When I was 19 I waited tables at the depressing Montreal restaurant chain, Mikes, on the corner of Jean-Talon and Clark. As I walked by the condos that inevitably replaced the old diner last week, I thought about the patron who came in almost every other day, with a new fellow. She ordered the same items, sat at the same table, faced the same direction and after greeting me as if the first time I served her on her fourth visit, I became aware of what my role in our relationship was. The restaurant was her first date spot and I was her first date waiter. Wherever you are, you’re welcome.
On an online dating site the other night a chap asked me what I suggested we do for the first time we were to meet in person. My response: the mountain. Really? Like, do what on the mountain?.. I decided to take the dog up instead. I’ve had a few first dates on Mount Royal, a few last dates too. The mountain is, and has been, a big part of my life from the days of my early childhood when it served as the front lawn of our apartment on de l’Esplanade. Whoever Mr. Right is going to be, he is at least going to enjoy a little time spent there.
The mountain is a large part of all of Montrealers’ lives as our hill sits smack in the middle of our metropolis. We have all studied at one of the institutions flanked between her and the city, welcomed new life at one of the hospitals that cling to her edges, said our goodbyes to loved ones at one of her cemeteries and have each tried to get away from all of the latter by taking the time to breath when walking her sinuous trails. Overlooked and underappreciated at times, we wouldn’t be the city we are today nor named Montreal if not for the butte, though some toponymists may beg to differ.
In 1874, the green space became the first natural site to be protected by law in Québec, just two years before a good chunk of that green space became the park we’ve come to love, and thank god for that. Imagine what would have become of our town had we built on, deforested and constructed taller than the island’s mesa.
Our skyscrapers, in a downtown squeezed between her peaks and the river, don’t scrape much thanks to a city by-law introduced to not obstruct the views of and from her summits. 200 metres, excluding antennas, is the limit. 1000 rue de la Gauchetière, the city’s tallest tower, got away with 205 metres..
The construction of our park was in large part the fruit of the reaction by the public against the fact that some locals were selling wood from the trees they levelled from her forest. Ironically, nearly a century later, our beloved mayor Jean Drapeau tore up thousands of trees, cleared bushes and gave us what citizens were calling the bald mountain. Why? To stop mainly gay men from performing acts of indecency in her bushes. Just a few men pre-Tinder era on successful first dates I reckon. Drapeau, who brought us the world’s fair and the XI Olympiad, would have levelled the mountain as part of one of his “great” projects if up to him.
In fact, due to this (and the 1998 Ice Storm), in the 90’s a massive reforestation plan began to take shape thanks to Les Amis de la Montagne, an organization promoting sustainability and conservation of our hill since 1986. It saw over 200 000 bushes and some 11 000 trees planted to coincide with our city’s 350th anniversary. Patches of these younger trees still stand out today.
What other modification can we thank Drapeau for ? Well, Camellien Houde, the mayor who preceded him, was totally opposed to having any vehicles other than trams intersect Mount Royal (the number 11 bus we know today is a throwback to the number 11 tram of yesteryear). In 1958, after Houde’s passing, Drapeau built a million dollar road that sliced the ridge in two and named it after his predecessor as a political go phoque yourself.
When the decision was finally made to create the million dollar park, a genius was brought up to Montreal from the United States to design what became one of our city’s best assets. At a time when urban parks were all the rage, Frederick Law Olmsted did to North American cities what urban planners and landscape architects fail miserably to do today. If you want to read up on his very eclectic life, pick up a copy of “A Genius of Place” at the CCA.
Olmsted’s ethos was simple, less is more. The mountain was to remain, or feel more like a mountain after he was done with it than before he laid eyes on it. The paths follow an unnoticeable incline to its main summit. Each bike ride, snow shoe, ski or walk along his path is to be concluded with that “I made it” feeling of achievement. The skyline begins to break through the balustrade of the lookout and we lay eyes on the city we forgot existed for a brief half hour. Job well done Fred..
