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Migratory paths

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I come out of the darkness in downtown Windsor all turned around. Traffic lights look different, lines on the road fatter. I keep thinking, "I'm less than a mile from work — and I'm hopelessly lost." Luckily, Paul keeps cool behind the wheel and picks his way along the Detroit River toward the Ambassador Bridge, where we join Toronto-bound truck traffic heading east on 401. We loop off onto county roads, and within 15 minutes we're out into the country.

I'm consistently astonished at how quickly the country opens up in Essex County, where two-lane roads amply handle the traffic. No expressways or malls out here, and with good reason. This is Canada's southernmost extremity, with one of the chilly country's warmest climates. Though Michiganders mostly think of the Midwest as corn country, right across the border are vineyards, orchards and, especially, tomatoes.

How many tomatoes? Along the rural routes in Leamington and neighboring Kingsville greenhouses cover more than 65 million square feet, and a single greenhouse can employ as many as 100 workers. Many are outfitted with truck-sized doors and venting roofs. Plastic and pristine, they look vaguely futuristic whizzing by.

If there'd been any doubt this is tomato country, it's dispelled in Leamington, where there's an honest-to-goodness Heinz ketchup factory and a family of tomatoes that's way too happy to see us. They're wooden cutouts, of course, standing in front of the town's information booth, which is, naturally, a giant tomato. I am amused that somebody works inside the tomato.

You can't help but appreciate what one of my friends calls "Canadian niceness." Despite high prices, folks seem content, even cheerful. Instead of cheap goods and angry looks, you get service. For an ugly American standing at the corner of Oak and Erie, the Canadian way seems equitable and fair. Smooth roads. Clean air. Even gas station landscaping beats what I'm used to. Hell, there's a crew working on it right now. I feel unchained. Instead of a Chase Bank, there's a Mennonite savings and credit union; instead of trademarked theme parks and casino resorts, there's golf for the adults and go-cart rentals for the kids.

But a quick detour behind the main drag suggests that much of this prosperity is built on the backs of the thousands of migrant workers, mostly from Mexico. A few years ago, the Mexican consulate in Toronto was so overwhelmed by calls from laborers in Ontario's tomato growing industry that they put a Mexican consulate in downtown Leamington, right on Erie Street. The alert traveler will notice spare laborers' cafeterias, stores selling CDs de musica y las peliculas and Latino men riding bicycles alone or waiting in work gangs to be picked up at the crossroads. Canada must grow its tomatoes here, but it seems they can be picked by the best peasants NAFTA can offer.

Paul and I check in at Leamington's Comfort Inn. I see some Michigan tags in the lot. A group of spandexed athletic-looking older women are going inside, and they hold the door for us. I smell a road rally of some kind.

It turns out there's fuck-all to do in downtown Leamington on a Saturday night. We drive down to the lake, where the ferries to Pelee Island, Sandusky and Kingsville dock. Burgess Refreshments, offering 40 kinds of ice cream, is closed. The Seacliffe Inn is open, but looks expensive. Instead, I drag Paul into the Waterfront Bar & Grill, which I actually find intimidating. The barmaid is cleaning up, and a few roughnecks hang out late shooting pool. I can feel them eyeing us while we sit. I feel like an interloper among "townies" who aren't bothered by mayflies stuck all over the television set, obscuring the NBA playoffs. I get the check and we split.

As an American, I find Canada expensive. But you get what you pay for. Take breakfast, for instance. On the road, that first meal of the day is of vital importance. And it's often a disappointment. I've stayed some places where "continental breakfast" means somebody rolls a coffee cart to your door and asks, "Plain or powdered." Not at Comfort Inn! What a morning spread awaits us! They have fruit, cereal, milk (soy and dairy), muffins, waffles and bread (and a heavy-duty four-slice Hobart toaster to toast them with), bottomless coffee, and apple, orange and grapefruit juice to wash it all down. The early-rising sportsters take to it with zeal, and it is continually replenished.

Fortified, we cruise down Robson Road to Point Pelee Park. The road skirts the coastline, flanked by very small houses. On the way in, one sees a few gaudy "million-dollar" dream homes, but these give way to unpretentious vacation houses, some little more than rental shacks or trailer hookups. It's surprising, given the popularity of Point Pelee Park, just how ramshackle they look. My inner American sees a wasted economic opportunity — great beauty here to be exploited. Yet, the landscape stays humble, like 1962 with bigger vehicles.

