It does not pay to look back. Except sometimes it does.
By Mark Fenton
Published November 27, 2007
In George Sluizer's 1988 film Spoorloos (The Vanishing) a young couple are on vacation in France. They stop their car in a tunnel. They quarrel. The wife gets out. The husband drives away. We gain a brief view of her at the end of a tunnel as he returns for her.
Unfortunately, while parked at a ubiquitous fuel and food stop, she vanishes. This time for good. The remainder of the film is taken up with the husband's attempt to discover what happened. At the end of the film we again see the image that forms the lower half of the poster: the light at the end of the tunnel.
This is central to the film's mythic reference, as Spoorloos is a compelling treatment of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was given permission by the Gods (an unheard of thing for mortals) to journey through Hades (under guidance of Hermes, customs officer for the Gods) and bring Eurydice back. The one condition being that he walk in front of her and not look back. He looks back. She vanishes back to the underworld. This time for good.
I've been sent a lot of places, but haven't yet found myself in Hades. The closest I've got is when I worked as an office temp and they sent me out to the head office of a department store that needed a graphic designer (the job went to me because I was the only temp they had who knew how to use a Macintosh).
It was simple enough stuff. I was given the item and its cost and following the same Quark Express template for each I created signs that said: SWEATERS $19.99... Men's UNDERWEAR $9.99... Bras... (I can't remember what bras cost because I don't usually buy them, but you get the idea.) Once I'd finished the artwork I had to photocopy hundreds of copies and sort them into appropriate boxes to be shipped to their stores across Canada.
After two months of this they decided to try me with a bit more responsibility and I got to print off words and prices and paste them onto dim photos of women in their underwear. Soft focus, mysterious, in an indefinable domestic interior redolent of some bedroom community underworld. It was a weird-ass thing to wake up at 6:00 am and go out and do.
But this wasn't the part that reminded me of Hades. It was where the office was! I was living at Queen and Aberdeen in Hamilton, and this job was on Industrial Street in Burlington. This meant a 15 minute walk to the Lakeshore GO bus; a transfer to a Burlington Transit bus; a Transfer to a SECOND Burlington Transit bus; and finally another 15 minute walk to the office.
(Going back last week I couldn't find the exact building, but I'm told the brain erases that kind of trauma to protect itself. I should have tagged it with my own personal Kilroy so I could find it if I ever became a photo-essayist. This is the street though. The company went out of business about a month after they got done with me. I might have been partially responsible.)
I quickly learned that Burlington Transit, while not quite an oxymoron, requires from its employees a skill set and sensibility different than the bus drivers of any other city I've been in.
I was once the only person waiting inside the downtown terminal in Burlington and carelessly rested my feet on the heavily veneered bench in front of me. One of the drivers who had time to kill before his next passengerless circuit was chatting up the woman who gave out route information. In a gesture that served solely to demonstrate his authority he asked me to put my feet down and he said it with one of those forced professional smiles that let me know he was being polite about it now, but that he could easily drag me outside and beat me senseless if my obnoxious behaviour continued.
I should add that he was smoking a cigarette right next to the No Smoking sign, which I guess was OK because he was propping the door open with his foot. I toyed with the idea of coming back at night and carving a picture of the two of them in the bench, with an X-acto knife from the office, in a lewd embrace. But that was beneath me even then, and I'm sure they're married now and living a happy Burlington life and all the best to them.
Now that I work in aviation, I feel a correlation between the Emergency instruction pilots receive at Flight Safety recurrent training and the training Burlington Transit drivers must receive, in the unlikely event that they ever encounter a passenger.
I still remember the first day of my job: how that driver looked at me. Square jawed, responsible, unflinching. You could see the thought process: "They said I would meet a passenger one day and now I have. This is what my training was for. I will not fail. I will move this person from this place to another."
But he didn't stop there. He inquired about my connecting bus. He radioed for it to wait for me. And I was able to walk onto the second bus - also empty of passengers - and ride with a similarly committed driver to the nearest stop to my office.
Sure, some days the second bus had left before the first could get there. There is a lot of rush hour traffic in Burlington and the second bus can hardly be expected to get too far off schedule. What if there's another bus passenger somewhere that day, awaiting deliverance from those mean streets of Burlington? Burlington Transit isn't just about Mark Fenton.
So I worked as a sign-maker for about three months at the end of 1991. In December I gave both drivers a Christmas card.
One morning after a particularly arduous, wet, cold journey to work, I had a meltdown and demanded the agency negotiate a raise (my main argument being that I couldn't justify the three to four hour round trip with the pay I was getting).
