Road trip

The day promised rain as we packed the car with saw, automatic paint sprayer, tools, Lizbet’s clothing she left behind after the memorial service, the air mattress because her floors had just been sanded and refinished and she wasn’t going to put back up the waterbed,  a cooler’s worth of food we were bringing because it was significantly more economical buying it in the city than in the Kootenays; our clothing an necessities for a week and my painting supplies.

Franc planned to do the maintenance on Lizbet’s house. I would just have a holiday. Maybe paint a little. Lisbet and I shared a need to express ourselves in paint.

It was a good spring day, trees unfurling their leaves, cherry blossoms in full bloom beginning to lay their carpet of petals on the grass, roadways and sidewalk underneath the span of their branches. We bid goodbye to Minou, Franc’s Maine Coon cat, who would be looked after by the neighbours and went on our way.

Travelling along the 401 from Burnaby to Hope, rain fell in gusts. At one point, Near Abbotsford, it drove down so hard we slowed to twenty on the freeway to see our way before us. This is a royal we. Franc did all the driving.

We stopped at Hope and got a long awaited first coffee, topped up the gas in the tank, stretched our legs and then drove on to Manning Park. The rain had abated. The clouds lifted somewhat and in the distance only individual cloud masses were dumping showers on select stands of forest as they sailed across the sky. The falling rain hung down like a long pale grey rudder until the shower was over and it evaporated from the bottom of the cloud ship

As we climbed the long hill into Manning Park, there were blue patches that formed and disappeared in the sky above. Intermittently, a a thin frozen rain would rattle against the windshield, or a smattering of snow. Typical April weather in the mountains, going in and out of winter and spring. Fortunately the road was clear and dry; there was no ice. Snow lay in forlorn patches deep amongst the  trees but beside the  roadway, only the accumulation of grit from the winter sandings remained from the winter’s blanket of snow. Only on  the very highest peaks were there dustings of white frost and late snow, like baker’s sugar  on a pie.

The outside temperature indicator on the dashboard shifted from ten to three to fifteen as we changed elevation and exposure to the sun. The earth was heating up for spring and we were driving into it by Princeton. I had snoozed most of the way from Hope to Manning Park; I fell into a deep sleep, mouth agape and gently snoring, Franc tells me, all the way to Keremeos.

We stopped at a roadside fruit stand to stretch our legs. It was far too early to have local produce, I thought, but we found asparagus and some hot house cukes, tomatoes and peppers of all different colours. Apples from autumn harvest were bagged in large quantities, priced for quick sale, and I bought twenty pounds to bring with us. I envisioned a pie or two and some crisp juicy snacks.

A school bus had arrived before we did with about twenty teenagers going to some athletic event, I imagined. They sat at the outdoor tables gabbling like a flock of geese with their gossip, laughter and joshing. Franc used the washroom which was just behind this grouping of tables and young folk, and I heard one of the girls say helpfully and loudly to the next person who arrived, “There’s a man in there!” It sounded like “There’s an alien in there” and I chuckled at the sound of it. We had aged without really ever thinking about it and I. of a sudden, saw us as teenagers must see us, as elderly. Grown ups. I hadn’t thought too much about it before.

We headed onwards to Osoyoos and now my napping had done its duty. I was awake and alert. Radio reception had gone out of range so I put on a Harry James jazz CD for background and proceeded to watch the widely-spaced puffy clouds sail across the  sky, appearing to settle like hats upon the distant hills, although I knew they were far to high up to come close to touching  the highest of these interior mountains.

Franc was in a world of his own concentrating on his driving so I simply let my mind wander as I we went. It took me back to another time we had come driving up to Lizbet’s house. It was the occasion of her second son’s christening and I was to be the godmother.  I had only been in my job a year and hesitated to impose my schedule on the company’s schedule. Nevertheless, I managed to get Easter weekend off with an additional day either side of it, one, to be able to get to Nelson in time for the christening and then, on the way back,  a day of grace to recuperate from the long journey before returning to work.

