I'm a writer and visual artist in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.

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Blog Archives dated August 2011

Comfort Zone

With its rows of brightly-painted townhouses, rolling hills, and fog churning in every evening, San Francisco reminded me of a larger, exaggerated version of St. John’s. Like downtown St. John’s, it rewards pedestrians with a lively panorama of colourful architecture and charming neighborhoods. We spent four full days wandering the city, traversing just about every neighbourhood described in our travel guide. Avoiding the touristy areas at first, we eventually ended up among the gift shops and animated crowds of Fisherman’s Wharf, where we were lucky enough to stumble across the Musée Mécanique.

The Musée’s narrow rows of quaint wooden structures were almost a miniature version of San Francisco’s streets, and promised as much: numerous brightly-painted signs offered the thrill of racing simulations, baseball games, and other challenges in exchange for a coin or two. Plunking a quarter through a slot might cause an entire matchstick circus to spring to life, or an elaborate mechanical orchestra to launch into a tune. Other cabinets beckoned with darker fare, including several mechanical puppet shows dourly reenacting executions, and plenty of peepshows featuring hand-tinted photographs of scantily-clad models. A few machines offered the city itself: foggy vignettes of a much younger San Francisco, or worn stereograms of impossible devastation from historic quakes.

Both mechanical and electronic games had their place at the Musée, with video game classics like Pong and Pole Position adjacent to their penny arcade ancestors. In one corner a large cabinet with a steering mechanism allowed the player to wrench a tin car back and forth across a painted cloth road that scrolled rapidly, creating a twisting racetrack. I loved the tactile nature of the penny arcade machines; the tarnished buttons and quaint hand-painted signs, the creak, clack and clunk of convoluted wooden mechanisms, the hand-cranked peepshows. Even the dust covering the circus puppets made them seem more real. It is easy to imagine the maintenance required to keep such antiquated equipment in working condition, and the machines felt frail but cared-for; even Pong’s slowly wavering screen and primitive paddle dial lent the game an elderly tenderness. Such a sumptuous entertainment; compared to the full-course feast offered by Musée Mécanique, playing Tiny Wings on my iPod feels like swallowing a pill.

The Musée itself seemed strangely automated; though the aisles were crowded with visitors, I didn’t notice anyone who looked like an employee. Admission was free, though the coin-operated machines happily accepted cash. Appropriately enough, the “gift shop” was a vending machine near the entrance, dispensing booklets, DVDs, and other souvenirs.

My first video game system was an Atari 2600, with its eclectic assortment of controllers: two plastic joysticks, a pair of Pong paddles, a steering wheel, and a square pad with a buttons and paper overlays for each game. One of the paddle controllers snapped in two during a particularly epic game of Space Invaders, and my dad fixed it with an old thermostat dial, forever associating in my mind childhood video games with the phrase “comfort zone”.

Rain Shadow

I had never seen mountains before, and finding a full one proved elusive. My first glimpse was from a plane window, peering below to find a brilliant white peak barely poking through the cluster of clouds below us. Later, a hilltop hike rewarded us with one-third of Mount Jefferson, shouldering a bundle of cumulus. Clouds get caught on mountaintops.

Deer Lake → Toronto → Las Vegas → Portland, Oregon. After a few days visiting Portland and Corvallis, we drove along the Columbia River Gorge to Hood River, the landscape tumbling from coniferous foothills to a rough desert in the rain shadow of the Cascades. Finally, one evening in Hood River, Mount Adams lumbered out of hiding.

We had talked about daytripping across the border to Washington, so I could cross another state off my list. Someone suggested the Maryhill Museum, just across the river, and I realized that I’d come across an article about it while doing some research a few years ago. Titled Castle Nowhere, the article described how two artists, Annie Han and Dan Mihalyo (Lead Pencil Studio), had built a full-sized duplicate of the museum on the opposite side of the Gorge. The installation was temporary, a precarious assemblage of scaffolds and construction netting that Han and Mihalyo called Maryhill Double. So our visit to Washington was a ghost hunt, prompted mostly by my desire to see the site of the Double and the museum that had inspired it.

On a side road and looking for directions, we stumbled across a small tourist information booth. A kindly couple inside handed us numerous maps and brochures, insisting that we visit this or that. I mentioned Maryhill Double and they both recalled the summer it appeared, chuckling a little. They seemed to remember it with a mild amusement, a novel but frivolous event, perhaps like the appearance of a Ferris wheel, or a hot air balloon.

We continued along the Washington side of the gorge, an array of wind turbines punctuating the ridge above us. On an outcrop above the road we spotted a vast circle of stones, which turned out to be an astronomically accurate concrete replica of Stonehenge. Like Maryhill, the henge is one showpiece in a panorama of strange structures erected by Samuel Hill. An eccentric railroad baron and connoisseur of infrastructural experiments, Hill would certainly have approved of the wind turbines.

Wandering among the strange concrete slabs with a few other tourists, I remembered the drizzly evening years ago when I visited the original Stonehenge as part of a university field trip. As academic visitors, we were allowed inside the perimeter circle after the site had closed to tourists for the day. Clasped in raincoats, we drifted around the sarsen stones as silently as astronauts, distant from everything; it was as if time moved more slowly inside the stones. Maryhill’s Stonehenge has a parking lot beside it, and its monumental concrete slabs perch oddly on the edge of the river gorge. Every block is perfectly balanced; the site reimagines the original henge, not the weathered ruins I remembered. The surrounding terrain is all wrong, the desert sun far too harsh. The henge felt flat and outlandish, like a film set.

We did not expect to have time to tour the museum, but were charmed into a quick visit. The Castle Nowhere article had led me to expect a stubbornly stuffy estate, a classical anachronism complete with peacocks patrolling the grounds. The peacocks, however, were nowhere to be seen, perhaps replaced by the whimsical contemporary sculptures adorning the garden. Near the entrance, construction workers were busy laying the foundations for a new expansion, and I wondered if the Double had in part prompted changes at Maryhill, perhaps provoking a little self-reflection. Inside the museum, solemn stone walls preserved an eccentric collection of exhibits: Sam Hill’s megalomaniacal globes, historical photos of the Native American textile trade, costumes from Romanian royalty. In one stairwell we found a storage alcove clustered with plaster busts, a cast of characters peering through the door at us.

Outside on the balustrade, we gazed across the gorge at the empty space where Maryhill Double must have stood, a field of cracked rock dusted with yellow grass. The gardens around the museum are lavishly irrigated, creating a theatrical oasis of green. I briefly contemplated constructing a tiny replica of the museum out of grass, Maryhill Miniature. Despite the grandiose ambitions of its founder, Maryhill is full of the miniature: an exhibition of diminutive French fashion mannequins, dozens of exquisitely inventive chess sets poised for battle, a roomful of small Rodin maquettes and sketches.

Over the following weeks we visited coastal forests where I learned the names of giants: Doug-fir, Ponderosa Pine, Western Red Cedar. Looking out my window in Newfoundland now, all the trees look smaller.

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