I got no immediate action, but a week or so later, at one of those office coffee breaks where an insipid cake is purchased and divided amongst staff for it being someone's birthday, the manager of the design shop took me aside and explained that a used automobile might be within range of even someone like me at ground zero of the pay scale.
One day a coworker who lived in Hamilton offered me a ride home. This was like a man used to crossing the Atlantic on a raft being offered a seat on a Concorde. A journey that took between 1.5 and 2 hours by bus (depending on luck with the connections) took 12 minutes.
It was November and already dark. Cruising along the 403, she directed my attention to what appeared to be a lost civilization beneath an overpass, which she called "Hidden Valley". At 100 km/per hour I had a fraction of a second to look but I saw what appeared to be rustic homes of another time and place, faintly illuminated by scant streetlights almost lost in fog.
The image took hold in my mind. I looked forward to catching a glimpse of it from the bus. As I couldn't imagine any roadway into it (and my mind had lots of time to go places on this commute), I fabricated wild fantasies about the shy and hermetic denizens of Hidden Valley.
A smaller and furrier species than homo sapiens. Daily battling threats to their civilizations from mutant creatures with jaws that bit and claws that snatched. A place of animate and threatening trees. A tribe of good folk threatened by shadowy, malign peoples, yellow eyed and with a nasty odour, from deeper in the valley. And of course their sensitive physiology threatened by auto emissions from the 403.
Years passed. A millennium turned over. I started to doubt that such a place really existed. I consulted my Golden Horseshoe Map book.
Here's how to do it. Coming from Hamilton, take Plains Road East. Left onto Howard Road,
right onto Lemonville, which looks like this
right again onto Valley road
(Lemonville Road and Hidden Valley Road remain roughly parallel like the flailing legs of a man falling into an abyss. I'm saving Lemonville for another essay.)
I had worked up to my visit with an image of the valley FROM the 403. Don't anyone try this at home, but I pulled my Echo onto the emergency lane and snapped this:
Dark, fenced off and, like Hades to Orpheus, compelling me in. To regain what had been lost. In my case, not a woman, but my lost time as a signmaker in Burlington, a period of my work life so arid and unrewarding I felt I HAD to discover something buried below it. To make it not have been meaningless. These thoughts forming as my Echo is buffeted by the windbursts of 18-wheelers.
To my surprise this is a municipal park. In fact, as I later discovered, it's advertised in a single, rather uninviting webpage hosted by Tourism Burlington. (Say "Tourism Burlington" out loud. Let the words hang in the air and contemplate them the way you'd contemplate "the sound of one hand clapping.")
Hidden Valley Park - Hidden Park Valley Drive
Nestled along Grindstone creek in a picturesque wooded valley, Hidden Valley park is the perfect location for hiking, picnics, softball, for the entire family. The Park has 9 picnic areas available for group bookings, a rain shelter, playgrounds, ball diamond, nature trails, and parking.
You can park your car and actually walk under the 403.
At 10:00 am on a weekday morning in November, the public park is unpopulated by the public. So I felt I was trespassing even though I wasn't.
For those of you who monitor and understand the implications of such things, it is November 13 and this tree has all its leaves and they are barely turned. Should this be seen as a sign of climate change?
I was intrigued by the bridges of Hidden Valley, which are everywhere and which generally seem to start nowhere and end nowhere.
This one, for instance:
For all that it crosses nothing, it urges us onto itself with a path of flat stones on either side. As though, by the very fact of itself, it is a bridge to an alternate perception of things. I've always felt that way about the bridge Monet painted repeatedly
Claude Monet. The Water Lily Pond; Pink Harmony, 1900.
which transports us, but only metaphorically.
So too my journey to Hidden Valley was not a journey of time or space, but of quality. Like the door into Narnia. Even the existence of a few bystanders was for me and me alone. Faceless. Blankly intent on my experience.
They appear to be waiting for a bus. Hope they brought a tent and lots of food.
As I said, bridges are everywhere here,
the most stunning being the railway bridge.
a close inspection of which allowed me to capture a locomotive on approach
although even as I was taking it I realized here that I was riffing on the groundbreaking 1895 film L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de la Ciotat, by Auguste and Louis Lumière
L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de la Ciotat
which you can watch all of on youtube if you want.
Call me a film pleb, but I'd be loathe to pay $12.50 or whatever it is now to see this pioneering cinema, even though it caused a sensation at the time and the Lumières probably charged an equivalent in 1895 Francs. Basically 48 seconds (and a fair percentage of that is titles) of a train coming into a station. Single shot. Single angle. Some people get on. Some get off.
No, give me the nail-biting Spoorloos any day.
