A Canadian Love Affair: British Columbia and Alberta Mountains (draft)(prairies soon)

High winds came up while we were in town. When we returned a limb the size of my arm had impaled the ground a meter from our tent. The winds eased during the night, but we slept fitfully.

Just before dark, a bedraggled fox came through our camp, tippy tippy, trot trot, looking here and looking there for opportunity, for food. I hissed and he loped to the covert of riverside willows. He was a silver fox losing his old coat, the end of his tail still white with winter.

A tiny church on the Yellowhead Highway in British Columbia

A tiny church on the Yellowhead Highway in British Columbia

Not far north of Terrace we found a tiny church building along the road. The Usk Pioneer Chapel, a memorial to the original church, and to the miracle of the bible in the flood. It is a 1/3 scale model of the Marsh Memorial Chapel across the river that survived a flood in May of 1936 that took most of the town.

There is a tale about the church bible. During the flood, it floated for days on a pedestal inside the sanctuary. Everything there was waterlogged and ruined, but the bible was untouched, and dry. A miracle. The village is now served by a small BC ferry, but seems to be slowly dying.

The tiny chapel reminded us of one we came upon on the shoulder of the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, Arizona on our last trip. The one at Usk is more formal, but none the less loved. Like the one in Arizona, the guest book contained prayers of supplication, but perhaps more of thanksgiving. There were even some jokes (clean) that, to the credit of the congregation, where not expunged.

On the short ride to Kitwanga, we found a feast of wild strawberries carpeting the ground in the drainage ditch and among the pines. Each fingernail-sized wonder was a burst of intense sweetness and strawberryness unmatched by any commercial variety. Oh my. We must have looked to passing motorists as if we had lost something very valuable. Yes and no. Found, not lost.

Mr. Yamada

The next day, speeding down a long hill, between Kitwanga and Hazelton, we saw a cyclist climbing toward us. Often, when Zippy is in high gear downhill, we just wave to the other cyclists since stopping is not so immediate on a loaded tandem. This time we could see the other cyclist slowing for us, so we did also.

Kazuo Yamada is riding from Vancouver, BC to Anchorage, Alaska. “I try,” he said. “I try.” And then he unleashed a warm toothy grin from behind his stubble. This is not so unusual. It’s is not an uncommon route, particularly for foreigners. Mr. Yamada is Japanese and is on the North American continent for the very first time and speaks very little English. All these things are not that unusual…

But, Mr. Yamada is most unusual; he is 67 years old, and he’s doing this alone. Most Japanese tourists we see are in groups, and it is a common cultural trait for Japanese to do things together, to be inclusive and group oriented. He is doing something very different for his culture, and at such an age. Perhaps older folks in all cultures have the freedom, to be wild and follow absurd dreams, without care to the opinions of others.

Here again was an older man who reminded me of my father in his later years. Another man, a Mexican American we saw in Rosita, Texas on our last long journey, also looked very much like my father. Three races, Caucasian, Japanese, and Mexican; I wonder if all races tend toward resemblance in the end years? What message?

Herb Green

We camped at a point on the river from which the native canoes we saw a couple of days ago departed. According to the native campground hostess, we missed one heck of a party, with much salmon, a bonfire and dancing, just here, beside the Skeena, just before the confluence with the Bulkley river. The town is Hazelton Village (Old Hazelton on the map), and called Old Town by the locals.

Herb Green

As we explored town, we kept seeing an old native man with a cane and a limp,  smiling at us and making comments about Zippy. He caught up to us at the grocery and stood around, shyly at first, admiring and asking the usual Zippy questions. When I told him we were Americans, and had traveled all over the lower 48 states, he asked if we knew where Elvis Presley was born. Tupelo, Mississippi, I said. We stopped there for a day on our long trip and saw the house where Elvis was born.

His eyes sparkled; we had found common ground.

“He was a poor man you know, when he was a boy?” It was a link he had with Elvis.

I told him about Elvis’ birth home in Tupelo, how was very small. He latched on to every word with his rheumy eyes and bounced a little on the balls of his feet, leaning on his cane. I think he would love to see Elvis’ birthplace.

