Friday, January 8, 2010

Mourning the Death of the Cajun Cafe'

Some dreams never disappear completely.
Mourning the Death of the Cajun Café

I came across the derelict when I was driving my van crammed with furniture and boxes on my move back home to Montana . The building had obviously been long abandoned. A corner of the roof threatened to collapse. Windows were broken and a door hung loose. A warped and peeling sign across the front announced that this heap of debris had once been the Cajun Café. A homemade “For Sale” sign stood in the yard. Long way from Louisiana , I thought.

I was on that scenic section of US Highway 2, half-way between Bonners Ferry and Troy . Neither place was a major population center. The only residents up here in the north woods appeared to be moose and lodge-pole pine. Who would have opened a Cajun café, definitely a niche restaurant, out in the middle of nowhere?

But the Café was once somebody’s dream. With that thought my imagination took over. I hate to see a dream die. I have a friend long retired from the restaurant business. We often talked about what made an eatery work, in that idle way of people who enjoy good food.

So that evening I phoned him. “Got a business opportunity for you, a little fixer-upper.” I described the place, left out several pertinent details, emphasized ‘potential’, talked fast past ‘location’ and tried to sell a bill of goods around ‘tourist’ and ‘seasonal’.

A few months later my friend drove this route with me. When I spotted the old Cajun Cafe I eased off the road into the driveway. “There she is. A business opportunity waiting to happen.” He laughed. “A fixer-upper, huh?” “Build it, they will come,” I replied. “Are you kidding? Who is here to come?”

That tumble-down structure along the highway entertained us for nearly four years. We imagined a Saturday night at the Cajun Café. The Gumbo Special. Live music. Elbow-to-elbow customers who rode snowmobiles from their cabins off the grid across the trackless wilderness. Plenty of good food and with beer to swill it down. Belches and scratches, music blaring, fights on the dance floor. Good honest fun.

After that, whenever I made the trip, I would report on the condition of the Cajun Café and assure my friend that nobody had slipped in and bought it out from under him, that it was still available.

Until last winter. A fire had severely razed the site. I felt too sad to report this tragic turn of events. But recently my friend drove out to see me and took the northern route. My phone rang, “It’s gone,” he said. “A fire. Still I wonder who the guy was who built a Cajun restaurant way out here.”

I’ll be driving that same route soon. I’ll leave flowers at the site, flowers to commemorate a dream gone, someone’s hopes and aspirations up in flames. But dang, I can still picture the fire roaring in the cast iron wood-stove in the corner, shrimp and catfish sizzling on the grill, my friend pulling nozzles and filling beer mugs, his wife carrying heaping plates of jambalaya to the customers sitting at trestle tables in their mukluks and Carhartts, snowmobiles clustered outside the door, zydeco on the jukebox; in short, a community center where neighbors meet, wild game is bartered for firewood, deals are made, disputes are settled and young folks fall in love. Let the good times roll.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
November 12, 2009


A Two Pencil Day

Can't you smell the pine and graphite? Mmmm.
A Two Pencil Day

This is a two pencil day. It is a good omen, a sign of things to come.

I love finding things. It can be a penny on the sidewalk or a shiny rock. When I spot the treasure, something inside me jumps up and down with joy. “See a penny, pick it up. All the day you’ll have good luck.” I don’t count misplaced items which I later find hiding under my shoes on the shelf or beneath the laundry. I am talking about the unexpected find, even real treasure, the hundred dollar bill fluttering along the street. Okay, so I have never actually found so much as a twenty dollar bill except dripping in the wash and that doesn’t count.

I am walking back from the post office, when right there at my feet, lies a bright pumpkin-yellow, unused, unsharpened #2 pencil, like a flower waiting to be plucked. I pick up the pencil and examine it. Not a nick, a defect, or a bite mark. The eraser is clean and unused. I drop the pencil into my mail bag. A half block further along the street I spot another lovely yellow pencil. A bouquet! I pick it up. Plunk, in the bag. I briefly contemplate finding the owner. I imagine a young student, racing to grade school, back-pack pocket unzipped and flopping, pencils flipping out behind him and landing in the street—uh--the former owner. Finders keepers.

