Nothing happens in chain hotels. I understand the appeal of traveling the hotel circuit. Its great draw is benign predictability: clean sheets and towels, continental breakfast, a thermostat that you can have your way with, and HBO. Brand-name hotels, like McDonald’s hamburgers, thrive on being reliably identical wherever you are. They are generally free from the unadvertised costs of staying in complete strangers’ homes, like a vigorous local ant colony that you might want to maintain yourself with the little bottle of Raid left out for you on the windowsill.
“Oh yeah, Raid,” Henry says. “That’s good stuff.” How he knows this is beyond me, but he definitely did not learn it staying in a Marriott Courtyard.
No one does a cost-benefit analysis before staying in a Marriott, because you know exactly what you’re getting. And no one does one before an Airbnb either, because—like marriage—you really have no idea what you’re getting into. It looks good on paper, but they never tell you that the dryer doesn’t work. So you take the good with the bad: antique charm with ant infestation. Sometimes you end up in a real shithole, and sometimes you land in one with ABBA’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 waiting for you on the turntable.
This morning we awake in a nineteenth-century farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, Quebec, to a downpour that has scuppered our plans for a bike ride. This is not part of the plan, but then neither is ABBA. We crank it to eleven, our four children pounding the pine-plank floorboards to “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”
Our host, it turns out, has great taste in music. Most of it is in French, but the English stuff is boilerplate awesome: Saturday Night Fever, Grease, The Village People. As the rain comes down hard, we sit on the porch and sketch to Edith Piaf.
“Oh you’ll like this record,” Charlie says to Oliver, who is obsessed with law enforcement. “It’s called ‘The Police.’”
Way's Mills, Quebec is possibly the smallest community I have ever spent the night in. It has a post office with a strange, thin tower like a smokestack but with windows. The vine-entangled structure is no longer in use, replaced by a small bank of maybe a dozen keyed postboxes on a pole by the roadside. Down the street, two white-clapboard churches face one another across a tiny road. Way's Mills is barely big enough for a single church, let alone two, and both of these are large, and look like they’re having an argument. There must be a story there. No town, it seems, no matter how tiny or charming, it too small for some good old schism.
I assume that the singing I hear is coming from one of those churches. It is Saturday, so a choir rehearsal is plausible. I go to check it out. The sound isn’t coming from either church, but from over the river, from what looks like a house. It turns out to be the community center. On the lawn beside it is a statue of Mr. Way, whose eponymous mills once stood near the site.
The sound is heavenly and familiar, but not because I have been to heaven. My wife runs inside to check it out and report back.
“You have got to come see this,” she says from the middle of the traffic-free street.
A group of fifty or so people from all over Canada have gathered on the second floor of the community hall. The dark room is covered in thin wood paneling running at an angle from floor to ceiling. Men and women, old and young, sit in folding chairs arranged in a square, facing a choir director in the center. From somewhere out of sight, an emcee announces the name and hometown of the person who will lead the next song.
The singing sounds magical, ancient, Appalachian, and hearing it is like stepping into some dense mythological forest running from north Georgia to eastern Canada. Once the pitch is established, each song almost roars into life. It is loud, vivacious. They sing from the Sacred Harp hymnal, in the shape-note style, an intuitive form of musical notation designed two hundred years ago. The tradition of shape note singing is carried on by groups like this who meet now and then, just to sing together.
This group meets in Ways Mills once a year.
It just happens: today is the day.