Years ago, I eagerly anticipated the debut of reality television in Canada. Unlike the carnivorous peepshows that are the American reality shows of late, this particular show, put together by the History Channel, was true grit.
It was called Pioneer Quest. Two couples, one young and one older, were dropped off in a field in rural Manitoba with supplies, $500 in 1880’s dollars and a tent. The point? To build a homestead, cultivate food, care for farm animals and make it through “a Year in the Real West” without killing each other and feasting on the bones. It was an interesting social experiment: can you take twenty first century people and put them in the ninetheenth century and have them not make a break for the nearest Golden Arches, even if it would take 3 days by horse drawn wagon? That was the point. The prize wasn’t huge: $100K per couple, if they made it through the year (spoiler: they did make it!).
They had the wettest summer on record with mosquitoes the size of small poodles and one of the coldest winters ever. With no central heating; no Canada Goose down jackets; no Ugg boots… Gah. They did NOT have an easy time of it and I was totally, 100% addicted to the show. I had wildly misguided and romantic ideals about living this way too; rough and rural, not depending on credit cards and technology and having a life where I benefitted from everything I produced. Off the grid and then some.
Little did I know at that time that if I had been on this show, I would have been kicked off the wheat field within days for whining and complaining.
How do I know?
Toronto’s ice storm 2013, or as I call it: Pioneer Quest 2013.
My Mom and I lasted, sitting by her wood stove and boiling water for instant coffee and cocoa in a stainless steel pot, from Saturday night until Tuesday morning. We ate canned pasta cooked on the stove. Once. We ate baguette toasted on the wood stove. Once. We were miserably cold and stinky and while grateful at least for the heat source – compared to others we knew from the radio didn’t even have that – we were DONE. So not even 48 hours in to a tough but not close to pioneeresque situation – during which we escaped to attend Disney Princesses on Ice for my daughter’s 5th birthday – I was losing it. I would never make it for a “Year in the Real West”. I couldn’t even make it for 48 hours in the home I grew up in.
(By the way, the irony of going from a frozen house to a freezing ice rink was not lost on me, but it was warmer than our house and far more pleasant, despite the $10 hot dogs and $12 popcorn and array of vastly overpriced plastic toys that my daughter coveted with a glistening eye and which we caved and bought one of. But that’s another blog post).
I won’t pretend that I am proud of my behaviour during the time we were without power. I was ridiculous, when I think back on it. It was already shaping up to be a difficult holiday for me for reasons I don’t want to write about right now, in addition to being my daughter’s 5th birthday on the 23rd, and I just felt like it was going from bad to worse. I couldn’t ‘make the best of it’ or be appreciative of the fact that at least we had heat all that time. I should have, but I couldn’t. Wrapping my daughter’s Christmas gifts by candlelight and flashlight was a breach too far for my sensibilities. I finished wrapping, hid the gifts and crawled in to bed, vowing to get out when the power came back on.
Anyway, Christmas Eve dawned and it was colder in my bedroom than in the Quebec Ice Hotel, so I gave up my full blown under comforter sulk and went up to the woodstove. Mom was sitting in the chair closest to the stove, covered in a blanket and totally exhausted from having tended the fire several times during the night to ensure that we wouldn’t be starting from scratch the next morning. She started to cry. Now understand something: my mother is not a crier. Ever. She is so strong of spirit and will that she simply doesn’t allow it. A pragmatist to the fullest. Well, I couldn’t take her totally unpragmatic tears.
So, I grabbed the only corded phone in the house and the phone book (thank goodness we still have one of those around) and called the Royal York Hotel. It was as far as I could get from the idea of a rural homestead with no heat or running water. Clearly, I was meant to be wealthy. I’m not. But I was meant to be. As someone said to me years ago: caviar tastes on a tunafish budget.
“Yes ma’am, we still have rooms. Were you looking for a basic room or something larger. A junior suite perhaps?” said Tina, the lovely lady who answered my call.
“Just basic. This isn’t a vacation. It’s desparation.”
“I understand completely! We’ve had lots of calls the last two days.”
“Well, our least expensive option available is $219 per night.”
With nary a hesitation, I gave her my credit card number and we booked it for two nights. Christmas in a hotel, albeit a first class one. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out but, frankly at that point, I didn’t really care.
And that’s when Mom turned on the hot water tap in the upstairs bathroom and found hot water. She ran down to the basement and checked: yes, indeed, despite the lack of power, the hot water heater was running. Don’t ask me how. I don’t understand this stuff. I just want to turn on the tap and have hot water come out; I don’t want to know how it works. She ran the tap for a few minutes and, sure enough, it wasn’t just running off of the remaining hot water in the tank. It was heating water. I stripped the kiddo down, along with myself, and in to a steaming hot shower we went. Clean, scrub, bubbles and wash. And we felt almost human again. It’s amazing how it’s the little things that make such a difference: I could live without the technology. I couldn’t live without the shower.
Cleaned and rejuvinated, I started looking for enough bags to stuff all the wrapped toys in to. Because of course, the kiddo thought I had called Santa after calling the hotel, to remind him of our temporary change of address. She thought that because I pretend called him in front of her. How could I not as she stood looking at me, brows furrowed and clealry worried?
There were 2.5 of us packed for two nights and we had 5 suitcases. To quote one of my favourite 80s TV shows, Designing Women: “We looked like the family from the Grape’s of Wrath going on vacation!” The car was still frozen solid so we called a cab and got the heck out of dodge.
Four hours later, our neighbour texted us to say that the power was back on.
My response: “Well, we’re going to stay put. Mini vacay. #Whirlpool #RoomService”
And it was truly a GREAT way to spend Christmas! I had hidden all the gift suitcases in the closet and sometime after midnight on Christmas Eve, Mom and I got them out as quietely as we could and piled them up behind the door to our room. The kid never moved: when she is deeply asleep, NOTHING will wake her. Thank goodness or the Santa myth could have ended a lot earlier than I hope it will. She woke a wee bit disoriented the next morning, unsure of where she was, and went to go to the bathroom. She didn’t even notice the HUGE pile of gifts until I pointed them out. Then it was a screaming free for all for the next 15 minutes and I apologize after the fact to whomever was in the next room!
We played for a while, ordered room service breakfast and sat around in our PJs until we couldn’t sit any more. Then we ventured out of the hotel for a walk. In a blizzard. Hmmm…. With my newly recharged phone, I pulled up the BEST APP ever: OpenTable. Chinese food would be open right? Yup. Resos for three at Lai Wah Heen. Hey, if you’re going to stay at the Royal York and eat Chinese food, you might as well do it in style. So off we went and, ‘lo and behold, they had noodles on their special menu. Awesome. Kid was happy. Mommy was happy. Grandma was happy.
We spent the afternoon in the pool and whirlpool (more whirlpool than pool!) and ordered dinner to our room. No need to get dressed up to eat Christmas dinner! Just pop on PJs and wait for it to arrive. Honestly, there is no better way to celebrate the holiday.
And shortly after dinner, someone knocked on the door. A waiter arrived with a silver tray, a glass of milk, two cookies and a note for Nikki from Santa, letting us know that he left this as an extra treat on his way home to the North Pole. Perfect.
I discovered that my romantic ideals about living off the grid were just that: romantic ideals. If I had been on Pioneer Quest, I would have hitched up my skirts, shown some leg and hitchiked my way to the closest Fairmont, by horse drawn wagon if necessary. At least I know that about myself now. It’s kind of freeing to know what you want. Not always practical or attainable, but definitely freeing.