout in Nettuno, Italy, Mirko Rocchetti, an infielder with the Peones, arrived at the park carrying a tray of cornetti, brioche, and biscotti. Simone Cancelli (the Natural) followed twenty minutes later with a large box, which he placed on the ledge of the dugout. He lifted the lid, pulled back a layer of crepe paper, and revealed a small mountain of fresh croissants, their light, flaky shells embossed with vanilla crema. A few minutes later Francesco “Pompo” Pompozzi, the Peones’ twenty­one­year­old fireballer, produced two green bottles filled with sugar­soaked espresso, and passed out little white plastic cups. Ricky Viccaro (Solid Gold) — who looked, as always, as if he were standing in front of a wind machine — showed up a half­hour into the game, swinging a red Thermos of espresso, which he cracked in the fifth inning and refilled for the beginning of the second game. Someone else placed boxes of sweets on racks above the bench, and they were polished off in no time.

This sugar fiesta was typical for the Peones, Nettuno’s Serie B baseball team. They believed — as did many Italians — that sugar and coffee were all you needed to get you through any game. Andrea Cancelli (the Emperor) munched on energy pills that tasted like tiny soap cakes. At a game in Sardinia, I saw Fabio Giolitti (Fab Julie) pat his rumbling stomach before fetching a box of wafer cookies from his kit bag, which he passed out, two at a time, to his teammates. Then Mirko asked me, “Davide? Are you hungry?” and promptly handed me two panini spread with grape jelly — the Italian athlete’s equivalent of an energy bar. At the same game, Mario Mazza, the Peones’ second baseman, gathered the team excitedly, as if he’d just cracked the opposing team’s sequence of signs, only to pass out packets of sugar he’d swiped from a café. The players poured them down the hatch. I joined in, even though I wasn’t playing, just watching the Peones, the team I’d come to Italy to write about.

I found language as much a cultural divide as the approach to food, though I was able to find my place among the Peones by spouting a combination Italo­Canadian­Baseballese, at the risk of becoming Team Stooge. At times, I wondered whether the boys were asking me questions just to see how I would mangle their mother tongue.

One day, Chencho Navacci, the team’s left­handed reliever, heard me comment that a hit had been “il pollo morto.”

“Tuo pollo?” he asked.

“No, la palla. La palla è il pollo. Il pollo è morto.”

“Okay, okay,” he said, smiling.

“You know, dying quail,” I said, reverting to English.


“The chicken is dead,” I said, making a high, curving motion with my hand. “The ball — la palla. La palla è il pollo.”

“Il pollo?”

I couldn’t understand why Chencho was so confused. I’d always assumed that dying quail — baseball’s term for a hit that bloops between the infield and the outfield — was one of those universal baseball terms.

“Si! Il pollo è morto!” I repeated.

“Il pollo è morto? Okay, is good!” he said, turning away.

Later, I told Janet, my wife, what had happened at the ballpark.

“La qualia,” she corrected. “You should have said ‘la qualia.’”

“How was I supposed to know they had quail in Italy?”

“What did you think? They have chicken, don’t they?”

“Ya, but quail.”

“Yes, quail. And I don’t think pollo is the right word for chicken. La gallina is how you say chicken. Pollo is what you order in a restaurant.’

Pollo is restaurant chicken?” I said, mortified.

“I think so.”

“So, you mean I was telling Chencho that the ball was like a piece of cooked chicken?”

“Yes, I’m afraid you were.”

“Flying cooked chicken?”

For my first few weeks with the team, I probably sounded like a moron. I regularly confused the word for last with first, and used always instead of never, as in “Speaking good Italian is always the first thing I learn.” I’d also fallen into the embarrassing habit of pronouncing the word penne (the pasta) as if it were pene, the Italian word for penis. But I was excused for saying things like “I’d like my penis with tomatoes and mushroom,” and, to their credit, the team and townsfolk hung with me. After a while, the players must have noticed a pattern in the things I said at practice: dying quail, rabbit ball, hot potato, ducks on the pond, bring the gas, in his kitchen. They probably figured I was just really hungry.

Before leaving Canada for Italy in the spring of 2002, I bound my five bats together with black packing tape. They looked like a wooden bouquet and their heads clacked as I laid them on the airport’s baggage belt: the brown, thirty­four­ounce Harold Baines Adirondack, two new fungo bats, a red Louisville smiting pole, and a vintage Pudge Fisk hurt stick, with Pudge’s signature burnt into the fat of the wood.

My bats and I weren’t alone. There was also my wife, Janet; our two children, Cecilia, a curly­haired two­year­old blabberpuss, and Lorenzo, not ten weeks old; and for the first part of the trip Janet’s mother, Norma.