His face stayed inscrutable, but held us, until he suddenly and inexplicably broke into song. “On baby let me be, your loving teddy bear, put your chain around my neck, herd me anywhere, oh let me be, oh let me be, your teddy bear. Don’t want to be you lion, cause lions ain’t the kind you love enough. Won’t you let me be your teddy bear. I just want to be, your teddy bear…” We clapped, surprised and pleased, even if the lyrics weren’t perfect.

Big smile, broken yellow teeth and gray stubble. He continued with, “All of my lovin’, all of my kisses, you don’t know what you been missin, oh boy, when you with me, oh boy, the world is good enough for me. All my lovin’ and hesitatin’, you don’t know like I been waitin’…. all my lovin’, all my kissin, oh boy, the world is good enough for me…”

He had us snapping our fingers and stamping our feet. It was all we could do to keep from breaking into a jitterbug on the sidewalk; too big an audience by now.

By the time he cut loose on Heartbreak Hotel, he was using his cane to play air-guitar. “Oh when my baby left me…” “I get so lonely baby, I get so lonely I could die.” He also did some mean imitations of Buddy Holly, Satchmo Armstrong and Willie Nelson. The three of us became the center of attention of downtown Old Town, the folks coming from the grocery, the post office and liquor store were seeing their neighbor in fine form, schmoozing with the tourists.

He was smiling now, the inscrutable native facade gone, reliving his past with people who appreciated his taste, and performance. He no longer looked quite so old, though the weathered skin and gray hair, the limp and somewhat bent back, were still there.

As we talked, he seemed to have trouble keeping his thoughts on track, getting lost in the middle of a sentence, forgetting the name of his town and businesses nearby familiar to him. At first I thought a stroke, but his breath, and a few things he said, indicated that a life of liquor had much to do with his confusion.

He was quiet for a moment, but held us again with his presence. It seemed he had reached a point where he wanted say something important to us; for what reason I’ll never know, that we listened, that we laughed with him, that we gave him our time.

And then he told us, told us the thing that defined his life. It was something I had heard about on Canadian Broadcasting (CBC) radio, but I had never had to imagine it, until Herb Green gave it a face, and showed it to me. (We later learned the same thing happened to natives in America and Australia.)

When he was six years old, Herb was taken away from his parents, because he was native. He was sent to a residential school in Port Alberni, a thousand kilometers away. Neither he nor his parents were told where he was going. It was a forced cultural genocide, the idea of the government and of the churches that ran many of the schools. The natives were to be assimilated into western ways through forced education.

“They beat us like race-horses, eh. Over there at Port Alberni, they beat us.” He looked down at his cane, and wouldn’t look at us again. “Did things. Bad things. Bad place.”

He was kept until he was 16 when he was allowed to come home, and he’s been here since, drinking and dying slow, aging fast. He said he used to be a carver, an artist, prized position among these Northern bands. But he drank away the skill.

He had a birthday last week. This old broken man is only 57 years old, and he must have been taken away in 1942. Hard to believe. It makes me want to hurt somebody, or maybe cry, or both. How could a government, a people who call themselves Christian, do something like that to other human beings?

I try to think, what would it feel like? What if I had been taken from my parents when I was six, taken far away and told I would never come back, never see them again, made to dress like strangers, told my religion was wrong and I must pray to a new god and repent for my brown skin and savage ways.

Then there was the abuse that took place in those schools, recently documented by a Canadian government commission. Physical, emotional and sexual, all in the name of civilizing, saving, the natives.

His heart and spirit was broken, as his parents’ must have been.

This not-so-old, old man sang to us and laughed for us. I’m not sure I could do that for a white person if I were he. He’s a forgiving man, broken but forgiving, and from the way he looked, not long for this existence.

He has some comfort. He did accept the white man’s religion. He asked us if we remembered one of the last songs Elvis recorded before he died?

“How great thou art.” He sang, “How great thou art.”

Yes, but some of His people fall short.