When I was 18, I left my parents’ farm in northern Manitoba and went to university in Winnipeg. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the beginning of a long period of transience. I moved from one place to another, flat to flat, city to city — 14 places in eight years. Things that once belonged to me, and were treasured, have been left behind in a dozen places between Toronto and Winnipeg, between Winnipeg and where I’m living now, Invermere, a small village in British Columbia near the headwaters of the Columbia River.
Marge and I arrived here two years ago on another of our trans-Canada trips, this one out of Toronto and bound for Vancouver. We had no intention of staying. We hadn’t packed any of our things other than the usual articles: a change of clothes, a few valued books, and a kind of impossible eagerness to experience everything we saw. We came at night, and even now our impressions are still clear. This country, with the mountains on each side of the road, with the occasional sign warning of falling rock, this was some kind of frontier. The people would be different here. In touch with some of the mystery.
We went down a hill and the light that shone on Lake Windermere gave us the impression of something big and vaguely new. Something gloriously untouched, and far away from the direct shot of issues and actions. We told our-
INVERMERE BC from page 80 selves then it would be worthwhile trying to live here. We said we were ready for this kind of place, where we could rest and sort out things without the outside world making it any more difficult. We knew we couldn’t live in Toronto anymore — the almost daily barrage of problems, egos, situations, it was all too much — and we suspected Vancouver would be similar. We would simply drop out here, disappear somewhere between Toronto and Vancouver. It was feasible that this might be a place where we could put down some roots. We dreamt of permanence.
Marge found a job at the local newspaper, The Windermere Valley -Echo, and we found a nice place to stay. A flat over a store, but one with a gorgeous view. The village seemed to live and let live. No one particularly noticed us at first; most of them just assumed we were part of the annual tourist crop. We couldn’t believe our luck. We were far enough off the main highway not to be overwhelmed by tourists and yet close enough to get back to whatever we thought we’d left behind. The shopkeepers were friendly and eager to help despite the fact that they had a monopoly on the market anyway. We took trips along the side roads on the weekends. Around each comer was a view we had never seen before.
It was shortly after Christmas when Don arrived, a friend from Toronto. We picked him up in Golden and drove the
80miles home on a treacherous highway with patches of black ice that could spin us into the valley. It was nearly sunrise by the time we stopped outside our place, the sky over the mountains breaking into little bits of cloud.
Don enjoyed himself here at first, so much so that he joked about never going back. But slowly he became restless. There was a gap between Invermere and Toronto he couldn’t bridge. He couldn’t adjust to our habit of going to bed at ten and getting up at six. The movies in the town didn’t change often enough for him. He was bored and began talking about Vancouver. Don and I had once lived in the same world together, in Toronto, and I knew some of the same things that he knew. But now he couldn’t quite discover ours. He was eager to become involved with people again, lots of them. When Don left, he was glad he had come; he was also glad to be leaving. Back to the real world, he said, only half joking.
For most Canadians, his is the real world. Real in the sense that it is buzzing and active and full of the possibilities for constant change (good or bad), possibilities for meeting other people like oneself, possibilities for entertainment and a certain kind of fulfillment. Don missed those things here. I was sure they were here, but that they were disguised somehow and not willing to reveal themselves until you’d been here long enough. It was almost as if he didn’t see
far enough, didn’t see beyond the kind of pettiness that exists in all small places like this. When Don left, I was still convinced that there were people here, somewhere, who were living out their lives in a beautiful and compassionate way, without entering into the frenzy and without the need to do so. There had to be. If it couldn’t be done here, I told myself, it couldn’t be done anywhere.
But it didn’t take long before I realized that Don’s visit, his restlessness, had touched off a lie in myself. The village seemed more and more restricting. I was getting frustrated and I couldn’t afford to admit that openly — there was too much at stake, too large an investment this time. His visit made me aware of the vast differences between here and out there. More and more, Marge and I discovered there were only a few people in Invermere with whom we had anything in common at all. As much as we wanted to be alone, we did not want to be ostracized or isolated. I felt that I needed to see people almost all the time. But who? I talked to anyone who would listen. The few friends we had made told us what we didn’t want to know, that Invermere was a difficult place to live, especially for young people who were accustomed to an urban style of stimulation. “When I first arrived here,” one woman told us, “I was amazed that people didn’t look at my best side. I was a city girl then and they all thought I was stupid just because I couldn’t make a proper fire and cut wood.” Another woman who has lived in Invermere for seven years said: “I’m still one of the newcomers.”