I am not a mean person. I am neither malicious nor penurious. I would be delighted to replace your pencils. I would replace your two pencils with ten pencils. Or even twenty. From where I now sit I see a clay pot jammed full of pencils and a pencil sharpener with a pencil sticking out, which I must have been in the process of sharpening when interrupted. I have pencils in jars, scattered about on three desks, stacked in multiple desk drawers, and squeezed into various notebooks marking place.

I finish sharpening the pencil stub poking out of the sharpener. I grind my two brand new pencils to a sharp point. Ahh. I breathe deeply. I smell the pine wood shavings rimmed with the hint of yellow, the graphite. I scritch scritch the point across a blank paper and listen to the sound. I balance the pencil between my thumb and two fingers. When pencil point meets paper, magic happens.

For pure textural pleasure, I write or draw on the inside of a flattened out brown paper bag. I listen to the pencil abrade the brown paper. It is a different sound than a pencil maneuvering smoothly along a yellow legal pad or a white lined school tablet. When I was in high school I wrote all my rough drafts on paper bags, saving the costly paper for the final versions.

My own favorite tablet, ever since first grade, is a Big Chief, but I cannot find them anymore. I think they might have been deemed politically incorrect. So I look for pads of newsprint, the next best thing, and insert the pages like filler in my last remaining Big Chief cover.

Today I have sixty or seventy tablets of various sizes, colors, textures, weights, and densities. They accumulate. I take a trip and forget to pack a tablet. Or I only pack one and while I am in the store buying oranges or a candy bar, I happen to walk down the paper/pencil/pen aisle. One tablet or another will catch my eye and next thing you know I am at the check-out justifying my purchase. I just might need another one on this momentous trip. All trips are momentous. Most of my tablets are slightly used. I journal, record, list, draw, scribble, write bad poetry but containing the one brilliant line. When the trip is over, the tablet is tossed on one pile or another. Months later I pick it up and smile at memories hidden between the words that never made it to the written page.

Two pumpkin-yellow pencils, sharpened and ready, rest on my desk, next to the stack of paper, golden harbingers of stories to come.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
November 5, 2009


She Who Drives the Broken Road

Every trip is it's own adventure.
She Who Drives the Broken Road

There is a fine line between solitude and isolation. I cross the line, cuss the line, ride the line, defy the line, deny the line and on occasion, drive the line. I am quite comfortable living in solitude. I appreciate the time and space to see and enjoy the beauty that surrounds me. It is in solitude that I discover the fullness of the Big Empty. To get from place to place I often drive through miles of isolation.

When I have guests, friends from far places, my road-map mind shifts into first gear. One of my frequent-driver guests is Kathy, who lives happily in urban Victoria with her husband Richard, surrounded by posh culture. Two or three times a year Kathy gets to hankering for the tang of sagebrush, the feel of the wind combing her hair and the whirr of the wheels beneath us as we set out seeking Adventure.

So while sipping morning coffee, I said, “Let’s go to Medicine Hat for lunch.” Kathy jumped up and grabbed her jacket. We crossed the border into Alberta at Wild Horse and meandered through the Cypress Hills. We never rush these trips. Several times we pulled off the road, walked about, looked at the rock formations, took pictures. We don’t drive just to rack up the miles.

We by-passed the strip malls and big-box stores on the outskirts of Medicine Hat and landed down by the river in the historic old town. We were hungry. But we were struck by the beauty of the Saskatchewan River , the walking bridge, the parks, and the restored buildings. Eventually we ate lunch in a Japanese restaurant, browsed some of the boutique stores and searched for our parked van, misplaced on a side street.

We checked the map, computed the miles against the clock, and decided we had just enough time to go to Maple Creek and then re-enter the States at Willow Creek. Maple Creek cast a spell over us. An old-fashioned butcher shop enticed us inside to buy salmon pate. Then a cozy cafe pulled us in for a cup of tea. We asked the owner, “How far to Willow Creek from here?” She looked at her watch, shook her head, and replied, “You might make the crossing before it closes if you leave right this minute.”

