98. Highway 16 & Beyond, 1961: A Journey Completed
There were no more stopovers after our stay in Hazelton. I suppose on the next stretch of road my father ran out of people to drop in on. We had now turned off the Skeena, and were following the Bulkley into the interior. At night, when it became too late to travel, the four of us camped outdoors in the woods near the highway.
As I said, we didn’t have a tent, but I think we had some blankets, only not enough blankets for all of us. One night my father fell asleep too close to the campfire and burned a hole in his brown corduroy coat. Aside from that, I remember only one other incident around the campfire. We were standing around the fire out of sight of the road, except for the stars the fire being the only light, with a forest of low trees all around us, when suddenly an owl hooted very close by. We all jumped, then looked around and saw in the dim light a tiny owl sitting in a tree at about head level, near where our father was standing. When we saw how tiny the owl was that had made us all jump, those quiet woods were unquieted for some little time with our own hoots and hollers.
The highway from Hazelton to where we spent the final night on the road must have brought us through Smithers, but I don’t remember it. Through Houston, through Topley. Beside lakes. Past homesteads. I think mostly until then I had thought of the journey as an adventure. Not really as a bad thing. I suspect we all did, my sisters, me—except maybe my father. As children, since we were always in motion, since somehow we were always fed, since the rain and the cold stayed away for the first part of the journey, it never occurred to us to think of it as homelessness.
But what did my father think, shepherding three children through northern British Columbia? He knew that true fall weather was soon to arrive. Despite the progress we had made along the only possible land route to Vancouver, we were still not actually much closer to our destination when measured by crow-express. Highway 16 didn’t actually start trending south until Hazelton, and at best it was an eastern and interior detour to a western and coastal destination.
I think it must have taken a kind of genius for our father to bring us as far as he did so painlessly, without complaint. By sociological reckoning, we were in the midst of a domestic disaster.
And kind of having fun.
The weather helped. But somewhere on the road past Topley, by or near Decker Lake, which is actually a lake and not an address, the weather began turning bad. It didn’t take much bad weather to exceed our ability to deal with it. It was just rain, but the rain forced us to find shelter, which we did find in an old abandoned house somewhere off the road. There were bedsprings in the corner of one room which we resorted to, I guess, to keep us off the cold floor. They were too uncomfortable, however, to grant much of a night’s rest. Not to me, anyway.
The room was out of the rain, but it was still cold and damp, and it had one disadvantage over outdoors: you could not build a fire. A fire cooks food, warms hands, talks and chases away the darkness. Perhaps we missed a fire to warm our souls on that last night on the road. Perhaps it was I who missed it the next morning when I got up and went out into the grey damp day and felt finally that I didn’t want to do it anymore.
My sister Marylou says she always thought I was faking it, but that wasn’t really it. I don’t know whether I actually felt weak, or whether it was a weakness of will; I don’t know whether I actually felt ill or whether the dismal idea of continuing down the road that morning was translating as nausea in my stomach. Real or psychosomatic, it was to me exactly the same. I felt weak. I felt nauseous. And my father, looking at me, picked me up, his eleven year old son, and put me on his shoulders, and began walking down the road.
I didn’t feel the walk we made that morning, so I can’t measure it. Marylou said it was miles and miles, miles and miles that my father carried me, never putting me down until the highway finally brought us to the next town. That was Burns Lake. My father found the welfare office, and I know he was desperate so perhaps he made a good case, or maybe our case as it stood, without persuasion or embellishment—a man and three children living on the road—was enough to convince the people in the office. When my father finished his negotiations with them suddenly our fortunes were changed. That night we stayed indoors in a hotel in Burns Lake, in two separate rooms, and the next day we were on a Grey Line bus heading down the road to Vancouver.
I suppose welfare gave us a little spending money too, because I remember that Marylou had a little bag of cinnamon hearts, which I didn’t really care for. I took some anyway because they were better than nothing. Nothing else about the ride to Vancouver remains in memory except the rising excitement of me and my sisters had as we approached the city.
The ride had taken all of the day, so we arrived at night, by a route that took us over the north shoulder of Burnaby Mountain. I know we were on a rise when we came in sight of the city because when the bus came around the curve, Vancouver was spread out before us and below us as a great lake of light. I had been to Vancouver before, lived there; I had flown in on a plane. But I had never seen it so magnificent, so spectacular. It was like coming upon Oz, less green, perhaps, but in compensation wider and brighter and far more real.
We had arrived in the city that would be our new home. My father was—with occasional forays elsewhere—to live in Vancouver until he died more than 40 years later. Marylou and I live there still, we and portions of three subsequent generations of our family. Only Irene managed to find other places to settle, but she too is anchored to Vancouver through her ties to us and to our families.
The bus seemed to pause a moment on the shoulder of Burnaby Mountain, that late night in the fall of 1961, then it plunged down into that lake of light, bringing us and our lives along with it.