Thursday, June 28, 2012

Finding our piece of heaven

 “This land looks great!” I beamed at John. We leaned against our car, parked on a road deep in the Caledon Hills north of Toronto. We were facing a one-acre lot for sale. It boasted uniform rows of planted red pine, a scrubby field next to it, a low stagnant swamp next to that, and an army of hydro pylons marching across the fields beyond. John took his time replying and then shook his head, repeating what he'd been saying to me for the past year, “I think we can do better.”

I sighed. Our search for a piece of land had hit another dead end. And yet, I knew that he was right. Did I really want to live right next to a swamp?

We climbed back into the car and shuffled through the real estate listings. Nothing else in this area. It was 1995. John and I were newly-weds, my second marriage, his first. We were renting a house in the heart of Toronto where John worked as a software designer and I as a communications consultant. No longer a spring chicken, my hen-like nature fixated on finding a nest. John had long wanted to design and build his own home. We both shared the dream of living in the country.

Almost every weekend, we drove north of the city, flipping through a sheaf of real estate listings in search of our Holy Grail – one or two acres of land. We had talked at length about our criteria: John wanted trees. I wanted hills and a long view to the west. Not too many neighbours. Lots of space. Pitch-black skies strewn with stars. We wanted to be well into farming country, away from the noise, heat and congestion that Toronto living couldn't escape.

So far, no piece of land met all the criteria within reasonable price and commuting distance from the city. We found ourselves upping our budget and our commuting time as we roamed farther and farther afield. Of the dozens of listings we tracked down and looked at, I had been ready to buy at least half of them. John had always put on the brakes. “I think we can do better,” he would say. “Let's keep looking.”

Then there was cost. It seemed that any land under $100,000 – and we are talking here of one acre – was bound to be swamp, or a flat field with not a tree in sight, or a lot squeezed into a development of monster homes.

One fall weekend we broke our regular routine and drove to Wakefield to visit David and Maureen. For more than 20 years, I had been making the trek from Toronto to Wakefield to visit this couple, two of my oldest friends. During the mid-70s, Maureen and I had lived across the street from one another in Ottawa, when we were on our starter husbands. Over the years, we kept in touch regularly. For me, a weekend with Maureen and David was a welcome retreat from Toronto. I would make the six-hour drive daydreaming about living in the country. As I crossed the Ottawa River, heading north into Quebec, I could feel contentment settling around me like a warm shawl. Inevitably, every time I neared Chelsea and saw the horizon undulating into the Gatineau Hills, the phrase “my beloved hills” would fall from my lips. And now John was also a firm friend of David and Maureen and of the many other friends we had made in the area.

It took another eight months or so before the penny dropped. One Sunday afternoon in the early summer of 1996 we were heading back to Toronto after yet another unfruitful search in the Barrie area. Our car was one of thousands streaming like lemmings towards the brown band of smog glued to the Toronto skyline. It was a sticky afternoon. Shimmering heat waves bounced off the highway. We closed the car windows and turned on the air-conditioning. Surrounded by concrete, noise and speeding cars, a thought floated into my mind like a leaf in a still pool: what about Wakefield? Now, at this time, Canada was in the throes of separation anxiety. In Quebec, sovereignists had come into power led by the charismatic Lucien Bouchard. The news was full of the upcoming autumn referendum which would ask Quebecers to choose between leaving Canada (the Yes side) or staying (the No side). Support for the sovereignists had been growing, and the threat of separation shifted from a pipe dream to an alarming possibility. John and I weighed the pros and cons of living in Quebec if the separatists were successful. What was the worst that could happen? For us, closing the borders between Quebec and Ontario, or some policy that prevented us from working in Ontario, would be disastrous. And yet, how likely were these scenarios? Not very, we determined. Well, what about friends? Ironically, my closest friends lived in Wakefield, John's closest friends Ian and Jen had recently moved to Wakefield, and my mother lived in nearby Ottawa. If we did move to the area, we would find ourselves among good friends in a hospitable community. And bottom line, a big draw to finding land in Quebec was that prices were about one-tenth Ontario prices. We decided to expand our search.