It still surprises me that the Lumières didn't figure out
a) that you could stop the camera and then start it again from another angle; and
b) that you could put the camera on wheels and move it around and that's real exciting for a guy like me who relishes movement on the screen.
But it's easy to be smug in hindsight. Like being shown for the first time that the earth is a sphere, not a disk. It's obvious, but only after the first guy figures it out.
I also wonder if the Lumières figured out to charge half-price on a slow weeknight, like Tuesday.
And it turns out that even the antiquated and gentle community of Hidden Valley isn't free of graffiti.
I thought back to a time before graffiti became the "art form" it is now. Morphing the fonts of advertising into an abstract, deceptively unreadable, three-dimensionality with subtle arrays of colour and shade. I thought of perhaps the most famous graffiti tag of all time.
Appearing during the second World War, this cryptic image spread through the Western World and -
But I am dawdling and turn onward to the impressive double underpass that leads into the residential part of hidden valley, with the option of a motor-vehicle tunnel on the left and a passage for Grindstone Creek on the right (ingress and egress by watercraft?)
To my astonishment I was looking at Kilroy! A crosseyed, aged, world-weary, beaten-down, melted Kilroy, but Kilroy nonetheless:
I was generous enough to read the raised digit as a forefinger, not a middle finger. I leave it to readers to decide if it is beckoning me in, or warning me away. I moved into the tunnel, thinking, in a flash, I might be entering the Court of the Crimson King.
King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (gatefold)
Astonishingly, the tunnel presented an exact correspondence for the iconic image from Spoorloos.
I entered the inner valley. There were no people. I had left Southern Ontario. I had left the world. There was a 400 series overpass at my back, but I couldn't hear it.
Like Orpheus, I am acquainted with the cost of looking back. A few weeks ago I had an appointment with my Naturopath. The visit was loaded with memories as the Naturopath was in the building where, for years, I had taken my children to and from daycare.
No place is more charged with emotion than the place where you regularly drop off and pick up your children. They change so quickly you fear you've missed some developmental breakthough in the eight hours you were away.
As I was leaving my appointment, I remembered that I had always admired the building across the street from it. There was nothing remarkable to it; I simply liked its proportions. The brickwork around the windows. Those multi-paned windows that tilt out along a horizontal axis, giving the face all different colours and reflections. I turned and took a picture of it.
Then, a week or so later I was walking by the same spot and -
I'm not saying I miss that building as much as Orpheus misses Eurydice. I'm just telling you to beware of looking back. I guess it's better to look forward, or better still to live in the moment. Can't help equating the dude on the skateboard with Hermes. The body language says, "I told you so."
So I want to enjoy Hidden Valley to the limit. If, in the future, I'm foolish enough to try and relive the memory I will probably discover it has become a highway.
The babble of the streams is gentle and constant
so full of life, that I can't help but think of the stream in which the head of Orpheus
John William Waterhouse: Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus - 1905
was discovered after he'd been torn asunder by the Maenads in their Bacchic Orgies.
There would appear to be a certain status in having a bridge crossing the stream. Even rustic ones like this one.
It's like those crazy suspension bridges built over gorges old Hollywood adventure movies. Robert Mitchum or Humphry Bogart having to make his way over to escape the pursuit of savages. Slats give way. The hero dangles by his fingers - sometimes there's a girl, whom he catches by the waist just before she's pulled into the depths - the rapids so far below they can barely be seen. But we hear the roar.
The hero will triumph ... but how?
Of course this one is only about three feet up so even I could probably get over it.
The yards are full of such decorative items as this.
This lamp stands about one foot off the ground, reinforcing my sense of a strange elfin folk who inhabit this place.
The more I contemplated this valley the more it reminded me of a Chinese folk tale, perhaps the most memorable version of which is the retelling by Wang Wei, the great poet of the late T'ang Dynasty. (Wang Wei was also a celebrated landscape painter though all of his paintings have been lost. So I'm sure he'd been all over the idea of photo essays on the internet and in my more egotistical moments I imagine Wang in a 13 century samsara, and believe that I'm his current incarnation.)
Here's the essence of the story with some excerpts from Wang's poem.
A fisherman is traveling uncharted waters,
my boat wound slyly through an opening
where mountains part
no big boats come this way
a nimble craft like mine
to navigate this crevice
He discovers a land that time has forgotten. The houses are ancient and people even dress in the clothing of the last dynasty. Turns out they are essentially refugees
they said the Emperor had sentenced them to death
and finding themselves here
they soon forgot the savage place they'd left
It is a perfect world. The fisherman never wants to leave. But he has some unfinished business back home. (Don't we all.) He'll just go and come back.
whatever turns these waters take
I will bid farewell
to friends at home
find my way back
and live here till I die
for I was sure
a passage traveled once
would easily reveal itself again
Yeah, right. No Mapquest. No Google Earth. No GPS. Doh! He never finds the way in again.