Invermere as Shangri-la began to fade. We talked of moving, but where would we go? The long winter made time stand still. We began to see the village through new eyes — its shortcomings were easy to find. The whole village was concerned with pollution, undoubtedly because more and more of that message had filtered in from the rest of Canada, but they still kept burning plastics and garbage at the dump. At one point there seemed to be a drug problem among the young people and the village council limited rock dances to one a month in a largely ineffectual effort to control the inflow of dope. Invermere is in some ways unique among small villages I have seen. It includes the very poor and the very rich. And if you start out poor, you are still regarded as poor no matter how rich you become. Every family who has some kind of social standing to uphold has at least one picture of an Indian (usually a beatific big-eyed child) in their living room, but does nothing about the problems of the uprooted Shuswaps and Kootenays.
Yet despite the failures of the village — or rather my own failure to be realistic
enough to know that where you live is no panacea for the way you live — we stayed. Pollution, drugs, the Indians, these were never gut issues here. They were more a kind of sport, something interesting to talk about with your neighbor, controversial enough to be lively, but not vital enough to move the majority of people. Canadian nationalism, by the way, seems less important here, perhaps because the people are more concerned with solidifying this comer of the country first, as if it might revert back to the wilderness one night while everyone is sleeping.
So we stayed, knowing we could never live in a big city again, and hoping things would improve. We had learned one thing for certain: a thousand people here were not much different from a thousand people in Toronto. And if there were two million people in this valley, it would not be much different from Toronto, and perhaps even worse. We had to fit into one of two camps: the citizens who were concerned about streets and sewage and where they hung on the social ladder, or else the back-tothe-land yogurt and whole nut people. We were neither, though maybe a little of both.
It was spring before we realized that Invermere was really two separate places for us. First, a village where we lived and worked and were concerned with a decent lifestyle that was somehow not developing as we had expected, and, second, a jumping-off place for getting away from just that, and getting away quickly, into the mountains. We had driven around them the previous summer and that winter. We traveled the back roads where the tourists didn’t often go, toward the Lake of the Hanging Glacier or into the Palliser Valley. At high altitudes, the roads turned into trails wandering over roots and rocks. Sometimes, even in July, we could scratch away the pine needles and find ice underneath. Finally even these trails would disappear. Avalanches had slid down and smothered them, laying down trees as thick as telephone poles as if they were little pieces of string. From Ron, the man who manages the newspaper where Marge works, we learned about the old pioneers of the area, the Harry Bones and Bert Schofields, eccentric trappers who spent their winters alone, strange old men who made the mountains alive with mystery.
Friends of ours live farther up the valley, toward Golden. Sometimes they go as long as three months without visitors. It takes almost an hour to get there because they practically live on top of a mountain. They came north from the United States five years ago and found a farm where they could live their own kind of life. Sometimes I’d like to live that way (the opportunity is there, and
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INVERMERE BC continued tempting) knowing that there is a peaceful (if hard-earned) way of living apart from other people.
Yet the mountains in themselves are no solution either. They are a catalyst, a trigger that gives your mind a breathing space. Some days it is enough just to drive out of the village and be there. Away. In the middle of something bigger than oneself, and more beautiful, more solid. To go fishing in the small lakes and wait for the float to go down and the fish to come in, and not much caring if they don’t. Allowing oneself to feel that mystery, and the age, as old as the earth itself.
And I know, too, it doesn’t have to be the mountains. For millions of Canadians it isn’t. It’s the Prairies or the sea, even the cities. It’s the right combination of yourself and the place you live; and that combination shifts sometimes more than you like.
Once I was content with life on a small prairie farm, later it was the bright lights of Winnipeg. Still later I was wooed and won by Toronto. For a variety of reasons — invariably some form of disillusionment — I left each of these places. Now I am in the mountains and the combination of place and person is close to right. But eventually I will probably leave this place, too. As I change, so does Canada. The mountains may end for me tomorrow and it won’t matter now if they do. Leaving will be a positive thing this time, not a running away as it was when I left Toronto. There will be more good memories than bad. Whatever happens, this country is still big enough for a lifetime of changes.
The view from my window surprises me each morning. The mountains are still there, big, clear, worth it. I’m even thinking of buying land. I’m settling in again, the second time around. ■
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