Other than a curiosity to experience sport unblemished by money, I had a few more reasons for shipping the family off to Italy. First, I love the game of baseball, having committed the last half­decade of summer Sunday evenings to something named the Queen Street Softball League. I am the starting shortstop for a team called the Rebels, originally affiliated with a local brewery, which was both our strength and poison. I spend most games standing on the gravel in my white Converse low­cuts, waiting for some silk­screen print shop worker or bartender or anthropology student or record­store clerk to whale the ball to my feet, providing that no off­leash hound makes for the pitcher’s mound, lovestruck couple promenades through centre field, or rapscallions riding their bmxs rip up the sod in the power alleys, which lie just to the right of the oak tree and slightly to the left of the guy selling weed out of his Dickie Dee ice­cream cart. Still, we compete like heck. As a weekend scrub, I give everything at the plate. I also try my best to keep my feet spread, arse down, and eyes on the ball when fielding ground hops, the way Pee Wee Reese might have. Stats­wise, I’ve hovered around .400 — a modest softball average — year in and out, having effectively learned how to slice a 25-mph spinball just beyond the reach of the guy in the knee brace, who’s swatting a mosquito while trying not to spill his lager.

It’s because of my shortcomings as a ballplayer that I couldn’t possibly have tagged along with an elite, or even semi­elite, pro­level team in Italy. I had briefly flirted with the notion of following around a major league club, but ditched the idea after hearing about Nettuno, which had just the right combination of respectable talent level, rabid fan base, and casual sporting culture to allow a dreamy scrub like me to toss in my glove and wander among them.

Which is to say: they let me.

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A Team, a Fan, and His City
tagged : hockey
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On a Cold Road