One weekend in July we drove the back roads around Wakefield, gazing at farms, fields, and hills covered in trees. We roamed a farm of 150 acres on the Pritchard road, but the house was in a low rocky field, and there was no view. Further north, near Venosta, 50 acres of forest – including a lake – tempted us but the mosquitoes were mighty and the land too flat. We returned to Toronto slightly downcast, but determined to keep looking.

In August, I spent a week house-sitting for other good Wakefield friends, John and Annick while they spent a weekend with their family at a cottage. My John came up from Toronto and we set out early Saturday morning to explore the countryside. We found ourselves on Chemin de la Montagne, about seven kilometers east of Wakefield. A range of large old forested hills flanked a valley of green fields. We saw houses perched on top of the hills and took a rough, steep-climbing road to investigate. There were dozens of lots for sale, some of them giving out to magnificent westward views. My heart leapt – surely one of these would be the perfect match for us. But John shook his head firmly. Now what was the problem? The road. Not only was it far too steep, deep gullies and bone-rattling washboard could only mean trouble. “Think of winter,” John insisted. “Driving this road would be a nightmare.” He also pointed out that the lots were small, and fairly close together. Even though few homes had been built, John imagined the scene 10 years down the road, and saw a crush of 'estate' homes shouldering each other. No. “We can do better,” he said.

We drove back down the steep, unwelcome road and turned north on Chemin de la Montagne. About half a kilometer along, on the right, we caught sight of a hand-painted sign nailed to a tree trunk: Four acres. Private sale. And a phone number.

We stopped the car, got out and looked at the crowd of trees defending the property. Lots of trees. Hilly land. A long, westward view over open fields. A country road. Close to Wakefield, but no encroaching neighbours. No swamp. All right, hydro pylons in the opposite fields, but far away.

Why don't we take a closer look?” proposed John. A deep ditch, filled with a kind of robust, glossy three-leafed plant, separated us from the land.

Is this poison ivy?” I asked.
Dunno,” shrugged John.
Oh, probably not,” I said, my eagerness to explore cancelling out any concern.

In our T-shirts, shorts and sandals, we waded through the plants, and on hands and knees, clambered up the steep bank of the ditch. The land rose steadily and we walked among maple and oak, beech and birch. A small creek ran down the hillside. The trees murmured in the breeze. We climbed the hill and found a small clearing high up. The views were long and peaceful in the country quiet.

Now it was John who said, “This has possibilities. I can see building here.” I forced my face to stay calm. “Let's ask David and Maureen for their opinion,” I said. They had built their house on a hilly lot on a back street in Wakefield. We called them, and agreed to meet at the land after lunch.

Meanwhile, we had found a beaten-down animal path that gave ready access to the land. When our friends arrived, we all crossed the ditch on this path and stood amid the trees.

Oh, you can definitely build on this,” said David. “It's not as steep as the lot we built on.”

Just then, a car passed, slowed down, and stopped at the For Sale sign. A couple peered through the car window, looking intently at the sign. A slight quiver ran through me. Other people were interested in this property! About five minutes later, another car zoomed along, slowed down and stopped – and again, the couple in this car stared closely at the sign and seemed to take down its information. I threw a worried look John's way. Were we going to lose this land to someone else? A third car came by and the same thing happened. I couldn't contain my anxiety any longer. “Does anyone have a cell phone?” I shouted. “We need to put an offer in – right now!”

David was standing on the roadside when the fourth car rolled up. He asked the driver what was going on. “We're in a car rally, and this is one of the navigation points,” came the reply.

Even so, I wasn't taking chances. As soon as we got back to Annick and John's place, I insisted on calling the phone number listed on the For Sale sign. Two days later, we signed the offer and closed the deal. At last we had found our piece of heaven. And our down-payment? The worst case of poison ivy we have ever experienced. But it was worth every itch and scratch.


  1. I really enjoyed the story of your finding your piece of heaven, Mary Lou. You are always pitch perfect in your capturing of the details. You even had me worried that you might not get it -- even though I know you did! Wonderful piece with a happy ending. Cheers, Sherry.

  2. I can't wait to see Itchy and Scratchy when I return to my old Gatineau homeland in a couple of weeks. I enjoyed your story Mary Lou.