I guess we’ve all had that odd experience of waking up from a vivid dream and for a few moments having no idea where we are. I sometimes have a similar experience in real life, too, when after sleepwalking through days and weeks of routine, the strangeness of a moment or an unfamiliar scene strikes me so forcefully that I feel as though I’ve been shaken roughly awake, and I have to ask myself, ‘where AM I, and how did I get here?’
This happens to me often when I travel, especially when I’m tired or stressed, and when I’m exhausted from trying to navigate in an unfamiliar environment. On a recent trip to Montreal, I twice felt suddenly, sharply awake in parallel moments when I found myself climbing much higher than I intended…
Voyage à Montréal
Making a trip to Montreal in winter — even for what was clearly a legitimate business reason — was one of those notions that I normally consider for a day or two, and then dismiss as too disruptive to my stay-close-to-home routine. “Not worth the trouble,” I think to myself as I cross the item with the question-mark off my list. But for some inexplicable reason, when an opportunity presented itself to attend a workshop at our company’s headquarters in Canada, I didn’t dismiss the idea, but instead made the commitment before I could think of all the reasons why I’d rather stay put. And so, a couple of weeks ago and to my own surprise, I found myself driving North on snowy roads across the border from Vermont into Canada.
I’d never been to Montreal, but for some reason thought the terrain would be similar to what I had seen of Northern New England, with its lovely mountains and deep valleys. But after crossing the border into Quebec, I was surprised to find myself traveling through nondescript fields that stretched flat and featureless in every direction. I felt melancholy as I watched the falling snow slowly obliterate the last remaining variations from what was already an empty landscape.
Soon after crossing the border, a single sign alerted me that henceforth, all highway distance markers and speed limit postings would be in kilometers. No problem for a runner, I thought. I flattered myself that I could make that mental shift, and rely on my decades-old knowledge of grade-school French to interpret the directions on those signs, like the ones directing me “Nord.” Nevertheless, and despite being on the right road, I soon felt lost. It was discouraging to realize how much more mental effort it took to process the information as it flew past at 100km/hour.
In spite of the fact that it was already mid-day as I approached the Island of Montreal, there was a traffic jam on the main artery into the city. It took me over an hour to travel the last 10 kilometers to my destination, the headquarters of my company’s Canadian operations. I found what seemed like an OK place to park, was relieved to realize that the attendant (and everyone else in the city) was perfectly bilingual and didn’t seem offended at my weak attempts to ask questions in French. I made my way to the building that housed our company’s offices, found the main reception area on the 9th floor, and announced my arrival to the receptionist.
It took a half hour for her to contact the office manager, for the office manager to reach someone, who had to find someone else, to show me to an empty office where I could sit and work. By this time I was tired, hungry, and in need of caffeine. After a few minutes of exploring, I found a kitchenette, but could not for the life of me figure out how to work the espresso machine. I was too embarrassed to ask anyone, so I settled for making myself black tea (thé noir) in the microwave. Ye, verily, I was a stranger in a strange land.
Les Enfants Terribles
Things improved after that. Over the course of my first afternoon, I got connected to the Office LAN and had reliable email and Internet again, and was able to scavenge some snacks that had been left out in a break room. Later, I met with some co-workers, and the face-to-face contact brought me back to life a bit.
By the end of the afternoon I was ready to call it day. I left the office, found my car safe where I had left it, and drove a few blocks to my hotel, and checked in. While getting my room key, I asked two important questions: was there an inexpensive restaurant nearby? (duh, about ten of them within a block), and was there a good place to go for a run, should I be so inclined?
Well, yes, there was the park on Mont Royal, about a ten-minute walk away. “Ten-minute walk?” I snorted. It was my intention to, you know, RUN, there. “Yes, but you know it is a mountain, yes?” Alright — d’accord — I am now fairly warned that I might have to run up a mountain to do my easy morning run.
But the next morning there would be no run for me. I stayed up late with email, and then woke up with barely enough time to shower, get breakfast, and walk to the office in time for the start of the all-day workshop.