Olmsted also wanted the space to be for all citizens. From the wealthy on it’s southern slopes to the poor who lived in the city below the hill the rich could watch from their homes high above. That assorted usage still exists today and at no shortage considering the nearly five million visitors the mountain receives every year, more than double the population of the island of Montreal.
To avoid the crowds, one of my favourite times to go is 9:00 am. The madly motivated early morning joggers are showered and in nine-to-five attire and the sometimes hordes of tourists don’t normally arrive until after 10:00 am. Occasionally, I have the fortune at the belvedere to be able to grab one of those fantastic lawn chairs and read the paper all to myself, and it’s a beautiful feeling. Another favourite time to enjoy the tranquility is in the winter, at night. No leaves means the moonlight shines through abundantly. The snow helps reflect that light and you could actually see unlike on summer nights.
The worst time to go…Sunday. People walk in groups as if attempting to reenact hands across America though they are seemingly Australian because they also congregate on the left side of the path. Closer to the statue, tree trunks are being shadowed by men urinating after a few too many beers around the drum circles at Tam-Tams, the famous pop up event where people from every walk of life come together to do nothing. Olmsted got his wish.
I’m writing this from the seat of my eternal plane ride to Beijing, continuing to Hong Kong. As the aircraft switched course to head northwest I stared at the large footprint of Mount-Royal from my window seat just after take off. It looked cold out there, but I told myself how disappointed I was for not finding the time to go up for one last walk before I left this afternoon. I’m leaving for a mere month, I clearly have dependency issues.
I know when I return that night in March it will be the site of the Oratory lights or if we fly in by the east, the 100 foot billboard-like illuminated cross that will bring a smile to my face and that familiar I’m home feeling more so than the massive IKEA sign close to the landing strip at Dorval. The cross faces east because that’s where most of the francophone community lived, francophone catholics that is.
I love that cross, it’s become THE emblem of the city. Talks not too long ago created a stir when the silly idea was proposed to use the structure as the letter “t” in a larger “MtL” sign. Why not convert it into a hashtag while we’re at it. My idea, silly or not, would be to change the lights to the colours of the rainbow flag when the city hosts Canada Pride in 2017. Hey, if it goes through, maybe we can hand Drapeau his own go phoque yourself for all to see.
On a random walk uphill Hong Kong I was brought back to Mount-Royal. I was with a new friend heading towards a church atop a steep street close to the end of Kennedy Town, before coming to the entrance of a well marked hiking path in the woods. We knew of “The Peak”, the tourist attraction with its breathtaking views of the city but had no idea that late afternoon that that’s where we were heading. We were surrounded by locals decked out in sports gear clutching on to water bottles and baby carriages while we conversed about our lives back home wearing skinny black jeans and carrying our day bags.
Hong Kong is a suffocating place but we were eons away from the hustle and bustle behind us. After a few indicative signs we caught on to what we had in store. When we passed the last 100m sign we became impatient for the sight we were about to share. When we made it, we were so totally turned off.
There, from the last few branches off the path emerged a modern (but hideous) building that reminded me of the Swatow complex in Montreal’s chinatown. There was honking, there were streets and an open plaza between two malls with a queue of what must have been a thousand people waiting to pay to take the set of six or so escalators to the top to take selfies with the city. There was a Burger King, an H&M and a 7Eleven to name a few. I had forgotten for the brief hour or so that this lifestyle existed in Hong Kong or that I was in Hong Kong at all. We took our selfies and headed down.
On the way down I thought back to when my companion told me that if she moved to Hong Kong, that hiking path would be something she would use quite often. It made me think about life back home without my mountain. Would I enjoy city life without the urban escape a stones throw from my apartment? It was 37 degrees colder back home when I had gotten on that plane some 48 hours before. I wished I had taken the time to walk up the mountain once more before I left.
Cover photo: Aerial View of Mount-Royal
Credit: Patrick Morell