Mom had given me Dad’s little Chevette hatchback (I’ll tell you that story another time) and with Franc driving, the three of us headed out to Nelson. Franc had immigrated in ’86 and he hadn’t been in Canada long so we decided we had plenty of time to go the long way round by the Coquihalla to Merritt, from there to Kelowna via the new connector, then down to Penticton and Osoyoos, then across the Crowsnest highway, number three, to Nelson. It added two hours to an eight to ten hour drive, depending on the stops we made, but it gave him a tourist’s view of landscapes so different than what he had known in Europe and on our own west coast.

Merritt is lovely desert country. It’s cowboy country complete with sage brush  and tumbleweed. In spring, everything greens up beautifully in the low hills. When the sagebrush comes into flower, a soft yellow tops the ground cover and spreads across the hills. By summer everything is dry and ochre-ish with undertones of grey and “terre verte” , a painter’s natural dusty green. The sky is almost always wide open and a startling blue. Any stray clouds are fluffy and drifting. No chance of rain.

I enjoy this landscape immensely because it contrasts so, from the rainforest of the Pacific Coast. After a lifetime of Douglas Fir and Cedars, they begin to look ordinary. That’s why I like to travel – to see something different.

And so we reached Merritt without incident, filling our eyes with this desert landscape in front of us and the beauty passing us at ninety miles an hour on either side of us. We tanked up at a Shell station in downtown Merritt and found a country good restaurant for a bite to eat.

For Franc’s sake, we had planned to go up to Quilchena, once an important town and provisioning centre during early pioneer days and the gold rush. It had the original log hotel and the bar where the holes from shooting bullets had left their mark as lasting proof of wilder pioneering days. Coming from Europe, it would be like walking through a movie set.

Franc had located Quilchena on the map and had insisted that we get our gas there.

“You don’t understand, ” I said. “This isn’t Europe. There isn’t a village every two kilometers. There is nothing there at Quilchena. Just a ranch. A hotel ranch. It used to be an important staging post, but there’s nothing there now. There is no gas station.”

“Well why is it marked on the map, then?” he said, perplexed.

“It’s historically important. That’s why its on the map. People like to go see it. ”

We were low on gas. He had a unnerving habit of trying to see how far he could drive on a tank of gas without filling up. I suppose in France that couldn’t have been a huge problem, but here, you could be another fifty to hundred miles before you saw another gas station and quite likely, no one would be passing by to help you.

He shook his head, not understanding. Only going there would make him see what I meant. So I finally won out and we got our gas in Merritt.

On the map, he could see the Douglas Lake road going from Quilchena to Kelowna that would reconnect us with our route and we decided that some back country driving might not be so bad. It ran through Woodward’s ranch and Mother was very interested to see it, so instead of returning to Merritt and the Kelowna connector, we all decided this would be a minor detour we would all like to do.

It was about four miles in on this two lane road as we were climbing a hill that the car lost power and quit. Now, Franc is a very good mechanic. I never worry while we are in the car together that something might go wrong that he won’t be able to fix it. He and I pushed the car as best we could to the side of the road (and there wasn’t much shoulder at all – this road was a track) and he opened the hood to explore what might be wrong under the hood.

Mother and I sat in the car. I reassured her that all would be well. Franc knew his mechanics. He would fix everything and we would be on our way. But Mother was a worry wart when there was nothing to worry about. We looked at the situation from all sides. It couldn’t be lack of gas. We’d just filled up. It could be the battery. It could be a misconnection that Franc would fix. We weren’t mechanics but we could surely help with the worrying.

After a half an hour of pushing this connection and that, inspecting water levels, oil levels and hose connections, tightening bolts and gizmos, Franc came back into the car, mystified. He couldn’t find anything. Didn’t know what it was.  He was stymied.

So now what were we going to do?
We had only seen two cars in the space of a half hour. Now we waited for another to come, preferably from the opposite direction who was going back into town. We would need CAA to tow us back to the gas station garage. After what seemed like an interminable wait but was probably fifteen minutes, a car came by. The man was not going to town but could phone to the Shell station, the only one with a tow truck, he said. That would take him about twenty minutes. We could count on someone coming out to get us and the car in about forty five minutes.

