People in Vancouver still refer to the rugged landscape at their backs as The Interior. The habit lends a November journey undertaken in that direction a mythic quality, despite the donut shops and big-box stores encountered en route.
Aiming out of Vancouver's sprawl we headed up the green, flat Fraser Valley, dairy country morphing to suburb, and a rare horizontal experience in mostly vertical B.C. By the time we stopped for lunch at Hope, we were beyond exurbs and deep into the Cascade Range on a road shaded by masses of snowcapped limestone. Little Hope drowsed in November sunshine, a welcome relief from Vancouver's dousing torrents. We bought sandwiches at a German-Canadian deli and picnicked in a municipal park--really a compact municipal forest—where the tables were dispersed among the Douglas firs.
From Hope the Coquihalla Highway charges up and over the Cascades. The road was empty. There was warm sunshine on Coquihalla Pass and three metres of snow slabbed along the shoulder. Coming down the other side, we entered a ranching landscape of dry hills stubbled with yellow grass. Merritt, B.C., a cow town, sprawled under the wide-open sky. We cruised Quilchena Avenue and sipped coffee at the Javalanche Cafe with a half-dozen teenage mums and infants, then drove along the shore of Nicola Lake. Yellow darts of sunshine slipped around storm clouds. Lake fog collected in the highway dips. We saw red willow branches glowing along the banks of the Nicola River, burly men ice-fishing on the lake, and Hereford cattle sauntering over the yellow hills. The road began tilting up, away from the river. At Stump Lake, elev. 2299 ft., we drove into a batten of fog then out the other side, into winter, and a mountainside smothered with snow and aspen.
The road bounded down to the Thompson River. Outside Kamloops, “traditional"-style trophy homes crowned bare hills and flashed false mullions at the sunset. It was a landscape not unlike the outskirts of Reno, or Boise, or a couple of dozen cities in the great North American intermountain semi-arid zone. There was the familiar spaghetti of highway junctions; the thick fleece of Toys R Us, Home Depot and Office Depot stores; the standard plentitude of burger and taco franchises. Tracts of modest houses, freshly uncrated, were plunked on lots without trophy views.
We spent the night at a ski lodge in the Shuswap Mountains and the next morning headed east on the Trans Canada Highway, which climbed and twisted, tracking the Canadian Pacific Railway line. We began seeing extremely long trains hauling potash and wheat. We stopped at Craigellachie, where the last spike of the CPR had been hammered home one hundred and fifteen years earlier, on November 7, 1885. There was an uninspiring little memorial. I missed seeing the famous (in Canada) photograph: Sir George Stephen, bearded Victorian capitalist in a black suit, awkwardly swinging a hammer, while the navvies--Chinese, Ruthenians, descendants of coureurs de bois, Galicians, Upper and Lower Canadian drifters, failed miners, Newfies, Sicilians, Métis, Irish--hands in pockets, stare balefully at the camera. From the way the navvies are hunching, you know it must have been cold that day, with grains of snow swirling down from Eagle Pass. The occasion demanded that Sir William Van Horne, the CPR's brilliant Supervising Engineer, make a speech.
Canada's history utterly lacks memorable oratory in either Official Language. Maybe it’s the cold that makes us so shut-mouthed. That and our love of understatement, our trope for taciturnity, so apparent in television interviews with everyone from First Nations activists to hockey stars.
Sir William, typically, declined to seize the day. "The work has been well done in every way," was all he could muster. As though he were addressing a crew of plasterers who'd remodeled his bathroom, not men who had built a railway, and invented a nation.
Crossing Rodgers Pass we encountered a five-engine train hauling coal. Mountainsides were checkered by green firs and snow-white clearcut. The Trans Canada dropped into the valley of the Columbia River. The toothy ranges were getting steeper: waves of raw peaks tipped with pale glaciers, like hard-cream frosting. Roadside lakes smoked and glittered. The wind snapped steam off the water, sent it line-dancing across the highway.
Kicking Horse Pass. The Continental Divide. On the eastern slope, coming down into the Bow Valley, you feel the country abruptly turn its back to the West Coast. The Trans Canada is flanked by neat, prim forests of Alberta lodgepole pine, not the sensual tangle of BC fir. This is someplace beyond The Interior. The Bow River’s eastward current, the highway’s downward grade, the whole history of exploration, trade and settlement--everything is suddenly oriented east, not west. Every kilometer past Lake Louise the highway flattens and seems to run faster, as if its heart were already set on the Great Plains and the Shield.