Returning to one's roots can often be a journey that brings self-redemption and understanding, so long as the traveller has happy memories that they wish to reconnect with. While I wouldn't bother to hide the fact that I tend to linger in the nostalgic past for long periods of time, I have no shame about it. Personally, I've learned that there are intricate little puzzle pieces scattered by the ghosts of my past that, when reconnected with, only serve as a benefit to my well-being and mentality. Sure, countless people say that it's better to look forward than behind, and I can respect that decision. For myself, however, reconnecting with the past and seeking understanding in the same streets I used to walk as a child has helped me better understand my desires, personality, and mind.
In October 2016, I had the pleasure of revisiting my hometown, Port Hope, Ontario. Naturally, I've made the trek several times from the Ottawa area to this shoreline gem tucked away amongst the rolling hills of Northumberland County — usually to visit family and be kept understandably busy.
This time was different. I made it a firm point to be isolated, myself yearning for the solitude mingled with the freedom to rediscover the same place I spent my childhood in. I didn't have a happy, care-free upbringing either, despite my mother's best intentions and utmost efforts. In fact, I wouldn't wish my past on my worst enemy (though thankfully I have none). There was divorce, welfare, a German Cockroach infestation, negative drama, mental and verbal abuse, addiction, and all sorts of other distractions from an otherwise "normal" upbringing, though unfortunately such circumstances are increasingly becoming the norm around the world. But that's not really the focus of this piece.
I might be nostalgic, but I only allow for it if I maintain the foresight to leave certain memories behind and find the good in what was there all along. And hoo boy, was there ever plenty of goodness to go around — if one were able to recognize it hidden behind the shadows.
At any rate, I assume many of you probably haven't a clue where the hell this place is, and what's so allegedly lovely about it.
Port Hope is a quaint little lakeside town that rests around an hour's drive East of Toronto. Sleepily nestled amongst rolling hills, forests, and verdant fields, the town and surrounding area evokes the atmosphere of a hidden oasis of sorts (depending on who you ask at least, as the town has remained near-frozen development-wise since the Nineties). To some, it's a place of serenity and old-world enchantment. To others, it's a place to get away from to secure more desirable employment and other opportunities.
I felt trapped there in my early teen years, sure, but I'm fairly certain that's natural for a fast food employee to feel when living forcibly with plenty of family drama and personal struggles to suffocate any positivity. It happens. Still, I'm stronger, and hold no bitterness or grudges. Any other opinion about that chapter of my life really is utter nonsense. In fact, It's only because of my willingness to let go of the horrors of my past and harbour no hatred that I could revisit that very same town and feel more welcomed than ever before — the truth is in my continuance. I was greeted by ghosts from my past, gently reminding me of the joys and comforts I did find — of which I'd have never considered or even remembered if weighed down by only the negative memories.
The mind can do strange yet sometimes wonderful things, if you allow it to. And sometimes you don't get a choice in the matter. Your whole mental perspective on things can be blown wide open with the slightest touch, step or sensory detail.
As a writer in search of inspiration, I often wondered if returning to those shores would rekindle my flames of creativity. At the time, I had a novel manuscript of over 130 pages sitting back home in Ottawa. I was also eager to contemplate other projects, variety being the spice of life and all. The problem was — and remains — that Ottawa's atmosphere does nothing for me from a creative perspective. The air has a sort of dead weight — a staleness — to it. I can't understand for the life of me what specifically causes me to feel creatively stunted at times here, as I'm happier than ever.
Nevertheless, returning to Port Hope did help me.