We waited wearily for an hour and a half. Two cars had come by, stopped to offer assistance, and gone on their way with our assurance that someone had already sent for the CAA.

The shadows were lengthening. It was getting close to four o’clock and we were not going to make Nelson, this day, anyway you looked at it. Franc suggested that when the next car came by and offered assistance, one of us should go with them back to Merritt and see what was up. He would stay with the car.

Mother was in her mid seventies and tired easily. All this aggravation had unsettled her. So we decided we would arrange for a hotel for us three, I’d settle Mother in it and then come back out with the tow truck, to make sure they found us.

Despite all Mother’s admonitions to never, never, never hitchhike under any conditions, there we were, accepting a ride from strangers. Memory fails me at this point. I think there was a couple and two children who took us back. I know we squeezed into the car to manage us both going.  We had to  tell our tale of woe, all the way back into Merritt, but we got there, thanked our rescuers profoundly and went about the business of getting assistance from the garage.

This is small town Canada. It was built on neighbourly assistance. If you didn’t help your neighbour in distress, who would help you when it was your turn. Your turn would surely come. Distances were so great between villages, ranches and farms, that you needed to  depend on each other. There were no corner stores, nor gas stations for every square mile. In small town, this pioneer spirit still lives strong.

At the gas station, the owner was close to closing up. It was Thursday before a long Easter weekend.

“We were wondering what happened to you!” he exclaimed. We went up the Douglas lake road about three miles and didn’t find you. Thought you might have gotten yourselves going again. Turned back and thought you were okay.”

We told him of our plight. How we needed to get to Nelson by Sunday. How Mother needed to rest; we needed a hotel. He decided to take us to a hotel across the street, give me time to register and get Mother settled; then drive with me out to where the car lay gasping in agony at the side of the road.

An hour later as light was beginning to fail, he hooked up the car and brought Franc and I back to Merritt and settled the car into the garage’s parking lot. His mechanic was supposed to be off on Good Friday but he would bring him in, in the morning. He had already gone home and wouldn’t come back in today.

Next day we had a marvelous pancake breakfast at the Nicola Valley Hotel, we went over to the Shell station. The mechanic had found it was the timing chain that had broken. The garage didn’t stock the parts; they couldn’t get one until Monday. It was Easter. They had to call up to Kamloops and have it sent down by bus. Nothing else could be done about it.

“Where can we rent a car, then?” we asked, but there was no car rental in town.  After a long silence, the owner said, “I can use my wife’s car. You could rent my truck. Can you drive a truck?”

Franc had driven everything and anything. We looked at each other. Would Mother, my very dignified Mother, ride in a pick up truck, a working one at that. It was clean, but scratched and marked up from its lifetime of labouring for its living. There was no choice. Or, the choice became, do we stay in Merritt with no  transportation until Monday or do we take this truck to Nelson and attend the christening. The choice was clear.

With a minimum of formality, we went on our way.

“No paper work?” I asked the owner.

“If you want your car back, you have to come back here, ” he said pragmatically. ” I can’t see you living with this truck in Vancouver.” He snorted a little chuckle. “I don’t need ‘er until Monday.”

We picked up Mother from the hotel, transferred all our belongings and gifts into the truck and went our way, back out towards Quilchena and the Douglas Lake road. Now, when I say we got about four miles up the road and had to stop, I don’t want you to say “Oh no! Not again!” because stopping this time was a marvelous thing.

Actually we must have been a little bit further along. From the left side cowboys, (mostly Indians now, I must say) dressed in their working chaps , broad Stetsons, cowboy boots, red kerchiefs around their throats, looking decidedly more “working” than their movie counterparts, were dancing their horses around a herd of cattle being moved from one pasture to another. The cattle were crossing the road in a swarm, bellowing and moaning as cattle do, in a frightful chorus. The cowboys were yelling an urging them on with yelps and cries and we were caught smack dab in the middle of it all as they milled around in front and behind us, making way for the bulk of the truck that would not, could not move.

