It would be an idyllic summer scene if you didn’t know where the train tracks were heading.From the bike path and jogging trail that curve around the lake, you can glimpse the towering spire of the St. Agnes Roman Catholic church at the top of Lac-Mégantic’s taped-off main street. And yet as close as you are to the charred ruins and the unavoidable sense of something horrible that can’t yet be described, the gentle pleasures of life in a small Quebec town haven’t been extinguished.
The thick country grass near the slate-grey footpath is recently mown and wafts the sweet smell of hay. There are wild strawberry plants and raspberry canes growing at the base of the shade-providing trees that separate walkers, joggers and cyclists from the narrow band of accompanying track 20 metres away.
As you emerge into a quiet neighbourhood streetscape, the view opens up. The long, silvery lake lies below, across the parkland and sports fields where children gathered around their counsellor in a time-honoured summer-camp circle, as if nothing bad had happened here. Beyond the water, the rounded summits of the ancient Appalachian Mountains stretch off across the Eastern Townships, offering the mute solace that a distant landscape can bring.
Coming from the opposite direction, from his home just outside the exclusion area of destroyed buildings, piled-up oil cars and human remains, Guy Lepage fixes his gaze on something closer and less comforting. It’s a homemade sign, posted resolutely beside the tracks of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway: “You – The Train of Hell. Don’t come back here. You’re not welcome anymore.”
As Sultan, Mr. Lepage’s huskie, impatiently awaits a promised walk along the footpath, his owner expands on the sign’s sentiments, which are widespread now: “We have to destroy the track here, and shift it away from the centre. It can go around the town. The rail line doesn’t work for the people here.”
Mr. Lepage lives a few steps from the tracks and just recently moved from the now-devastated main street of Lac-Mégantic, a historic railway junction that owes its existence to the 145-year presence of rail lines that still serve local industry. He says he lost eight or 10 friends (“I really don’t know how many”). His 83-year-old mother was staying with him when the fire broke out; her first words after that were, “Get me out of this inferno.” His brother in Montreal came to the rescue.
“The heart is broken,” he says, calmly pounding his chest on this restful street where the laughter of children competes with the never-resting lawn mowers. “Mais la vie continue” – life goes on.
Life goes on across the road in a happily noisy daycare, with the beguiling name of Sous les étoiles (“Under the Stars”). Painted on the wall facing the nearby rail line is a mural of children cavorting under the moon and stars, accompanied by darting dragonflies, courting bunny rabbits and amiable bears. Darkness in these parts is not meant to be menacing.
Life goes on for Mr. Lepage with his 12-hour workdays at a hotel restaurant beside the town high school that is now an emergency evacuation and counselling centre. Sultan still needs walking and water has to be found, since the oil spill contaminated the local supply. The Red Cross does a daily drive-by delivery, but if he misses that, Mr. Lepage knows he can get free water at a nearby Jean Coutu pharmacy.
“There’s solidarity here,” he says, with the unshowy pride of a man explaining small-town Quebec values to an urban outsider. “It’s necessary. Everybody has someone who is dead.”
This sense of solidarity is powerful in Lac-Mégantic and across Quebec. In the town of Magog, on the other side of the Eastern Townships, another place where the rail cars with their toxic loads pass right through the centre of town, Red Cross donation boxes are parked at checkout counters. Store clerks at the Metro supermarket ask if you want to add a donation to your debit purchase. Almost everyone gives.
Isabelle Varga was moved by this same fellow feeling. “My heart was saying, ‘Isabelle, go do something.’ ” So she drove down from Shawinigan, not knowing if she would find a place to stay in this still relatively secluded and undeveloped region just north of the Maine border.