CORNWALL — There are times you go looking for adventure, and times when adventure finds you.
And there are times when you spend an entire night skirting adventure and looking sideways at paths not taken.
Cornwall is just about an hour outside Montreal, on the Ontario side of the border. I spent a good chunk of my growing-up years midway between the two cities, and yet when I think of those early-’80s days, it’s mostly three things that come to mind.
There were the terrible nighttime drives home in blizzards after going to the Kingdom Hall with my mother. She’d fall in behind a snowplow when she could, or judge where she was on the road by the faint glow of lightposts. We must have talked during those rides, because I can feel the comfortable roundness of her voice, but I can’t hear her words. Somehow, she always kept us out of the ditch. Somehow, each time we pulled off Highway 401 a few short kilometres from home, it would stop snowing.
There was the smell of the paper mill, earthy and skunky, that would fan over our house when the wind was just right.
And there was the bookstore in the mall, in which I was always allowed to pick something to bring home. I almost always chose the latest Sweet Valley High.
Cornwall now is a place we travel through or past, to get to Toronto or Morrisburg or because we’re taking Old Highway 2 home from some small escapade.
On an unseasonably warm October night, four of us — little Jilly and I, my bride Melani and her mother — visited Pumpkinferno at Upper Canada Village, which is about 20 minutes west of Cornwall. The annual exhibit features more than 7,000 pumpkins (and pumpkin facsimiles) exquisitely carved into shapes ranging from standard Jack-o-lanterns to the Mona Lisa. They are lit up along a one-kilometre path through the re-created 19th-century village. While the crowds aren’t as well-managed or well-behaved as those at Foresta Lumina in Coaticook, it’s a unique after-dark experience for those of us who lean deeply into the Halloween experience.
We had forgotten, however, how to be in a small town. We left the park after 9 p.m. hungry and wide awake, but the sleepy villages along the Old 2 and the businesses on the edges of Cornwall were shuttered. There was a gas station near our motel, but I was too grumpy for gas-station food and maybe just a little too stuck-up to want to serve it to my mother-in-law. We checked in and Melani and I hunted down some Tim Horton’s soup for her mother and Jilly, then abandoned them immediately and set out again.
A kilometre or two from our motel, we parked behind a large red building with a sloped black roof: The Brass Buckle.
There were several young men posturing outside the door, smoking and forming a loose circle around the bouncer, who sat like their bald-headed king on an old bar chair. The women were inside — four at a table, two behind the bar. We ordered whisky sours and sat at a booth with a great view of the empty dance floor. There were bull horns over the bar with a painted wooden sign: “Country born. Country bred. I’ll be country till I”m dead.”
“Is Rock Me Like a Hurricane really country, though?” Melani wanted to know, just before the DJ redeemed himself with Tracy Byrd’s I’m From The Country.
Our drinks were mostly ice, so they were quickly finished and we got up to leave. The bar end of the club had filled up while we weren’t looking. There were about 40 customers milling about — we’d find out later it was 4X4 Friday. Things were about to get fun, but we were already standing and we weren’t keen on paying for more ice.
At the edge of the parking lot two men were talking or doing business over the hood of a sedan. I locked eyes with one of them for a moment and was the first to look away.
Anyone still awake in the city was safe in their house or at the Brass Buckle. We were alone on the dark streets and we drove slowly because we weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere.
“Fireworks — we sell guns,” Melani read as we passed a small storefront with black windows. “It’s literally called The Fence.”
Beneath an underpass was an abandoned van. It was red on the bottom and filthy white on top and might have been, sometime in its life, a public works vehicle. Jeffrey Dahmer probably drove a van. Robert Lee Yates absolutely did and so did the British Moors Murderers and the Grim Sleeper. We didn’t stop to check it out.
Back at the Super 8, we pulled around back, past a station wagon taking up four parking spots with its trailer. I slid into a spot beside two railway trucks and sat for a moment, headlights illuminating what might have been a trail into a field or the woods, or might have been weeds flattened by the heavy wind.
“We could go for a walk along that path,” Melani suggested. I politely declined.
There were adventures in Cornwall that night. But we missed every single one of them, for better or for worse.
Pumpkinferno runs Thursday through Sunday till the end of October. Tickets are available online and sell out quickly.