Ever fearful mother, cried out, “What if they knock the truck over?” and my dear, fascinated European immigrant overroad her plaintive cry with, “MY GOD! If I paid ten thousand dollars, I couldn’t have had a more marvelous view of every European’s dream! I should start up a company that brings tours of people to Canada to be caught in the middle of a cattle drive! The fortune we could make! This is incredible! Too much! Ho-LA! This is wonderful. I’ll never see this again in my life. Look! Look!”

He was so excited that Mother began to listen, to relax and to enjoy the sheer excitement of it all. She forgot her “what ifs” and her motherly concerns for safety and began to see for herself this wonderful activity that she, too, would never see in her life again.

Must say that I was marvelled by it all also, but I’m telling the story, so there’s not much room for me to remember what I said. I was just all eyes, all ears. It really was story book, movie material and it was wonderful.

Slowly the tide of animals went past us; the quarter horses climbed the grade from the pasture over to the roadway and back down the other side, the voices and the bellowing diminished as they entered the pasture to the right and the stragglers were gathered and driven to follow the others. Finally, there was a cowboy closing the gate to the pasture on the right as we drove on south towards the Woodwards ranch.

We passed through the range with fenced pastures each side, some with cows and their young frisky calves, some with mature animals only. It was, after all, Easter time and it was time for the young to be born.

The range became light forest and then denser forest. There was a long bumpy road to go before we met the Kelowna connector. On either side of the truck the land had hardly been touched by man’s sculpting of the earth. There was the gravel road, and then there were deep ravines with tall straight trees that had not been harvested going up the slope on one side, down on the other. Across the ravine there was another slope doing the same. The clouds were passing like great white ships across the sky, depositing giant moving shadows across the land.

I remember Mother trying to translate the story of Red Ridinghood into French to make Franc laugh. Hers was highschool French, but she was such a smart lady that she remembered a lot of it. She fractured the story so that we were in mirth for a few curvy kilometers.  (I’m from the switchover generation, so if it’s miles sometimes and kilometers other times, that’s just the way it is.)

I remember us singing childrens songs in French until Franc got disgusted with our ruining his lovely language, began to think we were mocking it, and we stopped. We weren’t very good singers after all.

Later, much later, we turned up the steep drive to Lizbet’s place. Everyone was there already, wondering what had happened to us, amazed at our mode of transportation and waiting to hear the tale.

I can’t remember much about the christening. I remember lots of good food, lots of great family fellowship. I remember meeting Dick’s family (Lisbet’s ex) for the second time – the first was at the wedding. I do believe copious amounts of alcohol were consumed without anyone getting out of hand.  A good time was had by all.

On Monday morning, we set back out for Merritt. This time we took a more direct route. We arrived late afternoon, returned the truck, settled our affairs with the garage owner and transferred our belongings back into the repaired Chevette.

It was too late to drive back to Burnaby. We went back to the same hotel and took the essentials up to our adjoining rooms. Mother wanted a rest. We had to have dinner sometime. We thought about our missed opportunity to explore the Quilchena hotel. We’d only driven past it on the way out. The receptionist phoned to see if we could reserve. It was, after all, Easter Monday and many locals would be taking a day to celebrate the holiday by going out to dinner.

I’ll tell you all about it in Road trip number two.

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2 Responses to “Road trip”

  1. suburbanlife Says:

    Wonderful descriptions of the landscape the, happenings, your Mom and Franc. I can hear them thinking and marvelling. I just know how Nonie was worrying and reasoning out all the troubles. Thanks for the vicarious journey! hope your stay there is pleasant and you get lots of painting in!
    G

  2. bluedragonfly Says:

    I agree with suburbanlife — the descriptions are beautiful and so visual. I love the little twists in turns in this story, especially the image of your mother translating Little Red Riding Hood into high school French.

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