A rich small lumber town of 6000 people situated on Highway 11 in Northern Ontario, about 10 hours' drive north of Toronto. Mandatory roadside fiberglass animal: a moose. Apparently Hearst is the moose capital of the world. Who knew?

The town is mostly French-speaking, with the proviso that it's Canadian French and the further caution that it's Northern Ontario Canadian French. Think of the difference between the English of someone from London and someone from Miss'hippy who doesn't come out of the forest too often. The accent is so strong that when a woman my mother worked with called a French-speaking company in Montreal, they couldn't understand each other, and had to get an ex-Heartian now living in Toronto to translate. One more thing: most people in town speak Franglais. "Alors, Renee, donne-moi un Big Mac! N'oublies les fries, tabernac'!"

As I mentioned, it's a rich town. The rumour is that, per capita, it's the richest town in Canada: 25 or 30 millionaires for 6000 people. There are a lot of people making a lot of money from lumber, and the money pretty much all goes toward pickup trucks and the customization thereof: lift kits to make them three feet higher, big-ass wheels to make them another two feet higher, lots of chrome, running lights more suited to a 747 or maybe a communications satellite, a big-ass stereo (used to play Mitsou and Bon Jovi, with maybe some Def Leppard for the adventurous set), and a custom paint job for your name, or your girlfriend's name, on the side: "Rene & Renee", or "P'tit Jacques" (which may be the name of the truck or its owner).

Customizing a truck isn't just a rich person's game though; Hearst is nothing if not democratic. Can't afford a real lift kit? Get Real at the machine shop to drill half-inch holes in the centre of some hockey pucks with the drill press, and lift the body that way. One hockey puck: boring. Two hockey pucks: a real thrill. Three hockey pucks: a dangerous rebel. Throw an old stereo speaker behind the seat, and you've got a subwoofer. If you really take things seriously you can carve out hunks of rubber from your tires to make those ordinary Canadian Tire summer radials into dangerous all-terrain Monsteramas. Chalice, eh?

These trucks could successfully cross the Andes, or at least its foothills, but are instead used for the Friday night ritual of driving through the town's three stoplights, turning around in the hardware store parking lot, and doing it all over again: to faire le donut.

As I mentioned, Hearst is democratic. If you don't have a pickup truck of your own, and want the thrill of stopping traffic while you stop and lean out your window to talk to your friend stopped in the other lane (don't worry, everyone else is just fairing le donut and they understand), there is a way. Ritual requires two companions in the cab with the driver: his girlfriend and a girlfriend of hers, or two male friends. The number of pickup trucks in town guarantees that anyone unfortunate enough not to own one (or to have it in the shop because they rolled it while drunk) will have their choice of seats. It's eminently fair.

Eventually, though, this wild life will wear a man down, and he needs a good woman to make him complete. In this Hearst is no different than anywhere else: the simple story of boy and girl is gilded gently with the town's own ritual leading up to marriage. It's quite simple, really: along with the stag night, and the girls' night, there is the stag and doe party. This is meant to raise money for the couple to be used as they like; often a thousand dollars or more is obtained this way (Hearst is nothing if not generous).

What happens is the prospective groom is put in a cage -- big enough to stand in, small enough to fit in the back of a pickup truck -- and parked for an afternoon or two on the main drag. There's a sign on the truck mentioning that the party will be on Saturday, around 8, at Pierre's, and that tickets are $10 or $15 or maybe $20, with proceeds going to the happy couple. Everyone in town notices the groom, the cage and the upcoming party, and makes an effort to show up.

For $10 or $15 you don't get beer; it's strictly BYOB. Even for $20, food is not included; again, you bring it yourself. What you do get, and what gets people to come out, is the chance to throw stuff at the groom, kept in the cage until the party is over. Ketchup, motor oil, potato salad, whatever you like; nothing harmful or hard, you understand. After the party the groom is cleaned up and handed the money.

Like most Northern Ontario towns, Hearst is trying to obtain that precious, precious tourist dollar, and this practice of putting people in cages worried one of the town councillors. "How," he asked at one meeting, "will we look to people from Down South when we put our young men in cages?" He mentioned several young men he knew who were afraid to get married: they didn't want to go through the throwing-food-at-the-groom-in-the-cage ritual, but knew that if they tried to escape their friends would catch them and put them in the cage anyway. He plead for reason, and an end to the practice.

The other councillors were aghast that someone would even consider doing away with such a fine tradition, and refused to discuss it further. But it was too late: the dangerous idea nearly split the town apart. Letters raged back and forth in the local weekly newspaper. Arguments broke up supper, and sometimes breakfasts. Fist-fights broke out between trucks stopped in the streets for once-friendly conversation, the drivers leaning out their windows to pound sense into the other guy while trucks stopped behind them honked their support.

An end had to come, and eventually one did. After patient lobbying, after many meetings, a truly Canadian compromise was reached: grooms could still be put in cages and displayed on the street -- except the two main streets of town where tourists were likely to go. There were some grumblings, but most people were satisfied.

I swear to you this is all true.

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