But first we had to fill the tank. We asked the attendant, “How many miles to Willow Creek?” He looked at his watch and said, “You’ll never make it.”

Puzzled, we unfolded the map, added up the miles, checked our clock, and wondered what the problem could be. We had plenty of time. And just outside Maple Creek, heading south, a road sign verified our arithmetic. We breathed easy. The first miles rolled beneath our wheels, validating our confidence. Then the paved road segued into mostly-paved, deteriorated into somewhat-paved and finally disintegrated into paved-here-and-there. Great slabs of peeled pavement lay alongside the road. Yawning potholes threatened to swallow the van. And heaven help us if we had a flat.

After several miles of these miserable, isolated, broken section-line roads across the empty prairie, we began to fear that we might not make the port of entry in time. Failure would mean we would be forced to return to Maple Creek for the night, a two hour trip back in the dark. Since I drive a cargo van, not a sports car, it would require all our skills. We looked at each other, nodded and decided to run for the border.

Kathy kept track of the miles-to-go. She shouted out directions and obstructions and words of encouragement. I perched on the edge of my seat, gripped the wheel with white knuckles, mashed the gas pedal to the floor. The van bounced over potholes and we bounced with it. We dodged chunks of broken pavement rearing up to tackle the wheels. “Yee, Haw!” I shouted. Kathy spit instructions like a drill sergeant. “Left turn ahead, large rocks on the right, stay in the center, one hour to go, switch to the other lane, washout, washout, detour, you can do it.” I drove like Andretti. The final miles of road held not even a pretense of asphalt. We were forced to slow down but we didn’t have time for slow. The sun was setting. The border was closing. I urged my van faster. A tornado of dust rolled in our wake. Kathy counted down the minutes. I could see the Port of Entry off on the horizon. “We’ll never make it.” “Yes, we will, go faster.”

Five full minutes past closing time, the van thick with dust, we slammed on the brakes and eased up to the window. The officer had seen us coming and had held the port open for us. His partner closed the barrier behind the van. I was so grateful I thought I was in love. We flirted unmercifully. I think he enjoyed having somebody to chat up. We might have been the only people through that crossing all day. He looked at my passport and asked me my name. “She Who Drives the Broken Road,” I replied with a straight face. He nodded and motioned us through.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
October 22, 2009


New Year, Full Moon, Smile of the Tiger

Out with the old . . .
New Year, Full Moon, Smile of the Tiger
“What are your New Year’s resolutions?” My friend Sharon was on the phone.

“I don’t make resolutions,” I snorted.

“But this is a very auspicious New Year, ushered in beneath a full moon. We leave the plodding Year of the Ox behind and enter the dynamic Year of the Tiger.”

“Is that good?” I asked.

“It is neither good nor bad,” she replied. “Things happen quickly in a Tiger year. So be prepared to make quick decisions, to pounce on opportunity.”

“Or leap aside from danger?”

“Exactly.” We laughed. “But why no resolutions?” Sharon persisted.

Memory flashed me back thirty years to when a friend, I’ll call him James, stood in front of my bookshelves reading the titles. “You don’t like yourself much, do you?”

His question stunned me. “What do you mean?”

“These are all self-help books. If you liked yourself, you would not be trying to change who you are.”

Ouch. That hurt. He was right. I wanted to change everything about myself. I was not enough. Not beautiful enough, not graceful enough, not smart enough, not happy enough, not accomplished enough, not skinny enough. I had the wrong skin, the wrong hair, the wrong feet, the wrong clothes.

James’s words stuck on me like an ink blotch on my best silk blouse. I couldn’t scrub his words out of my mind. He was right. But I wanted to be perfect. And I wanted to like myself. Eventually I decided I could live without my stacks of self-help books but it took me five years to get rid of all of them. It took longer than that for me to begin to find peace with who I am. There was no magic wand, no quick tricks. I worked hard at a process that took recognition, acceptance and gratitude. Along the way I picked up a great gift, the ability to laugh at myself. I never did get perfect. But I got to liking myself right well.

