Going (Back) to Sugar Mountain


Thunder Bay isn’t exactly a Mecca of the creative, like London or New York or Paris where you can’t flick a fountain pen without globbing indigo on something of literary importance. I guess though that’s true of most small towns.

But there are a few things that happened here. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle owned land in the south side once, and – I’m assuming – jotted a few words down in his journal as he passed through. Sheila Burnford wrote The Incredible Journey in nearby Pass Lake.

The north west corner in full, where the edge of the Victoria Hotel stood. The mock streetlamp is probably pretty close to where the real one once stood.

And Neil Young wrote Sugar Mountain here on his 19th birthday, 48 years ago, on November 12, 1964 at the Victoria Hotel.

The Victoria Hotel doesn’t exist anymore – it got swallowed up in a mall called Victoriaville, which was designed to revitalize the downtown Fort William core. By most accounts, it did the opposite – our own homegrown Chapples department store went under soon after, and many of the businesses once so vital faded away.

(In all fairness, they likely would have anyway – downtown Port Arthur, the other half of the now-amalgamated Thunder Bay, isn’t fairing much better…)

I was taking the above picture of the faux streetlamp representing the corner of Victoria and Syndicate avenues when a passerby mentioned I should have been taking the picture years ago when it actually looked nice (like here — full story here). I agreed, and told him that was kind of the reason I was there – to remember the past, and mark the writing of a great song.

It’s difficult to imagine what the building would have been like back then, what Neil Young would have been back then. Writing away all 126 verses (or whatever the total number was) of the song, under the stairway. There’s no way you could know it from the song itself, but apparently it is about the fact that he could no longer go to his teeny-bopper hangouts back in Winnipeg with his girlfriend and his bandmates, because it was strictly 18 and under.

“You can’t be 20, on Sugar Mountain…”

Why was I there? Why was I standing on the street corner – that wasn’t even a street corner anymore – staring at not-a-hotel, trying to imagine what the scene looked like so long ago?

It’s that age old question – why are we drawn to spots like this? The easy answer has always been, to touch greatness and hope some of it rubs off. It occurred to me that it might be something more. Writers, and creative types in general, tend to be a curious bunch. (Inquisitive I mean, not odd – though there is that too…) It’s a time and place we can pin down, and we want to muse on what it might have been like.

So does the curiousity make the writer, or is it the other way around? Hmm. I don’t know. I suspect though that it isn’t so much a chicken/egg proposition as a motor/wheels thing – the car ain’t gonna run without either one of them.

There’s also the social thing to literary pilgrimages like this too, like touching the pyramids to make a connection with some worker who lived 5,000 years ago. Strangely though, I didn’t really feel any connection to Neil Young. Perhaps if I’d laid my hand upon a chair he was sitting on, or putting a foot on those steps… Is that why grave markers are so important, so we can touch and feel connected to lost loved ones who aren’t with us anymore? I remember all the neo-hippies at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, with everyone sitting around Jim Morrison’s tombstone like it was just another player in a card game. Takin’ a hit or swigging back a fifth of Jack and pouring some on the Lizard King’s grave. That can’t be a real connection though – many of them weren’t even born when he died, and certainly none of them that were there that day had met him. So what is the connection to? Some imagined ideal of what the world was, something that is missing from our lives?

The dead are the dead, so they don’t feel back. Sometimes even the living are the dead, too. I wonder if Neil Young took any time today to think about writing that song himself yesterday. He of anyone could imagine the feel of that Hotel, the Grill off the main lobby, maybe the smokey corridors and quasi-rock music floating through from the bar next door, and the chilly November air finding its way through the cracks to snake up his pant leg while he sat there, on lonely Sugar Mountain, trying to make a connection to another world of his own, another time, in Winnipeg.

Chances are, Thunder Bay at least flitted through his head at some point yesterday – I mean, anyone who looks back on lost youth at age 19 is probably somewhat sentimental. And if I wrote a world-famous song on my birthday, I’m sure it would cross my mind for many birthdays after.

Tony, the passerby I mentioned above who started talking to me about better times, took me on a mini walking tour of the streets that he remembered. He showed me the old bars, the old movie theatres, the radio station where Neil Young cut his first songs (I knew vaguely where it was; he knew exactly), and the place where the 4D coffee house once stood where Young played with his band The Squires. Tony, I think, was making his own connections, the memories of his old self. So much more vital than simple imagination.

Or is it? Take what you know, take what you imagine what could be, make the connection, and tell the story. But it has to start with a person. The best stories are about people, because the best stories are about ourselves. Do it right, and I think those stories can be as vivid as any memory.

Neil Young left Thunder Bay within year of writing Sugar Mountain to live other stories – Blind River (Long May You Run…), Toronto, and then LA. Randy Bachman told his own Neil Young story in a later song, about Neil and Steven Stills cruising the streets of TBay. And here I am telling my own story. Filling in the details. Making the connections.

Firing our own imaginations any way we can so that we can get our own stories right.

Happy Birthday, Neil Young, wherever you are.


The building that housed the radio station, where Neil Young recorded some of his first songs.

Location of the 4D Coffee House, one of the venues where Neil Young played. (Artist's rendering of what the actual coffee house probably didn't look at all like.)

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