I'm sometimes unsure what about this place seems so very right to me. Yes, I grew up there and spend much of my childhood amongst it's green lawns, immaculate gardens and historical magnificence, but there's more to it than that. Everything about it feels as if it's been tucked away from harm, awaiting my return whilst frozen in perpetual charm and nostalgia. Recalling what I noted earlier, that's the magic about this place to me. It feels cut off from the rest of the world in a most desirable way to those seeking solace and peace. I liken it to the setting in the video game Animal Crossing, in which the area surrounding the in-game town is a sheer, brilliant infinity representative in a way that makes you feel as if your own little oasis is untouchable and taintless. While not all of that is applicable to Port Hope (just look up the radioactivity scares), it certainly conveys a similar atmosphere that is most refreshing. Even the dreariness there — occasionally present in the lakeside weather and economy — possesses a certain air of invitation, but of course, it all boils down to how you're willing to look at things. Do you choose a broken, negative perspective understandably suffocated by hardship, or do you contemplate and manage (with luck) to will it into a positive, slightly optimistic view by peeling the darkness away and taking the time to actually notice the little things? Myself, I suppose this is a vital aspect of continuing along with my life's journey. That's my own relationship with this sleepy little town, mind you, and I invite varied opinions on the area.
Mine won't sway at any rate. It's always going to feel like home, and the friendly ghosts of my past are plentiful in number.
The town and surrounding landscape is a constant reminder of how nature often finds a way to shine through and mingle graciously with the creations of mankind. The Ganaraska River snakes through the centre of town and spills into Lake Ontario, mostly surrounded on either side by old-world charm and patches of greenery — just be sure to ignore the monstrous uranium processing plant plopped on the shoreline that has well and truly outstayed its welcome.
The downtown area is actually nestled in a little valley that many wouldn't even know existed until catching a glimpse of it after making their way through charming tree-lined residential streets. That area has been hit hard by several floods in the past due to ice buildup in the river, but not for several decades now. It's a common sight to see fishermen in their waders, walking across the shale in search of opportunity. It's a popular sport — particularly during the salmon and trout migration — though I'd imagine it would be met with more respect if people refrained from wastefully extracting roe from their catches and leaving the actual fish to rot. Farmer's markets and an abundance of fresh locally-grown produce only further convey the feeling that the town and surrounding area is completely dependent upon itself, isolated and hidden away from the rest of the world. In this age of selfishness and mouths moving before the electrodes in their respective brains, that can be such a beautiful, soothing thing.
A particularly important place to me is the old farmhouse I lived in, which had been converted into a duplex prior to our arrival. Our landlord kept an old jalopy in the garage, and we had a whimsical old British gentleman living on the second floor (we had the whole first floor to ourselves). He often drank like a fish and told stories of his misadventures during the Second World War. Once he told my mother and I about the time he snuck belowdecks on a cargo ship to swim in a sea of peanuts that was being delivered. I considered him a tragic comedic riot, as both his drinking and smiling was brought on by reminiscing about the olden days. I'm sure he's long dead now given his age at the time, and my mother and I never found out what happened to him. That man had been through all sorts of varieties of hell, but it made him a better, more decent person despite the drinking.
I recall the layout of that wonderful house as if I had lived there yesterday; a minuscule bathroom, cozy rustic kitchen, and majestically-sized living room adorned with two windows peering into the driveway, with two humble but comfortable offset bedrooms. With hardly any windows on the first floor facing the street, the living room boasted a massive old beast of a stone fireplace that spanned nearly the whole front wall on the inside. It couldn't have been more private or befitting as a place of sanctuary. The floors were varnished, thin planks of wood in a chocolate-amber colour, with walls surrounding all sides white as virgin snow. Despite the windows only getting light through the tall shrubbery beyond the driveway, the living room was, for me, bright and airy. It was the most inviting place on Earth to me, and still is. I also clearly remember my old bedroom where I spent many a day playing Nintendo games, building with Lego and goofing around with friends that frequently came over. I was so strangely happy there that I could just about scream about it now with joy, and that's a funny thing considering there were countless hardships and horrid problems that unfolded within those red and white walls.