“So that’s the story, Sharon . To me, resolutions feel like self-help books. When I make resolutions, I feel like I am telling myself something is wrong with me. Of course I always look to better myself. That is who I am. I like to look for ways to make changes, to try new things, but that doesn’t require a special day. That can happen all year long. It starts with knowing who we are. Just like you, Sharon, are a beacon of light to all who are around you. You don’t have to try to be one. You just are.”

I heard a funny noise over the phone line. “What’s that sound?”

“That’s me ripping up my list of resolutions.” We laughed.

“Let’s lift a toast. In this New Year, may we be guided by the light of the full moon, pounce on every opportunity, evade pitfalls and love and laugh and live with the smile of the Tiger.”

Sondra Ashton
Home Again: Havre Daily News
December 31, 2009

Dear Tequila Worm

Ah, sunny beaches, shrimp platters and a cold drink with an umbrella.

Dear Tequila Worm

Soon I am flying to Mazatlan on the western coast of sunny Mexico . Since, in my dream life, I secretly write advice columns for travelers to different parts of the known and unknown world, I share with you some of the most frequently asked questions from my “Mexico” column, written under the pseudonym of “Tequila Worm”.

Q: Dear TW:

My girlfriend and I are going south of the Border, down Mexico way. She insists I buy new trunks. I have my heart set on something sexy.

The problem is that she also demands to go shopping with me. How can I pick my own trunks?

Next Size Larger

A: Dear NSL:

Thank your Sweetie, preferably with flowers and wine, and perhaps a lovely piece of jewelry. Very few men over the age of four should appear on the beach in a Speedo. To paraphrase the poet Robbie Burns, we are unable to see ourselves as others see us.

Q: Dear TW:

What should I do when hounded by a pesky beach vendor who will not take no for an answer?

Souvenir Sally

A: Dear SS:

Go ahead and buy those oversized crepe paper flowers. Once you get back home all your envious friends will know you have been to Mexico .

Q: Dear TW:

When I go to Mexico I cannot resist buying sleeveless T-shirts printed with “One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor”.

However, once I return home, I would not be caught dead wearing the disgusting things. What can I do?

Red-faced in Renton

A: Dear R-f R:

What happens in Mexico , stays in Mexico .

Q: Dear TW:

We have noticed that people whom we deal with every day don’t seem to recognize us. We feel slighted. What should we do?

Jason and Jennifer in Pomona

A: Dear J&J:

We need to remember that to people of another culture, all of us from the United States look alike.

Q: Dear TW:

When I am on the beach lounging under the palapa hut, I offen cannot get the attention of the waiter when I want more beer. What should I do?

Restless Rick from Chicago

A: Dear RR:

In Mexico , as elsewhere, it is the custom to signal politely. It is not the custom to wave your arm, snap your fingers and yell, “Hey, Taco.”

Q: Dear TW:

Should I take my camera?


A: Dear S-B:

Be sensitive about what you photograph. When someone from Mexico comes to your town, would you want them to treat you like a curiosity at the other end of their lens? Scenery is good. But remember, when taking memory photos of your group, what happens in Mexico , stays in Mexico .

Q: Dear TW: When on vacation next month in a romantic Mexican resort , I hope to meet the true love of my life. How will I know if he is the real one:

Phyllis from Cleveland

A: Dear PfC:

If he is wearing Speedos and a Tequila shirt, look elsewhere. Good luck.

Q: Dear TW:

How do I get past the language barrier?

Lip Locked

A: Dear LL:

Learn Mexican Spanish. A phrase book is helpful. Speaking slowly and louder will not make you more easily understood. Remember that everybody is eager to please. When he says, “Si, si,” Or you say, “Yes, yes,” accompanied by vigorous head shaking, that does not guarantee either of you understand the other.

Q: Dear TW:

My friend says all the water in Mexico is bad, even for bathing. Is this true?


A: Dear P:

Not necessarily. If you want to be truly careful, boil the water or wash with beer.

Q: Dear TW:

How do I order food when I don’t understand the menu?

Starving Stella

A: Where there is no picture menu, remember, your trip is all in the spirit of adventure. What happens in Mexico , stays in Mexico .

Sondra Ashton

Home Again: Havre Daily News

Published October 29, 2009