Life at the Dome

Life at the Domedome fall

This is the last of the National Post blog articles from May. It's also kind of a prequel to this article about taking a cross country train to Vancouver. Read on, and if you remember the area, please leave a comment!

In 1991 I graduated from college and felt like I was free for the first time in my life. So when September rolled around I got myself off to a cabin on the bay side of the North Mountain in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. It was the only place I wanted to be.

All through the previous year I'd been going on tie-dyed hippy quests with my best friend Marni: volunteering at the me dome hippy dudsEarth Festival in Lunenburg, protesting the Gulf War (the first one), drifting away from meat and into the arms of tofu and chick peas...at times I could even be found clutching a crystal. The nineties were going to be just like the sixties, I'd thought, but better.

Marni and I decided to test our pioneer-hippy-girl mettle by living in what everyone called the Dome, an empty cabin at the end of a dirt road across the way from a riding stable where I'd spent most of my Sundays as a kid. (The owner, Olga Comeau, now runs it as the Mandala Riding and Awareness Centre, and it's still an utterly inspiring spot.)

The Dome was just what it sounds like – a geodesic dome cabin built sometime around the late sixties, with no electricity or running water. The windows were sheets of clear plastic and the whole place was insulated by triangles of Styrofoam. There was an upper floor with two beds, a woodstove with an oven, a woven fabric swing hanging from the ceiling and an outhouse instead of a toilet. We settled in at the beginning of September. Everyone thought we'd last ten days. We were there until Christmas.

The first few weeks were full of discoveries. Hey! We made a fire! There's actually smoke coming out of that chimney! Wow! I just figured out how to cook oatmeal! Look! I'm chopping wood! (Yes, I weighed about ninety pounds in those days, but you should have seen me swing that axe.) We used candles for light. For water, we hauled buckets from the riding stable every few days. For heat and cooking, there was the woodstove. My dad, who lived ten miles away in the Marni dome firewoodvalley, would fill used milk cartons with water and freeze them for us; this was our version of a fridge. We'd stack the ice next to our perishable food, which we kept in the woodshed balanced on a stack of logs, high enough so that it wouldn't be a temptation for the neighbouring dog, an Afghan hound the size of a pony who loved stealing things and prancing off with them for a joke – anything from sleeping bags to toilet paper.

When we wanted something to do, we visited with neighbours, made cookies, sat around in the sun or went for walks down to the bay, started and abandoned strange arts and crafts projects. Or we might go to see our respective fellas – mine lived in Halifax, and Marni's lived in a tree. Or a tree-house to be exact. He was up there year round. I don't remember ever being bored.

trees n mountainBecause of the dome structure, sound ricocheted oddly in our temporary home. Someone would mumble something on another floor of the cabin and you'd hear it as if they were standing beside you whispering in your ear. I threw the used-up water from the dishes into the sink one night and heard a scream from upstairs – Marni told me she'd thought the water was going to fall on her head. We'd get visits from more dogs from across the way, terriers who'd crouch low and wag their whole bodies at what a miracle it was to see us every morning. After a few weeks, we stopped looking at our watches.

I loved the way the woods smelled. I loved finding new trails and making discoveries. At night I'd haul open the woodstove door and toast marshmallows over the fire. Once I woke up for an outhouse run and got very confused. Had my watch stopped? It was two o'clock in the morning, but the cloudy sky was white, the light pre-dawn, every tree and object clearly visible. Then I figured it out: this was the moon. That's how bright it really is.

After Christmas the Dome adventure was over and Marni and I spent a week on a train heading to Vancouver. But after eight months of sleeping on foam in our basement apartment and working as the grouchiest coffee server in the world, I decided this wasn't for me and Marni funny hat Domewent back to the Dome for another four months, but this time I'd be on my own.

This was a different experience. I still visited the neighbours, but I spent most of my time by myself. I didn't write. I didn't even read as much as you'd expect. I just took everything in. Each day was about existing – making sure the fire was going, planning what I'd cook for supper, going for walks that started in early afternoon and lasted until dark. It seemed to be enough. But in winter, it was time to leave, and I never went back to the Dome again.

Could I do the same thing now? I doubt it. I'm older, lazier. My attention span's been short-circuited by the internet and my life is tied to messages that blip onto my computer screen at random intervals. More importantly, I can't seem to write without the aid of one of Bill Gates' word processing programs.

And the Dome? It's boarded up and rotting away. But I loved the place, so I decided to give it a role in Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World. In my fictional universe it's where my hero, Stephen, spends an idyllic childhood with his hippy parents, before moving to a small town in the valley and going through culture shock and bullying. The real Dome will be pulled down any day now, but the imaginary one is safe.

Years later my dad told me he'd thought I was hiding from reality there. Was it true? I learned that water is precious, that fire is warming, that the sky is another universe and not a pretty backdrop. I learned that you don't need much of anything to live and be content.

That sounds like reality to me.

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