This humility is only more pronounced at the park. For the admission ($6.90 Canadian per adult, or $17.30 Canadian per family), you get a very nice full-color map on sturdy paper that urges you to be sensitive to the environment and leave it as unharmed as possible, even warning motorists not to run over turtles, lamenting that "hundreds are killed each year" by drivers. As if that weren't enough, the map urges you to install an automatic thermostat in your home, plant native trees and volunteer to help the environment in your community. I get the point. Nature isn't just something in the wild. Nature is a part of us. Nature is all around us.

And, frankly, nature smells awful. The drive along the bog smells like a frog's ass, bringing back memories of the junior high school dissection table. But it's worth it. We see birds flitting tree to tree. They're close to the ground, feeding in the morning. Every so often I see a fleeting glimpse of a redwing blackbird or an unusual warbler. The birds flock through Point Pelee Park because of the "point" that juts out into Lake Erie toward Pelee Island and then Middle Island. Migrating birds can island-hop across the lake, and the shortcut draws thousands of birds in spring and fall. What's more, they draw birding folk from all over.

The nature center, a mile from the tip of the point, is a riot of activity. The canopy over the exhibit is a city of brazen warblers that's about as relaxing as a war picture. They flit from rafter to rafter, dive-bombing and shrieking at each other, taking up defensive positions in their hive-like nests. They're more exciting than the exhibits, which are absurdly quaint. An exhibit on the point's tremendous storms displays chunks of blacktop, the remains of an old road. I didn't take a photo.

The park runs trams to the point, but Paul and I hoof the last mile. On the woodland trail, we enter the world of the birders. They cluster, scanning the trees with telephoto lenses and binoculars. A family stands quietly on the trail, the father carefully aiming a large camera into a tree. Some groups offer friendly smiles, others watch us diffidently. We press into wilder territory, off the boardwalks and into the bush, looking for the southernmost point in mainland Canada.

It's really buggy. In fact, after a few minutes, I know we've made a mistake. The air is so thick with mayflies that they bounce off our faces, like it's snowing bugs. They whine in my ears and stick to my clothes.

"They don't have any mouths," Paul says, to reassure me.

"Ewww. That doesn't make me feel better."

I inhale one, gagging slightly before spitting it onto the ground in pieces. I try walking with hands covering my face to part the insect cloud. At first chance, we hightail it through the brush onto the West Beach Footpath. Wind drives the bugs off, and we walk the pebble beach. The pebbles are drab when dry, but beautiful wet. I find milky quartzite, pink granite and black rocks crisscrossed with thin white lines like a fine pastry or a snazzy cuff link. I can't help collecting some in a bottle.

To call the west beach rustic is an understatement. The water is clear but can wash up fish skeletons depending on the tide. Thankfully, blackflies aren't biting. Oddly, to me, it looks postapocalyptic, like that beach at the end of the first Planet of the Apes movie.

I hear a voice in my head: Where's the obnoxious bullshit? It isn't just that there're no radios allowed. No platform for a lifeguard. There's no parking lot filled with light trucks and SUVs outside a sprawling climate-controlled Naturatorium, where hyperactive youngsters squirm while watching educational presentations. This park is for real, a balancing act of ecological protection and visitor experience. And it's sort of boring.

We poke our way out to the last breakwaters. Standing out on the rocks, it's land's end, and the tip of the point is all washed away this year. Off in the distance sits Pelee Island. A family of German birders is coming up behind us to see the tip that draws their quarry. The birds are always flying across the water, passport or not. It's a reminder that our borders are all imaginary. Sure, the walls and towers that line them are sturdy enough, but if it ever seems man's institutions bear too hard on the landscape, look up in season and see the birds sailing right on over.

 

Waterfront Bar & Grill, 5 Foster St., Leamington. Comfort Inn, 279 Erie St. S., Leamington, 519-326-9071. Point Pelee National Park, 1118 Point Pelee Drive, RR1, Leamington, 1-866-PT-PELEE.

Michael Jackman is a Metro Times copy editor and writer. Send comments to mjackman@metrotimes.com.

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