Monday, 20 February 2012

A Friday night drive into the country

At about 4:30 on Friday afternoon, Janet and I left downtown Vancouver to drive to 100 Mile House for a family weekend in the Cariboo.  It was as foul as a late winter Friday afternoon can be.  Absolutely drenching rain, gloomy darkness, and occasional noisy gusts of wind blasting across the car windshield.  And traffic, traffic everywhere.  
At the freeway on-ramp we joined a long, slow-moving parking lot that stretched endlessly before and behind us.  We were tourists, in a sense, just driving through the city to get rid of it for a weekend out of town.  But everyone else was a commuter trying to get home after work.   For me, a car trip between home and office in Vancouver is usually about 15 minutes.  It involves only one bridge, which rarely backs up, and no freeways.  For most of those folks who shared the highway with us that evening, the drive to and from work is an hour and more each way on a good day, and on this night would have been an hour and a half of hands-clenched-to-the-steering-wheel-while-you-grind-your-teeth stress.  Hardly a relaxing start to the weekend.
I could lament the generations of poor planning decisions that have encouraged this lunacy, but really, on that evening, I was just filled with a sense of compassion for the people who spend so many wasted hours in their cars as they creep down Highway 1.  I also had a renewed appreciation for why those condemned to this daily fate could become strong supporters of a wider freeway and a new Port Mann Bridge, as they desperately look for some relief from the congestion, even though, to offer a medical analogy, the relief they seek might well be the wrong cure for the wrong disease.  The hard part is to explain to someone for whom this is their daily experience that what ails them is not, fundamentally, the constriction of our roads, but the cumulative impact of bad planning and the individual choices we each make every day to live and play and shop and work in places so far from each other.   
Of course, I understand the why of those decisions: seemingly more affordable housing (if you discount the cost of the lost quality of life from the hours spent behind the wheel); the convenience of travel by automobile; cheaper land for shopping malls; and so on.  And I also understand that the real business case for the Port Mann Bridge project is the need to ease congestion for the all-important truck traffic that is increasingly important to our gateway economy.  
But understanding these things, and living them, even if just for one Friday evening, are not the same.    When the traffic finally started to ease, somewhere east of the Abbotsford exits, I felt like my head was being released from a vise.  
Beyond Hope, as they say, the road gave us cause to reflect on other things.  Growing up in Vancouver, the Fraser Canyon was our principal gateway to the rest of Canada.  We drove the road for any number of reasons, but mainly, I remember, for ski trips to the Okanagan - my father refused to drive the Whistler highway because he thought it too unsafe.  And so instead we skied as a family at Silver Star outside Vernon.  Among the many legacies of those holidays is the ability - even now - to remember, in order, the names of the seven tunnels of the Fraser Canyon.  In both directions.  I have this fear that when I am in my dotage, some kindly grandchild will stop by the care home to pay me a visit, and although the child’s name will completely escape me, I will smile and state with great confidence: “Yale, Saddle Rock, Sailor Bar, Alexandra, Hell’s Gate, Ferrabee and China Bar, but that’s south to north of course!”
The tunnels are still there, but the long economic decline caused by the construction of the Coquihalla continues, and is tangible even in the darkness.   Between Hope and Cache Creek we saw at most a dozen cars.  Whatever else was happening in Canada on that Friday night in February, almost no one was driving through the Fraser Canyon.  There were glimpses of brightly lit kitchens and TV sets in a few homes in villages along the highway, but the overall impression was that even though we were only a few hours from one of the country’s great cities, travelling its national highway, and following the course of two of its great rivers, we were driving through a place that has been largely forgotten.  Time is not kind to the towns and communities left behind when the gold has been mined, the trees harvested, and the tourists lured elsewhere.
Very little of this landscape has been improved by man.  This is not a point about the visual impact of logging, highway construction or transmission lines, or the other environmental costs of economic development.  This is about the built landscape of the towns and villages themselves.  Is there is a single attractive building visible from Highway 1 between Hope and Cache Creek?   Well, yes. Alexandra Lodge, Ashcroft Manor and the church at Spences Bridge, for example.  But those buildings were all there - and in much better repair - when I first travelled the highway as a child.  Nothing much that has been built since then has enhanced its surroundings.  (Please offer your suggestions if you disagree!)
I know that there are abandoned cars hidden deep in the farmyards of even the most charming countrysides of Europe.  But surely not so many, or at least not so visible, as in our otherwise spectacularly beautiful part of the world.  An abandoned car in the front yard is probably evidence of poverty and perhaps also the absence of a convenient local landfill.  But a hundred abandoned cars in a hundred front yards is also some evidence of a collective lack of respect for the land.  What, if anything, should be done about this?
The other day a developer acquaintance was lamenting that in West Vancouver there is (apparently) an unwritten policy that requires individually paned windows in newly constructed homes.  Listening to his story brought out the voice in the back of my head that occasionally worries about our seemingly insatiable appetite for more regulation.  But maybe some of these policies are needed to constrain our individual actions so that their collective impact is more to the good than the bad.  When we cycled in western Ireland last summer, we had a wonderful conversation with someone about local government restrictions that impose a colour code on country houses.  Yes, that’s right.  Apparently in County Clare there are only three or four (I forget how many) colours you can paint your house.  Quite a remarkable intrusion of the state into the lives of home owners, but the result is a landscape where the houses add to the beauty, rather than detract from it.  And that is most certainly not the case in the Fraser Canyon, or, for that matter, most of the country roads in British Columbia.
We can readily imagine the outrage if someone suggested passing and enforcing a law requiring rural land owners to remove rusted-out car carcasses from their front yards.  But maybe the Fraser Canyon highway would feel just a little bit less like a junkyard that time forgot?   
We drove on into the dark, too late in the evening now for much except eyes on the road and old Beatles songs to keep us awake as Highway 97 climbed from Cache Creek onto the high interior plateau.  Just before 11pm, we finally reached our destination, a log house in the hills above Horse Lake.  There was snow on the driveway, and the firs and pines and poplars stood tall in the starlit yard.  The high country air was crisp and clean, with just a hint of woodsmoke.  A light glowed over the back porch.  And Vancouver, for a day or two anyway, lay somewhere far behind us in the night.

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