On a Cold Road

Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock
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I was nothing but a pimply little question mark on the day my sister and I first walked into Ken Jones Music in Etobicoke. Sunlight streamed through the windows, dappling the guitars that hung behind the counter and bathing the small music shop at the back of the Westway Plaza in warm light. The store was cluttered with drums stacked on top of each other, keyboards leaning three deep against the walls, dusty racks of unread sheet music, long outdated band want-ads taped to the cash register, and ashtrays scattered across old chairs and window ledges. At the back of the store, young boys sat in tiny rooms plucking guitars through amplifiers that buzzed like heat bugs, the sound of their hammer-ons and finger-rolls and string-benders snaking out to where I stood, sucking it all in like sugar through a Pixie-Stik.
After our first taste of this place, my sister and I signed up for guitar lessons, which I grew to hate. My disdain might have had something to do with the fact that Cathy had mastered the basic chords and strumming technique before I’d grown my first finger callus. She out-licked me on “Kum Ba Yah,” “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” and “House of the Rising Sun,” which we debuted for our parents in our living room sitting on bridge table chairs behind music stands. I’d like to tell you that I rose to her challenge and went on to become a blurry-fingered virtuoso of the fretboard whose technique set the world’s pants on fire. But I did not.
Instead, I quit.
Cathy played her hand just right. My room was papered with an Aerosmith poster over my bed, 10cc above my night table, and Rush’s Farewell to Kings staring at me each night as I hit my pillow. Every other inch of the walls was pasted with photos culled from Hit Parader, Creem, and Circus magazines, or purchased at Flash Jack’s Head Shop, the scuzzy Yonge Street epicentre of high school stonerdom, where they sold roach clips and hash pipes and lurid pictures of Linda Ronstadt. These pictures of my favourite bands were testament to my desire to be like them, but they were also witness to my failure to do anything about it. I’d wander into my sister’s austere room – shockingly devoid of rock shrine-ography – and stare at her acoustic guitar, Mel Bay How-to-Play book, and music stand casually draped with belts, purses and other young-girl ephemera. In this display of coolness, Cathy seemed indifferent that she was better than me. My jealousy deepened. School ended. Summer passed. Winter descended. My sister played on.
But then a year later, mysteriously, she stopped. As soon as Cathy put away her guitar, I picked mine up again. I went back to Ken Jones Music to sign up for more lessons, still a damp patty of clay waiting to be palmed, but this time confident enough to look into the future and see someone other than who I was: a nervous child dressed in brown, ankle-riding cords and a maroon sweater that scratched like steel wool. No, this time I could see myself as a figure straight from my walls – a sparkling giant outfitted in electrically lit platform shoes and a spangly jumpsuit, flaunting a great bramble of chest hair, and topped by a frizzy afro and bug sunglasses.
I approached the counter, where an unclean fellow sat with his feet up, plucking a mandolin.
“I was wondering about guitar lessons,” I gulped.
“Do you play guitar, man?” asked the freak.
“No. Well, I did. But I’m not very good,” I said.
“Excellent,” he replied, strangely.
Stu looked like he’d just strode off a Three Dog Night album cover. He had that Jesus-as-folksinger look, thin-framed with a moustache and straggly beard. It was 1975. The first time I smelled pot, it was rising like steam off his flower-patched denim jacket. But while Stu was a prodigious stoner, he was a lot easier to understand than most of my teachers at school. He’d sit with me while I waited for my lesson with Ken and describe all the bands I’d never heard of whose music books he sold at the store – ZZ Top, the Eagles, Humble Pie, the James Gang. He told me about rigging a stage, setting up microphones, sound-checking, recording, tuning, and keeping your instrument in playable condition. He let me in on these mysteries as if he were spooling out paradigms from a lost language.
When a few friends and I finally got a band together, we set up in the store so that Stu could teach us the basic tenets of songwriting and arranging. We paid him with money given to us by our parents, who had parted with their hard-earned dollars even though they knew the money would be going to an indolent hippie who wore love beads and smoked skunk-weed from a water pipe. Stu took us through the looking glass, and we followed like Alice.
Our little combo was enthusiastic, if musically repugnant. We were four fourteen-year-olds playing the Triumph version of “Rocky Mountain Way” on out-of-tune instruments. Everybody took a solo, even our drummer, Mario Molinaro, who played so hard that he punched his sticks through his drumskins and shredded the hi-hats into shrapnel. But no matter how hellacious our din, Stu would listen patiently, bemused, and then show us what a bridge was. We were thrilled. Every now and then, his own group rehearsed in the store. We’d camp outside and listen to them play Led Zeppelin and Rush songs with three-tiered synthesizers, double-neck guitars, roto-tom drum terraces, disembowellingly loud bass guitars, and vocal mikes cabled through a Traynor P.A. To us it was like hearing the Stones at the Gardens. We vowed that we’d be good enough to have gear that real and a sound that big. Stu just tapped his head and said, “You will, you will,” then folded his hands in his lap.
Stu worked the front of the store, but the fellow whose name was on the place did most of the work. Ken Jones was a round, balding fellow who looked shockingly like Captain Kangaroo without the mendacious eyebrows. Ken sold me my first guitar, a white El Degas Stratocaster copy with a soft neck and a tone that was as warm and forgiving as a tire crunching glass. Ken showed me the basics out of the Mel Bay books, and soon I was putting two notes together, pretending to play “Rock and Roll Hoochie- Koo.” That Ken had the patience to take me this far was remarkable considering that he spent most of his time locked away in a closet-sized room teaching sweaty teenagers with breath like milk gone bad how to cop Eric Clapton licks or strum church hymns. He eventually passed me on to a local long-haired rock troll who tried teaching me Frank Marino, Joe Walsh, and Domenic Troiano riffs while his girlfriend sat cross-legged smoking in the corner. This often led to lead-guitar duels with him in which I placed a distant second. I was put off playing solos for the rest of my life, but Ken and Stu had already turned me on to music and there was no going back.
A few years after I left the store for other musical experiences, the Toronto Star wrote an article about the Rheostatics’ first gig at the Edge in February 1980. We were seventeen years old at the time and had to get a special liquor permit to play in the club. About fifty kids from high school came to see us play, and when we finished, the band we were opening for pleaded with us to get our friends to stay. But it was a school night. The Star found all of this interminably cute and dispatched a reporter to interview and photograph us on the bleachers of a high-school football field. I owe it to my mom for calling them and suggesting the idea in the first place. It was the first time I ever saw myself in print, and it was a shock. In the photo, I’m wearing blue trousers, a white striped blazer, and a T-shirt with an exclamation mark on it. Even though I’m sporting my most expensive haircut to date – thirty dollars at Super Cutz in Sherway Gardens – my head still looks like a luge helmet.
Ken Jones posted the clipping in his shop. He drew an arrow pointing to me and wrote, “I taught him!” on it. He didn’t do it because he had any intuition that we would dent the mug of Canadian rock, or grow up to dazzle industry captains or play sold-out concerts in hockey rinks or take champagne baths in rooms wallpapered with money. It was because of one gig.
Three dollars. Tuesday night.
The Edge.
Sixteen years, handfuls of tours, walls of faces, miles of strings and cables, thickets of magnetic and electrical tape, lakes of beer, numberless clubhouse sandwiches, and six hundred gigs later, we were asked to do a national tour with the Tragically Hip in the winter of 1996 to support their Trouble at the Henhouse album. The biggest tour by a Canadian band in the history of music in Canada. It would put the Rheostatics in front of almost half a million people and finally give us a chance to play our music to the mass audience that till then had eluded us. Since our inaugural gig at the Edge in 1980, we’d gone through many changes in sound and had suffered the loss of our drummer of fourteen years, Dave Clark, who quit the band sixteen months before our tour. People like Stu and Ken and a million others had floated across those years, and as I set out to write down my experiences about being on the road, I found myself thinking not only about them, but also about the bands and musicians whose songs I’d heard on the radio as a kid, and whose bravura had founded the musical culture in which I now lived and explored.
I decided to track down these figures from my past. I wanted to understand, through them, the anatomy of making music in a country noted more for space and snow than for money or people. I was fully aware of the struggle it takes to sustain a musical career in Canada (I was painfully conscious that a small number of consumers supported Canadian bands – 19 per cent of total sales – and that our scant population meant that musicians shared the same audience in ten cities across the country), but I knew very little about the artists themselves. It became important to me to know what it was like for the early bands, the first to leave their home towns hauling P.A. systems and glitter balls, chasing down one-nighters in towns that barely existed. They’d established the east-west route that every Canadian group now travelled, and more than likely took for granted. Without their perseverance, neither we nor the Hip would have had reason to exist, let alone to light out for the coast, let alone to write this book.

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Why it's on the list ...
Not a traditonal sports lit choice. But both the sport of hockey and the Maple Leaf Gardens are valued in this book.
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