It was a busy day that extended into the evening. Although the workshop itself ended by 5:30, there were informal meetings and socializing after that, and a plan for dinner at a fancy restaurant called Les Enfants Terribles that wouldn’t begin until 8:30 that night. “Oh great,” I thought, “a late dinner that will involve extreme socializing, and that will probably last until midnight.” Reluctant to miss another morning run and my one chance to climb this so-called mountain, I wondered whether I should just head back to the hotel with some excuse, go to bed early, and leave the evening gourmandizing to my co-workers who actually knew how to have fun. Thankfully, I realized that this was not in the spirit of the trip. What was I there for, if not to take some risks, so I made the decision: I would go out to dinner AND I would for damn sure run in the morning, no matter if that meant little sleep and a slight hangover when I woke up.
I walked back to the hotel to change, and then followed the directions to 1 Place Ville Marie, a building complex taking up an entire city block at the top of which was the restaurant where I was to meet my colleagues. The lobby of the building was vast, and I had to find my way through a maze of velvet ropes to locate the elevator that would take me up to the top of the city.
As the doors closed, and the elevator began its ascent, I experienced my first moment of ‘waking up’ out of the dream I had been in the last couple of days.
Although I’m not generally afraid of heights, I felt panic as the elevator began its ascent, and I reached out for a support that wasn’t there. I had the sudden notion that the black walls of the elevator would turn to glass at any moment, and the capsule in which I was now cowering would burst through the roof like the glass elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was relieved when I felt the elevator slow, but even though the walls remained thankfully opaque, I felt suspended at a great height, and unsteady on my feet. This feeling became even stronger as the doors opened, and a gust of chilly air — as if from a mountaintop — sent shivers through my body.
Where AM I, I thought, and how did I get here?
It turned out that I was on the 43rd floor. I hand’t even reached the top. In fact, to do so I would have to switch elevators to climb a little further up to the Penthouse Level. There was no turning back, so I took this second elevator up, and when the doors opened, beheld a very ordinary entrance to the restaurant. It was only after I went in that I saw through the windows of the dining area, the lights of Montreal all spread out on three sides, below.
This picture doesn’t do justice to the view, but it will have to do:
Something about seeing that view made all my fear of heights disappear, and I was able to enjoy the meal, and laugh at myself for wanting to skip the excitement.
The next morning, I succeeded at waking up long before sunrise. With a fuzzy head but resolution intact, I pulled on all layers I had carefully laid out the night before, stretched purposefully, and then headed down to the hotel lobby.
The temperature outside was around freezing, and a light snow was falling, turning to slush on the streets and sidewalks. I turned right on Rue Peel, and jogged slowly along the sidewalk, my route illuminated by street lamps and the light of a gray, pre-dawn sky. Peering out from under my edge of my winter hat through snowflakes, I could see the street rise up in front of me. I wouldn’t get much of a warmup before I had to start climbing.
I really didn’t know how it would go, whether I might have to stop and walk, so I tried to run as slowly as I possibly could, taking tiny steps in what I hoped was a sustainable rhythm. The hill became steeper, and now I could look up and see the street light where Rue Peel ended at the boundary of the city park. A few minutes later I reached the light, and silently thanked the traffic and the policeman who stood guarding the intersection, forcing me to pause and catch my breath.
A minute later I was crossing the road, and facing an imposing set of wooden stairs, flight after flight, that continued up the mountain, disappearing into the snowy distance, far above.
There was nothing to do but start climbing the stairs. Several times, I had to slow to the point where I was barely moving forward, but eventually I came out upon a park road that was more or less level. I looked up to see a wooden sign that said “Chemin Olmsted,” and I knew I had arrived. For the second time in less than 12 hours, I had that strange experience of “waking up” to the world around me, wondering whether everything that had preceded that moment had been a dream.
This time, I was unexpectedly, irrationally happy. I had endured the drive up to Montreal, had made it through an evening of business socializing, and had made it under my own power up the mountain, and I felt for the moment like I could do anything. I knew I would enjoy the rest of the run, exploring the park, and climbing even higher. The snow no longer bothered me. And I didn’t even care that there was no view to speak of, the snow continuing to fall and limit visibility to a few hundred meters.
I could see clearly enough what I wanted to see.