Monday, October 6, 2003.
The cusp of the snow-bitten Valhalla range cut into the October blue with such crispness I could almost feel it, all the way down below at lake level. Ice crystals on Eldorado Glacier between the Twin Peaks glittered in the sun, as if winking at me: "Better find cover, son; camping season is over. " Sapphire Lake was a mirror deepening in colour with the season change, reflecting the retreating ranks of the Valhalla Mountains. Like most of the glacier-fed lakes in this region, it was narrow but incredibly deep--hundreds of metres--and shockingly cold. The ragged granite that cradled these lakes gave the water a starkly beautiful indigo cast. There was something oddly comforting to the eye about it. Yet its clear, clean waters were profoundly energizing, a kind of holy well on the roof of the world. I wondered what saints, sinners, modern-day mystics or just plain crazies would be drawn to it. I would soon find out.
The angular crispness of autumn light cast everything in sharp relief, prompting me to wonder what the hell I'd been thinking. It just wasn't like me to bolt from a good job in the city and wander the countryside in a beat-up '85 Toyota Corolla station wagon with Shadowcat. Sure, I'd grown up in northern British Columbia, learning the tricks of wilderness survival from my old man. So camping wasn't particularly a hardship for me. It activated an old touchstone from family camping trips. Very soon it all came flooding back in--how to properly build a campfire, how to catch trout, how to leave a campsite cleaner than I found it. And with it, the gradual lessening of urban white noise I'd carried with me so I could actually hear the subtle sounds all around me. But with the first bite of winter in the air it was time to find more permanent lodgings. And anyway, two weeks of pitching camp and then having to pile everything into the wagon every few days was starting to get old.
Leaving Vancouver hadn't been particularly hard. Fifteen years of slogging in the journalistic trenches, interoffice politics, and the whole damn clatter and grind of city life had frayed my nerve ends. Like that old saying, "I've got one nerve left, and you're getting on it. " It's what I should have said to my editor Bob Lejean at the Vancouver Daily when I quit, though in fairness to him it wasn't his fault. Instead I half-mumbled something lame about needing a change of pace, a total break with city living. Truth was, the thanks I got for my years of faithful service was a demotion. Supposedly I was being given a "roving reporter" gig when what I really wanted was the City Hall beat. Sure, politics has a way of getting old fast. But it meant less jerking myself all over the city in rush hour traffic all the goddamn time. Hitting my mid-forties, I was getting tired. Vancouver having never designed its traffic system to handle the load it was now carrying; my new assignment meant hours per day trapped in a car, fuming. City Hall beat meant mostly phone work, a few trips a week to the iconic building for research and interviews, and the occasional ribbon-cutting photo-op around the city. Whereas the 'new' job meant being basically on call daily, chasing after every news lead like a cub reporter. That could take me from Granville Island in the morning to the deepest darkest 'burbs of Langley in the afternoon. The Managing Editor, Veronica Mills, had mealy-mouthed something about my years of experience suiting me ideally to the position. She was the corporate type, parachuted into the newspaper from Toronto to try and cut costs. I made it quite clear I wasn't impressed with her hiring a 23-year-old intern to cover what rightfully should have been my job, given my experience. I muttered some choice words on the way out of her office, not giving a damn whether she'd hear. I was done anyway. Christ! Some bean counter comes in and poof! Half a century of journalism practice goes out the window. No more veteran reporters, no more regular beats, just a steady stream of underpaid cub reporters straight out of journalism school.
I'd watched the downhill slide ever since the early '90s, when the corporate mergers and cost-cutting began. The first to go were proofreaders, followed by copy editors. Gradually more and more beats got melded into one. Then the steady creep of "infotainment" and celebrity "news," the insidious reach of advertisers' agendas on the newspaper's editorial slant. Science for hire, meet journalism for hire. No wonder no one trusts the media anymore. I wouldn't. But then, I never really was an apolitical reporter. Lejean had cautioned me too many times to count about mixing activism and journalism. And every time, I had to remind him: as far as I was concerned, old school journalism was all about keeping a watchful eye out. Not for rich patrons or advertisers but for the community. I don't care who said it (since no one really knows for sure), because it's true: "News is what someone else doesn't want published. Everything else is advertising. " Now with the Vancouver Daily buyout, I was being not-so-subtly pushed into 'dinosaur' status in the new corporate paradigm. It's a compromise I wasn't prepared to stomach.
