Photo Essay

The Yurts of Bronte Park, or: The Possibility of Camping on the 403

Easy to Mapquest, and aside from being stuck-on-a-site-with-a-pole, it should end the griping about how all the good sites were already taken. A campground on the 403. You heard it here first.

By Mark Fenton
Published June 05, 2008

I am intrigued at the idea of putting a campsite in the grassy space between opposing lanes of the 403. Not being an investor I don't know off hand what commercial land near a major highway in the GTA goes for, but I am sure that speculators have stood on an overpass, cigar poised in frustration, at the thought of the wasted space. And have hungrily schemed of a way to generate revenue from it.

Easy to Mapquest, and aside from being stuck-on-a-site-with-a-pole, it should end the griping about how all the good sites were already taken. A campground on the 403. You heard it here first.

Camping is, let's not forget, a contrived enough thing. Really, what practical reason do we ever have for leaving the green space and fresh air of our back yard? There was, if we remember back far enough, a time when we needed nothing more than to be in our own backyard. Ever in wide-eyed wonder at the diversions our guardians tossed before us.

I often think of a childishly simple photo (childishly simple because he was, like, a child) that the great French photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue took in 1904 at the age of 10.

Some of this photo's appeal lies in the novelty of the technology (fast exposure had arrived!) But we also share the wonder at a child who can see the whole world in a sphere his nanny tosses into the air. If I were to photograph a ball in mid-flight, I'm not sure it could contain all that.

We soon reach an age where excitement can no longer be found in our backyard. I believe I'm correct in saying that all of our leisure time activities are made more appealing by an element of danger. That all pastimes demand, at least metaphorically, that we leave the garden.

For the extremists there's floating over Niagara Falls in barrel or putting a single round in the chamber and spinning the cylinder. For those who haven't gotten round to picking up their "Living Will" kit, or who don't relish receiving a posthumous Darwin award, there is hang-gliding, rock climbing, recreational drug use with clean needles, protected sex with strangers in dungeonlike gloom, and a host of other diversions I'm sure I'm too naïve to even know about.

Activities less likely to kill us provided we do the research, observe moderation, and take the conventional precautions. Yet nevertheless activities which we can expect to exact from us a sizable psychic toll.

For there rest of us who need to keep risk to the lowest level, there's the impulsive walk-round-the-block. Sounds about as tepid as it gets when it comes to risk, but honestly, in recent weeks I've had the most unsettling experiences.

Ever since I first watched Meshes of the Afternoon and saw the key slip through Maya Deren's fingers, saw how, as in a dream, it continued to evade her clutches each time she almost caught it, bouncing down concrete steps, until finally it rested at her feet on the pavement - ever since then I have kept a close watch on the things the sidewalk collects. Their strange animation. Their menace.


Maya Deren, Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943

So having trained myself to find, to analyze, and to engage with pedestrian detritus, how in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sidewalks am I expected to interpret these crushed and carefully arranged bottle caps!

The egg smashed open by some prey-bird, teen vandal, or wild gust; the corpse naked of feathers, cheated of flight. If I am particularly on watch for dead things, if I am especially cognizant of the savagery of the natural order these days, it is because our family cat has recently taken to stalking and killing squirrels in our back yard, then disemboweling them and leaving a semi-devoured carcass for me to bury.

They are not simply killed, they are killed by a housecat who doesn't NEED to kill, and resemble a corpse in an H.P. Lovecraft story, limbs and heads transposed and seeming to defy Euclidean geometry and any notion of respect for the dead. She has become so skilled that I discover a new one almost every other morning. The cat herself I find sitting prim and groomed, on a sill, the very picture of refinement,

the feline equivalent of Hannibal Lecter enjoying a Mozart Piano Concerto and a fine Chianti while digesting parts of an acquaintance.

In fact I had just finished burying one of her victims, and was at the end of my block wondering where my brushes with mortality and decomposition would end when I felt my foot nudging something malleable and of a reasonable heft. I hardly dared to look down.

Thankfully it wasn't a dead animal in this case, but rather an extremely waterlogged bicycle seat molded by use or the elements into something weirdly organ-like.

Though on closer look more like some manufactured membrane to PROTECT an organ and be discarded after use. This isn't a good picture of it, due to the shadow, but you can sense the recoil in my adumbrated outline and tell that I am deeply turned-off by the whole experience. I thought: in the future I will drive far from home when I want to be outdoors.

That was the idea anyway. Camping: safer than the multiplicity of urban dangers (or so we choose to believe); scarier than just sleeping in your bedroom with central heating, central air and modern plumbing. There is always the chance of getting pneumonia from the damp ground, and with those trips out in the dark there's always the chance of stepping blind into a small animal burrow and breaking the bones of a foot.

As a child in western Canada my parents would take me camping in the Rocky Mountains. There was lore about campers who, despite having done everything by the book, like never having food in the tent, keeping food coolers locked in the trunk of the car, and not going to bed covered in honey, were gruesomely mauled in their sleep by erratic Grizzly.