As I was thinking this I hit the dead-end of the road at the last house, its turnaround looming up at the end like one of those cool inverted exclamation marks I used to see when I tried to read Spanish poetry. Where they surround what's being exclaimed so you know where it starts as well as where it ends. ¡Like this!
It's hard to imagine anyone speeding at 100km/hr down here but there is one of those helpful go-no-further-in-this-direction signs at the end.
Until today I hadn't done the math, but I see now that they have 81 squares (9x9). This seemed an odd configuration. Then I remembered a few years back there was test-the-applicant's-problem-solving-skills question that employers would use in job interviews.
Employer: Here's a question for you. Why do you think they make manholes round?
Applicant: Hmmm. That's a tough one. I'll have to think for a minute here...Oh...Would it be because that way roustabouts and ne'er-do-wells can't turn them diagonally and hurl them into the pit? The way they could if they were, for example, rectangular. Imperiling pedestrians.
Employer: Well, you're a clever sprout. You're hired!
Of course, once a question becomes fashionable word spreads. So you'd never use that question now. Might I suggest asking the following.
Employer: Here's a question for you. Why do you think there are 81 squares on an end-of-the-road sign? Instead of...saaaay...64?
Applicant: [look of abject terror in her/his eyes.] I...I can't think why that would be...I...I've never noticed that. Pro...Probably just the way it fits the space?
Employer: The CORRECT answer is that OBVIOUSLY if there were 64 square, roustabouts and ne'er-do-wells would bend the sign to a flat horizontal and use it to play checkers or chess. Imperiling motorists.
Applicant: Oh sir...that makes perfect sense... and also it might be - .
Employer: Out with you! Do you even have Grade 12?! Perhaps someone will employ you to pick up litter in a park!
On my way back there was a grassy area with a bench.
I guessed it was placed there for passers-by to enjoy the view in the opposite direction. I sat in the silence. The morning aged but the light didn't seem to change. I saw no one, until finally a car full of security guards passed me, reached the end of the road, turned, and passed me again. Both times they stared intently but didn't question me. (This IS a magical place.) The view before me suddenly made sense.
It was like the awakening Zen practitioners speak of. Three perfectly rounded concrete balls emerge from the ground. Equidistant. An Elipsis. The grammatical unit that suggests something left out...an omission...a void in a loud, busy world...
The history of the Kilroy tag is uncertain. The picture seems to have been the work of the UK cartoonist George Edward Chaterton ("Chad") which appeared in the late 1930s and illustrated humourous comments on war-rationing.
The statement "KILROY WAS HERE" is attributed to a shipyard inspector, James J. Kilroy, who marked KILROY WAS HERE to approve rows of rivets he'd inspected. (How the image and the words merged remains a mystery.) There are dozens of other possible etymologies available on the internet.
The one which intrigues me the most I found on a web-page entitled "The Legends of Kilroy Was Here." This version comes from a Makio Mukai, M.D.
Kilroy is a riveting inspector during the war. In a restaurant near the port he meets a woman named Rosie. (Dr. Mukai posits her as the eponymous Rosie the Riveter, which makes me doubt the whole story as the chance of these nobodies spawning two such enduring clichés is obscenely outside the realm of statistical probability.)
They are both Irish Americans and get talking of the fairies of Irish folklore. To show off a bit Kilroy draws the image we know today (not the picture of an Irish fairy I draw from my faintly Celtic collective-unconscious, but whatever works for you when you can't draw and are trying to pick up women in restaurants).
Kilroy is about to be shipped out, but the night before they agree to meet at the restaurant. He is going to propose to her. She doesn't show. Desolate as Orpheus he carves KILROY WAS HERE. And the image of the fairy. On the table. With a rivet. (That's the detail I love.)
Turns out Rosie wasn't fickle, she'd just been in a car accident, which is as good an excuse as any for standing someone up. A month later she shows up at the restaurant and sees the tag. Overcome with emotion she gives the restaurant owner her address to give to Kilroy if he comes back.
Luckier than Orpheus, who couldn't withstand angry Maenads so I sure wouldn't back him against Hitler's army, Kilroy returns from Europe intact. He goes to the restaurant. He gets the message. Rosie and Kilroy connect and live happily ever after.
The Orpheus myth is faulty. Looking back worked for Kilroy. The tunnel delivered him into the light.
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