So I gave notice on my apartment near English Bay--the one I'd managed to hold onto by the skin of my teeth through sheer tenacity as the neighbourhood gentrification spread like a virus, driving up rents. Took a last loving walk around Stanley Park's Lost Lagoon, weaved and bobbed through the masses on the Denman Street sidewalks to the beach at sunset, and watched the bizarre pageant of humanity drift past yet again. Fifteen years hadn't taken the small-town boy out of me. Finishing my high school years in the West Kootenay town of Newcombe--population 10,000--had left its stamp. I never could get used to being jostled in a crowd, or the ceaseless hum of the city even in the wee hours. Hell, I can remember the wall of silence that descended over Newcombe after the shops closed at 6:00 p. m. on Houston Street. You could literally fire a cannon down the street and expect to hit nobody. As a kid, it felt like I lived at the ends of the earth--couldn't wait to get to the Big City. But now, with the urban grit chafing under my skin, a small town has a fresh appeal. As a teenager, I used to smoke a joint at midnight and walk around the empty streets of Newcombe with my cat. The silence so palpable it was as if the oaks that lined the residential streets were listening, daring you to break the skein of quiet. Like being blind without the blindness--the heightened sense of hearing taut as a drumhead, hundred-year-old Victorian houses still as a caught breath, pregnant with stories.
And stories had become my trade, at least the non-fiction variety. Though let's face it, these days there's as much fiction as fact in the media. Probably there always was. Truth is, the real stories too often make you sick and the bullshit stories make you lose faith in your job. Your faith in humanity begins to steadily recede in the rear-view mirror. Gangland drive-by shootings in Surrey, a tragic mugging death in Stanley Park, corruption scandals at City Hall, the latest real estate or developer fraud case--ad infinitum, ad nauseam. I remember my grandmother in her country kitchen near Newcombe, warning me about human nature. For someone who seldom left her lush piece of Kootenay mountainside, with its gardens and chickens, she had a remarkably canny view of humanity. Maybe that took the edge off my twenty-something naïveté before I arrived in the Big Smoke, I don't know. But after a decade and a half of having my nose rubbed in grime, the trick now was to salvage what was left of my attitude. The bile of it was starting to choke me. Already it had ruined my first marriage and my last three relationships with women. Bitterness is one of those tonics that doesn't share well.
Okay, I admit it. So far, my longest-running stable relationship had been with my cat, a black Persian longhair I named Shadowcat. Felines I understand far more than humans of either sex. I believe they're a superior species--totally independent and self-sufficient in the wild or in domestication. How we ever domesticated cats is a mystery to me. I'm sure Shadowcat would argue: "It's the other way around, buddy. We domesticated you. " Certainly feline adaptability is a marvel. Looking at Shadowcat half-buried beneath the passenger seat as we drive into the village, I have to wonder. Occasionally he pops his head out long enough to stare up at me with those ethereal blue-green eyes. It's hard to know whether it's carsickness or sheer disgust he's beaming at me. Probably both. One minute it's the expression of a guy after a three-day bender, begging for an answer to the question: "Will I ever feel better?" The next it's: "How could you do this to me, you bastard?" Still, he's been a helluva good sport these past two weeks as I ride around the Kootenays like a lost puppy looking for a home. When I roll up to a campsite, he leaps out of the car and disappears to reconnoiter before settling in for the night. The first time it happened I worried about him getting lost, or snatched by an owl or coyote. But his feline smarts kicked in instantly. All I had to say--once--was: "Check in with Dad, okay?" He'd make his rounds on the outer perimeter of firelight and then return to brush up against my calf every fifteen minutes or so, refusing to leave until I acknowledged him. I've lost track of the stories I had to write of people who went into the wilderness, pushed the limits and died as a result. Not even the bloody smarts of a household cat.