I still intend to go back there, buy the whole lot, and preserve it as it was then. The day will come. It's the only place where I intend to rest my bones, otherwise they'll ache for it unreservedly. I almost even miss the damn walnut tree in the driveway that pelted us with hard green balls of harsh reality (fun fact — we borrowed an old army helmet from a neighbour when playing under it). I don't think any other place, no matter how sleek and beautiful, could be as special to me... obviously.
Just a stone's throw away from my childhood home are the fairgrounds — or whatever they're called now, as that accursed uranium plant keeps throwing money at places around town and renaming them. What hasn't changed, however, is the sheer beauty of this sprawling patch of verdant greenery, unspoilt even today like much of Port Hope in my opinion. Surrounded by residences and flanked on one side by a forest-covered hill, this area feels like an oasis within the oasis that is the town itself. A dirt track rings around the grounds, hugged at one end by the community centre and multi-purpose hall.
This area seldom receives even a whisper of road traffic — except in September for the annual Fall Fair, one of the oldest in Canada. I can still visualize the shimmering lights, crackling fireworks, midway games festooned with stuffed animals and colourful goodies, and countless other charms including the frantic but exciting demolition derby that continues to draw huge crowds each year.
I'm sure I have a stash of stuffed animals somewhere to show for the piles of toonies my parents and I blew together while having such a fantastic time. Though, I liked just being there and soaking up the excited atmosphere of the grounds when the fair was in full swing.
Any visit to Port Hope wouldn't be complete for me without a stop at what many see as simply a boring mini-mall. But here, it's the memories that keep it as fascinating and enthralling as ever to me. An insurance office used to be the location of a marvellous video game and movie rental store, Superior Video. I'll always remember the yellow metal awning with red emblazoned letters, the windows plastered with movie posters framed by flashing lights. All that survives from those days now are the original doors and windows, but I can still vividly see the aisles of Nintendo 64 game boxes, meticulously organized like the rest of the store. The place had a popcorn maker, mountains of delectable sweets and a positively gigantic selection of movies and games to choose from. The very best moments of my childhood were spent in that space, constantly running back and forth from home with yet another five-dollar bill to rent Paper Mario again. Afterwards, I'd head over to the dairy store just a couple units down that boasted a suspended working model train system hanging from the ceiling. My friends and I would always stop in on the way back home to grab a Montego ice cream bar (another long-dead era in itself) and play with the giant animatronic cow in the corner near the door. Even the laundromat holds many memories, though it's still open to this day in the same spot. The Reese's Pieces machines, tacky yellow chairs and arcade machines are long gone, but it was actually a fun place to be (bearing in mind that as a child, one had to make their own fun in town).
Much of the rest of town is dear to me, and recently returning helped me understand that it isn't mere homesickness that drew me back. I longed to walk every street and rediscover each nook and cranny I could uncover. I hungered for atmospheric absorption, really. The town's sprawling beaches and tree-lined paths brought me once again to the softly lapping waves of Lake Ontario. The few people walking around this area were either alone and pondering or taking their pets for a dip. It felt as if time itself was irrelevant there. A drifter's paradise.
I wonder if it could remain this way forever, actually.
A gazebo perched upon the cliffside forming a natural border to the beach was where I encountered a profound explosion of inspiration. I sat and wrote out outlines for new projects for hours as the perfect, clear weather continued overhead, unchanged. Going back a day later, an endless grey rainy sky greeted me — yet this time, I could appreciate the brilliant beauty of nature when it didn't look it's worst. Sometimes, the spattered muteness and melancholic atmosphere of the lake and town is like a drug; it can bring about sensations of coziness and peace, but if it drags on for days it can turn into a miserable affair. Strange. Still, it's a somber and contemplative atmosphere along the coast in that same kind of weather, which you see in these photos. Many come down with the blues and positively detest such conditions, but honestly I frolic in them. Perhaps that's what helped me capture these moments of stillness — to me, the beauty is in this vast unknown. The muteness. The lake is always an infinitesimal horizon with nary a sliver of land in sight, but I love it. It only adds to the isolation and protected feeling of the area.
