96. Highway 16, 1961: Four Ragtags
I left school, and the four of us left Prince Rupert, presumably because the money ran out —what little of it my father had after the fire in the Boneyard. The new digs we retreated to, a block or two away, were more expensive than the Grand. We couldn’t keep up the rent. And, absent alternatives, moving on was how my father dealt with being without the cost of shelter.
As September progressed, my father began talking about splitting up our just-freshly-minted family, leaving me and Marylou behind (as Irene triumphantly announced) while Dad and Irene went to Vancouver ahead of us. No way, said Marylou, and then the story changed to my father and sisters splitting for Vancouver, leaving me behind. Uh uh, no way, I said, And when the day came, all four of us, thumbs extended, were out on Highway 16 heading south.
I hardly remember leaving. We didn’t carry much, I don’t think, except the clothes on our back: no tents, no supplies, and very little money. Nor, once we were on the highway, were the rides easy or frequent. Hitchhiking favours the solo rider, and we were a long way from that.
It never occurred to me to question what was happening when it was happening. I was hardly aware of it as homelessness. Like our rowboat odyssey down the Inside Passage the September before, somehow that was just how it was, and you didn’t question it. In fact, you sold it to yourself as an adventure. It was an adventure. I had my father. He was home to me. I had two newly-added sisters. That was home, and family too. We were going down the road to Vancouver. That was adventure.
Until the moment when it no longer felt like fun, that’s all it was.
Memory supplies me with a number for how long we were on the road—eleven days—but it doesn’t give me enough detail to account for all those days. The number is an artifact from an era when the details were clearer in memory. Memory is always editing in that way.
Our first day on the road I remember that we only reached Tyee, twenty-five or thirty miles then, along the twisty western beginning of Highway 16. The highway is somewhat less motion-sickness inducing and the distance slightly shorter now. Tyee sat at mile marker 68 on the section of railway between Terrace and Prince Rupert. We walked back along the track to mile marker 71 at Haysport to spend the night.
I remember standing on the tracks in Haysport with Marylou and Irene, I suppose it was the next morning, looking across the river at Port Essington, where we’d had a home together with Granny Alice and Old Pop seven years before. We were trying to pronounce the name, but it continued to come out of our mouths with a Tsimshian and Nisga’a accent—“Port Eshington”—no matter how many times we tried to correct ourselves. Of course, my sisters had been living in Aiyansh, and everybody had that accent there. S’s became sh’s and sh’s became s’s, because the Tsimshian languages possess neither s nor sh but a sound somewhere in-between. You ate ‘fis’ not fish and lived in ‘Port Eshington’ not Port Essington. We were what backcountry people sounded like in Tsimshian/Nisga’a/Gitxan territory.
That moment on the railroad tracks is the only external evidence I have of my formerly-strong North Coast accent. I suppose I still had it for a few years after that, fading with time. But unless it’s been brought to your attention, it’s hard to hear your own accent. I was unaware of having one, although the evidence is that it was there. Anyway, I have long ago mastered my s’s.
It was the woman who ran the store in Haysport who put us up for the night. She also sent us back down the track to Tyee the next morning with a bread bag filled with sandwiches. The woman’s name was Vicky, who had long straight hair and showed little public emotion. I have no idea whether she showed much emotion in private.
She said, talking about it many years later, after seeing the four of us walk on down the railroad track that early fall morning in 1961, “I always wondered what happened to you.”
She said that to me in 1988. I had come into the store, the House of Sim-Oi-Ghets in Kitsumkalum, to inquire the way to my cousin Reynold’s house, and there was Vicky, still with long straight hair, standing at the counter, still running the store. Of course, a different store. Of course, a different place. I suppose it felt like a coincidence, but not as great a one as you might imagine. Many of the people from Port Essington had returned to Kitsumkalum after Port Essington failed, and the store in Haysport had always been connected to Port Essington. It had in fact been owned by Ed Bolton, the chief in Spaksuut and the father of Irene, my uncle Gus’ wife. Reynold’s grandfather. A Bolton was in 1988 chief in Kitsumkalum. So meeting Vicky there, running the band store in Kitsumkalum, wasn’t really a coincidence.
I was in Kitsumkalum to teach. Kalum was where my grandmother was from, which made it a homecoming of sorts. I brought my sister Marylou along on that trip, up from Vancouver, and she came into the store with me to inquire the way to Reynold’s. Somewhere in the course of that encounter,Vicky realized who we were, two of the four ragtags who’d disappeared down the railroad tracks towards Tyee that late September morning in 1961.
She had sent us off after a night in the store with a bread bag full of sandwiches.
“I always wondered what happened to you,” Vicky said, I suppose accepting my and Marylou’s presence in the store that day as an answer of sorts. I guess it was.
Shared out between four appetites, the bag that Vicky gave us that day so long ago somehow was not as impressive as it seemed to me at first. It was half empty before we reached the highway, entirely empty not long after that. Eventually, a car came along that did not just pass us by and we went further down the road.
And then, well, twenty-six years later I came back to teach in a school which was going to hold its classes in a room in a basement of the very store Vicky now worked in. One of my students, who was older than me, returning to school after being detoured by life as a teenager, remembered me as a little boy going to school in Port Essington. Here I was, after departing Port Essington a little boy, after walking down the railway tracks from Haysport with a bag of sandwiches to share four ways, here I was returning to one of the still-flourishing roots of Port Essington as a school teacher. That was a story. That was an answer of sorts.