But the city life was behind me now. The late autumn blue of the sky with its hard light cast everything into vivid relief, like one of those old Kodachrome slides. The jagged granite peaks thrusting up from Sapphire Lake were already contoured with snow at the highest elevations. It wasn't hard to see why Scandinavian prospectors a century ago named this mountain range the Valhallas. You couldn't get much closer to the sky gods than here, except maybe the Himalayas. Driving along the shores of the lake to the village of Elkville, population 457, it's only another five kilometres to Eldorado, population 796. This morning I'd stopped in at the Zippy Grocery in Elkville to pick up the local rag, the Mountain Echo, circulation 9,600: "Delivered to every mailbox in communities on Sturgeon Lake, Sapphire Lake, and the North Kootenay Lake Communities. " A geographical area of vast proportions sprinkled lightly with human habitation. It was a breath of fresh air, as fresh as the mountain air itself.
And sturgeon--that relic of prehistoric times--embodied reminder of subconscious fears, 275 metres down in a lake fed by glacial meltwater. Growing up on these lakes, I had a preschool memory of a neighbour coming home with one he caught, so large its tail curved up over the tailgate of his pickup truck. Years ago I'd read that the local fish and game agency was stocking some of the lakes here with sturgeon, endangered to near-extinction after the dams had come in and cut off the food supply. An apt a metaphor as any for where civilization seems to be heading. Sapphire Lake had escaped being turned into another reservoir for the dam system, making it the only lake in the region unaltered by human technology.
Circulation 9,600. Hell, in Vancouver or Surrey you could pack 9,600 people into a single neighbourhood. And the so-called headlines. Over my morning espresso at Elkville's Cracked Teapot Café I had to chuckle. This week's headline: "Goat Bylaw Has Lowery Residents in Uproar. " (Lowery was the village east over the mountain pass from Eldorado, population 1,217. ) It seems the urban/rural divide has even reached the backwoods of the Kootenays. Urban-minded folks were angry that they might have to share their back lanes and nostrils with goats. Farm folks just wanted to subsidize their grocery bills. And it was a helluva lot easier than having to mow the lawn every week in the summertime. "I don't understand the problem," Lowery goat-farmer Norman Dickerson was quoted as saying. "Don't these people know it's pigs, not goats, that stink?"
But it wasn't the small-print headlines I was after. I'd turned immediately to the "For Rent" section of the classifieds. Truth is, for a week already I'd been watching this space, with no luck. Vacancies around here are thin on the ground. But today I found it: "Cabin north of Eldorado at Owl Creek, 1 BDR, heat and elec. included, fabulous view, pets negotiable. $425 mo. " The woman at the number I called answered immediately in a clear, businesslike but warm tone. It was something I'd forgotten about folks in the Kootenays: If they sounded friendly, they generally meant it. Here it wasn't always just about reeling you in. Her name was Irene Kasnikoff--a good local Doukhobor name--and we'd arranged to meet on Eldorado's main street at 10:00 a. m., near the Lost Socks Laundromat.
Irene was already there, seated on the bench outside the Laundromat when I pulled up. I'd described my car to her so she recognized it immediately and stood up to greet me even before I got out. She was dressed in a neatly tailored buckskin-coloured waistcoat with a red-and-white checked shirt, a short yellow scarf knotted below her chin and neatly pressed blue jeans. Her hair was dark brown and well coiffed, dyed to cover grey. She had a smile that easily passed the test of genuineness. I guessed her age at about late fifties, a few laugh lines at the corners of eyes and mouth but otherwise remarkably well preserved. Any lingering doubts about her sincerity were gone instantly.
Her hand was already out. "I'm Irene. Nice to meet you. "
"Roy Breen. Thanks for agreeing to show me the cabin on such short notice. "
"No problem at all. " Looking over my shoulder at the wagon. "You always travel with your cat?"
"Uh, yeah. Well, not always, of course. I've been footloose for a few weeks now. Didn't want to leave him in Vancouver with friends. Whenever I've done that before, he won't talk to me for weeks. He actually likes camping, believe it or not. "
Irene's laugh was genuine, unforced. "Well that's a story you'll have to tell me sometime. I assume he's litter trained?"
I had to smile. "Well he is five years old now, so he is an adult. And yes, he has me well-trained to care for his every need. "
She chuckled again. "I'm sure that's true. Would you like to come with me, or just follow my car?"
"I'll follow you. If I drive somewhere once I usually remember the way. "