We arrived at the cabin long after dark and found the drive snowed in. Haliburton snow, thigh-deep, and we waded through it, down to the house to start a fire and then back, shovels in hand, to clear a wide enough path for the car to at least edge itself off the road. It was January, 1996; I was a few months away from finishing an undergraduate degree but no closer to knowing my own mind. The kind of January night you might die in: minus-20, minus-25, but the stars were so clear out there. Bobcaygeon, the song, wouldn't be released for another two years, but we'd driven through the town in the dark and I've never once heard Gord Downie sing the opening lines without feeling myself back there, half-frozen and drowning, a little, in vast and heavy possibility.
I think you can't overestimate the impact of Downie and the Tragically Hip on Canadian artists of all kinds, at least of my age – although I'm willing to bet that his influence extends far beyond any single generation. Rural Ontario is a place I did not grow up in but learned to love, and in some way, to claim, in no small part because of the lyrics Downie wrote.
I was raised in Toronto, a daughter of Hungarian immigrants with precious few other relations on this side of the Atlantic, a not-very-Canadian Canadian kid. We didn't go to a cottage in the summer time; the only lake I knew was Ontario, and you couldn't swim in it. I did not, in childhood, collect bottle caps under the table at the Legion; I did not, as a teenager, smoke weed in a cornfield, or entertain romance there, or even know what the stars look like when there are no other lights to cloud them. But the first Tragically Hip album, Up to Here, hit the radio when I was in high school, so it was Gord Downie's lyrics that accompanied me as I came of age and learned my Canadian landscape.
Those lyrics were the landscape. I drove my first highways listening to the Hip. I moved to Guelph, Ont., and let the Speed River take me away. Smart as trees in Sault Ste. Marie, Maple Leaf Gardens, the 401, Bill Barilko, Algonquin Park. Their songs had my places in them. He called us by name.
When I first began writing stories, it was these same highways and their people who populated them. In writing a song called Bobcaygeon, Downie allowed me to write stories set in those same places. And not just set there, geographically, but set there, at the point of intersection between character and country.
In books, we often speak of "Alice Munro country," and it's true that no single writer has influenced or perhaps driven me more. But the Ontario landscape is as alive and as essential for me in The Hip as it ever was in Munro. It's the quiet turn of any story I write that owes a debt (and some very wishful thinking) to Munro; but when I write about young girls stranded on the highway, or the loneliness of a lone woman cutting her way through a cold lake, that belongs to a different legacy. Like the Golden Rim Motor Inn or a two-fifty hi-ball or the stripper who stops in a coughing fit, that's Gord Downie country.
The last time I saw Gord, we were both at the Woody Point Writers Festival. It was not long after I'd immigrated myself, in a way, from my long-time home in Ontario to a new home in Newfoundland. This was some months before his illness was publicly announced. The town of Woody Point is nestled snug in the mountains of Gros Morne National Park, on a natural bay of the Atlantic that is warm enough to swim in. It was fitting to see him there: It is a raucous and painfully beautiful geography.
He sang every night, his voice so full of love and anger, both. He was fierce. It was before we knew.
Elisabeth de Mariaffi's next novel, Hysteria, will be released in March, 2018. She lives and writes in St. John's.