There were creeping things about the campsite. I would awake trembling in the night to what I was sure must be 50 foot beasts sparring like Gilgamesh and Enkidu on the road to Uruk, in the process kicking our vehicle down the road and into the gorge as though it were a pop can. But in the morning things were fine other than a squirrel having chewed through the garbage bag we'd hoisted up a tree.

By chance or by brains we got through the week, and not just everyone, we believed, did. When I got back to suburban Edmonton I had acquired a that-which-does-not-kill-me-makes-me-stronger attitude. At the time I imagined I'd earned a new respect from my friends, but obviously they just found me a self-satisfied pain.

I don't believe you can get that kind of camping danger in Southern Ontario in the 21st century. The reality of peril is urban. How, honestly, am I to fear an animal attack when I'm never more than two minutes from a Tim Horton's?

Hence my idea of camping on the median of the 403. The abject terror at 4:00 am when the 18-wheeler veers onto the corrugated shoulder. He's over duty-time and dozing despite the coffee and you swear his rig has your name on it. But the ridges wake him and he pulls the wheel just in time to save his life and yours.

Maybe tomorrow night won't be so lucky, but tonight! Tonight the seven mad gods who rule the highways have granted a reprieve and you are changed and thankful. It IS true what they say about near death experiences. They teach you what it means to be alive.

We wouldn't have done Median Camping, even had it existed. We weren't ready for that. And the environmental cost of a long drive to a campground deep in wilderness only magnified the absurdity of camping as a way "back to nature."

The nearest and most appealing campground we could find was the Yurt Site at Bronte Park, Oakville. Now I'm not up on yurts, but Wikipedia informs me that the yurt is a portable dwelling native to the steppes of central Asia, of latticework covered in felt.

And it shows me this image.

and I am SO there. Thinking: "Maybe there will even be a little craft stall, or better yet, a Turkestani peddler who sells this kind of apparel. I think I'd look good in something like that!"

Turns out that there's a Western appropriation of the classic yurt made out of wood and canvas. A little less exotic. Closer in spirit to the barracks of Hogan's Heroes.

In fact it's not that far from camping on the 403. Bronte Park borders on the Q.E.W. and that idea contains just enough strangeness, just enough of the unknown, just enough clash of incongruous elements, just enough danger. I am on board.

(Question: is there some postindustrial campground appropriation of the igloo, the adobe hut, the Bedouin tent? or other distant indigenous shelters? My curiosity is more than piqued.)

I had pictured at least a village of yurts. Maybe even a hamlet of yurts. There were three. In fact the woman in the office had to think for a moment before giving us directions.

"Gee. I haven't been out to the yurt site this year." It wasn't the words she said so much as the quality of her delivery. And a look in her eyes distant and knowing, reminiscent of the banjo player in Deliverance just before the men embark on their "canoe trip" downriver.

It was a short drive to the yurts. (Eerily short given its remoteness to park staff.) Maybe 25 seconds. Here is what ours looked onto.

By my estimation our weekend lodging was to be 200 metres from the back end of urban sprawl. Oh, and you could hear the roar of the highway. I was awestruck. This was the apotheosis of urban sprawl.

I quickly assessed the interior of the Yurt.

Nothing fancy, but it would do as a base. Yes. It would do very nicely indeed.

Not to overdo the comparison, but I thought again of Hogan's Heroes:

The yurts the prison barracks; the residences home to the prison guards. There wasn't even much of a wall separating the two.

But Hogan's Heroes wasn't quite it ...No. The generic suburban anonymity was key. Then it hit me.

Highrise. J.G. Ballard. 1975. [Critical overview or self-interested segue. Your call.]

This short, intense novel describes an "adult community" occupying an international style luxury apartment that could be in the outer-reaches of any hyper-industrialized metropolis. Through a tacit agreement among the residents, the Highrise becomes a closed environment.

After all, the Highrise is self-contained; it's designed to supply everything the tenant needs in order to live, without the tenant ever having to step outside: water, electricity, plumbing, recreational facilities, even a grocery store on the exact middle floor.

An obvious hierarchy is identified. The upper floors are more expensive, the most luxurious being the penthouse on the roof. The inequity is clarified; the action simple. First we take the food floor; then we take the roof. Conflict escalates rapidly into total war.

The occupants of the lower floors move upward, floor by floor; the occupants of the upper floors defend what they believe is rightfully theirs. At a certain point the grocery store becomes depleted and residents resort to eating the pets. The women give themselves to any man with a tactical advantage (or the one who's corralled the greatest number of poodles) moving pragmatically on to another each time her protector is killed.

Outside, there is a world of law and order, but no one calls the authorities. Perhaps calling in the police would be an admission that the communities we've built are horribly dehumanizing (significantly the occupant of the penthouse is the architect of the building).

Perhaps, like the Stanford Prison Experiment, the zone is sealed tightly enough and the escalation insidious enough that the players lose perspective on the status quo. Perhaps the game is simply too compelling not to see to its conclusion.