In fact, when Port Hope has a muted, hazy atmosphere brought on by lakeside-influenced weather, it almost takes on a second form entirely. The bustle and buzzing presence of antique hunters, tourists, street performers and frolicking children is ushered indoors, replaced by the (sometimes) gentle pattering of rain and dampness in the air.
Everything moves even closer to a standstill. You can almost hear the trees breathing and the wind skipping across the rooftops. The very air itself seems to evoke an invitation to contemplate and look closer at the countless stories this place tells, right down to how the buildings have weathered here and there and the way that the old merges with the new. It's stunning.
This is when the tiniest details make themselves known.
The dark stains alongside downtown buildings, ghostly echoes of floods past. The brilliant green canopies of maple leaves on Dorset Street that arch just over your head shamelessly. The abandoned retirement homes and schools sleeping lazily, forlorn and forgotten relics that beg for purpose. The gentle tinkling and hushed chatter inside Dreamers' Café, a gorgeously decorated hub of escapism decorated in arches of fairy lights and old-world charm sure to please introverts and charm-seekers alike. Even the residents seem to change their routine a little, many making time to slow down and reflect via conviviality in the shops or an afternoon's leisurely reading in the immaculate Port Hope Public Library. There's a strange ritualism — a connection — with it all. Many don't even notice it.
The town is a place full of whispers, soaked in a rich history that stretches back several centuries. You can feel it in the very music, wind and air. It's just one of those places that begs to be explored. In my mind, it's a getaway for escapists, and a haven of solace for those who seek it in quieter surroundings.
Of course, in the sunlight and warmer months, the town becomes a colourful wonderland of charm and whimsy. Nearly every street is festooned with hanging baskets and half-suffocated with trees, lush gardens and shrubbery amongst beautifully-kept homes built in varying historical eras. In particular, brickwork and stone is graciously preserved, with many homes being hundreds of years old but feeling as young and vibrant as if they were built last week. An abundance of rabbits and other wildlife are common sights in town, particularly from May to October (my grandmother being fond of the rabbits in particular, refusing to forget them despite her tragic dementia). Even the grass is different here, a verdant, bright green almost year-round (including much of the winter) which many attribute to radioactive soil despite most of it being removed.
Port Hope is a veritable paradise filled to the brim with sights, sounds, smells and old-world charm. To me, nothing comes close to the sheer beauty this town offers regardless of the season. Having family in this little hidden oasis of charm and whimsy has been a blessing and a curse — it only further fuels my desire to move back, but at the same time I wouldn't dream of doing so until being able to make a comfortable living as a writer there (a pipe dream to some). Still, through their endless kindness and willingness to let me stay with them when I visit, I find myself placed in the middle of those years I recall and miss so greatly.
Wandering on my own and taking notice of each step was a self-redeeming journey, and as painfully short and limited as it was I'm certainly better off because of it. Perhaps you have a place that calls out to you the way Port Hope does to me. Maybe you contemplate doing what I did, and occasionally think of going back just for the sake of being "there" again. Maybe you're longing for a time, purpose, or connection that will inspire or motivate. Or perhaps you've never done such a thing and haven't paused to look at the little details in your past, and think that I'm quite insane (which I wouldn't hold against you in this case).
I suppose if there has to be a point, it's that if we take the time in this chaotic world to pause and simply absorb the little details, we learn to contemplate ourselves with more depth and patience. The hardest part is figuring out how to attain that zen-like state to focus your energy into and slow your breathing. I teach myself through writing — observing, documenting, and studying things that appeal to me. In a way, I know that this is my calling. It simply feels like an essence and output of creative energy that I wouldn't wish to consider living without.
To be able to make friends with time itself and appreciate the journey is a powerful and inspiring thing. Even if your past is wrought with dark times and despair, there is always an element of light — even a sliver of it.
Respect the journey,
Then, in time, you will learn to respect yourself.
For more information on Port Hope or to plan a visit, consult their tourism website.