I sat on the institutional mattress of one of the yurt bunks. I saw what would happen. The first day would seem amicable enough. The Campers would move happily about the campsite. The Home Owners would wave and give the odd mechanical smile, between mowing the lawn and having a barbecue with the neighbors who would bring potato salad and apple pie. A few pleasantries would be exchanged. But the second day resentment would no longer be veiled.

The Home Owners have begun to talk amongst themselves. "Those campers sure make a lot of noise."

"No kidding. It's SUPPOSED to be radio free, but I swear I heard NICKLEBACK coming out of one of the yurts."

"I don't know about you but I certainly didn't pay $700,000 plus to have a bunch of rounders CAMPING in my back yard."

The Campers have begun to talk amongst themselves. "Why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the housing developments were we plunked down the hill from those snooty and entitled despots!"

"Yeah. Who decided that it's us, not them, who has to live in canvas shacks? Burn logs to stay warm?"

"Have you SEEN what those people HAVE? IT'S NOT FAIR!..."

...years later...when it was finished...when the survivors had moved on and for the most part put it behind them, there was no agreement on who initiated the first assault. The Campers say that the Home Owners turned a propane tank into a firebomb and hurled it at the yurts.

The Home Owners say that a shower of aluminum cutlery rained down on them driven by the power of an air mattress pump. The truth is really irrelevant. For the invading army a preemptive strike is never anything more or less than an unavoidable eleventh hour action against the other; the other, with its hideous tauntings and shameless encroachments.

...I remember...ah, how distantly yet distinctly...by the third day it was all out war, with not a word spoken between the two armies. As with all combat an objective chronicle of events is next to impossible and I won't attempt one. But the object for each side was plain.

For the Home Owners: to take the three yurts; the cars, and all the supplies the campers had brought with them, annihilate everything and turn the land over to the housing development it should have been designated for long ago. For the Campers: to take the three houses, plunder the goods in the basement freezers and enjoy satellite TV on a plasma screen...I find myself mumbling the lines from a poet who spoke most eloquently about the time--

--I shook my head and returned to present (family members tell me I sometimes drift off into the world of imagination until I'm almost unreachable. I suppose there might be some truth to this.) I went outside the yurt. The rest of the family was still looking around trying to make sense of the situation.

"Get in the car."

"What...? We just got--."

"I SAID: GET IN THE CAR. WE'RE GETTING OUR MONEY BACK AND GOING HOME."

There was no problem with a refund. They could tell what they'd have on their hands if they kept us here any longer.

Our return journey was only 15 minutes and even as I drove our collective moods improved by rapid leaps. Is it not remarkable how the most horrifying events can mysteriously dissolve into euphoria?

Here's something. Jacques-Henri Lartigue's photographs of early youth were first revealed to North Americans in the November 29, 1963 issue of LIFE (page 65 if you haven't got around to the recycling for a while), an issue which sold an unprecedented number of copies. It catapulted Lartigue's reputation into the arena of supreme photographers, despite the fact that most buyers didn't open the magazine for idyllic photos of a vanished age.

Similarly our disastrous journey suddenly turned heavenly. Have you ever packed everything up for a weekend getaway, rushed around making arrangements for the cat, raced to leave work two hours early, shopped, filled the cooler, driven away to a near destination and then immediately returned? I strongly recommend it. It's the most delightfully self-indulgent thing a family can do.

For the next two days you don't have to do any meal preparation. You don't have to decide what to wear. People won't call and ask you if you can help them with anything, because as far as they know, you're not there. AND, if you've forgotten something you wish you'd brought on the trip, it's THERE. Because you're WITH all your stuff. AND you have the comfort of your own bed and your own shower. It is the best of every possible world!

I don't want to shoulder the responsibility of bringing the world travel industry to its knees, but I really can't keep this one to myself.

For the rest of weekend, everything just went right. And I learned that not all you find on the sidewalk is malign. We appropriated this ball which had, for some days, been lying against the curb across our street.

Sure, our backyard has a smaller square footage than what the Lartigues had (they meet MY criteria for affluence: the older brothers had enough allowance to build home-made aircraft, and I suspect the expense of giving your eight-year-old a state-of-the-art camera in 1902 would be equivalent to giving your eight-year-old a jet in 2008) but we had fun anyway. You may not be able to get back into the garden, but after a camping scare it's natural to want to and try.

We were carefree as the most innocent children. Voraciously I photographed the ball flying backwards and forth as though it were the whole world

and as if I could fix it however I wanted it to be.

Mark Fenton lives in Hamilton and works in transportation logistics. He is the author Pim, a children's book for all ages. The eponymous Pim tweets daily @PIMSLIM_. A physical copy of Pim will be published soon and in the meantime Pim is available as a Kindle e-book which you can buy. Mark maintains a website at www.markfenton.ca.

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By big fan (anonymous) | Posted June 06, 2008 at 18:49:00

outstanding, again

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